Imagine you’re playing a first-person shooter wearing 3D glasses on a home theatre setup with a massive display and surround sound. The game has a dark environment with an eerie score playing in the background. You hear footsteps behind you. You turn around to find yourself face-to-face with a dreadful monster. So you pull out that big fat gun and blast the beast into pulp of bloody goo. That’s what the gamer has come to expect these days, hardcore graphics and killer systems to have them on.

Today’s games look so life-like and immersive that they literally make you feel like you’re in some other world. Visual effects such like reflections, water ripples, HDR lighting and detailed textures make games look movie-like. However, only with a high-end graphics card can you enjoy games in full glory. Some games are so visual effect-heavy that they bring even top-end graphics card to their knees. Rendering graphics is such an intensive task that even a dozen high-end desktop processors will fall short. That’s how powerful and complex graphics processors are!

The latest in the world of gaming and entertainment is 3D technology. You can go completely 3D with Nvidia’s 3D vision kit, a suitable graphics card and a compatible monitor. But again, to enjoy games in 3D, you need a powerful graphics card because processing graphics for 3D is even more intensive than rendering regular graphics. At present, the hardware required for a 3D experience is expensive, but a few years down the line, 3D will become mainstream.

The need for graphics cards is not limited to gaming alone. The power of the GPU can be harnessed to accelerate HD video playback, imaging and video editing applications. The latest graphics cards are equipped with HDMI 1.3 ports and audio processors that decode Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, making them perfect for home theater PCs. Certain video editing applications use the GPU’s stream processors for transcoding and applying filters on the fly. With a powerful graphics card, you can transcode videos more than twice as fast as a powerful desktop CPU.

In the last few months, ATI and Nvidia have been churning out one GPU after another. The high-end segment now looks more or less complete, with a decent number of options to choose from. Manufacturers are ready with models that use these GPUs, and some have even introduced their own PCB designs and custom coolers that outperform the stock design. This month, we bring you an exciting roundup of 18 high-end graphics cards. Let’s find out which one takes the crown and what you should pick if you want a good bang for the buck.

SPARKLE GTX 480 – Rs. 27,500Best Performer
Nudging its way past the Zotac GTX480 by a single point, the Sparkle GTX 480 bagged the Best Performance title. The Fermi architecture finally showed its true potential when sheer performance was the need of the hour. The card not only performed better in most sections, but also scored decently in the features section. It is built on the GTX 480 GPU with 480 stream processors and is clocked at 724 MHz. Supporting the GPUs performance is the 1536 MB of GDDR5 memory running at 924 MHz tied to a 384-bit bus. Demanding games such as Crysis Warhead and Just Cause 2 ran smoothly at over 30 fps with all the visual effects maxed out. Even stressful benchmarks such as Unigine Heaven and FurMark ran smoothly. But the downside of this card is that it runs extremely hot and the power consumption of the system goes as high as 430 Watts under load.

So if you go in for this card, make sure that you also invest in a roomy cabinet with a good number of exhaust fans, because in spite of a gigantic cooler, the GPU can touch a whopping 95 degrees Centigrade. It's an excellent choice for gamers, enthusiasts, serious graphics designers and animation specialists.

ZOTAC GTX 460 – Rs. 14,999 – Best Value
The GeForce GTX 460 is Nvidia’s latest addition to its lineup of high-end GPUs. As compared to the GTX 465, which has 11 clusters of stream processors, the GTX 460 is much leaner, with four clusters less, which takes away 128 stream processors (4 x 32). However, it runs both the core and memory faster than the GTX 465 at 675 MHz and 900 MHz respectively. The Zotac GeForce GTX 460 is the first graphics cards in the market to feature the new GPU. The GTX 460 is available in two variants; 768 MB and 1 GB. This model features 1 GB DDR5 memory tied to a 256-bit wide bus. As far as prformance goes, the GTX 460 is almost as powerful as the GTX 465 and comes very close to the Radeon HD 5850.

Fewer stream processors means lower power consumption and less heat generation. You also won't require an expensive high-end power supply unit to feed this card. It consumes a little more than 250 Watts under load, which is just a tad higher than the consumption of HD 5850. But considering its overall performance, it’s definitely a better bargain than the HD 5850, which costs around Rs 4,000 more.