Source: Yahoo Finance
Oh my god IT'S ALL A BIG CONSPIRACY!
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If I'm looking at an ATI card with the number given as 5850, I know that it's part of the current generation ( 5### ) and is a pretty high end card card ( #850 ).
If I see 4350, I'll know it's from the previous generation of cards ( 4### ) and it is an entry level or HTPC card.
It's kinda hard to really know whether an ATI's 4650 is greater than a nvidea 9800GT though, but I think the real difficulty comes from trying to know how much a generation of cards improves from its last generation. (4350 vs 5350 for example)
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