Fortunately, video cards are widely available and not difficult to install. Most simply insert in your computer’s PCI Express 16x slot, and it’s usually possible to install the video card without removing other components in your PC. The most difficult part of acquiring a new video card is often finding the right one at the right price. I’ve picked out five of the best video cards, from the fastest to the most affordable.
Super-Ultra-High-End Card: AMD Radeon HD 6990
If you have more money than you know what to do with and you want the fastest video card available today, you really have just two choices. One is the AMD Radeon HD 6990,and the other is the nVidia GeForce GTX 590.
These two cards are similar in many ways. They both have two high-end GPUs on a single card, both of these cards are essentially the same as two individual cards linked together in SLI or CrossFire, and both of these cards are far more expensive than anything else out right now.
Ultimately, however, the AMD Radeon HD 6990 wins, and for the most mundane of reasons; it’s actually available. The GTX 590 is out of stock at most retailers. The AMD Radeon HD 6990, on the other hand, is in stock for just a tad over $700. The 6990 is also slightly faster and offers a gigabyte of additional video memory, making this choice even easier.
High-End Card You Can Actually Afford: AMD Radeon HD 6950
AMD’s Radeon 6900 series is the elite of AMD’s elite, and among the best video cards available today. The Radeon HD 6950 is the least powerful card in that line, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not worth your time.
Inside the 6950 you’ll find AMD’s Cayman GPU with reeled in clock speeds and has disabled two SIMD units, resulting in a shader count of 1408 (the Radeon 6970 has 1536). Although this does cause a performance difference, the key spec to focus on is the GPU architecture. Even when slightly hobbled, Cayman is fast.
It’s the price, however, that really makes the Radeon HD 6950 shine. The basic model with 1GB of memory can be had for about $240, while the 2GB version is around $260. The base Radeon HD 6970 is at least $340. Paying 30% less for a 10% performance decrease seems like deal to me – and the Radeon HD 6950 usually beats the performance of nVidia’s GTX 560 Ti, as well.
Mid-Range Value Leader: AMD Radeon HD 6850
Although the cards above are great, they’re both still over $200. That’s a sticky figure for many people, as it can be hard to justify spending as much money on a PC video card as you would on a new gaming console.
Fortunately, there are great cards below $200. One of the best is the AMD Radeon HD 6850, which offers (arguably) the best value of any card on the market. Selling for as little as $165, this video card is capable of playing modern games at 1080p resolution with most or all detail settings on. According to the Steam hardware survey, about 65% of gamers are still playing games on monitors with a native resolution below 1080p. If you’re one of them, buying anything more than this would be overkill.
The Radeon HD 6850 is so good, in fact, that it dominates virtually every other cards priced $20 above or below it. The GeForce GTX 560 Ti has trouble competing, and AMD’s own Radeon HD 6970 feels rather pointless, as it is up to 20% slower but just 15 bucks less expensive.
Mid-Range Budget Option: nVidia GeForce GTX 550 Ti
As you’ve no doubt noticed, the green team hasn’t had much of a showing in this list so far. That’s not because nVidia cards are terrible, as they are typically competitive with anything AMD has to offer. When it comes to price-for-performance, however, they’re usually just one step behind.
One card that does manage to beat out the AMD competition, however, is the GeForce GTX 550 Ti. This relatively new card from nVidia hit the market with an MSRP of $149, at which point it fell victim to the Radeon HD 6850’s awesomeness. But since its release the GTX 550 Ti has dropped in price to as little as $135, giving the card the chance to stand on its own.
The GTX 550 Ti’s performance is about 20% less than that of the Radeon HD 6850, but with a price gap of at least $30 separating the cards, that’s tolerable. In addition to this, the GTX 550 Ti clearly stomps similarly priced competition such as the older nVidia GTX 450. If you’d like a new video card but can’t afford – or don’t need – the Radeon HD 6850, this is a good pick.
The Sub-$100 Warrior: AMD Radeon HD 6670
Budgeting only $100 for a video card really limits what you can buy, but it’s understandable. PC gaming is not a cheap hobby, and if you have a very old card that needs to be upgraded so you can play more modern games, picking something under $100 may be your only choice.
Your best bet in this slim section of the market is likely the Radeon HD 6670, a $100 video card that offers usable performance. It will play almost any game at a resolution of 1680×1050 with the detail settings at high, and most games at 1080p with detail settings at more moderate levels.
When it comes to price-for-performance, the Radeon HD 6670 actually is not that attractive compared to the GeForce GTX 550 Ti or Radeon HD 6850. If your budget is absolutely limited to $100, however, this is easily the fastest card you’ll be able to purchase.
Video card recommendations are always a contentious subject, as the battle between the green team (nVidia) and the red team (ATI/AMD) has been on for years. Do you have a favorite card that’s missing here? Let us know in the comments.