The cheapskates of the world seemed to enjoy our recent look at relatively inexpensive video cards, and rightly so. For perhaps the first time in recent memory, we found considerable value in graphics cards that cost less than $100. But today we separate the bargain-minded from the merely cheap by considering a pair of high-end graphics cards that offer substantial value in their own right. Tight competition between AMD and Nvidia has resulted in two new video cards that redefine their end of the market for just a smidgen under 300 bucks. Rather stealthily, Nvidia has ramped up the performance of its GeForce GTX 260 by enabling an additional thread processing cluster and cranking up clock speeds. Meanwhile, AMD has made its Radeon HD 4870 even more potent by doubling the onboard memory to a full gigabyte. The question is: Has Nvidia done enough to catch up with AMD, or will the additional memory allow the Radeon to hold on to its performance advantage? We aim to find out.
The GeForce GTX 260reloaded
As you may know if you're a hopeless geek/regular reader, the GeForce GTX series of graphics cards is based on Nvidia's GT200 graphics processor. The GeForce GTX 280 is the full-on version of the GT200, while the less expensive GTX 260 has two of its ten thread processing clusters and one of its eight ROP partitions disabled. Disabling parts of a chip for product segmentation purposes is a common practice, and it can provide a fitting home for chips with portions that are less than perfect, so this basic plan makes sense. Trouble is, Nvidia didn't count on the Radeon HD 4870 outgunning the GTX 260 at a lower price, which is just what the 4870 did upon its debut. Nvidia has responded in several ways, first by cutting prices and, more recently, but quietly changing the spec on the GTX 260 so that nine of its ten thread processing clusters (TPCs) are enabled.
The additional cluster gives the GTX 260 a little more graphics power, raising its stream processor count from 192 to 216 and its peak texture filtering capacity from 64 texels per clock to 72. In addition to that, prevailing clock speeds are up quite a bit. Let me give you a couple of examples.
The handsomely stickered card you see above is the GeForce GTX 260 AMP²! Edition from Zotac. (I would like to thank Zotac for making me type AMP²!, since I could use the exercise.) Not only does it have an additional TPC, but its clock speeds are quite a bit higher than early GTX 260s. The AMP²! has a 649MHz GPU core, 1404MHz shaders, and 896MB of GDDR3 memory at 1053MHz, up from 576/1242/999MHz on the first wave of GTX 260 cards. Those clock speeds are also, I should note, higher than the stock clocks for the GeForce GTX 280, which are 602/1296/1107MHz.
What this means, essentially, is that the revamped GTX 260 now offers almost all of the performance of the original GTX 280 at under $300, if you count the Zotac AMP²!'s $299.99 price at Newegg as "under $300." Happily, there aren't any mail-in rebates at all involved in that price, and Zotac even throws in a copy of the excellent Race Driver GRID. What's not to like?
Well, maybe one thing. Why the devil did Nvidia hang on to the GTX 260 name when they decided to upgrade their product this substantially? I have it on good authority that the number "270" was available to them, conveniently located between 260 and 280. The mystery of product naming deepens and becomes more opaque with each passing day.
But, hey, faster games and stuff, so I'll get over it. I'm just going to call the version with 216 SPs the GeForce GTX 260 Reloaded for clarity's sake.
Zotac covers the AMP²! with a limited lifetime warranty, but you've gotta register via Zotac's website within 30 days of purchase or the warranty drops to a two-year term. That's the deal for North America, at least; other regions are different. Also, confusingly, going to Zotac's main website and telling it you're from the U.S. will take you to a site that says warranty registration isn't open for U.S. customers. Instead, you have to go directly to www.zotacusa.com in order to register. Zotac does have U.S.-based tech support and RMA processing, though, along with toll-free tech support via phone from 9AM to 6PM Pacific.
EVGA's take on the GTX 260 Reloaded has the same memory clocks at the Zotac, but its core and shader clocks are a little more conservative at 626/1350MHz. The EVGA costs a little more, too, at $309.99, but you do get the comfort of 24x7 toll-free tech support and EVGA's Step-Up plan, which allows users to trade in their cards for credit toward an upgrade within 90 days of purchase. Like Zotac, EVGA offers a lifetime warranty, but only if you register within 30 days. Otherwise, the term is just one year. EVGA doesn't bundle a game with its card, but folks who register via its website will get a free copy of 3DMark Vantage Advanced Edition, which, frankly, ain't GRID.
Despite the GTX 260 Reloaded's gains in GPU power, the cards themselves still require only dual 2x3-pin PCIe power plugs, unlike the GTX 280, which combines one 2x3 with one 2x4 connector.
In addition to the examples above, several other brands are selling GTX 260 Reloaded cards for around 300 bucksless in a few cases. For instance, Zotac's much lower-clocked AMP! (not squared) Edition card is $289.99, although it's hard to see the point unless you're on a very specific budget. The new GTX 260s are pushing down prices on the older, eight-cluster versions, as well. MSI is selling an eight-cluster GTX 260 for $239.99, and it comes with a $40 mail-in rebate.