Dedicated graphics cards, which we will be discussing in this guide, are needed if you want to do 3D gaming or watch high definition movies (even though it may sometimes suffice with a powerful CPU and lot’s of internal RAM)
Important Specifications to Consider When Choosing a Graphics Card
GPU stands for “Graphic Processing Unit” and is the main controlling circuit on every graphics card. The GPU is the most determinant feature of every graphics card when it comes to the overall performance and speed. The two biggest manufacturers of GPUs are NVIDIA and ATI (which is owned by CPU manufacturer AMD). They do the reference designs for each new generation of graphics card. But most graphics cards are sold by other manufacturers who produce their own flavour of the reference cards from NVIDIA and ATI. Examples of those manufacturers are MSI, Asus, ECS Elitegroup, XFX and more.
Examples of recent generations of graphic GPUs from NVIDIA are; GeForce 8500/8600/8800/9800 GT/GTX/GX2 and GTX 260/280. ATIs latest generations of graphics cards are: RADEON HD 3850/4850/4870 in different versions.
It is also important to consider the amount and type of the onboard RAM of the graphics card, which is a different thing than the RAM of your computer. The RAM is important for a number of technical reasons we will not go into further here. But in short you should go for a graphics card with at least 256MB of RAM. The type of RAM is less important, but we recommend that you buy a graphics card with the second or later generation of GDDR (GDDR2 or later).
Different Slot Types
There are three different slots available on the PC market. The “slot” is where you connect the graphics card on the mainboard of your computer. You must verify which type of slot your mainboard has before purchasing a graphic card, or you may waste money on something you cannot use. The available slots are PCI (very old), AGP (old) or PCI express (today’s standard). All fairly recent bought computers are outfitted with a PCI Express slot, but be sure to check it. PCI express is the newest technology and allows the largest bandwidth which means better performance for you.
The connecters on the graphics cards are also important. Standard analog VGA connectors have been replaced by DVI (digital) connectors. The DVI connector is a must, some cards even come with two DVI connectors which will allow you to connect an extra display. Additional external connectors to look for are:
oHDMI, which will enable you to connect your computer to a plasma or LCD-TV. (This can also be done through a DVI connector with a DVI/HDMI converter)
oS-Video outputs are used to connect the PC to an older style VCR or TV and allow outputting the same display as present on your screen.
oDB-15/VGS/SVGA connectors are basically utilized for a standard output to an analog monitor. Good if you have an old monitor.
Considering your budget
Of course, you financial possibilities will limit your purchase options too. Let’s take a look of what you can expect depending on how much you want or can afford. Remember that graphics cards are products with short cycles so suggestions below are only guide lines.
Low budget graphic cards
We are talking about spending $50 to $80, what can you expect?
In this lower budget level the most popular and valuable GPUs from ATI and NVIDIA are the ATI Radeon HD 3650 and the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 and 8600GT/GTS. These cards typically carry a RAM of 256MB-512MB depending on model and manufacturer. There are no problems to find cards with multiple DVI connectors and some even carry a HDMI connector.
These types of cards are suitable for silent HTPCs and media centres since you can get them with silent passive coolers. We cannot recommend the entry level graphics cards for hardcore gaming rigs, even though they will play some older games with no sweat.
Medium priced graphic cards
In this segment, with prices from $80 to $250, you will find graphics cards with good performance even for gaming. You should be aware, because as we said, this is a fast moving market and you can sometimes find real bargains on the current generation of graphics cards when the next generation cards are introduced to the market. Prices drops fast when retailers and e-tailers have to make place in their stock for the new generation of cards.
As always we recommend you to read expert reviews of graphics cards to find which the leading expert editors have recommended. Also based on the reviews, try to find out which is the last generation of GPU for the time being. Right now the last generation high end GPU from NVIDIA is the GTX 280. We couldn’t find a 280 GTX card below $250, but we did find one for $260 so the prices are dropping.
We recommend you to go with the next to last generation cards like the GeForce 9800GTX or 9800GX2 (dual onboard GPU) and the ATI HD 3850 and 4870. They will offer you a great performance/price ratio.
Advanced graphic cards
Obtaining maximal performance and resolution may lead you to spend $400 and above on a high end graphics cards. This is for real gamers who need that extra FPS rate and resolution to perform optimally. You should look for dual GPU solutions, either onboard dual GPUs or using SLI or Crossfire technology (two physically separated graphics cards working together).
The 3870 X2 with 1GB RAM from ATI is a good alternative and is somewhat cheaper than the 4870 X2 which naturally gives some extra percents of performance. From NVIDIA you should take a look at the GTX 280 and 9800GX2.
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