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Lining up the competition
Board makers are eager to differentiate their products from the rest of the field, so we're looking at a batch of cards that offers quite a bit of variety when it comes to clock speeds and memory configurations. Prices and warranty coverage can vary quite a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer, as well. High demand for these graphics cards has some models dipping in and out of stock, if they're even available for sale. If you don't see a price listed for a given card in the chart below, that's either because it's gone out of stock or isn't listed at all in our price search engine.

GPU Core clock Shader clock Memory clock Memory size Warranty length Price
Asus EAH3870 TOP Radeon HD 3870 850MHz NA 2.25GHz 512MB GDDR4 3 years
Asus EN8800GT TOP GeForce 8800 GT 700MHz 1.75GHz 2GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years
Gigabyte GV-NX88T512H-B GeForce 8800 GT 600MHz 1.5GHz 1.8GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years
Gigabyte GV-NX88T512HP GeForce 8800 GT 700MHz 1.7GHz 1.84GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years
Gigabyte GV-RX387512H Radeon HD 3870 775MHz NA 1.9GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years
HIS HD IceQ3 Turbo 3870 Radeon HD 3870 850MHz NA 2.38GHz 512MB GDDR4 1 year
HIS HD IceQ3 TurboX 3850 Radeon HD 3850 735MHz NA 1.96GHz 512MB GDDR3 1 year
MSI NX8800GT GeForce 8800 GT 660MHz 1.65GHz 1.9GHz 512MB GDDR3 3 years parts, 2 years labor
Palit 8800GT Super+ GeForce 8800 GT 600MHz 1.5GHz 1.8GHz 1GB GDDR3 3 years
PowerColor AX3850 512MD3-PH Radeon HD 3850 720MHz NA 1.8GHz 512MB GDDR3 1 year
PowerColor AX3870 512MD4-PH Radeon HD 3870 800MHz NA 2.4GHz 512MB GDDR4 1 year
Sapphire HD 3850 Radeon HD 3850 700MHz NA 1.65GHz 1GB GDDR3 2 years
VisionTek Radeon HD 3870 Radeon HD 3870 800MHz NA 2.3GHz 512MB GDDR4 Lifetime
XFX GeForce 8800 GT Alpha Dog Edition 256 GeForce 8800 GT 650MHz 1.6GHz 1.6GHz 256MB GDDR3 Double lifetime
XFX GeForce 8800 GT Alpha Dog Edition 512 GeForce 8800 GT 625MHz 1.5GHz 1.8GHz 512MB GDDR3 Double lifetime
Zotac GeForce 8800 GT Amp! Edition GeForce 8800 GT 700MHz 1.7GHz 2GHz 512MB GDDR3 2 years

Clock speeds have the biggest impact on performance, so that's where we'll start. On the GeForce front, the factory "overclocked" cards from Asus, Gigabyte, and Zotac offer the highest core speeds. Interestingly, the 256MB XFX Alpha Dog Edition enjoys faster-than-stock core and shader clocks but a slower memory clock. Factory overclocking hasn't been as popular among Radeon board makers, but there's no shortage of higher clock speeds among these HD 3800-series cards. The 3870s from Asus and HIS lead the way, pushing the RV670 to 850MHz. We only have three Radeon HD 3850s on the bench, and each of them comes with tweaked clock speeds right out of the box.

Tweaked clocks are just one way these cards vary. Board vendors have been slapping extra—and sometimes unnecessary—memory onto graphics cards for years now, and this latest crop of mid-range cards isn't immune to the trend. Palit and Sapphire both include 1GB on their entries, which may be a little, er, ambitious. Memory upgrades are probably a good idea for the Radeon HD 3850, though, and all three we've rounded up bypass the reference 256MB memory size. HIS and PowerColor show more restraint than Sapphire here, only opting to upgrade the 3850's memory to 512MB.

Warranty terms are all over the map, led by XFX's "double lifetime" warranty, which covers cards through their first resale. VisionTek's "single" lifetime warranty is just as good for most practical purposes, and then there's a huge gap down to the Asus, Gigabyte, and Palit cards with three years of coverage. A three-year warranty seems reasonable for a graphics card in this price range, and I can even live with MSI's three years parts, two years labor deal. However, the two years of coverage on the Sapphire and Zotac cards starts to look a little stingy. The single year of coverage on the HIS and PowerColor cards is downright cheap, if not completely unacceptable.

Speaking of cheap, the lowest price among cards listed in our price search engine is shared by Gigabyte's Radeon HD 3870 and PowerColor's 3850. The most affordable GeForce is predictably the 256MB XFX Alpha Dog, although you can get the 512MB MSI for just $16 more. XFX's own 512MB card is only $20 more than its 256MB model.

Video outputs and bundled goodies
Different mixes of video outputs and bundled goodies also set the cards apart from one another—in ways that may have even more practical impact on how you use them. All of the cards in our comparo are equipped with dual DVI outputs and an S-Video connector. If you're looking to play back DRM-encrusted content over a digital connection, all support HDCP, as well.

DVI-to-VGA DVI-to-HDMI S-Video Composite Component PCIe power adapter Game bundle
Asus EAH3870 TOP 1 0 Y N Y Y Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts
Asus EN8800GT TOP 1 0 Y N Y Y Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts
Gigabyte GV-NX88T512H-B 2 0 Y N Y Y Neverwinter Nights 2
Gigabyte GV-NX88T512HP 2 0 Y N Y Y Neverwinter Nights 2
Gigabyte GV-RX387512H 2 0 Y N Y Y Neverwinter Nights 2
HIS HD IceQ3 Turbo 3870 1 1 Y Y N N None
HIS HD IceQ3 TurboX 3850 1 1 Y Y N N None
MSI NX8800GT 1 0 Y Y Y Y None
Palit 8800GT Super+ 1 1 Y Y Y Y None
PowerColor AX3850 512MD3-PH 1 1 Y Y Y N None
PowerColor AX3870 512MD4-PH 1 1 Y Y Y N None
Sapphire HD 3850 1 1 Y Y Y Y None
VisionTek Radeon HD 3870 1 1 Y Y Y N None
XFX GeForce 8800 GT Alpha Dog Edition 256 2 0 Y N Y Y Lost Planet
XFX GeForce 8800 GT Alpha Dog Edition 512 2 0 Y N Y Y Company of Heroes
Zotac GeForce 8800 GT Amp! Edition 1 1 Y N Y Y None

A number of differences present themselves as we skim the chart, however. For example, nearly all of the Radeons come with DVI-to-HDMI adapters that magically pass audio through without the need for additional cables or connectors. Only the Palit and Zotac 8800 GTs come equipped with DVI-to-HDMI adapters, and even then, only the Zotac includes the S/PDIF cable needed to include audio in the HDMI bitstream.

On the analog side of things, of this lot, only the HIS Radeons forgo component outputs. Meanwhile, only Gigabyte and XFX offer a pair of DVI-to-VGA adapters with their cards should you wish to power two analog displays.

Five cards lack molex-to-PCIe power adapters, which is a concern because all of them require auxiliary power through a six-pin PCI Express connector. Most recent PSUs come with at least one six-pin PCIe connector, but if you're looking to upgrade a system with an older power supply, you'll want to avoid cards that lack the necessary adapter or source one on your own.

Game bundles are one of those things that we can take or leave depending on the quality of the title. Most of the cards we're looking at don't come with any games at all. Of those that do, the copy of Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts included with the Asus is the newest. Released in September of last year, Opposing Fronts scored an 87 on Metacritic. The original Company of Heroes is bundled with the XFX 512MB Alpha Dog, while XFX's 256MB card includes a copy of Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, which only scored a 66 on Metacritic. Lost Planet will at least take advantage of DirectX 10-class graphics hardware. Neverwinter Nights 2, which comes with all three Gigabyte cards, is too old to be DX10-aware, although it's good enough to have earned a score of 82 on Metacritic.