Choice is a strange thing. We’re offered a large choice of stuff at the supermarket, and we’re usually quite quick to choose what to eat/cook/throw at someone. On most occasions, it takes me at most two minutes to figure out that I want that samoosa right there! But while supermarkets offer you many more choices of yummy things, an online retailer for hardware can expect their customers to sit in front of their screens for an hour poring over all the different graphics cards and components, undecided on what to do. Sometimes for days, other times for weeks.

We just have no idea. There’s either too much choice, too little choice, or a better possible choice just around the corner. Its like judging a bikini contest, and all the contestants start somewhere from Drew Barrymore and get hotter, until you reach Catherine-Zeta Jones. There are no real winners because you just can’t decide which, and I need… one minute to think… argh!

I make this point because I’m seriously due for an upgrade. When my Radeon HD5750 died, I had to start looking around for something new. I need at least a decent upgrade from what I already had, with a few extras to make the upgrade worth it from a price/performance perspective. I’ve settled on two possible candidates: AMD’s Radeon HD6850, and the new kid on the block, NVIDIA’s Geforce GTS 550. They’re both priced around the R1700 mark, both need only a single six-pin PCI-E power plug, and both support various video acceleration standards and proprietary multi-monitor modes to enhance gaming. Both also support 3D and Blu-Ray 3D playback, and perform equally well in most games.

So which is it?

From the AMD camp, the Radeon HD6850 is a strong play for the mainstream segment. Similar in design and structure to AMD’s Antilles, the Barts family which is the HD6800 series is aimed to replace the entry-level Radeon HD5700 series. I won’t go into the gory details of the card itself, because at the end of the day it won’t matter how many SIMDs it has, or the fact that the tessellation engine is very much improved and made more powerful over the Cayman design. It uses less power than a GTX460, runs quieter and cooler, and has a very enticing feature set including Eyefinity which its very capable of pulling off if you use three 19” monitors. It may be a fraction slower/faster than a GTX460 1GB, but its not a deal-breaker. A 256-bit bus with DDR5 memory is unheard of in the mainstream segment, and it gives the Radeon a sporting chance against any card willing to take it on.

The problem is, though, NVIDIA  doesn’t have a whole lot to show up AMD in this segment for the moment. All we’ve got is the Geforce GTS 550, and it’s not stacking up so well for the guys on the greener side of the fence.

In fact, the GTS 550 was really ill-conceived. Sure, it fulfills the need for NVIDIA to have a card to counter the price drops of the Radeon HD5770, which it does very well… but there’s a certain lack in the rest of the lineup. For instance, there’s a massive performance gap between this card and the GTX560, not to mention a big price hike for the moment. While it comes so very close to the GTX460 768MB in performance, there’s nothing to stop the onslaught of the HD6800 and HD6700 series from eating up more market share. Currently the HD6850 sells for as low as R1,700 – that’s only an average of R250 more than the GTS 550. It’s a strong card, make no mistake, but it can’t compete in this very tiny space already dominated by two generations of AMD cards.

Let’s give the tiny critter a chance though. Performance in games at HD resolution is good, although settings might have to be taken down a little to enjoy fluent rates in games like Metro 2033 and Starcraft II. It’s really made for those guys and gals who have screens which don’t support full HD resolutions – the same target market as the GTS 450, which is great. You still get good performance especially in TWIMTBP games, CUDA support, 3D capability (although that might be stretching things a bit at high settings). For a mainstream card, this isn’t too bad. Although, being slower than the GTX460 768MB is a bit of a let-down, and doesn’t help its chances much. But, at least NVIDIA has finally challenged the HD5770’s territory, so it deserves a pat on the back for achieving this… an entire year later.

So, in conclusion, what do we know? Alrighty then, the GTS 550 has its merit – but it’s a hopeless case for NVIDIA . It’s a bit too late to the party, there’s not enough cake (turns out it’s still all lies), the soda is all out and the ice has melted. The GTS 550 is a good attempt to dominate it’s projected price point, but ultimately it’ll be up to the Ti version to really sort things out in the fight for the mainstream sector. In the meantime, NVIDIA really has to fight to pick up the ball because AMD’s dropped the HD6000-series nomenclature a bit. And here’s where it gets interesting.

Gais, you remember how awesome the HD5850 was for those looking to buy mainstream cards with high-end performance? Yeah, AMD did hit the nail on the head with the perfect mix of performance and features for the right price points. Now, some people remember those cards and now see the HD6850 cards for bargain prices way below the HD5850 RRP – what do they think? Bargain of the year! They won’t even pay attention to the competition because the numbers are higher for less Benjamins – surely that must mean NVIDIA’s doing something wrong.

In the end, the guys who don’t pay attention to reviews will end up buying from AMD, and not counting NVIDIA in the game – a tactic which I think is both winning, and destined to be played by NVIDIA next time.

Edit: Oh, by the way, the wonderful people at Asbis decided to replace my card even though it was out of warranty. I have no idea how this is possible, but they seem to be a hugely generous bunch. They replaced my old HD5750 with…

Oh yeah, I can feel the jealousy from all the way here!