Graphics performance improves rapidly. We can be confident that each new generation of graphics chips will be faster than the previous one, and that AMD and NVIDIA will regularly surpass each other with new product launches. I've been watching this process professionally since 1996, when I began covering graphics technology for Microprocessor Report.
As of today, NVIDIA is on top. The new GeForce GTX 280 is the fastest graphics chip you can get. See the first part of this review for details of the chip itself.
If you can get one, anyway. NVIDIA says boards based on the GeForce GTX 280 and its companion GeForce GTX 260 will be available "in quantity" tomorrow (June 17), but if previous launches are any indication, those quantities won't be enough to satisfy everyone.
And you may not be able to afford one-- a GTX 280 board with 1GB of RAM will likely be priced around $649, while GTX 260 boards with 896MB will go for about $399. (The GTX 280 / 1GB board I tested was made by NVIDIA, so it isn't necessarily representative of commercial products.)
But avid gamers won't be discouraged by these prices. Both AMD and NVIDIA like to point out that an expensive graphics card is a much better investment than a high-end CPU or motherboard if you care about gaming.
The standard of comparison for gaming performance is the number of frames per second that can be rendered for a given combination of screen resolution and quality features... or, conversely, what resolution and features can be used without reducing the frame rate below a playable level.
So in my own testing, I used frame rate as a metric for games that could run acceptably with maximum quality at the maximum resolution of my monitor (1,600 x 1,200 pixels), and quality for other games.
I did my testing with four games:… Read more