March 5 2011
There are a remarkable variety of graphics cards on the market aimed at gamers. While the very latest technology is always expensive, there are also solutions for those who don't have hundreds of dollars to spend. These video cards were selected because they are good values in their class, and they are ordered roughly from fastest (most expensive) to slowest (most affordable). I can't include every quality card, but I do update the list when I can, so your suggestions are welcome.
In late 2010 Nvidia introduced their GeForce 500 series, beginning with the GTX 580 and GTX 570. The former has taken over the top spot in the single-GPU speed contest, but it comes at a price that makes two lesser cards in an SLI or Crossfire configuration a more practical option. The GTX 570 is a dialed down version of the 580, but it readily outperforms the previous generation GTX 480. 1.25 GB of GDDR5 memory is standard on the 570 and it has two 6-pin power connectors. It's priced competitively and it's a great card for high-end gaming.
Radeon's current flagship GPU is the HD 6970, which arrived shortly after their very successful 6800 series. These cards fall slightly behind the GTX 570 on most benchmarks, although the 6970's 2 GB of memory can give it an edge at very high resolutions like 2560x1600. HD 6970 cards tend be very large at about 11 inches long, and they need both 8-pin and 6-pin auxiliary power. They're in the same price range as the GTX 570 and they offer a similar value in terms of game performance. If you use more than two displays, most people find AMD’s Eyefinity easier than the alternatives.
A step down from the HD 6970, the 6950 has fewer stream processors and texture units than its more expensive sibling, but it still has 2 GB of memory and delivers impressive framerates. It's a little ahead of the HD 6870, but not quite as fast as a GTX 480. The HD 6950 biggest competition right now could be the older Radeon HD 5870s, which are selling at big discounts because they are on their way out.
The first GTX 560 cards appeared in late January of 2011, just in time to do battle with the Radeon HD 6950. The 560 Ti represents a jump in performance of roughly 35 percent over the previous generation GeForce GTX 460 with only the slightest increase in power consumption, and it has launched at about the same price point. Unlike many of AMD's recent offerings, these cards have only 1 GB of memory, so they're not really aimed at those with 28" monitors, but they provide exceptional value for those in the market for a mid-range card.
Launched in October 2010, the first cards in Radeon's HD 6000 series don't dramatically outperform the previous generation, but they do improve on power consumption and the chips are smaller, which makes them cheaper to produce. The HD 6870 falls a little behind the HD 5870 on some game benchmarks, but it's currently priced at around $230, which is considerably less than a 1 GB HD 5870, making the 6870 an obvious choice. While I wouldn't recommend upgrading from a 5800 series card right now, if you're just making the move to DirectX 11, the HD 6870 offers solid value.
Much like the HD 6870, the 6850's price stands out more than its performance, although it's certainly no slouch when it comes to running games. The difference in framerates between a HD 6850 and an HD 5850 or 5830 is barely noticeable in most games, but the 6850 launched at $180. That makes it a better option than either of its previous generation brethren, although there could be some major price drops in store for 5800 cards. Still, its difficult to choose between an HD 6850 and a GeForce GTX 460 at the moment as they are very evenly matched.
The GTX 460 is the predecessor to the GTX 465, and it benefits from a re-designed chip that is less complex and less power hungry while maintaining very similar performance. There are 1 GB and 768 MB versions of the card available, the latter of which has a 192-bit memory bus rather than 256-bit. The GTX 460 and the Radeon HD 5830 are very close on most game benchmarks, and they are also not far apart in price. I think the extra money for the 1 GB model is probably well worth it.
Nvidia's first DirectX 11 cards arrived in 2010, and they've managed to bring GeForce cards back into the competition. The The GTX 470 is a step down from the very fast and very pricey GeForce GTX 480, which is strictly for people with deep pockets. The GTX 470 benchmarks quite close to the Radeon HD 5850 and even the 5870 in some games. It consumes more power than the Radeon HD 5000 cards, especially when idle, but it's a great card for high-end gaming, and selling for a lot less than the GTX 480, it's a much more palatable option.
Radeon's dual-GPU monster is the HD 5970, which arrived in late 2009 and took its place as the fastest discrete video card on the market. Essentially, it is the equivalent of running two HD 5870s in CrossFire, although the chips and memory aren't clocked quite as fast, primarily to keep power consumption in check. As it is the card can draw close to 300W, and has both a 6-pin and an 8-pin auxiliary connector. The HD 5970 uses a single PCB, and the result is a very long card that will only fit into the roomiest cases. There's ample processing here even for the largest monitors, but it's well beyond the average budget.
Although the GTX 480 has been supplanted by the GTX 580, it still has impressive specs for gaming, such as 1.5 GB of GDDR5 memory tied to a 384-bit bus. As you would expect, it's very large and it has both an 8-pin and a 6-pin power connector, so a good power supply is required. Unfortunately, it comes at a premium price that few of us would consider spending on a video card, making the GTX 570 a better value, but you may come across one on sale as the 500 series cards take over.