The new year promises availability of AMD's new Radeon HD 7970 3 GB. Also, we see a spate of surprise price shifts that change some of our most consistent recommendations. We're also getting more information about what will happen in the coming months.
Detailed graphics card specifications and reviews are great—that is, if you have the time to do the research. But at the end of the day, what a gamer needs is the best graphics card within a certain budget.
So, if you don’t have the time to research the benchmarks, or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right card, then fear not. We at Tom’s Hardware have come to your aid with a simple list of the best gaming cards offered for the money.
Last month marked the (paper) launch of AMD's Radeon HD 7970, the first graphics card equipped with a 28 nanometer GPU and AMD's all-new Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture. This flagship boasts 2048 stream processors, 128 texture units, 32 ROPs, a 925 MHz core clock, and a 384-bit memory bus with 3 GB of GDDR5 memory running at 1375 MHz. It's a very impressive piece of hardware, and in some situations it even matches dual-GPU monsters like the Radeon HD 6990 and GeForce GTX 590. In addition, the GCN architecture was reportedly designed to serve up superior performance in GPU-based compute workloads than the previous VLIW-based ALUs.
The problem was that the cards were sent out prematurely. And while there were plenty of games capable of showing off its early potential, a lot of the 7970's other features were simply unavailable to test. Moreover, AMD launched without any availability. The card is expected to be available around January 9th. However, we're waiting on retail samples before taking an official stance on this card.
AMD also a bit of information about other upcoming 28 nm-based models in the Radeon HD 7000 series. We expect the Radeon HD 7800 and 7700 families will emerge in the first quarter of 2012, per the following slide. We're also expecting a Radeon HD 7950 soon (though not as soon as originally planned). There were also hints about a new dual-GPU board, but there's nothing concrete on that one yet.
Some of our recommendations do change this month as a result of significant price shuffling. For example, the Radeon HD 6790 dropped to $125, which is too close to the $115 Radeon HD 5770/6770. Thus, the lower-priced card loses its recommendation in favor of the faster board. We also add the $100 Radeon HD 5750/6750, creating some breathing room between the next-highest tier.
The Radeon HD 6850 dropped a few dollars to $150, which represents significant value. Nvidia's comparable GeForce GTX 460 1 GB (256-bit) inexplicably rose to more than $220. We did notice some 192-bit GeForce GTX 460 cards advertised with 1 GB of memory selling for $150. But if that card's memory interface is being listed correctly, it should perform on par with AMD's $125 Radeon HD 6790, and should be avoided.
Below $100, we cling on to the Radeon HD 5670 as long as we can find it for sale. Availability is waning, but its GDDR5 memory facilitates better performance than the similarly-priced Radeon HD 6670 DDR3.
And now we play the waiting game. We wait for Radeon HD 7970 to arrive. We wait for Radeon HD 7950 to launch, and we wait for Nvidia to fire back with its Kepler architecture some time in the March/April time frame. Soon, we'll see whether AMD can deliver significant quantities of its Radeon HD 7000-series cards before its competition has the change to react.
Some Notes About Our Recommendations
A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list:
- This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money. If you don’t play games, then the cards on this list are more expensive than what you really need. We've added a reference page at the end of the column covering integrated graphics processors, which is likely more apropos.
- The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance. We acknowledge that recommendations for multiple video cards, such as two Radeon cards in CrossFire mode or two GeForce cards in SLI, typically require a motherboard that supports CrossFire or SLI and a chassis with more space to install multiple graphics cards. They also require a beefier power supply compared to what a single card needs, and will almost certainly produce more heat than a single card. Keep these factors in mind when making your purchasing decision. In most cases, if we have recommended a multiple-card solution, we try to recommend a single-card honorable mention at a comparable price point for those who find multi-card setups undesirable.
- Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t base our decisions on always-changing pricing information, but we can list some good cards that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest, along with real-time prices from our PriceGrabber engine, for your reference.
- The list is based on some of the best U.S. prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will most certainly vary.
- These are new card prices. No used or open-box cards are in the list; they might represent a good deal, but it’s outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.