When it comes to graphics on a budget, most experts say the best video cards are based off AMD Radeon 6000 designs -- and most of the models recommended are made by Sapphire.
Starting at the bottom of the low-cost spectrum is the Sapphire Radeon HD 6570 (*Est. $60). For discrete cards that can handle HD video with aplomb, experts say the 6570 series is among the best, and several critics say the Sapphire version is the cream of the crop. The custom Arctic Cooling system makes the Sapphire 6570 the single quietest card TweakTown.com has ever tested, and its power consumption and thermal levels are just as low. Combined with the card's small single-slot footprint, those results make the Sapphire Radeon HD 6570 an excellent choice for a low-cost home-theater PC (HTPC).
But the Sapphire 6570 does more than just play Blu-ray Discs. Testers say they obtained very playable 30-plus fps frame rates in most video games, assuming they were willing to tone down the graphics settings and play at lower resolutions. Hexus.net even ran intense games such as "Just Cause 2" and "Metro 2033" at more than 30 fps by playing at 720p with medium graphic settings enabled. Those numbers wouldn't likely hold up on a 2,560-by-1,600-pixel monitor, but HardwareHeaven.com reports achieving playable results on 1,680-by-1,050 and 1,920-by-1,080 displays.
Another good low-cost option is the Sapphire Radeon HD 6670 Ultimate (*Est. $100), which wins awards at TweakTown.com and Hexus.net. Sapphire's Ultimate line is built around low-wattage AMD Radeon cards; a 6570 Ultimate is also available. It ditches fans in favor of a large heatsink to achieve cooling that's virtually silent, but the heatsink blocks a second PCI-E slot. Frame rates are better than with the Sapphire Radeon HD 6570 -- most games are playable although nowhere near seamless at 1080p and medium graphics settings at standard resolutions -- but reviewers say you'll want to dial the graphic options down a bit to keep games running smoothly. If you don't need a silent card, the non-Ultimate Ultimate Sapphire Radeon HD 6670 (*Est. $100) offers the same graphics performance for a bit less cash.
Newer Radeon 7570 graphics cards are hitting the market starting at about $109, but reviewers don't recommend the current models quite yet. Like the AMD 7770 discussed earlier (see AMD Radeon HD Video Cards), reviewers say the price-to-performance ratio is poor compared to previous offerings. The Sapphire 6570 and 6670 cards handle basic gaming for far less money. Yes, the 7570s offer better graphical performance, but experts say they can't compete with the last-gen Radeon 6850 video cards available for similar or lower prices online after a rebate.
That's not to say the 7570 series is useless; it's perfectly capable of running most games when graphics settings are reduced. AnandTech.com's Ryan Smith and Ganesh T.S. say that thanks to the 7570's cool temperatures, single-slot design and sub-75-watt power consumption, "it clearly offers a great deal of value as an HTPC video card." Although Bit-Tech.net's Antony Leather and Harry Butler agree, they add, "for every other situation, though, it's a letdown."
Even though several $150 AMD Radeon HD video cards earn expert approval, only a single Nvidia card in that price range sees any recommendations: the Zotac GeForce GTX 550 Ti Amp! (*Est. $150). It comes overclocked compared to the stock GTX 550 Ti and includes a custom fan cooling system that covers a second PCI-E slot.
LegitReviews.com says the card chokes when asked to play intense games such as "Aliens Vs. Predator" and "Metro 2033" at higher resolutions and graphics settings, but other reviewers call the Zotac perfectly capable of gameplay in less demanding scenarios. ComputerWorld.com's Denny Atkin says he can get "Alien Vs. Predator" at 24.6 fps at 1,680-by-1,050-pixel resolution, and notes that the frame rate can be increased by toning down the detail level. Tests at TechPowerUp.com and TechRadar.com report similarly playable yet not totally smooth results at reduced settings.
Power consumption is high for the GTX 550 Ti Amp!'s size, and the custom cooling system is quiet during idle periods but gets relatively loud under full load, adds TechPowerUp.com. However, those drawbacks aren't enough to keep editors from recommending the video card. ComputerWorld.com's Atkin agrees, "The Zotac GeForce GTX 550 Ti Amp! edition is an excellent performer for those looking to play PC games at resolutions below 1080p, as well as a good value for cash-conscious gamers." Consumers should note, however, that the similarly priced Radeon 6850 graphics cards produce slightly better frame rates.