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.