So, recently I undertook my yearly Buy A New Video Card event, wherein my previous GPU ups and dies at a very inconvenient time, requiring me to spend much patience surviving without basic capabilities, capabilities lacking pixel artifacts and the interminable lag when scrolling in Word, until I can purchase a shiny new card for the year. 2008’s purchase was inspired when my 7300 GS blew a tube, said tube split right down the middle and turned it into the leaning tower of Pisa. Apparently I’ve been in a process of decline in terms of video cards, going from a $400 card in 2004 to a degenerate bottom-barrel card in 2007. Both my last GPUs were ad-hoc purchases by my parents to enable my PC to function, which means they weren’t exactly high-end gaming material. I figured now was the time to take that back, with Fallout 3 on the horizon.
Now, I’ve always been a big fan of nVidia. My first card was a GeForce 2 MX, which lasted several years until I saved up my pennies and bought a shiny GeForce TI 4200. When I custom-built my current PC, I made sure to slap in a top-of-the-line XFX GeForce 6800 GS, which was a dream of a card until my power supply ate itself, coincidently turning my RAM and GPU into a nice pile of shit and chips on a plate made of a dead motherboard.
So for me to willingly hunt down an ATI card, you know there’s something wrong with the world. Let me explain the current market: nVidia has decided to aim at the high-end market, going the harder-better-faster-stronger route, pushing out a steady stream of twin-slot powerhouses at $300 or higher, while ATI recently decided to aim at the $200-300 midrange market and move up and down from there. So, you ask, why go with a measly midrange card when I could aim for the expensive card of godlike proportion?
Answer: because they can outpace the nVidia cards twice their price. In most tests, the ATI offerings can compare, match, or exceed the nVidia cards, with a much lower price. gpureview.com has a number of reviews and comparisons if you’d like to look. Take my purchase, the $200 Radeon HD 4850, available in most Best Buys. It’s a small, single-slot card with a powerful memory clock and enough speed to hose down any of the current crop of games, making it more than a match for the staple GeForce 8800. In fact, it pushes higher benchmarks in Call of Duty 4 and comparable scores in most other games (including hardware-breakers like Crysis and Bioshock). This card forced nVidia to slash the cost of the $300 GeForce 9800 GTX down to $197 just to keep competitive, and even then some reviews chart the 4850 over the 9800.
If you move up a step, you find the $300 Radeon HD 4870, which can take on the $400 and $650 offerings from nVidia, with the Radeon card beating out the nVidia offerings or coming damn close (read: negligible differences). The secret to this is the new RV770 chipset, which enables ATI’s cards to access memory as fast or faster than the GeForce behemoths; plus, the 4870 comes equipped with GDDR5 memory and the ability to utilize DirectX 10 technology. I mean, seriously, fucking GDDR5. It’s so powerful as to be silly—both 4850 and 4870 have over 800 shaders, for shit’s sake! The 4870 itself is certainly giving nVidia a run for its money, since it can outperform the GeForce line in most tests, a fact compounded when you realize these same GeForce cards cost $100-250 more.
Granted, this is mostly a stream of techie gobbledegook, but look at it this way: there’s a lot of intense competition in the graphics processor ring. Which means that now’s the perfect time to upgrade. Last year the 4850 would have cost $400 and the 4870 would have been that monolithic supercomputer required to run Crysis. Now, the whole market is dropping in price as nVidia tries to cut out ATI’s performance edge. If you were thinking of it before, you’ll be able to pick up a Radeon 4850 or GeForce 9800 for $200 or less—and these aren’t last year’s $200 cards. They’re actual quality, folks. Competition, especially among the GPU market, is necessary—remember the past two years, when the only good ATI competitor was the 2900 XT, awash in a field of GeForce supermen?
I also hear the price of quad-core processors has dropped below the $200 mark…