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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  • jcbennett - Wednesday, September 6, 2006 - link

    I've been unable to find these cheap prices for a x1900gt (nor can I find the card being sold in many places). The cheapest I see anywhere is on newegg for open box products - ~$220. For new products, their prices are ~$300. The 7900gt on the other hand I've found at Tiger Direct for $250 or less, including overclocked versions for ~$10 more.
  • VooDooAddict - Saturday, August 12, 2006 - link

    It's nice to see that really any of the new "midrange budget" solutions would work well for someone. Decissions can be made more on the details then on the raw speed. Most people would be very happy with 7600GT or better. None of the cards being pushed in this price range are really lemons. (Unlike the the GeforceFX 5xxx Series)

    Shader Model 3 is also supported across the X1xxxx or the 7xxx series lines.
  • blondeguy08 - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    since amd has aquired ati it is pointless to get a video card from them especcialy high end because amd has stomped out the ati name along with some of its name brand technologies meaning no support for the old............hello nvidia is th eonly way to go at this day and time maybe not tomorrow cause amd might potentially create a duo of the two companies products that could smoke intels relations with nvidia since they havent merged in retailation to amds move....
  • arturnowp - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    AMD said there won't discontinue ATi and Radeon brand...
  • Josh7289 - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    Yeah, and there isn't going to be any real products of this takeover until 2008 or so.
  • arturnowp - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    I think 6600GT stands out in Quake 4 is because of its memory amount - it has only 128MB which isn't enough for Q4/D3. This card should be tested in medium. And even though Doom 3 give nice ave. framerate with 6600GT hiccups occurs with high quality textures.
  • arturnowp - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    I wonder why those resolutions 'casue midrange gamers mostly use 1280x1024 and equivalent
  • JarredWalton - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    We also show the various lower/higher resolutions, and basically chose a top resolution that shows how the cards begin to separate as the GPU is stressed more. At 1280x1024, some games begin to become CPU limited. It's also worth mentioning that 1600x1200 is relatively close to 1680x1050 in terms of GPU requirements, and 1920x1400 is close to 1920x1200 - the WS resolution will typically be ~10-20% faster in both instances (more at 19x12, less at 16x10). I would say a lot of people are moving to 1680x1050 these days, even in the mid-range.
  • DerekWilson - Saturday, August 19, 2006 - link

    also, if you just want to play at 1280x1024, I'd recommend going with the 7600 gt at this point ... the very low end of midrange cards can handle 12x9 and 12x10 resolutions.
  • Egglick - Friday, August 11, 2006 - link

    Where the heck is the 256MB X1800XT?? You can get it for">only $199 and it offers equal or better performance than the X1900GT.

    Why do review sites continually ignore this card??

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