Ask Dan: Mid-'08 video card update

Date: 14 July 2008
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


OK, so now Nvidia's released the GeForce 280 GTX and 260 GTX, and ATI's launched the Radeon HD 4850, and they've all been out for a week or three so the loonies have already bought theirs and now normal people can find them in the shops.

So which one's better, Dan?


First up, the new Nvidia cards are not the "GeForce 280/260 GTX". Several generations of previous GeForce have had names like "GeForce 7600 GT" or "GeForce 8800 GTS", but the new 200 Series cards swap the meaningless number and the meaningless acronym around, so they're the "GeForce GTX 260" and "GeForce GTX 280", with other models presumably on the way at some point.

This nitpick is only really of interest to people who're trying to craft the perfect price-comparison-site search string. But someone probably got paid big bucks to swap the numbers and letters around, so it's worth taking a moment to admire their ground-breaking work.

If you're interested in buying a medium-to-high-performance video card at the moment - which is to say, something which a year ago would have been a high-to-outrageous-performance card - there are several options, but two of them are pretty clearly better than the rest, for most people at least.

[Note: Not long after I wrote this, Nvidia cut their US prices to make them more competitive with the ATI alternatives. Those price cuts have percolated through to Australia now, so I've updated this page accordingly. It's now current as of the end of July 2008.]

When ATI released the Radeon HD 3850 and 3870, they didn't make much of a splash. They were perfectly decent performers in the, I don't know, high-midrange (low-high-end?) market sector, and decent value for money. But if they'd never existed then people could have continued to be perfectly happy with something like a GeForce 8800 GT.

Then, however, ATI came up with the Radeon HD 4850 and 4870, based on the new R700 core. And this made all the difference. The 4870 is only marginally slower than a GTX 280, and the 4850 isn't that much slower than the 4870. But they're both quite cheap - well, as high-end graphics cards go, anyway.

Let's start from the top, though, and the GeForce GTX 280 and 260.

The GTX 280 really is at the top of the heap for performance per "GPU" (actual separate graphics chip - the vast majority of video cards have one GPU on them). A single GTX 280 will give you roughly the same performance as the previous two-GPUs-on-one-card GeForce 9800 GX2. For some tests the 280 is a little slower, for others it's a little faster. The GTX 280 started out costing about the same as a 9800 GX2, but as of the end of July 2008 it's had a big price cut and will now set Australian buyers back only around $AU600. The 9800 GX2 is still around $AU750.

The 280's lead over most other currently-available cards will probably increase over the coming months, because Nvidia will release improved drivers. Driver changes usually favour younger cards, because the driver writers have already wrung about as much performance as they can out of the older models. So when new drivers come out, you can expect cards like the 8000- and 9000-series GeForces and the Radeon HD 38x0s to maybe get a little faster, but the new 200-series GeForces and 4000-series Radeons should improve by a larger margin.

Never mind those free speed boosts, though. Let's throw money at the problem.

If you're determined to spend big, then if you've got an SLI-capable motherboard with enough PCIe video card slots, you can run up to three GTX 280s simultaneously. It's sort of possible to justify at least two-way GTX 280 SLI, if you've got a monstrous monitor and want to play Crysis or something with all the pretty-settings turned up. But yes, it's kind of silly. For the overwhelming majority of users, even a single GTX 280 is more than enough at the moment.

Which brings us to the GTX 260. If the 280 is more than you need, you might as well buy this cut-down version, provided it's not been cut down too much.

The 260's stock core and RAM clock speeds are only marginally lower than the 280's, but it's got 192 stream processors to the 280's 240, 64 texture units to the 280's 80, and 28 raster operators to the 280's 32.

In English, this means the 260 manages a bit more than 80% of the performance of the 280. Well, it does as long as there are actually enough pixels being pushed around that the software's not "CPU limited", with the graphics hardware often sitting there waiting for the CPU to figure out what it should do.

(If you're not using a resolution that puts at least a couple of million pixels on the screen, then you're likely to find many games will be limited by your CPU speed a lot of the time. The frame rate will probably be perfectly good, mind you, if you've got a modern CPU - but there'll be no point in spending tons of money on a top-end graphics card.)

The GTX 260 may be 80% of the speed of the 280, but as is usually the way with top-end and not-quite-so-top-end computer hardware it - originally, at least - cost rather less than 80% as much. Nvidia's price cuts have made the 260 slightly less attractive compared with the 280, though, as we'll see.

As of late July 2008, the cheapest GTX 280 that m'verygoodfriends at Aus PC Market have in stock is a Leadtek-branded unit for $AU605 including delivery (Australian shoppers can click here to order that one); they also have a Galaxy-branded 280 for a mere $AU566.50 delivered (Aussie buyers can click here to order), but with a one to two day wait for stock. Either way, this is a very big price cut from the $750-plus that GTX 280s cost when they were brand new.

Aus PC's cheapest GTX 260s, on the other hand, are as of late July dipping just below the $AU400 mark. They've got a Galaxy, and Xpertvision and a Gainward GTX 260 all selling for $AU396 including delivery -  but the Gainward one currently comes with two free one-gigabyte sticks of Corsair XMS2 DDR2 RAM, which makes it a winner if you ask me, even if you don't need the RAM. Australian shoppers can click here to order the Gainward-plus-Corsair bundle.

When GTX 280s were more than $750 and GTX 260s were about $450, the 260 offered 80% of the performance for less than 60% of the price.

Now, though, 280s are around $600 and 260s are around $400 - two-thirds of the price for four-fifths of the performance. Still a good deal, but not incredible - especially if you're comparing the $AU396 GTX 260s with the very cheapest $AU566.50 GTX 280. That 260 is 70% of the price of the cheap 280 (if we ignore the free-RAM bundle for now), so it's only slightly worse value, in bang-per-buck terms.

(The two 1Gb DDR2 memory modules in the Gainward-260-card combo pack, by the way, sell separately for $AU89.10 including delivery. If you've no use for them, you could probably shift them on eBay for fifty bucks.)

Until recently, the card that occupied the GTX 260's value niche in the Nvidia lineup was the GeForce 8800 GT. It had most of the speed of the 8800 GTX and Ultra (and, thus, also most of the speed of the 9800 GTX, which was only slightly faster than its predecessor), but it cost a lot less. And, incidentally, the 8800 GT was and is rather shorter than the giant top-of-the-line Nvidia cards, which makes it easier to fit into tightly-packed PCs. The 8800 GT also drew quite a lot less power.

The 8800 GT is still around, and it's now cheap. You can now get a 512Mb 8800 GT for only $AU231 delivered, which is a hard price not to like.

The 8800 GT also gives you more performance per dollar than the GeForce GTX 280, but so do a bunch of other cards. So let's not compare it with the 280. Let's make our comparison base, from now on, the rather-better-value 260.

The 8800 GT averages out at only about 65% of the speed of the GTX 260, for recent games in high resolutions. Before the big price cut, the cheapest 8800 GTs were only a hair over half of the price of the cheapest GTX 260s, but now 260 prices have fallen while 8800 GT prices have stayed the same, so the 8800 GT is now around 60% of the price of a GTX 260.

That's still a good deal, though. If you're still chugging along with some graphics card that was pretty hot stuff in 2005, and especially if you don't have a huge monitor, the 8800 GT remains well worth considering.

And if you've already got an 8800 GT and your motherboard is SLI-capable, you should be able to add a second 8800 GT of any brand (not just the same brand as the one you have), and get into SLI motoring on the cheap.

An SLI pair of 8800 GTs will give you an average of about 1.2 times the performance of a single GTX 260, so in bang-per-buck terms, at the late-July '08 prices, an 8800 GT pair is actually pretty much exactly the same as single GTX 260. I wouldn't go that way if I was starting from scratch, but if you've got an 8800 GT already and it's not pushing pixels as fast as you'd like, upgrading by adding a second card is a very good idea.

The only pitfall here is that SLI, like ATI's competing CrossFire multi-graphics-card system, does not let you use multiple monitors while SLI is activated. Both systems let you turn SLI/CrossFire on and off using a simple software interface, so it's easy to switch from multi-monitor desktop mode to single-very-fast-monitor mode for games. But if you want to use multiple monitors in a game, you'll have to install yet a third graphics card - possibly just some cheap low-end model - to connect to your extra monitor(s).

(After this page went up, a reader pointed out that if you've got a CrossFireX system, which you probably have if you've got any sort of recent CrossFire setup, then you actually can use two monitors with CrossFire enabled. That still only lets you use two of the four monitor outputs your two video cards will probably give you, but it's enough for most people.)

The $AU231-delivered 512Mb 8800 GT I mentioned above is branded Xpertvision; Australian shoppers can order it by clicking here. Be careful if you're bargain-hunting for even cheaper cards, though - they may have only 256Mb of RAM, or be the considerably slower cut-down "8800 GS" variant.

While we're in the (relatively) cheap seats, let's examine ATI's Radeon HD 3870, which costs rather less than a GeForce 8800 GT. The cheapest HD 3870 Aus PC Market sell, as of late July, is a Powercolor-branded card that costs only $AU181.50 delivered.

(There's currently a one-to-two-day wait for stock of that card, but the only 3870 Aus PC actually have in stock right now costs more than seventy bucks more. So I'd wait the couple of days, if I were you.)

The HD 3870 clocks in at about 60% of the speed of a GTX 260, so it's only really interesting because of that nice low purchase price. 60% of the speed for 46% of the price brings the 3870 pretty much in line with the 8800 GT, value-wise.

And, again, if you've already got one 3870 and your motherboard supports CrossFire (ATI's multi-video-card system), you can get a substantial performance boost on the cheap by adding a second 3870. That'll bring you more or less up to full GTX 260 speed, for (relative) peanuts.

Australians who'd like to order the $AU181.50 Powercolor HD 3870 can do so by clicking here.

(There's also an HD 3870 X2, which is another of those two-GPUs-on-one-card deals and, like Nvidia's versions of the same concept, performs a little worse than two separate cards. This means it only clocks in at an average of about 90% of the speed of a GTX 260, yet it cost rather more even before the big GTX price cut. Aus PC Market don't stock any 3870 X2s any more.)

And so, finally, to the cards I was telling you to buy further up this page - the Radeon HD 4850 and 4870.

Here in Australia, Radeon HD 4870s started out at about 80% of the price of a GTX 260, before the Nvidia price cut. Now their price advantage is slimmer, but they're still a very good buy.

Aus PC Market's cheapest 4870 as of late July is a HIS-branded card, for $AU349.80 delivered. That's about 90% of the price of the cheapest GTX 260s.

But the HD 4870 manages about the same speed as the GTX 260. Maybe actually a little faster overall, not that you'd notice the difference. Heck, the 4870's better than 90% of the speed of a GTX 280, at high resolutions; it even beats the 280 for some tests. You could swap out someone's $600 280 for a $350 4870 and they wouldn't notice the difference if they stayed out of Display Properties.

So, yes, you could obviously do a very great deal worse than to buy that $AU349.80-delivered HIS 4870. If you're an Australian shopper who'd like to do so, you can by clicking here.

If your budget doesn't stretch to an HD 4870, there's the HD 4850, which gives even better bang per buck. It's not cut-down by very much; it clocks in at a comfortable 80% of the speed of the 4870, which put is at more than 70% of GTX 280 speed, a sliver behind the GTX 260.

But the 260's about $AU400, while the HD 4850 now costs around $AU240.

That, for those of you keeping score, is about 60% of the current price of a GTX 260, for 90% of the performance.

Or, if you prefer, around 40% of the price of a GTX 280, for about 70% of the performance.

Aus PC Market have a Gainward-branded 512Mb HD 4850 for $231 delivered with a one-to-two-day wait - Australian shoppers can click here to order that one. The only no-waiting-period 4850 they've got as of this update is a $247.50 Powercolor card; Aussie shoppers can click here for that one.

And yes, you can CrossFire together a couple of HD 4850s or 4870s if you like, to give you performance that spanks any current single card at a (relatively) bargain price.

There'll also be a Radeon HD 4870 X2, another two-chips-on-one-card effort, in a month or so.


Do bear in mind that the reason why this article is only about three thousand words instead of ten is that I'm boiling down results into ballpark figures. You probably don't play the same wide assortment of current demanding games that video card reviewers use to test new cards, and what you do play can make a big difference to a card's performance.

For instance, the best single card for Flight Simulator X at the moment seems to still be the GeForce 8800 Ultra. And the GeForce 9800 GX2 - slightly slower than an SLI pair of 9800 GTXs - is also still a top performer for some games. The GX2 still costs about $AU750, though, so it's lousy value compared with the newly discounted 280s.

None of this stuff is likely to be very relevant to you if you don't have at least a 1600 by 1200 monitor. 1680 by 1050 widescreen, at the outside. If you've got a lower-resolution screen than that, then you'd have to be doing some pretty cutting-edge DirectX 10 gaming for anything faster than an HD 4850 to be justified. A 3850 would probably do you just fine.

Monitors with more than two million pixels, though, aren't very exotic hardware any more. Not many years ago, a desk-bending 21-inch CRT capable of a rather fuzzy 1600 by 1200 could cost you more than the rest of your PC put together. As I write this, though, Dell's cheapest 1680 by 1050 20-inch LCD is only $AU399 delivered. And that's without one of the discount offers which, regular readers will recall, I recommend you always wait for before buying anything from Dell.

Aus PC Market have a cheerful 1680 by 1050 Viewsonic nineteen-incher for only $302.50 delivered (Aussie shoppers can click here to order one!). So high-res gaming isn't just for the crazies any more.

Now is a good time to buy, too. Nvidia were aware of the painful price/performance gap between their best cards and the 4000-series Radeons, so they dropped their prices considerably; 280s and 260s are really quite good value now.

They're still beaten by the remarkably good value Radeon HD 4850 and 4870, but there's not much of a gap between them now. The only real losers here are people who bought a 280 a week before the price dropped by 20%.

If you've been waiting for an excuse to upgrade, this one's pretty good.

Australian shoppers who'd like to buy a HIS Radeon HD 4870 from Aus PC Market, for $AU349.80 including delivery, can click here to do so.

If you're an Aussie shopper who'd prefer the even-better-value Gainward Radeon HD 4850 for $AU231 including delivery, you can click here to order.