Modern cards also often have mammoth power requirements. At least one six-pin supplementary power cable is usually required for a performance card and sometimes more.
Bringing graphics technology full circle is the idea of general purpose computing on the GPU or GP GPU for short. As graphics chips have become more programmable, the possibility of harnessing their immense parallel processing capabilities for tasks other than graphics has become more attractive.
Early applications are likely to be multimedia related - video encoding, photo editing, in-game physics and artificial intelligence, for example. Nvidia is currently leading the way in GP GPU, but such is the expectation of its importance, Intel has felt the need to get in on the game. Late next year, Intel's Larrabee chip is due to appear with a remit of graphics and GP GPU processing.
The final reccie
If that's the state of play in graphics, what are the current best-buy boards? Nvidia's GeForce GTX 280 series boards are awfully quick, but they are also awfully pricey. For that reason, AMD's Radeon HD 4870 is our pick from the top end. It's damned close for performance and nearly half the price at around £180.
Down around the £100 mark the 4870's cheaper 4850 sibling can just about be had and delivers fantastic performance for the money. Dipping below £100 brings Nvidia's 8800 GT into play. It's a slightly older chipset, but still a great all-rounder, especially now that it can be had for a piffling £80. Just be sure to get the full 512MB version and not the horrible 256MB hack.
And if even £80 is too much, do not despair. AMD has just released the new Radeon HD 4600 series. It's a very decent performer thanks to no less than 320 stream shaders, but it is imperative to go for the faster 4670 variant, yours for less than £60, rather than the bandwidth-hobbled 4650.