Top 5 graphics cards for shoppers on a budget

We've compiled a shortlist of the five mid-to-low range graphics cards that have most impressed us over the past few months.

Updating your graphics card can be a costly business, especially if you're into gaming. Thankfully, there is also a bevy of affordable options for those on limited budgets. But making the right choice isn't easy — plenty of graphics cards are duds, especially at lower price points. We've compiled a shortlist of the five mid-to-low range graphics cards that have most impressed us over the past few months. (You can click on the headings to read our in-depth reviews of each card.)

MSI GeForce N9600GT (T2D512-OC)

MSI's GeForce N9600GT (T2D512-OC) is a solid mid-range graphics card aimed squarely at casual gamers. Equipped with one of NVIDIA's latest 9 Series GPUs, this factory overclocked model is an intelligent choice for mid-range gaming. We noticed some significant improvements in our benchmark tests when compared to the GeForce 9600GT reference board, which makes the (T2D512-OC) solid value for money. Heavy gamers may require something a little gutsier, but for this price bracket you can't go wrong. As an added bonus, MSI has included a HDMI adapter in the box. This means the card will work with a high-definition player and screen — an important point if you want to use your PC as a media player.

What's hot: Price, high speed shader clock, factory overclocked core and memory speeds

Sapphire Radeon HD3450

For the truly budget conscious, it's hard to look past this ultra-affordable entry-level offering from ATI. As its $85 price tag suggests, the Radeon HD3450 is targeted towards low-end PCs running older CPUs. However, what it lacks in gaming prowess it makes up for with its low price, connectivity and video decoding options. The features that really sell this card are its HDCP compliance and the fact that it not only includes a DVI to HDMI adapter, but also supports Display Port, an HDMI-like connection with twice the bandwidth of DVI.

What's more, it is completely silent, using a passive heat sink for cooling. There's also no need for a dedicated power cable as the HD3450 will draw all of its power through the PCIe slot. All up, the card is a perfect solution for media centres and those with low-end PCs who wish to get a little extra utility out of them.

What's hot: Size, no PCIe power cable required, silent

Galaxy 9600GT Overclocked

Like MSI's (T2D512-OC), the Galaxy 9600GT Overclocked is an affordable midrange graphics card built around NVIDIA's latest G94 chipset. Aimed primarily at casual gamers, its factory overclocked GPU offers plenty of processing power at a price that most people can afford. In our benchmark test using 3DMark06, the Galaxy 9600GT (OC) received an overall score of 10,956. This is an excellent result that easily stacks up against similarly priced models on the market.

Like the rest of NVIDIA's 9600GT cards, the Galaxy includes a HDMI adapter in the box and is HDCP compliant. The card also comes bundled with Xtreme Tuner: a first party software application geared towards DIY users. This easy-to-use tool allows you to adjust the 9600GT's core, memory and shader clock speeds, as well as the fan speed, via a series of slider bars. All up, it remains an excellent value choice for gaming enthusiasts on a budget.

What's hot: Excellent performance for the asking price, user-friendly Xtreme Tuner software, factory overclocked core and memory speeds

Gigabyte GeForce 9600GT 512MB (GV-NX96T512HP)

The Gigabyte GeForce 9600GT 512MB (GV-NX96T512HP) is one of the best passively cooled graphics cards we've looked at, offering plenty of tweaks over the standard 9600GT reference board. With options for 2D/3D clock separation and a quartet of passive coolers, it is tailor-made with power efficiency in mind. However, that's not to say that the card underperformed in the processing stakes — indeed, it returned one of the best results we've seen from a GeForce 9600GT card. Its performance in our benchmarks easily matched the majority of its fan-equipped competitors, with an average score of 11,177 in WorldBench06.

The card also comes bundled with Gamer HUD, an optimisation tool that allows you to tweak the GPU, shader, and memory clock speeds for an extra boost in performance. For energy-conscious users, this card is almost impossible to fault.

What's hot: Great GPU performance, effective passive cooling, 2D/3D clock separation, sound-free operation

HIS Radeon HD 3850 IceQ3 TurboX

At $329, the HIS Limited Radeon HD 3850 IceQ3 TurboX isn't exactly cheap, but serious gamers are unlikely to find a better deal for the asking price. It's based on the ATI Radeon HD 3850 GPU, which supports DirectX 10.1 and has 512MB of GDDR3 RAM. The card is cooled by a large fan and heat sink assembly for quieter operation.

For our gaming test we ran Half-Life 2 at a resolution of 1920x1200 and with all the settings maxed out. The HIS card returned a healthy frame rate average of 153fps. This is a fantastic result for a graphics card in this price range. For movie watching, the card ships with a DVI-HDMI adapter, which is HDCP-ready, so you can watch protected high-definition movies without any limitations. If you want an affordable card for your gaming needs that's also HDCP-ready, then the HIS Limited Radeon HD 3850 IceQ3 TurboX is your best bet.

What's hot: Quick performance compared to other 3850-based cards, quiet cooler, HDCP-ready, excellent DirectX 9 performance

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