Because the video card is so important to the performance of a gaming PC, and because you'll be spending a healthy chunk of change on one, you need to know what you're looking at. The consumer graphics market is (for the moment) a continuous competition between AMD and NVIDIA. Both of these companies design cards and create drivers and other software, then license this to other vendors who actually assemble and sell cards to consumers. These vendors tend to produce at least 1 model each of the various card designs, and often more due to having factory overclocked versions, and/or versions with "non-reference" (that is, different from the standard design supplied by AMD/NVIDIA) coolers. It's easy to get confused by all the different models, and having multiple vendors and versions of each card doesn't help. Below I've included a basic breakdown of the models currently on offer from each company.
AMD Radeon HD Cards
- Current Generation: 7000 Series Cards
- 7900 Series: Best Enthusiast performance. Preferred for multi-monitor setups and/or high resolution monitors (~1440p).
- 7800 Series: Strong Enthusiast performance, but significantly more affordable, excellent for full HD (1080p) resolution and similar.
- 7700 Series: Basic Enthusiast performance, powerful enough to provide acceptable FPS with lowered detail at 1080p, with stronger performance at 1680x1050 and other comparable/lower resolutions.
- At the moment, there aren't any lower-end 7000-series cards available for retail. It may be possible to find one, but they would be resold OEM cards, so support would be limited, if not non-existent.
Nvidia GeForce Cards
- Current Generation: 600 Series Cards
- GTX 680: Best Enthusiast performance. Preferred for multi-monitor setups and/or high resolution monitors(~1440p).
- GTX 670: Best Enthusiast performance. Slightly lower performing than the GTX 680, but still excellent for multi-monitor setups and/or high resolution monitors.
- GTX 660 Ti: Strong Enthusiast performance. Excellent performance at or around full HD (1080p).
- GTX 660: Strong Enthusiast performance. Similar in performance and price to the Radeon HD 7870.
- GTX 650 Ti: Basic Enthusiast performance. Stronger performance than Radeon HD 7770, but lower than Radeon HD 7850. Acceptable performance at 1080p.
- GTX 650: Basic Enthusiast performance. Stronger performance than Radeon HD 7750, but lower than Radeon HD 7770. Acceptable performance at 1080p.
- GT 640: Strong general performance. Acceptable budget gaming performance at low resolutions, strong performance in general applications and media playback.
- GT 630: Good general performance. Unimpressive gaming performance, good performance in productivity applications and media playback. Preferred for for media playing (Home Theater PC) and slim PC applications due to availability of passive and/or low profile versions of these cards. Multiple versions of this card exist, based on differing architectures, with differing memory configurations.
- There are some lower end cards available, but for the most part I'd say those cards aren't worth your time unless you wanted to keep a backup/testing video card for trouble-shooting purposes, or need a passive or near-passive card that can support multiple monitors (maybe in an office environment) and you anticipate little to no demands being made of it.
This is an exciting generation of video cards. Nvidia has reversed, in commanding fashion, a somewhat distressing trend toward hotter, more power hungry GPUs. Kepler (their new architecture) is very efficient, along with being extremely powerful. AMD is staying in the game as well, much like a few years ago, when the 5000 series cards were so well regarded, the 7000 series cards are competitive both from a price and performance perspective, along with continuing AMD's recent efforts of keeping heat and electricity usage at reasonable levels.
Below are some individual recommendations:
Extremely high end: If you have a 1440p monitor, you'll need muscle to drive it. The GTX 670 and Radeon 7970 (non-GHZ version) strike the right balance between price and performance. Both have the large amounts of VRAM and pixel-pushing muscle necessary to drive your games at 2560x1440.
High end: Most people game at or around 1080p (1920x1200 isn't as common as 1080p, but it's still out there) and the best cards for this come in at around $300, the Radeon 7950 and the GTX 660 Ti. Both should give you eye candy to spare at 1080p.
Mid-Range: As I said, most people game at or around 1080p. Most people also don't want to spend $300 on a video card. Fortunately, great performance at these resolutions can be bought for less. The GTX 660 and Radeon 7870 are great cards that often retail for close to $200.
Low end: The economy being what it is, who wants to spend 2 Benjamins on a video card? For people with lower resolution monitors, or who are willing to turn down the detail settings a bit, there are still great cards to be had for less than $200. Prices on the Radeon 7850 are plummeting, some are available for around $175, a spectacular value (in my opinion). If you're looking to spend less, the GTX 650 Ti is probably now your best option
Generally speaking, most people won't need to spend more than $300 for great performance, because most people game at 1080p. People with 1440p monitors will be well served by the cards recommended above, but may have to compromise a bit on detail settings in some games (1440p is so many pixels). If you have a high resolution monitor, or are interested in a multi-monitor setup, you may want more horsepower than is accounted for above. If so, drop by the thread and we'll see what we can do for you.