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So can you get away with spending less than $100 on a video card? In certain circumstances, you bet. If you have a monitor that's 1280x1024 or smaller, a very affordable graphics card like the $80 Radeon HD 4670 will allow you to play many of the latest games with ease. Even at 1680x1050, in fact, the Radeon HD 4650 and GeForce 9600 GSO can produce acceptable frame rates. You may have to compromise a bit, dialing back features like antialiasing or in-game image quality settings, in order to get acceptable performance in the most demanding of today's games, but the compromises probably won't be too terrible. That's particularly true for the many games ported to the PC or co-developed for game consoles. The limits of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 establish a baseline than even some of the cheapest PC graphics cards can meet.

Among those cheaper cards, the Radeon HD 4670 sets a new standard for price-performance ratio and all-around desirability. Compared to the would-be competition from Nvidia, the GeForce 9600 GSO, the 4670 has slightly higher overall performance, lower CPU utilization during Blu-ray playback, less need for clearance inside of a PC chassis, and lower power consumption. Thanks to this last trait, the 4670 doesn't require a separate PCIe power lead, either, so it should slot right into granny's Dell (or yours) with very little drama. And you don't have to rely on a mail-in rebate in order to get the 4670 at its list price of $79.99, unlike the 9600 GSO.

Still, you've seen the numbers in the preceding pages. Make up your own mind, but personally, I can't get past the value proposition of cards like the Radeon HD 4850 and the GeForce 9800 GTX+. Especially the 4850. New games are coming out all of the time, and many of them, like Crysis Warhead, will make a bargain-priced GPU beg for mercy. Reaching up into the 4850's range ($140 after rebate, $170 before) will get you roughly twice the real-world GPU power of a Radeon HD 4670. That's ample graphics power to turn up the eye candy in most games, even at 1920x1200, and some honest-to-goodness future-proofing, too. That's also value even a cheapskate like me can appreciate. TR

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