Just last month, pricing was much different. Today, those looking for a quality gaming experience can look forward to some great deals. While the low end and midrange has remained pretty fixed in price, cards over $200 have come down quite a bit. This has made some comparisons difficult, but the bottom line is great prices for consumers.

Rather than looking at individual manufacturers, we are going to look at different AMD and NVIDIA SKUs. After we've chosen our recommendation at a specific price, we will look at four of the top PC hardware retailers (newegg, ZipZoomFly, TigerDirect, and Buy.com) and find the best deals on the recommended parts on those sites. These parts might not always be from the same manufacturer, but it will be what we consider the best deal at that retailer. While we feel good about our recommendations, it is important to shop around yourself, as these prices are changing incredibly fast.

To illustrate that point, we had planned on publishing this earlier today, but after looking at the prices one more time we noticed that a lot of changes are taking place every day. From yesterday to today some prices have moved $10 to $20, mostly through the addition of larger rebates. This changed a few of our recommendations and we had to rewrite a bit. The important point to take away is that while we try to keep our recommendations as general as possible, a lot of what matters is price at the time of purchase. And that can fluctuate like crazy. Since Thanksgiving we've seen prices move more than $50 in some cases, and everything is getting more and more competitive and aggressive. Now really is the time to buy.

On each page we will make at least one recommendation based price, performance and features including rebates (both instant and mail-in). This is a little different from our usual recommendations we make based on the general positioning of a card. We normally do this because price fluctuations and overclocking make nailing down a definitive best option very difficult (if not impossible). Today, we are looking at ... well, today. While the general sentiments we discuss remain relevant, the actual recommendations are based on the absolute best price you can achieve today and we even give some leeway to overclocking in a couple cases.

Although we will recommend cards from all four of our selected retailers, we will highlight the one we think is the best deal among the four as well. As some people tend to have a preference for different retailers, we are still allowing for options, but our recommendations will be based on the best deal we can find period rather than something like an average between the retailers.

The Prelude: Sub $75 and $75-$100 Graphics Cards

So this first page, while showing off inexpensive product, doesn't offer really high performance. This page is great for the HTPC crowd, but we aren't going to ignore gamers on a really tight budget. The parts we recommend here will still be the cards that can muster some gaming performance, but low resolutions will need to be run and higher quality settings won't be an option with newer games. Antialiasing is not usually a reasonable method to improve image quality here, and tradeoffs between performance and quality will almost always need to be considered when gaming.

Generally, we need to look at 800x600 and 1024x768 for new games with higher quality settings. Usually running a higher resolution than that requires reduced quality to be playable. If you are monitor limited at a low resolution, or you don't mind running half native resolution on LCD panels, then spending less on graphics hardware is definitely an option. For our HTPC users who still may want to try a game or two, remember that allowing the TV to convert the signal will add delay. If you have a 1080p HDTV, both NVIDIA and AMD now offer GPU accelerated upscaling and can handle rendering at a lower resolution and outputting an upscaled native resolution image.

The competition from NVIDIA in this segment is somewhat lacking with cards either not supporting the features we want or not offering the kind of game performance an AMD alternative can. The GeForce 9500 GT doesn't support 8-channel LPCM audio over HDMI like the Radeon 4550, and it also isn't a good gaming solution compared to the Radeon HD 4670. The GeForce 9500 GT does, however, offer good 24Hz refresh rate performance (useful for HTPCs connected to a 24p display) while AMD struggles a bit here.

While the GeForce 9600 GSO offers competitive gaming performance compared to the Radeon HD 4670, it doesn't offer all the features we want for HTPCs and isn't as quiet. Pushing the $100 boundary is the 9600 GT, which really doesn't have direct competition from AMD, though spending slightly more or finding amazing rebates on the Radeon 4830 is an interesting option.

The lowest performance card we recommend also happens to be great for the HTPC crowd. The inexpensive Radeon HD 4550 can be had passively cooled, and does offer a step up from integrated graphics in terms of game performance. Gaming is not great on the Radeon HD 4550, but being passively cooled and offering 8-channel LPCM over HDMI with adequate video decoding offload is a killer combination for those of you with 7.1 channel speaker setups.


ATI Radeon HD 4550 (Image From newegg.com)

Sub $75 8-channel Audio HTPC Recommendation: ATI Radeon HD 4550

Newegg ZipZoomFly TigerDirect Buy.com
Gigabyte Radeon HD 4550
ASUS Radeon HD 4550
Not Available ASUS Radeon HD 4550
$59 Not Available $60

 

Opting for the NVIDIA solution for its smooth 1080p24 playback is a viable HTPC alternative to the Radeon HD 4550. As an added bonus, the 9500 GT does offer a bit better gaming performance as well (though it can't touch the 4670 in this area, so if it's gaming you're interested in, this isn't the card to get). Some of these recommendations are silent and some aren't, so make sure you check out each vendor before you buy if you have a specific cooling need or dB level.

Basically if you have a 7.1 audio setup and want to play back original Blu-ray discs in full 8-channel glory, go for the Radeon HD 4550. If you've got a 24Hz display and want smooth 24Hz playback, buy the GeForce 9500 GT.


NVIDIA GeForce 9500 GT (Image From TigerDirect.com)

Sub $75 1080p24 HTPC Recommendation: GeForce 9500 GT

Newegg ZipZoomFly TigerDirect Buy.com
Biostar GeForce 9500 GT
ASUS GeForce 9500 GT
XFX GeForce 9500 GT PNY GeForce 9500 GT
$54 $50 $70

 

 

If you need to stay inexpensive but still want some gaming performance, the Radeon HD 4670 is really the cheapest viable option. Coming in at about $75, with some holiday special rebate offers dropping that price to $65 (or even $55 in one 24 hour deal at newegg on a gigabyte card), this card is capable of good quality at low resolutions. This one isn't passively cooled, and if the main purpose of the box is for HTPC use then sticking with the 4550 is the way to go here. If you want to build a living room computer with good gaming performance that could also be used as an HTPC where fan noise is acceptable, we recommend stepping further up than the 4670.


The Radeon HD 4670 (Image From newegg.com)

$75 Gaming Recommendation: ATI Radeon HD 4670

Newegg ZipZoomFly TigerDirect Buy.com
Gigabyte Radeon HD 4670
Gigabyte Radeon HD 4670
Sapphire Radeon HD 4670 MSI Radeon HD 4670
$56 $80 $90

 

 

Pushing up closer to $100 the lines get blurry and the 9600 GT becomes more of an option though there's a deal in the next section that sort of negates that advantage. If your target is $100, you'd be better served by spending $10 more dollars to get a better card, but the fastest option for just under $100 today is going to be found on the next page (even though it may only be a very temporary option). Because of this, we don't recommend the 9600 GT as an option.

The People's Performers: $100 - $130 Graphics Cards
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  • JonnyDough - Sunday, December 21, 2008 - link

    I'm a bit confused about the budget cards for an HTPC, although this article did help me a bit. It's something I've been looking into. I have a projection t.v. with HDMI that runs 1080P. With the desire for multi-channel hi-def sound figured in, I would assume I should go for an AMD 4670 or a 4830 card. But I also want to make sure it's producing good hi-def picture too. If it won't give me the same quality as a Blu-Ray player I don't want to bother with it. Right now I'm using an HD-DVD player for upscaling my movies, and I have a chassis, Windows XP MCE, and some older systems for an HTPC. All that's left is the right card and a Blu-Ray drive/software.

    This card will likely be paired up with an old Athlon X2 running at 2.0ghz or a single core Pentium4 2.2ghz.

    If I can get away with an even cheaper card, let me know. I'd like to do some light gaming on it (TF2, etc @ LAN parties) but the gaming is a distance second in importance to watching movies.

    What's the cheapest reasonable solution for a good movie experience when pairing a card with an old processor, 2GBs of RAM, and a huge tv? Sound isn't really an issue, as I have an X-Fi that can do the job - although I'd prefer to keep that with my gaming system.
    Reply
  • marc1000 - Monday, December 22, 2008 - link

    your card would be the 4670 or maybe even the 4550 if gaming is not important. but sound is a issue, for sure. because you can not play blu-ray content without a "secure channel" for the audio. of course, you can always use the lower-quality sound channels, but I remember reading something about the hi-quality sound on blu-ray discs and special software and hardware needs. browse some articles here at anandtech and you will find the answer. BUT if your display is 24hz then the only options are the 9500gt or 9600gso. Reply
  • teohhanhui - Saturday, December 20, 2008 - link

    It points to the 4830... Reply
  • Noobnugget - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Nothing like be horribly inaccurate by quoting mail in rebates(which you may not even get back) as the actual price you pay. When will people learn..? Reply
  • JonnyDough - Sunday, December 21, 2008 - link

    Seconded. I made the same statement on Tom's Hardware I think (or else it was here) for using rebates as a buying decision factor. Don't purchase MIR items unless you're ready to pay full price for what you're buying. Rebates are a way to steal money from consumers. Nothing more than a cheap gimmick to rob you. Reply
  • BLaber - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    ahahahahhahahahahahahahahahahahahha

    LMAO :- CORE i7 RECOMMENDATION MY A$$
    Reply
  • JonnyDough - Sunday, December 21, 2008 - link

    From everything I've read I have to agree. Unless you're doing memory specific work or games that require more memory bandwidth, there's no reason to upgrade from a Core2Duo or Core2Quad to i7 yet. Maybe with the next tick or tock (I don't keep track of which is which) then it will be more worth upgrading. Wait for i7 to be seasoned a bit (new proc revisions) before bothering with a change from a Core2 system. Not many modern games really make good use of multiple cores yet anyway. I'm looking forward to GPUs made on smaller dies and Windows 7. PC gaming may make a come back. But these $300 GPU's that create massive amounts of heat and run up my electric bill, and a lack of solid SSD support for XP and Vista make me want to wait a year or two to upgrade my PC from my old socket 939 Athlon X2 systems. Reply
  • kevinkreiser - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    any opinions on the best single slot gpu? i'm looking to make a small computer that can do graphics intensive work, but i'm limited to using up only 1 slot). maybe i could water cool a dual slot to make it a single slot? no idea. suggestions welcome. thanks. Reply
  • SiliconDoc - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    How about an EVGA 9800GT
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    How about this one with a free full game
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    Single slot superclocked core
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    XFX
    http://www.tigerdirect.com/applications/SearchTool...">http://www.tigerdirect.com/applications...tails.as...
    Reply
  • marc1000 - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    that would be the radeon 4830, because it runs cooler than the 4850 and these are the only high-end single-slot gpus today... or you could stick with older hardware.

    anyway, who will be REALLY jealous is the people overseas and below the equatorial line... i live in Brazil and we have no such price wars here. the cards stay with the initial price for their lifetime... i mean, a 4670 that was 130USD when it debuted, still cost 130USD today over here... and the 4830 that launched later have a "premium tag" because the 4670 costs 130USD... so the sellers charge the 4830 for 150USD... and these prices will not fall. that is really something to be jeaulous about. (PS: of course our currency is not dollars, i'm converting the values here)
    Reply

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