$200 Video Card Roundup

You don't need a $500 video card to play the latest PC games. Find out how the latest $200 video cards compare in Call of Duty: World at War, Crysis Warhead, and Fallout 3.

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If you bought a new video card two or three years ago, you've probably noticed that newer games aren't running as well right out of the box. Those GeForce 7900 and Radeon X1900 cards were fantastic when they were new, but game developers have caught up with more power-hungry graphics effects. Frame rates have started to dip, and you might have had to reduce the game-resolution and image-quality settings to get system performance up to acceptable levels. Lowering the image quality isn't a desirable long-term solution, so it's probably time to upgrade that video card.

We've gathered together a collection of video cards currently available online in the $150 to $250 price range. We originally planned to make $200 the hard price ceiling, but we found the ATI Radeon HD 4870 and the GeForce GTX 260 Core 192 sitting just above the cap and we had to get them into the comparison because both cards offer a considerable amount of graphics performance. Note that you'll find a lot of these cards priced far above our estimated street pricing, but we used the lowest prices we could find at major online retailers for our estimates. These basic video card packages generally ship without a pack-in game, so if you see a card at a much higher price, check to see if it comes with a game bundle such as Far Cry 2.

These cards aren't the top-of-the-line performance champions, but they'll have enough power to get you through a couple more years of PC gaming, and you can put the money you save on the video card toward buying more games and paying for that massively multiplayer online habit.

GeForce GTX 260 Core 192

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The original GeForce GTX 260 that Nvidia launched in June 2008 came with 192 processing cores and a $399 price tag. Nvidia had to lower the GTX 260's price to $299 after AMD released the highly affordable ATI Radeon HD 4870. Later in the year, Nvidia started shipping an improved GeForce GTX 260 with 216 processing cores.

Cards based on this new GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 GPU are selling for $299. The problem is that the video card makers still have a lot of the original 192-core GeForce GTX 260 chips to unload. The GeForce GTX 260 is the most expensive card in our roundup, coming it at $229, but it has a lot of firepower and is considerably more affordable than it was just a few months ago.

Est. Retail Price: $229

ATI Radeon HD 4870

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The ATI Radeon HD 4870 is the second $299 card that's starting to approach the magical $200 price point. Its closest competitor is the GeForce GTX 260, which has a slight edge in frame rates and in games with PhysX support, but the Radeon has a few features that make it attractive for PC owners looking for a balance between gaming and utility. That's not saying that the card isn't good for gaming.

The Radeon HD 4870 can run all the latest games at high resolution thanks to its 800 stream processing units and GDDR5 memory, but the card is also great for PC game enthusiasts looking for home-theater support. The card supports full HDMI output with 7.1 surround sound.

Est. Retail Price: $219

ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2

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The ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 is a dual-GPU card from the previous graphics generation. We included the card in our comparison because you will still find it online at close to $200, but you'd be wise to avoid buying one of these cards new because the Radeon HD 4870 has made them obsolete. The Radeon HD 3870 X2 comes with 640 stream processors, 320 from each onboard GPU, but that's well below the 4870's stream processor count, and the 3870 X2 card also uses slower GDDR3 memory.

Est. Retail Price: $219

GeForce 9600 GT SLI

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The dual-card value proposition Nvidia and AMD have tried to sell us with SLI and CrossFire is that you can buy a card now and add a second one later if you need more power. The only problem with that argument is that if you wait more than a year to buy that second card, chances are you'd be able to buy a completely new card that's more powerful than two of the old cards put together. The cost of the new card would of course be more expensive than the older card, which would likely have dropped in price, but the performance gap between a new card and an older SLI setup makes the decision to complete the matching set a bittersweet choice. The main benefit is that if you've already sunk your money into a single GeForce 9600 GT card, spending another $100 on a second card will get your system's graphics performance close to what you'd get with a single $200 card.

Est. Retail Price: $200 ($100x2)

GeForce 9800 GTX+

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The GeForce 9800 GTX+ leads the trio of cards under $200 for players who can't justify reaching for the GeForce GTX 260 or ATI Radeon HD 4870. Nvidia introduced the GeForce 9800 GTX+ this summer around the time AMD launched its Radeon HD 4800-series GPUs. The GeForce 9800 GTX+ has the same number of processors as the regular GeForce 9800 GTX, but has higher clocks speeds thanks to a smaller manufacturing process. Moving down from 65nm to 55nm allowed Nvidia to increase core clock speeds from 675MHz to 738MHz and shader speeds from 1690MHz to 1836MHz. The GTX+ originally sold for $229, but the price has drifted down as the prices of more powerful cards have also moved down.

Est. Retail Price: $189

GeForce 9800 GTX

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A $20 price difference might not seem like a big deal at the high end where cards can cost $400 or more, but the price difference becomes more important when card prices get below $200 and a $20 difference can mean more than 10 percent of the cost of the card.

The GeForce 9800 GTX may be slower than the GTX+, but some people might be willing to give up 9 percent in performance for a more affordable card. Adventurous card owners can also try overclocking to recoup the lost performance.

Est. Retail Price: $169

ATI Radeon HD 4850

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It seems unfair to stick the ATI Radeon HD 4850 into the same comparison as the Radeon HD 4870, but we found several 4850 cards floating in the $159 to $185 price range. The Radeon HD 4850 has 800 stream processors, just like the Radeon HD 4870, but it has a slower core clock, 625MHz compared to 750MHz on the 4870, and comes with only GDDR3 memory. All of the multimedia features, including high-definition video playback and HDMI output support, are the same, but the differences in core clock speeds and memory bandwidth make the 4870 a better choice for games.

Est. Retail Price: $169

Performance Benchmarks

We didn't see any cards stand out with an exceptional price-to-performance ratio, but that just means that card pricing has fallen in line with relative performance. We may not have seen any surprise bargain cards outperforming more expensive options, but we did see one card, the Radeon HD 3870 X2, fail to score in line with its pricing. However, that was expected because we already knew that the 3870 X2 had inferior specifications compared to the similarly priced Radeon HD 4870. The GeForce 9600 GT SLI setup offers an interesting $100 upgrade option for existing 9600 GT owners especially if they're Fallout 3 fans (you already have an SLI motherboard installed, right?), but it might not be the best choice for buyers that don't already have a 9600 GT card.

System Setup: Intel Core2 QX9770, eVGA 780i, 4GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GBx4), 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows Vista 32-bit SP1. Graphics Drivers: Nvidia Forceware 180.48, Catalyst 8.11.

Conclusion

Going for the more expensive card such as the GeForce GTX 260 or ATI Radeon HD 4870 will result in better performance. That conclusion may sound obvious, but that sometimes isn't the case in the $200 video card segment. Usually one or two extraordinary value cards pop up and throttle the competition around the holidays, the GeForce 8800 GT would be a recent example, but that hasn't happened this year.

AMD is rolling with the ATI Radeon HD 4870 and 4850, two cards released almost six months ago, and Nvidia is holding on with the GeForce 9800 GTX and 9800 GTX+ while waiting for its card partners to unload the last of their original GeForce GTX 260 chips. Nvidia made a play for the $299 segment by releasing the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216, but neither company has introduced new cards to target the sub-$200 market. The biggest news is the fact that AMD and Nvidia have allowed the Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce GTX Core 192 prices to fall down so far below their original MSRPs.

Do you know of any particularly good video card deals? Do you plan on upgrading your video card for any games this year? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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