Considerations - Video Cards

So you're shopping for a video card. This can be a particularly confusing thing to shop for, but once you understand a few basic concepts, it becomes a much simpler choice.

On-Board or External?

This question really only applies if you're buying a new computer. In this case, the choice is between getting a dedicated video card, and getting a motherboard that comes with an integrated video solution. Intel, nVidia, and some other companies make integrated chipsets that computer manufacturers can use to make computers nVidia Graphics Cardthat don't need a video card.

Integrated video is usually low end, certainly compared to the options available in dedicated video cards. It's usually just enough that you can run some low end games, and good enough for word processing, web browsing and that sort of application. But if you're shopping for a video card, then this probably isn't an option anyway since you wouldn't switch motherboards to switch to integrated video.

AGP or PCI Express?

First off, you need to find out what kind of card you need. AGP is a standard for video cards that has been used in computers built starting in 1997 through 2005. Computers built in 2005 or later generally use PCI Express, a newer standard that allows for faster data transfer between parts of the system. If you're buying a new or used computer, and video performance is important to you, then look for PCI Express.

Video or Gaming?

This is the first discretionary consideration, since the previous ones just helped you decide what kind of card you needed - Now it's time to start thinking about how you're going to be using the computer.

Video can really be separated into two different categories: Video processing, and using your computer to record video. Recording video using your video card is often called "Video Capture" or "Video In". VIVO means "Video In, Video Out". Cards that can record will say so on the box or in the marketing materials; if this is a feature you need, then check for it.

All modern cards have hardware acceleration for video playback. If you need video acceleration for a specific recording purpose, such as using the card as part of a Media Center PC, then you should carefully check the requirements for your recording purpose and choose a card accordingly - it's hard to generalize about this part.

This isn't entirely an either-or question. ATI's well-known All-in-Wonder series excels at video encoding and other video tasks, while also generally being a capable gaming card. But the best cards for gaming don't have the extra capture capabilities.

ATI or nVidia?

Days gone by, there were many video card manufacturers to choose from. 3DFX, Matrox, Hercules, to name a few. But today, while there are still a few smaller names left, the two big players are ATI and nVidia.

Both companies make excellent hardware, and which one is in the lead changes frequently. You can't go wrong with either brand.

Low, Medium, or High End and Price

So now it's down to the nuts and bolts. This can certainly get confusing if you allow it to, but I'm going to approach this from a somewhat different perspective than most sites. Here's how to tell which card is better:

The more expensive card is the better one.

This isn't always 100% reliable, but it's pretty close.

The reason this works is that while there are many individual components, each with their own specifications, that go into a particular video card, the manufacturer is going to be designing this card for a particular price point, and is going to use components that are of roughly equal capability for that price point.

Video cards typically come in at 3 different price points: Budget, mid-range, and high end. Budget is around $100, mid-range is around $200, and high end is $400 or more. One company's same generation budget card will perform very close to another company's same generation budget card. Same for mid-range and high end.

Noise Level

The graphics processor and memory on a video card generates heat. Too much heat can make your computer prone to crashing or just generally unreliable, so the video card (like the processor in your computer) needs some sort of cooling.

If you're trying to keep your computer quiet (for example, if you're using it as a media center PC and so have it in your living room or some other room where you'd A passively cooled video cardprefer not to hear the constant whirring of fans), then you'll want to look for a quiet card. A video card can be the loudest component in your system - louder than the hard disks and other fans - so if this matters to you, check the reviews and card specifications before you buy.

This generally means a more expensive card, as big heat sinks or larger, quieter fans cost more money that smaller, louder fans.

Some of the more expensive cards use a thermal sensor that tells the fans to speed up when required, so that the card is quiet when idle, but louder when it needs to be. This is a good solution since if you're playing games the game sound is probably louder than any sound the card might make.

Technical Considerations

If you want to move beyond price and compare the cards based on individual specifications, here are a few important ones.

Clock Speed

Clock Speed is how fast the chips on the video card run. Your computer may have a 2 GHz (gigahertz - one gigahertz is 1000 megahertz, and means one billion cycles per second) processor or a 3.2 GHz processor, but your video card's clock speed will be slower than this. Video cards do much more with each clock cycle, so don't need to be clocked as high to give incredible results.

The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) speed and the memory speed are two different numbers.

Memory

Memory doesn't necessarily make a card faster. More memory means your card can store more textures on the card. If a game is designed for 256mb of video memory then, for example, it may be able to use higher resolution textures on a 256mb card than on a 128mb card. Most games will run on any card, but some will make good use of the extra memory if it's available.

DirectX Compatibility Level

DirectX is one of the programming interfaces that games use to talk to video cards (OpenGL being the other).

Games designed for DirectX 9 won't always work on a DirectX 8 compatible card, because they may require features of the GPU that it just doens't have. Generally the cards being sold at any given time match the version of DirectX that most games are using; it's rare for a game to require hardware that isn't commonplace, but it does happen.

DirectX 9 was released in December 2002, and is commonly supported today. DirectX 10 will be part of Windows Vista.


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