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Falling Prices, Better Cards
Traditionally it is the computer hardware at the lowest end of the price spectrum that sees the least impressive price drops. This is not surprising when one thinks about it - lower price probably means less profit margin for the manufacturers. While a price slash of $50 dollars is not uncommon on high-end gaming cards, a similar price slash on HTPC video cards would mean that manufacturers have decided to give them away free.
Even so, there is evolution in the market. Prices have gradually become cheaper, and the prices of certain more powerful video cards are now into the range where certain HTPC builders might consider them. Unfortunately, the lack of any new GPU architectures from ATI or Nvidia means that cards have not become more powerful, but that is not such a bad thing. Every single one of the cards on this list is already capable of performing the basic tasks expected of an HTPC video card such as playing HD videos.
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ASUS Radeon EAH4350 512MB SILENT
The Radeon 4350 is the little fry of the Radeon series. The card is not suitable for gaming of any sort, and certainly is not capable of gaming at the resolutions for which most HTPCs will be used. However, an HTPC is not about gaming, is it? It is about playing media - mostly movies and TV shows either from disc or from the internet. Those are tasks at which the EAH4350 is quite good. Reviews have consistently shown that cards based on this GPU are capable of playing back HD content without issue.
Of course, there are many Radeon 4350s. This model, the ASUS EAH4350, is recommended because of its combination of a passive heatsink, 512MB of memory, and a native HDMI port. At $34.99, it is not the cheapest Radeon 4350 available, but it is within $5 dollars, and the card's unique combination of features set it apart from most of its peers. ASUS also has a good reputation in this segment of the graphics card market. This said, be ware that there are other Radeon 4350s with similar features. They typically cost $5 dollars more, but these cards are frequently put on sale.
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HIS Radeon HD4670 iSilence4
The Radeon 4670 is the most powerful Radeon currently available before heading into the realm of full-size cards like the Radeon 4850. They have been largely ignored by the enthusiast press because such reviews usually focus on games. Its larger cousins easily outclass the Radeon 4670 when it comes to gaming, but for HTPC builders who wish to have a powerful video card that is not the size of China the Radeon 4670 is the perfect compromise.
This particular model is special because it has a passive heatsink designed by Zalman for the iSilence4 card. Passive heatsinks are not common among 4670 models but are highly sought after by HTPC builders because they allow a card to be completely silent. HIS is a manufacturer that specializes in enhancing their cards with exotic cooling, so it is little surprise that they have come up with this product. The iSilence4 also has native HDMI. Price is the only obstacle. At about $100 bucks, the iSilence4 is actually more expensive than some Radeon 4850s. This is a product that sells itself on silence, not performance.
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Radeon HD4770 (Any Model)
The Radeon 4770 does not look like much at first glance. Its model number correctly implies that it is somewhat slower than the Radeon 4850, and yet the Radeon 4770's lowest price is $109.99, $20 dollars more than the least expensive 4850s. The 4770 is not clocked high and does not offer more memory. Why would anyone buy the 4770?
Well, the Radeon 4770 has a secret. It is the first GPU by ATI to be made on a 40nm manufacturing process. Just as in processors, a smaller manufacturing process means a general reduction in power consumption and thus heat output for any given chip. This holds true with the GPU powering the 4770. While slightly slower than a 4850, the 4770 is incredibly cool and quiet. At load, it consumes less power than any other modern full-sized video card.
These are traits any HTPC builder will find valuable. Granted, the size of the 4770 limits its applications. This is as high-end as most HTPC builders are going to want to go. However, for those who need or want a high-end video card for their HTPC there is no other card better suited for the role.
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For more information on video cards, read Top 3 HTPC Video Cards for the Holidays, Understanding and Choosing Video Cards and Components and Tweaking nVidia Video Cards here at Bright Hub.