There are a remarkable variety of graphics cards on the market aimed at gamers. While the very latest technology is always expensive, there are also solutions for those who don't have hundreds of dollars to spend. These video cards were selected because they are good values in their class, and they are ordered roughly from fastest (most expensive) to slowest (most affordable). I can't include every quality card, but I do update the list when I can, so your suggestions are welcome.
1. Nvidia GeForce GTX 295
Not to be outdone by ATI's dual GPU Radeon HD 4870 X2, Nvidia released another dual GPU card in January 2009. The GTX 295 is essentially 2 GTX 260 GPUs running in SLI on a single card, except that these chips have 240 stream processors each rather than 216, and they're made with a smaller 55 nm process. Nvidia has used the 2 PCB approach instead of trying to put 2 GPUs on one board the way ATI does. While the GTX 295 quite easily takes the top spot in performance for a single card, they don't come cheap.
2. Nvidia GeForce GTX 285
Only a few months after releasing the GeForce 9800, Nvidia entered a new era by launching the GTX 280 and 260. The GTX 285 is a 55nm version of the 280, and it is a true graphics powerhouse with some 1.4 billion transistors, leading the way in single GPU game performance at the moment. While the GTX 285 entered the market at a more attractive price that the 280, it's still a considerable sum for a video card.
3. ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2
Another one of ATI's dual GPU cards, this time with two HD 4870 graphics processors and a whopping 2 GB of memory onboard. It's a close race between the HD 4870 X2, the GeForce 9800 GX2, and the GeForce GTX 280 in terms of overall performance, with each showing strengths in certain games. This card definitely puts out some impressive framerates. Of course, like other dual GPU cards, they tend to consume a lot of power, produce a lot of heat, and cost a small fortune, especially that last part.
4. ATI Radeon HD 4870
Because of a good price/performance ratio, Radeon HD 4000 cards have put ATI back in the competition. The HD 4870 is not as fast as the GeForce GTX 280 on most game benchmarks, although it actually packs more raw arithmetic computing power. It has an efficient design built on a 55 nm process, which has made it relatively affordable. It's the first card to use GDDR5 memory, and as a bonus it supports DirectX 10.1. At current prices this card is an excellent value for high-end gamers.
5. Nvidia GeForce GTX 260
The main difference between the GTX 260 and the more powerful 280 is that it has fewer Arithmetic Logic Units, fewer Texture Units, a bit less memory, and a considerably lower price tag. These cards typically sport 896 MB of GDDR3 and a GPU clocked at 576 MHz. The 260 is a very good gaming card, but I think I'd opt for the similarly priced Radeon HD 4870 at the moment.
6. ATI Radeon HD 4850
Technically, the Radeon HD 4850 has slower clock speeds than the HD 4870 and it uses GDDR3 memory rather than GDDR5. The 512 MB cards are very strong contenders in the sub-$200 price range, and they can also be purchased with 1 GB of RAM. Like other HD 4800 cards, these are a good alternative to the GeForce 9800 for Radeon fans.
7. Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX
Similar in many ways to the GeForce 8800 GTS, the 9800 GTX is a step down from the GTX 200 series from Nvidia. The 9800 GTX typically comes with 512 MB of memory, and it's a great single GPU solution for around $200. Although it isn't a dramatic leap ahead of GeForce 8800 cards, the price is hard to beat, and there is now a 9800 GTX+ that is clocked a little faster on the market. Note that these cards can be almost 27 cm long, so it could be difficult, if not impossible, to squeeze them into some computer cases.
8. ATI Radeon HD 4830
The Radeon HD 4830 is the latest addition to the 4800 series, and as its designation suggests, it's a little slower than the HD 4850. The HD 4850 has 800 stream processors, while the HD 4830 has only 640, and the core speed of 575 MHz is 50 MHz less than the HD 4850. Like the HD 4850, the HD 4830 can be found with either 512 MB or 1 GB of GDDR3 memory. Comparable in performance to a GeForce 8800 GT, these are solid gaming cards for a reasonable price.
9. Nvidia GeForce 9800 GT
The 9800 GT has quietly replaced the extremely popular GeForce 8800 GT, although there is very little difference between the two. There are 9800 GTs made with a 65nm process, but the most recent ones have be reduced to 55nm, meaning that they require less power and produce less heat. Manufacturers have thrown in a variety of extra features beyond the reference design, so compare a few brands to see what best suits your needs.
10. Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT
The first GeForce 9 cards arrived in February 2008, beginning with the 9600 GT, which was designed for the mid-range market. Although it has only half as many stream processors as the 8800 GT, it is a powerful chipset for the money, and it's putting downward pressure on video card prices across the board. These cards typically have 512 MB of memory and a core clock speed of 650 MHz, but there are overclocked versions available. Down to a little more than $100, they're also a good option for people considering an SLI setup.
11. ATI Radeon HD 4670
Aimed at people on a budget, the Radeon HD 4670 is small enough to fit into even the tightest cases, but it still packs enough power to give Nvidia's 9600 GT some competition. 512 MB and 1 GB versions of these cards are available, but the memory bus is only 128-bit. You'll need to go down to medium settings if you want to play Crysis at 1280x1024, but less demanding games will run quite well on this card at that resolution.
12. ATI Radeon HD 3870
ATI cards started to look a lot more attractive again with the release of the HD 3800 series, although the newer 4000 offerings are pushing them into the budget category. The HD 3870 has a core clock speed of 775 MHz and comes with 512 MB of DDR4 memory. Using a 55 nm process allowed them to produce a chip with performance that rivals their former champ, the HD 2900 XT, at a far lower cost. Although it's a little slower than the similarly priced GeForce 9600 GT, the Radeon HD 3870 is still worth a look.
13. ATI Radeon HD 3850
Very similar to the HD 3870, the HD 3850 is clocked a little slower than its sibling, and it now comes with either 256 MB or 512 MB of memory. It's a respectable performer, falling only a few frames per second behind the GeForce 8800 GTS on some benchmarks. Recent price drops have brought this GPU within range of budget game systems, although the new HD 4000 cards are probably a better value at the moment.
14. Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS
The GeForce 8600 is a budget chipset with DirectX 10 compatibility, available in GT and GTS flavors. The GTS has the higher clock speeds of the two. They use a 128-bit memory interface, which is a bit disappointing given that many previous-generation cards have 256-bit memory. It's close to the end of the line for these cards, and they can now be found for around $50.
15. ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT
There are 256 MB and 512 MB versions of the Radeon HD 2600 XT, and you may want to look for one that uses GDDR4 memory rather than GDDR3. The performance is on par with GeForce 8600s using the latest drivers, and most of these cards need only a single-slot with no additional power connector. Like all Radeon HD cards, it features hardware processed High Definition Blu-ray and HD DVD video. They aren't the most impressive gaming cards, but I expect them to get very affordable.