The GPU (graphics processing unit) is undoubtedly the most important component in a gamer's PC. If you're serious about gaming, you'll need a high-end card that can handle all the latest DirectX 10 features, blistering frame rates and maxed-out resolutions that modern games demand. To help you decide which graphics card to buy, we've compiled a shortlist of our Top 5 reviews in the high-to-mid range spectrum. Click on the links to read more about each model.
MSI's GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB (NX8800GTS-T2D512E-OC) may be based on NVIDIA's previous generation of graphics cards, but don't let that put you off. As far as mid-range performers go, it remains one of the better cards on the market and easily stacks up against its 9 Series equivalents. With an overclocked GPU, 128 stream processors and a 256-bit memory bus, it offers reasonable gaming opportunities at a price that won't break your bank account.
The (NX8800GTS-T2D512E-OC) also comes equipped with NVIDIA's PureVideo, a dedicated video decoder core that helps to free up the core processing unit from video decoding tasks. In our 3DMark 2006 benchmark test, the card received a score of 11,225. (This is on par with its 9800 GTS successors.)
What's hot: PureVideo, solid gaming performance, overclocked GPU
Sapphire Radeon HD3870 X2
Over the past year or so, ATI has been forced to play second fiddle while NVIDIA dominates the graphics card market. This has slowly but surely begun to change with the release of the Radeon HD3870 X2: a dual-GPU card that offers plenty of bang for the hardcore gamer's buck.
With two RV670 graphics processing units installed on one printed circuit board, the HD3870 X2 offers unparalleled performance for the asking price. A PCIe x16 1.1 bridge connects the two GPUs, allowing them to talk in a Crossfire-like manner — effectively making this card a single-board Crossfire configuration. If you have a motherboard based on the 790 chipset, you can even cram two of these babies into one machine for a quad-CrossfireX configuration.
We tested Sapphire's take on the HD3870 X2 — which was effectively identical to ATI's reference board design — and were very impressed with the results. In 3DMark 2006 the Sapphire Radeon HD3870 X2 scored a very respectable 13436; enough to comfortably play the latest DirectX 10 titles.
What's hot: Twin-GPU Crossfire on a single PCB, good performance scaling over 2 GPUs
The GeForce EN9800GX2 can be seen as NVIDIA's answer to the ATI Radeon HD3870 X2. It sports two G92 graphics processing units on the one PCI. As you would expect, this translates to better frame rates in games and an improved performance in our benchmarks.
Asus's EN9800GX2 is one of the better versions of this card that we've looked at. Its 65nm GPU offers 256 stream processors running at a 1500MHz clock speed, a 600MHz core clock and 1GB (2x 512MB) of GDDR3 with a clock speed of 1000MHz (2GHz effective speed). Multimedia fans will also be pleased by the inclusion of a HDMI port on the board itself, rather than in a DVI to HDMI adapter.
In 3DMark 2006, the EN9800GX2 scored a solid 13,015. In the DirectX10 game Crysis, it returned an average frame rate of 39.7 frames per second with maximum settings enabled. Naturally, these impressive results can be boosted yet further via a second EN9800GX2 card and quad-SLI setup.
What's hot: Single-card SLI solution, leaves room for more expansion cards, very powerful, quad-SLI potential, native HDMI
Gigabyte GeForce 9800 GTX (GV-NX98X512H-B)
NVIDIA's 9800 GTX is currently the most powerful single-GPU graphics card on the market. This makes it good value for people on strict budgets who can't afford two midrange cards or a dual-GPU model.
The Gigabyte (GV-NX98X512H-B) is basically identical to NVIDIA's 9800GTX reference board design, yet it still offers plenty of bang for the mainstream gamer's buck. The 65nm GPU comes equipped with 128 stream processors running at 1.69GHz and a 675MHz core clock speed. Its GDDR3 memory stands at 512MB, with a memory clock speed of 1100MHz (2.2GHz effective). With its 256-bit bus, this works out to a maximum theoretical memory bandwidth of 70.4GBps.
In 3DMark 06, it received an overall score of 12074, which is a solid result for the asking price.
What's hot: Great performance for the asking price, supports three-way SLI for x3 processing power
Asus EAH3870 X2 1GB
As its name implies, the Asus EAH3870 X2 1GB is another card based on ATI's HD3870 X2 reference board design. Like its Sapphire-manufactured cousin, it offers the convenience and added power of two GPUs in a single card. It also comes equipped with four DVI ports, allowing you to run four monitors off one PC.
The ASUS EAH3870 X2 1GB uses ATI's CrossFire technology to render games, so both GPUs can alternate the processing load between them to render the pixels you see on your screen quicker than a single GPU can. For our gaming test we ran Half-Life 2 at a resolution of 1920x1200 and with all the settings maxed out. The Asus EAH3870 X2 1GB returned a healthy frame rate average of 132fps (with CrossFire enabled). This is a very solid result that should satisfy the majority of gamers.
It's also worth noting that the EAH3870GX2 supports Micosoft's DirectX 10.1 and Shader 4.1. At the time of writing, NVIDIA cards were not compatible with the latest API updates, making the EAH3870GX2 a better buy for gamers.
What's hot: Four DVI ports, excellent performance when playing games at high resolutions, doesn't require a CrossFire-capable motherboard