This holiday season, Hardware Canucks has decided to bring you a pair of GPU Performance articles incorporating this season’s latest games along with some of the newest graphics cards and their recently-released drivers. The first part of these articles centered around high-end GPU performance on a well-heeled system and provided a clear picture of the current situations in the above-$200 price brackets. Indeed, even though there are plenty of reviews out there of every card we are testing, finding benchmarks done on the current driver sets from ATI and Nvidia is next to impossible. As we saw with the progression of the 9800 GTX+ versus HD 4850 battle, drivers can change everything and make a once-lagging product in the 9800 GTX+ into a real competitor. Yes, we know that this article is being released extremely close to Christmas, but what better time to do some seriously last-minute shopping?
With the recent glut of high-powered graphics cards, many of us tend to forget that there is a burgeoning market out there for cards which are priced at less than $200. Some may scoff at the thought of pairing up these cards with our high-end systems but there are plenty of potential customers out there who don’t have the means or simply don’t want to spend untold amounts of money on a gaming rig that may be considered obsolete in a few months. In this article we will be concentrating on just that: those graphics cards that aren’t released in a blaze of performance-owning glory but are still supposed to offer us a modicum of performance for a more than reasonable price. These aren’t the performance titans we saw last time; they are the HD 4600-series and the 9600-series of this world that are hardly ever reviewed. Why? To be absolutely honest with you, the board partners of both ATI and Nvidia don’t really want to part with lower end cards. They want their products to (naturally) be shown in the best light possible which means the recognition that comes with high-end performance. Thus, the many of the cards used in this article have been purchased with our own money.
Naturally, we didn’t go about this article the way we did with the last one; the overclocked QX9770 has been replaced with a Q9450 and the memory was left at default settings. This should give you an idea of how these cards will perform in a more modestly-priced system rather than having slightly inflated benchmark numbers due to an overclocked processor and memory. The resolutions and in some cases the detail settings in games were toned down a bit as well since seeing these cards stuttering along at high resolutions would prove to be pointless for the vast majority of you.
I know we all love seeing the blisteringly-fast framerates that come with an article including cards like the GTX 295 and HD 4800-series but let me tell you now; I had more fun doing this article than I did the first one. It is interesting to see how much value companies pack into their cards when it comes to the sub-$200 price brackets and how far performance in general has really come. I wasn’t even sure that these cards would actually be able to play the latest games on the market but armed with my trusty Q9450, I was on a mission to find out.
You should know me by now; I hate writing conclusions for more reasons than I can mention here but let’s just say that no matter which side of the fence one comes down on, the last section of an article is never good enough for everyone. That being said, benching the cards for this article proved to be a real eye-opener for me on quite a few levels. It seems that many of us (myself included in some cases) have been brainwashed into thinking that it will take the latest and greatest hardware to play new games. As we have seen, that couldn’t be further from the truth since when paired up with a reasonably-priced processor even a $100 graphics card can put down some downright impressive results if you limit the screen size to 22” or thereabouts. Granted, if you want the highest IQ settings and ultra high resolutions, you will not be looking at a $100 GPU but at least gamers can rest easy in knowing they don’t have to break the bank when upgrading. Many things may still be unclear even after this article but one thing should be certain: when it comes to mainstream GPUs, a few dollars makes a world of difference.
All right, now that I have that off my back, let’s take a closer look at some of the graphics cards we saw here today and start with the battle many of you were probably paying keen interest to: the 9800 GT versus the HD 4830. Unfortunately, I am going to cop out on this one by not declaring a winner since things are far too close to call with one card winning things handily in one game and then getting its ass kicked in the next. Basically, you can’t go wrong with either card even though the HD 4830 does tend to hold the edge price-wise at the majority of online retailers. What did come to the forefront however is that there are a number of games both Nvidia and ATI need to work on in the driver department; NFS: Undercover for Team Green and Dead Space / CoD: WaW for Team Red. This industry is built on good drivers and without them; the competition tends to run away with things.
After taking a step down from the $150 price bracket, things become much more confusing with a mishmash of prices and customer confusion since there are so damn many cards clustered within about $50 of one another. The HD 3870 (yes, it is back in this article), 9600 GT, 9600 GSO and HD 4670 and 9500 GT GDDR3 all retail for between $90 to $130 but are in no ways even close to one another performance-wise. Of these five cards, three stick out to me: the 9600 GT, 9600 GSO and 9500 GT. Let’s tackle the first two since the 9500 GT deserves a section all on its own. Both the 9600-series cards in this article seem to be far too close to one-another in price even though the 9600 GT is well ahead when it comes to performance. Apparently, some cutting needs to be done in the GSO’s price as it is close to the performance of the HD 4670 but retails for about $30 more making it competition for the 9600 GT. The HD 3870 also hangs around and proves itself to be a good performer with AA implemented yet problems arise with its weak AA implementation.
Ah, the 9500 GT GDDR3...where do I start? Maybe we didn’t give our sole 9500-series card a good kick at the can since this is of course the more expensive GDDR3 version instead of the $75 DDR2 card but it is what it is: a failure of massive proportions when it comes to the price you pay for performance. Even though this card is decked out with ram operating at 1.6Ghz and a princely price tag for its target market, it was STILL bested by the HD 4650 in quite a few games. Its near-$100 is a joke to say the least considering it languished near the bottom of the charts while costing as much as the HD 4670. Sticking GDDR3 on this card is like adding a body kit to a Yugo: it may look faster but in the end, it is still a Yugo.
The HD 4650 is all by its lonesome at the $75 price point but that doesn’t stop it from beating the 9500 GT GDDR3 in quite a few benches regardless of the $20 price premium for the Nvidia card. Indeed, the approximate $20 between the price of the HD 4650 and the HD 4670 makes a massive difference in terms of performance. So much so that I would recommend you completely ignore the lowest-end card ATI card in this article and pony up a few extra bucks for the HD 4670. This actually gives us a perfect introduction to the one card in this article I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone looking for a budget gaming card: the HD 4670. Its price / performance ratio is excellent and you will never be left wanting for performance if you stay at reasonable resolutions.
Finally, I really have to say that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to any graphics card price category; be it mainstream or ultra high end. Certain cards will play certain games better but in the end, favouritism really needs to take a back seat to what suits your needs best. You shouldn’t give a damn if ATI or Nvidia is leading in a certain category or game because competition across the spectrum is what keeps prices down for you the consumer. In the end it all comes down to the situation we finally have in the GPU arena after a long wait: actual price wars. If you don’t like it, I have three words for you: Live with it.