Tested! Three graphics cards you can actually afford

Times are tough. The economic recovery still hasn't rained pixie dust on your bank balance, but you're still determined to play the latest PC games in their full visual glory. Sounds like an impossible situation, right? Not so fast. You don't have to choose between a first-rate gaming experience and paying the rent. With the right midrange graphics card, you can get your game on without having to move into a van down by the river.

In fact, AMD and Nvidia are clamoring to place one of their cards in your system for less than $200. Just last month, AMD announced the Radeon HD 7790, a gaming card that delivers considerable performance without a high cost. Then, one week later, Nvidia announced its own budget card, the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost, the successor to the GeForce GTX 650 Ti.

Three different cards, at three slightly different price points. Which one is best? To find out, we staged a battle royale of budget graphic cards, since the benchmarks never lie. First let's look at the contenders, and then we'll turn to the test results.

MSI Radeon HD 7790

The Radeon HD 7790 fills the gap between the 7770 and the 7850 in terms of price and performance, and emerges as a great entry-level card for budget-conscious PC builders. For $150 you get 1080p gaming for cheap. Up until the 7790's release, Nvidia's GTX 650 Ti had no competition at the $150 price point, giving Nvidia a monopoly in the budget-minded-enthusiast space.

The Radeon HD 7790 sports 1GB of GDDR5 memory and a core clock speed of just over 1GHz. For multiple-monitor fanatics, it comes with two Dual-Link DVI connectors, an HDMI connector, and a DisplayPort output. Plus, it manages to stay compact for smaller cases, measuring just 185mm by 125mm by 38mm.

Perhaps the best news regarding the 7790 is that it supports CrossFire, which means that you can affordably double your graphics power down the line by adding a second card.

EVGA GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost

A mere week after the 7790 was announced, Nvidia aimed for the graphics card sweet spot as well with its GTX 650 Ti Boost. This "boosted" version of the 650 Ti costs $170 but offers double the memory of AMD's 7790 (2GB of GDDR5) for just $30 more. There is talk of a 1GB version coming soon that will directly compete with the 7790 at $150.

The 650 Ti Boost utilizes its overclocking capabilities to deliver core speeds of over 1GHz, and it comes with a cooler similar to the one found in its bigger sibling, the GTX 660. The Boost also provides two DVI ports (one DVI-D and one DVI-I), a mini-HDMI port, and a DisplayPort. Like the AMD 7790 (but unlike the older 650 Ti), the 650 Ti Boost is SLI (Scalable Link Interface) compatible, which means that you can add a second card later if you want to.

GeForce GTX 650 Ti

The GeForce GTX 650 Ti was released back in October, making it an older card at this point (anything over six months old these days is borderline ancient). Still, the card was significant enough to draw some direct competition from the Radeon HD 7790 card some months later.

If you're looking for the best bang for your buck, the 2GB version of the 650 Ti tops out around $160, making it slightly cheaper than the "boosted" version. In fact, the only advantage the 650 Ti Boost has over the 650 Ti model we tested is its core clock speed of 980MHz.

This cheaper card still provides a mini-HDMI port and two DVI ports (one DVI-D and one DVI-I). One thing you are missing out on if you go the cheaper route, however, is the ability to add a second card later on, since the original 650 Ti is not SLI compatible. When you want to upgrade, you'll have to start fresh.

As you can see from the chart above, our lab results were all over the board, varying with each game. Still, a few noteworthy data points jumped out at us right away.

The Radeon HD 7790 completely underwhelmed us in Crysis 3. The 1920 by 1080 resolution is common for nearly every monitor today, and is necessary for that 1080p high-definition gaming that AMD touts so much. Sure, you can dumb down the settings, but it will take a significant settings decrease to get AMD's card to produce playable frame rates. Where the GTX cards would require an adjustment from high to medium settings, the 7790 would have to drop from medium to low settings to achieve at least 30 to 40 frames per second.

Our second revelation: The GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost doesn't live up to its name. The original 650 Ti barely lags behind its successor, and in some cases surpasses it. The only real difference between our two 2GB GTX cards was a 91MHz clock speed, which is almost too insignificant to mention.

The Heaven benchmark absolutely slams graphics cards, testing high-end DirectX 11 effects, and even pushing silicon to its hottest operating temperatures. In the chart above, we see that the GTX 650 Ti Boost beat out the competition, but just barely. The original GeForce GTX 650 Ti keeps up with the more-expensive option and blows the cheaper Radeon 7790 away.

3DMark benchmarks

We ran a few of the 3DMark tests and then averaged them to get the following numbers. The tests included the Ice Storm, Cloud Gate, and Firestrike Extreme. The names alone make PCs sweat.

Once again, the results jibed with our previous benchmarks. The Nvidia 650 Ti Boost barely beat out the cheaper and older 650 Ti, while AMD's 7790 lagged behind with its 1GB deficit.

The bottom line

All three of these cards will give you nice value for your dollar, but the one you ultimately choose must be calibrated to your wallet and needs. If you have a few extra bucks, the 650 Ti Boost will supply you with high-definition content and all the display options you could need, as well as SLI support for a cheaper upgrade path down the line.

If you're looking for a cheaper quick upgrade to tide you over a year or two, the orginal 650 Ti will suffice. Finally, if every dollar counts and you simply can't afford more than $150, you can go with the Radeon 7790, which also offers plenty of high-definition gaming but only at midrange settings.

Who knows, the Radeon might even be your best option. After all, you won't be playing any games at all if you can't pay the electric bill.

This story, "Tested! Three graphics cards you can actually afford" was originally published by PCWorld.

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