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Grandpa laces up his skates
Our recent foray into providing some broader historical context for our hardware reviews proved sufficiently popular that we thought we'd try it again, this time for graphics cards. To make that happen, we had to dial back the number of games we tested and focus instead on a breadth of cards—all within the context of a very limited amount of time for testing.

At any rate, we have chosen to test a number of current graphics cards from just above, just below, and somewhat near the 5830's price. We've also selected some older cards from about the same price class dating back over a number of years. Here are our key match-ups to watch:

  • Radeon HD 5830 vs. erm... — Finding a direct competitor to the Radeon HD 5830 isn't easy. The natural candidate would have been the GeForce GTX 275, but those have essentially evaporated from e-tail listings. For the time being, they seem to have been replaced by higher-clocked variants of the GeForce GTX 260, which offer essentially the same mix of price and performance. We have chosen one such card—an Asus with 216 SPs, a 650MHz core clock, 1.4GHz shaders, and 2.3GHz memory—to represent the GTX 260 in our testing. Cards like this one will set you back about $220. Lower-clocked GTX 260 variants may cost you less, but they are all in alarmingly short supply these days.

    Although the 5830 replaces the Radeon HD 4830 in spirit, it's more of a direct successor, price-wise, to the Radeon HD 4890. Due to limited testing time and our desire to situate the 5830 among its Radeon HD 5000-series brethren, we didn't include a 4890 in our tests. An outrage, I know! But we did include the Radeon HD 4870, simply because we figure more folks own them and might be considering an upgrade. The 4890 should typically be about 10-15% faster than the 4870, for comparison.

    In a sense, the 5830's most notable competition may be the 5770 and 5850, since they're also DX11 products with potentially more appealing value propositions.

  • Radeon HD 4850 vs. GeForce 9800 GTX — We decided to go historical on this one a little bit, so rather than comparing the more current offerings based on these GPUs, the GeForce GTS 250 and the Radeon HD 4850 1GB, we reached back into the parts bin for the original items. Our Radeon HD 4850 512MB is an Asus model from the first wave back in June of '08.

    At the time of the 4850's launch, the incumbent offering from Nvidia was the GeForce 9800 GTX, dating back to April of 2008. Nvidia quickly countered the 4850 with higher-clocked variants of the 9800 GTX, including the 9800 GTX+ based on a newer 55-nm GPU. We probably should have tested that one, but when I reached into the Damage Labs parts bin, for some reason, I pulled out an original XFX 9800 GTX with default clocks of 675MHz (core), 1688MHz (shaders) and 2200MHz (memory), well below the 738/1836/2200MHz frequencies of the 9800 GTX+. Truth be told, GeForce 9800 GTX cards with their original clock speeds kept selling for quite a while after the introduction of the Radeon HD 4850 before the 9800 GTX+ overtook them, but I'm still kicking myself over this selection.

From left to right: Radeon HD 5770, Radeon HD 4850, and Radeon HD 3870
  • Radeon HD 3870 vs. GeForce 8800 GT — Now we're getting a little older school. The GeForce 8800 GT ruled the $199-249 price range for quite a while, starting with its October 2007 unveiling. The 8800 GT's price-performance ratio was a revelation at the time, and when AMD pulled back the curtain on the Radeon HD 3870 the following month, it struggled to keep pace. Nevertheless, both were good values at the right price, and they were both quite popular, as was the Radeon HD 3850, a close relative of the 3870.

    We've chosen a couple of representatives left over from our massive comparo of mid-range graphics cards back in early 2008. Asus's EN8800GT TOP has clocks of 700/1750/2020MHz, north of the GeForce 8800 GT's base frequencies of 600/1500/1800MHz, which puts its performance alarmingly close to our GeForce 9800 GTX, as you'll see. We gave it a TR Recommended award in that comparo. Asus represents the other team, too. The EAH3870 TOP's core and memory clocks of 850MHz and 2.25GHz, respectively, are well above the Radeon HD 3870's 775MHz/2250MHz stock speeds.

From left to right: GeForce 8800 GT, GeForce 7900 GTX, GeForce 7900 GS
  • GeForce 7900 GS & GTX vs. the whippersnappers — Back in the fall of 2006, the new hotness at $199 was the GeForce 7900 GS. We reviewed it, liked it, and told folks "the GeForce 7900 GS stands alone as the best value in graphics." The 7900 GS delivered performance levels closely comparable to its more expensive predecessors, including the GeForce 7800 GTX and the GeForce 7900 GT, for hundreds less. ATI soon countered with the Radeon X1950 Pro, and competitive balance was restored.

    Since we had quite a few more Radeons than GeForces to manage from newer generations, I decided to test older cards from the Nvidia camp. The 7900 GS seemed like a perfect candidate, but as we got into the test results, I realized something: with only 256MB, the 7900 GS was likely to be performance limited by its video memory size. To rectify that situation, I pulled out an old GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB, from May of '06, and put it through the paces, too. So we've included not one, but two four-year-old video cards in the bunch.