When you're talking about budget gaming graphics cards you really can't be looking any lower than £75 for performance in-game that isn't going to make you wince every time you boot up a title and have to play it in retro 680 x 480 vision to get a decent frame rate. That may sound a trifle snobby, but if you just want a graphics card that will let you watch HD movies and play Half-Life then you're not talking about a gaming card.
Frame rate is king and these days the 20/22-inch native resolution of 1,680 x 1,050 is what you ought to be aiming to hit with a good budget graphics card. And you want to be able to get somewhere near the 30fps mark in your favourite titles to give you a decent gaming experience.
At the low-end then you really cannot look past the increasingly brilliant XFX HD 5770. Every time we come to check out this venerable card it seems to just get better and better.
At launch the HD 5770 was a decent card, giving acceptable frame rates for the cash. Now, thanks to huge price cuts and performance driver updates it's a quite incredible value GPU. At just £81 (we have seen it for as low as £75, but it's currently out of stock at Scan) it's the same price as the HD 6670 and frankly blows it out of the water in performance terms.
It's not just the straight-line performance of the XFX HD 5770 that impresses us either. The fact it has been condensed down into a single-slot form factor is doubly impressive, despite the fact it does mean it gets a little hot under load. We haven't seen a decent single-slot card for a long time before and not since. There has been rumours of HD 6850s appearing in Hong Kong in this form factor but there's been nothing on these shores.
The lower-end Nvidia cards though haven't performed so well. Since owning the budget market with the GTX 460 for so long AMD has really clawed back ground with its line-up and price cuts. The old GTS 450 is a power hungry, under-performing card these days and the same can be said for its generational update, the GTX 550 Ti.
That card though has the added problem of being around £100, which just prices itself out of the market entirely.
For just another £20 on top of that you can now pick up the suddenly bargainous HD 6850. The card we tested, again from XFX puts the slight overheating issues into the past.
The HD 6850 then is simply a quite sterling gaming card for less than £120. It's a card that wont disappoint at the standard 1,680 x 1,050 resolutions these budget cards are realistically going to be pointed at.
The HD 6850 is the winner then, but it was definitely a close run thing as it was up against the Gigabyte GTX 560 OC Edition. The £150 Gigabyte Nvidia card is a factory overclocked beast that will clock up further than its conservative out-of-the-box speed might suggest.
Already faster than the rest of the cards, hitting 900MHz will push this card even further ahead, and if you're sitting on a full HD, 1,920 x 1,080 monitor and only have a limited graphics budget, this is a steal at £150. But in the value stakes the XFX HD 6850 still holds sway at £120, if only by the hair on a gnats chin.