Video Cards – Choosing The Right One

Image from  FreeImages.com/ Marin Myftiu

This article covers criteria involved in selecting and buying the graphics card that is right for you. It is meant to be used as a reference to help beginners select and buy a new graphics card.

With the magnitude of different video cards available on the market, selecting one that is best for your computer can seem like a daunting task. A video cards importance is often overlooked and people tend to believe that a good video card is only required for gaming. The fact is, a good video card can enhance your computing experience and save you from computer slow downs due to inadequate video resources. With a little bit of research and a bit of planning, you can choose the right one for you.

The first thing you need to do is decide how you are going to use your computer. Are you going to play video games? Are you going to only use office applications such as Microsoft Excel and Word? Will you be doing any video or picture editing? These are very important questions when trying to determine the best video card for you.

At first thought you may say, I don’t have enough time for games or I don’t plan on buying a digital camera so I won’t be doing any picture editing. But really think hard about it. If there is even the slightest, remote possibility that you will do more with your computer than you initially think, then it is better to spend a little more on a good video card now than be disappointed when the game your friend or kid is playing won’t work at all on your computer.

The most important features that differentiate video cards are video and 3D performance and quality. If most of your time on the computer is spent using office applications or other 2D software, then the 3D performance of a graphics card won’t play much of a role in your buying decision. Most video cards manufactured today handle 2D graphics with ease, even though there are differences in 2D performance between cards, these differences are not enough for the average consumer to notice. Simply put, reading your email using a high-end video card won’t be any faster than on a mid-level card. All current graphics processors are fine for office work and most video applications so you don’t need to spend a lot of money to meet your needs, just ensure it meets at least the following specs…..

* Memory: minimum 64MB recommended 128MB

* Ability to display in the resolutions you want to use (example 1024X768) with a minimum refresh rate of 75Hz

* Has the proper connections for your monitor: Analog (CRT monitors) DVI (Most Flat Panel LCD monitors)

Now, if you are looking to do anything more intense than office applications such as gaming or even playing video, you will need to start comparing the 3D performance of video cards, as this is where the major difference lies. Even if you aren’t a hardcore gamer, you shouldn’t try to save money in the wrong place, you will be sorry in the end.

You may wonder why I mention videos in the same sentence with gaming, as gaming generally requires more video card resources. For all intents and purposes, any graphics card is capable of displaying any video format, but there are differences in cards that result in a CPU load on the PC. If the CPU load is too high when playing videos there will be noticeable stuttering during playback. The more tasks the graphics processor can handle, the less work is left to the CPU, improving overall performance.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a 3D Graphics Card.

Graphics processors

Most graphics cards are based on either the Nvidia Geforce or ATI Radeon family of chips. Both have their strengths and weaknesses but in the end they both offer high-end graphic processing and have comparable features. Any graphics card you choose should be compatible with the latest version Microsoft’s DirectX graphics system and the latest version of Open GL.

Memory

Video cards have their own memory on board to store data, images and textures. If the video card does not have enough memory to perform a specific function then it will use the computers memory resulting in decreased performance. The more memory on a video card the better, so get one with as much memory as you can afford. A video card with 128MB is the minimum recommended for playing video games. Also, because memory on a video card can’t normally be upgraded, you want to make sure you have enough for your games or you will find yourself upgrading your graphics card sooner than you would like.

A note on video cards integrated into the motherboard…. Some integrated video cards will state they have a certain amount of memory, lets say 128MB, but they are actually sharing some system memory as opposed to having its own dedicated memory. This will degrade performance and may affect the quality of your video experience.

Prices

There are generally three main price groups:

* Entry-level or Budget Line (sub-$100 – $150US)

* Mid-priced or Mainstream ($150 – $300US)

* Higher-end enthusiast cards ($300 – $500US and up)

In each of these groups there are two versions with different performance levels; one is the standard version, while the other runs at higher clock speeds. The low cost cards can be distinguished by having “SE” or “LE” in its name while the higher end cards will have “PRO”, “XT”, “GT” and “ULTRA” in their names.

Those wanting to play 3D action games at higher resolutions, and need more video memory and a variety of output options, should look at the Mid-priced cards for $150-$300. If you are real hardcore gamer and want the fastest frame rates then you will be looking to spend close to $500.

PCI vs AGP vs PCI Express

PCI, PCI Express and AGP are types of slots in your computer. AGP is designed specifically for graphic cards while PCI and PCI Express (PCX) cards can be used for graphics cards as well as others. PCI Express is the newest interface standard from Intel, offering double the bandwidth of an AGP 8x slot for even faster and more complex graphics. If you have a PCX slot, I suggest you buy a PCX card. If you don’t have a PCX slot the next choice would then be an AGP card and finally a PCI card. If PCI is your only choice, don’t worry, there are plenty of decent PCI video cards available on the market.

Features

Features to look for include support for both VGA and DVI interfaces for analogue (CRT) and digital (LCD) displays, and S-Video and composite video outputs for use with TVs. Video-editing or graphic design enthusiasts may want to look for the dual monitor option to spread their desktop and applications across two or more monitors at once. Some ‘all-in-one’ cards have a built-in TV tuner and video capture options, saving on separate purchases and potential compatibility problems.

In closing….

The most important part of choosing a video card is to take the time and decide how you want to use your computer. If you buy a card on the basis of only using office applications and then try to play a game with the video card, chances are you will have no end of frustrations. On the other hand, if you go out and spend your money on a top of the line video card, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment because your game doesn’t look any better than your buddy’s who paid $300 less than you.

My recommendation would be to look for a card somewhere in the mid-priced range for around $200US. Make sure that it has at least 128MB of memory, 256MB would be better, check for compatibility with the latest Direct X technology and that it has the proper connection for the slot in your motherboard and to connect your monitor. Be careful not to get hooked on added features. Added features on the video card are your own personal choice, think about what you actually need and will use, getting an S-Video connection on your video card when you will never connect it to your TV could be costing you more money. Don’t get me wrong, some features will add to your experience but others you may never use or even know you are using.

Happy Computing!

 

Keith Park has been in the IT industry for the last 7 years and authors the website TechCorner PC Resource Zone. Go to http://www.techcorner.ca/computers for more articles and resources. Additional resources available @ http://mgrcentral.com/computers/default.aspx?studentid=1575219