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GPU value in the DirectX 11 age

Evergreen and Fermi throw down in fresh scatter plots

After tackling solid-state storage with a full value comparison earlier this month, we're now shifting our focus to graphics. The release of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 460 has left us with a pretty complete set of performance results spanning the mid range and high end of the graphics card market. Naturally, we've taken those results, factored prices into the equation, and served up a slew of new value charts and scatter plots with analysis to match.

Today's value comparison spans 11 cards with price tags ranging from around $140 to $680. Since Nvidia has yet to launch a sub-$200 DirectX 11 product, we'll mainly be studying match-ups at $200 and upward. This exercise should help us answer questions on everyone's lips. Is the GeForce GTX 460 1GB truly a better deal than the 768MB model and the Radeon HD 5830? Should you get a Radeon HD 5850 or a GeForce GTX 470? Are top-of-the-line cards always ripoffs? And will Lindsay Lohan serve her full 90-day jail sentence?

To get a complete picture, we'll be looking at all of the games from our latest graphics review. Value mash-ups can be quite helpful, and we love including them at the end of our articles, but nothing beats looking at individual games and figuring out the best bang for your buck in each one. Just because a given GeForce or Radeon outmatches its competitors overall doesn't mean it's always the best deal, after all.

Before we start blinding you with science, we should probably detail the cards we'll be looking at—and their prices. We kept the comparison fairly even, with five graphics cards from AMD and six cards from Nvidia:

AMD product Price Nvidia product
Radeon HD 5970 $679.99  
  $509.99 GeForce GTX 480 (factory OC)
Radeon HD 5870 $379.99  
  $299.99 GeForce GTX 470
Radeon HD 5850 $289.99  
  $239.99 GeForce GTX 465
  $229.99 GeForce GTX 460 1GB
  $204.99 GeForce GTX 260 (factory OC)
Radeon HD 5830 $199.99 GeForce GTX 460 768MB
Radeon HD 5770 $149.99  
Radeon HD 4870 1GB $139.99  

All except two of those cards, the Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260, are based on either the AMD Evergreen or the Nvidia Fermi DirectX 11 architectures. The remaining two DX10 products were included to provide a frame of reference... and also because we wanted to see if the price-performance picture had improved at all since the last generation.

Since suggested retail prices for graphics cards tend to be, well, rather loose guidelines more often than not, the prices you see above were all sourced from Newegg. The e-tailer even had Radeon HD 4870 and "factory overclocked" GeForce GTX 260 cards in stock, so we managed to avoid the uncertain waters of historical pricing. By and large, Newegg's prices should reflect what you can expect to pay for today's Radeons and GeForces. Except for "factory overclocked" offerings, we based our prices on the cheapest model of each card listed.

For nitty-gritty details about the cards (or Evergreen and Fermi in general), you'll want to check our reviews, which we've conveniently linked them in the table above. Just click a product name to find out more

What about the games? Today's comparison includes Aliens vs. Predator, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Borderlands, DiRT 2, Just Cause 2, and Metro 2033. We deliberately excluded synthetic benchmarks to keep things coldly practical. To appease our more scientific impulses, we based our value data on frame rates obtained at the highest resolution tested for each title. We believe focusing on the most GPU-limited scenario is the best way to understand the differences between the cards. We're more interested in gauging raw GPU power than making generalizations about frame rates at a hypothetical, one-size-fits-all resolution.

Our friend the scatter plot
Folks who read TR on a regular basis ought to be familiar with our scatter plots by now, but a little refresher course never hurt anybody. Charts like these, kids, are the centerpiece of our value comparisons:

Performance—in this case, frames per second—is laid out on the vertical axis, with price on the horizontal axis. Individual cards are plotted on the grid based on their price and performance. If you think about this arrangement for a second, it should follow that the best deals would be found at the top left of the graph, where price is lowest and performance is highest. The worst deals would fall at the bottom right.

We've yet to see such extremes, of course. When reading these plots in the real world, we can generally locate the best deals by looking at how performance progresses as we traverse the price axis. See in the scatter plot above, where there's a rapid vertical progression from the Radeon HD 4870 through the GeForce GTX 460 1GB? Stepping up to the next two quicker cards involves big horizontal jumps and a much smaller vertical ones, signaling poorer deals. In that particular example, the GTX 460 1GB probably deserves the "sweet spot" crown.

With all that in mind, let's take a quick look at our test setup and get to the meat of the article.