Forget about comparing apples and oranges; comparing a Crucial Radeon 9100 graphics card at Â£56 with a Leadtek A350 Ultra TDH for Â£367 is more akin to comparing a package holiday in Torremolinos with a fortnight in Bermuda. You may be holidaying in Spain this year, but you really want to go to the West Indies in Club Class comfort, if only you could justify the outrageous price.
The only way through the huge variety of graphics cards in this group was to test them extensively, so we built two test PCs with 2.6GHz Pentium4 Northwood processors running on an 800MHz FSB with Hyper Threading enabled. The MSI 865PE motherboards had 512MB of PC3200 Samsung memory running dual channel, and the hard drives used were Maxtor Serial ATA units.
We installed Detonator 45.23 or Catalyst 3.6 as appropriate, rather than the drivers supplied by the manufacturers, to make sure we had a level playing field. Then we ran six different benchmarks at three different resolutions, using a variety of quality settings.
You need an average frame rate of 60fps to get a picture that is comfortable to look at and that is pleasing to the eye. This is relatively subjective, but PCs don't have motion blurring so we need a higher frame rate than movies and we have to be conscious that the speed of games will vary when you hit an intensive section. Just try playing the latest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, for instance. The detail of the cities that you fly over will bring most PCs to their knees and the action becomes jerky and horrible.
Take a close look at our test results and decide which settings you want to be able to play your games at, and you'll find that the choice of chip is practically made for you. If you're happy using a resolution of 1,024 x 768 with no FSAA or AF then the FX5200, FX5200 Ultra and Radeon 9600 could suit you very well, and we found the Connect3D Radeon 9600 to be excellent value for Â£95.
Moving up the tree we come to the Radeon 9600 Pro, FX5600 and FX5600 Ultra. Cards with these chips will allow you to use a higher resolution or some quality settings, but not both at once. You'll need to budget Â£130 for a decent FX5600 card such as the Leadtek A310TD My Vivo, which has Video In as the name suggests, as well as a reasonable software package.
We were more impressed by the Asus V9560 Video Suite at Â£150 which also has VIVO, but also has dual DVI-I and a stack of software. It's a really good bargain in our opinion and walks away with the first Recommended Award.
Asus V9560 Video Suite
Sapphire used the Radeon 9600 Pro in its Atlantis model for Â£136, and it gives you more gaming power than the FX5600 boards, but it doesn't have VIVO. If you don't need Video In, The Sapphire is superb value for money.
Right at the top of the graphics food chain we have Radeon 9800 and 9800 Pro along with FX5900 and FX5900 Ultra. The Connect3D Radeon 9800 is stunning value at Â£214 and offers impressive frame rates at all but the most intensive settings. You get very little besides the card itself, but that suits a large section of the buying public. With a combination of great performance and impressive value for money the Connect3D Radeon 9800 also grabs a Recommended Award.
Connect3D Radeon 9800
Then we take a big jump up to the Â£300 mark where we find the Radeon 9800 Pro cards. The extra cash gets you more performance compared to Radeon 9800, but we don't feel it's enough to justify the price rise.
We finish with the two fastest nVidia chips, and they really are pricey.
The Leadtek A350 Ultra TDH packages the FX5900 Ultra with 256MB of memory in an incredibly powerful card that has a heatsink covering the entire card, with two cooling fans whirring away. It's a stunning design and the raw performance is breathtaking. This is a very fast card in DirectX games and tests, but in OpenGL it takes no prisoners and trashes the opposition. In addition to speed, the A350 Ultra TDH has VIVO and a good software package, and we have no doubt it will make mincemeat of your video editing tasks. You may gulp at the Â£367 price tag, but Leadtek is delivering a huge amount for the price and ultimately wins the final Recommended Award.
Leadtek A350 Ultra TDH
Alternatively you could choose our Editor's Choice MSI FX5900-VTD128, which has an FX5900 chip and 128MB of memory. Overall performance is very similar to a Radeon 9800 Pro, although both chips have their strengths. Where MSI excels is in the enormous amount of extras in the package. In addition to the VIVO box and a stack of cables, you get a total of eleven CDs of software. No wonder the box is so big. This is Â£335 of graphics card, although you can find it for less than Â£300 if you shop around, and it will do almost everything that you ask of it