Sometimes it's easy to get lost in the high performance market. With games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion capable of bringing even the highest powered desktop systems to their knees, the desire to see just how beautiful we can render a game is quite strong. For professional gamers, it isn't about the attention to detail, but the rendering speed. Everyone who is the least bit interested in realtime 3D graphics can easily get excited about what the latest and greatest hardware can do for their favorite games and simulations.

But the vast majority of us can't afford to drop over $1000USD on graphics hardware. Instead, we must approach our love for graphics in one of two ways. Either we need to determine the minimum level of graphical quality we are comfortable having, or we must look for the fastest card we can afford within a certain price range. What ever perspective one might have, the end result usually ends up somewhere near the topic of this article: midrange graphics cards.

The current landscape of $200 - $300 graphics cards is quite well suited to the enthusiast who wants good performance and quality for a reasonable amount of money. As such, we will be taking a look at this market segment as it stands. This really does seem to be the sweet spot in terms of bang for the buck right now. We won't be able to run Oblivion with all the options enabled, but all the games we test will look good and play well. We won't be surprised to see a few more entries into this market before the end of the year, but we are certainly over due for a good hard look at anything but the high end.

Over the past year, we've seen the 6600 GT fall in relative performance from one of the greatest midrange cards we've seen to something more like a minimum requirement for passable graphics. Likewise, the modder's darling X800 GTO is starting to struggle to various degrees (depending on how far any given card could be pushed). These two cards (among others) are included in our test as references.

This week we did run into a little bit of a snag in our testing for this article: the price of the ATI X1900 series dropped quite a bit. Not only did the price drop for the X1900 GT end up adding quite a bit of value to the card, but the X1900 XT dropped low enough in price to put it in competition with the 7900 GT at just over $300. This week has been spent testing more cards and a few extra senarios in order to cover all the bases and truly find out what cards are the best to buy in the mid range market segment. With a variety of overclocked NVIDIA cards available and price cuts on many ATI parts, things just got a whole lot more complicated. As the high end desktop graphics market used to top out at $300, we understand that even a mid range graphics card is still a significant investment for most people. It's important to be armed with the best and latest information when making purchasing descisions in such fast paced, high tech markets.

We hope to shake out the best options in the current line up as well as help those looking to upgrade from a previous generation of midrange graphics see how their card stacks up. Let's take a look at the cards we have included and why.

The Contenders
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  • augiem - Thursday, August 10, 2006 - link

    I wonder which of these cards would accelerate Maya's 3D viewport performance the most... Reply
  • PrinceGaz - Thursday, August 10, 2006 - link

    If you're a casual Maya user, then look at the OpenGL performance (Quake 4) for a rough guide. I'm tempted to think though that the GeForce cards should still have the edge in most OpenGL situations so Quake 4 might not be representative.

    If you use Maya professionally, then none of the cards looked at are for you. A good Quadro or FireGL card will render scenes far faster than any consumer card, and as time is money, will more than pay for itself despite their high cost if that is what you do for a living.
    Reply
  • Calin - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    There was a time when it was possible (although not very easy) to mod a Radeon 9700 into the corresponding FireGL card. This would have been great for you (but now a FireGL based on 9700 could be slower than consumer cards) Reply
  • PrinceGaz - Thursday, August 10, 2006 - link

    I've only read the first two pages of the article up to and including the list of prices for the various cards at the bottom of the second page, and haven't read any comments here, but it seems pretty obvious already that the X1900GT is going to be the obvious winner in terms of value for money.

    I'll be back in half an hour or so after I've read the rest of it.
    Reply
  • Gondorff - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    Indeed, the X1900GT looks very good... which makes me very happy b/c I just bought it a week or so ago (damned slow shipping though...). For those who do care about rebates, the x1900gt can be had on newegg for $200 right now (a connect3d one). I was lucky and got it at $175 before they raised the price... for $15 more than the 7600gt I was going to get otherwise, that's pretty damn good if I may say so myself.

    Anyway... excellent article; if only it were out earlier so I could worry less about a slightly blind choice... but c'est la vie and it turned out well anyway :).
    Reply
  • Kougar - Thursday, August 17, 2006 - link

    Good grief, I just found it for $199... and it was previously $175!? Incredible... :( Reply
  • PrinceGaz - Thursday, August 10, 2006 - link

    Yep, pretty much as I suspected- the X1900GT is best at stock speeds. Things become a little blurred when factory-overclocked 7900GTs are brought into the picture but while they're faster, they're also more expensive by a similar amount. Both offer great value for money if you need to buy a card now.

    One thing the article seemed to overlook is that many people who visit sites like this will overclock cards themselves, factory overclocked or not, and this is likely to reduce the advantage of already overclocked cards like the 7900GTs you recommend. I imagine there is a bit more headroom in a stock X1900GT than a factory overclocked 7900GT (especially a 7900GT with a core clock of 580 like you used). Those of us willing to take a chance on how much extra a card has available may well find a user-overclocked X1900GT to be a match for what an overclocked (user or factory) 7900GT can achieve.
    Reply
  • coldpower27 - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link


    The problem with this is that your using assume performance vs guranteed performance of factory overclocked units, so they aren't comparable.

    The point provided is something to keep in mind, but shouldn't be recommended for anyone other then those who know what they are doing. Not to mention the voiding of the warranty when you do when you suggest.
    Reply
  • DerekWilson - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    Also, if you look around, increasing voltage and cooling for 7900 GT cards can yeild results better than a 7900 GTX. Buying a factory overclocked 7900 GT gives you a card that a manufacturer binned as a part that is able to hit higher than stock clocks at stock voltage and temperature. So you should get a more easily overclockable card if you really want to push it to its limits. Reply
  • Genx87 - Thursday, August 10, 2006 - link

    2nd from the top for ATI is considered mid grade?

    Guess that 7950GX2 is pushing them down from the top.
    Reply

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