Sunday, June 7, 2009

Video Cards - The Easy Part

The component that makes the most impact on a computer's gaming performance is the video card. However, choosing a video card is not as complicated as choosing the right combination of processor, motherboard, and RAM. Basically, any modern video card will work to its maximum potential in any of the system builds I listed earlier.

I won't be suggesting SLI or Crossfire setups, or video cards that are much over $200. I don't do this for the same reason I don't recommend $300+ processors. It's generally not worth it. If you really have the money to blow, however, I'm willing to help on a case-by-case basis.

I also won't be suggesting processors that just don't make sense for the price, such as the GeForce GTS 250 or anything in the GTX line beyond the 260. AMD's counterparts simply have better performance for the price right now.

Moving on, let's start with the inexpensive piece:

SAPPHIRE 100245HDMI Radeon HD 4850 512MB - $100 (after $15 rebate)

This card has free shipping as well as some other possible deals. First of all, it has many amazing combo deals. One of these combine with DDR2 RAM that I recommend for an extra $20 in savings! If for some reason you don't want to use a combo deal, there is a promo code for $15 off the card until June 11th. You can't use it if you use a combo, but it does "stack" with the rebate to make a new price of $85.

To see how this card performs when compared with the competition, see this low-end benchmark article as well as this high-end benchmark article.

If you want to move up from the Radeon 4850, you really have to pay for it. There just aren't any good deals in the midrange right now. Last month, there was a Radeon 4870 512MB for about $130 with two free games, but that deal is gone now. Besides, the 4850 will smoothly play just about anything except Crysis on high settings at 1680x1050. (See the benchmarks above.) However, if you really must have more power and don't want to spend $200, I suggest you consider the following:

BFG Tech BFGEGTX260896OCE GeForce GTX 260 896MB - $145 (after $20 rebate)

This 260 is the original 192 core version. It doesn't come with any combo deals that I would suggest, but the shipping is free. It does have the potential to serve as a Physx processor in the future, but that technology isn't really taking off. It will certainly outperform the Radeon 4850, and its larger RAM will especially serve it well at higher resolutions. Check out this old benchmark article to see the differences between the various GeForce 260s and Radeon 4870s.

Finally, if you really must play all the latest games at the very highest detail, you will want to consider this one:

HIS Hightech H489F1GP Radeon HD 4890 1GB - $200

The shipping isn't free, but it does come with both Stalker: Clear Sky and EA Battleforge.

Anything beyond this, and you're just wasting your money. Video cards are easy to upgrade, so it's pointless to bother with SLI, Crossire, or uncompetitive products unless money is simply not an issue.

Remember, when factoring in the cost of going with SLI or Crossfire, you also need to make sure your motherboard and power supply are up to the task. While the motherboard in my last post will run any single card at PCI-E 2.0 x16, it will only run crossfire at x4. In order to get a dual x16 board, you'll have to pay an extra $10 and lose the $20 combo deal. That's an extra $30 in addition to the cost of the new board. Also, you won't have the option of using the 400W PSU because you'll definitely need more juice. Then there are the driver bugs that everyone is *still* complaining about. And the heat. And the space. Seriously, just stay away from multiple GPU configurations.

(Though I was able to come up with a neato triple Crossfire 4850 build for $867. It had a NZXT Tempest for the case and the triple-core Phenom II x3 720 BE for the processor. I call it, "Rise of the Triad.")

Finally, I'd like to mention something about PCI-Express 2.0. None of the major benchmarking sites seem to have done any recent PCI-E 1.0 vs PCI-E 2.0 comparisons. I think this is mostly due to the fact that most modern motherboards use PCI-E 2.0. However, Tom's Hardware, in its seemingly endless failures, is still recommending PCI-E 1.0 motherboards in its system builds. Yes, it may not make a big difference now. However, I found one site with some more recent benchmarks that suggest we are getting close to the point at which it will make a noticeable difference. Page 7 has a good example using Crysis. If we're already noticing small differences on today's $200 cards, and very significant differences on today's X2 and Crossfire setups, what about next year or the year after? Your next video card upgrade should be able to work to its maximum potential with the system you buy today, and PCI-E 2.0 can be had for excellent prices right now. That's why I never suggest PCI-E 1.0 motherboards. AnandtTech won't either, even in their "Entry-level" PCs. Ignore Tom's Hardware. This is the least of their bad advice.

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