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Video Cards: A Buyer’s Guide
 

Video Cards: A Buyer’s Guide

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Details and Specifications to Consider

When it comes to the way a computer displays graphics, it all comes down to what video card is being used. While some CPUs come with integrated video cards, the fact of the matter is that these integrated cards don’t cut it for gamers and others who need higher-end video card performance. The main things to consider when buying a video card are the video card’s GPU (graphics processing power), the memory and clock speed, card size, DirectX support, power requirements, thermal design power, slot compatibility, and output ports.

When purchasing a video card, a number of options are on the market. Here you will find a summary of the types of video cards available.

Today’s Video Card Choices

Desktop Video Cards

Desktop video cards are created for desktop computers. All desktop video cards were created with desktop users in mind, however, the quality of these cards vary. While some desktop computers have video cards integrated into their CPUs, the majority of desktop computers have an extra slot for a separate video card for enhanced graphics performance.

Workstation Video Cards

Workstation video cards may look similar to desktop video cards, but the design and capabilities of these cards are very different. Workstation video cards are created to be more stable and reliable than desktop video cards, as these cards are expected to remain stable even in high-stress operating environments such as 3D rendering. These video cards are also able to operate under serious strain for longer periods of time.

Laptop Video Cards

Laptops usually do not allow for graphics card upgrades. Laptop video cards are made to handle the needs of the average user. As in other contexts, the more expensive the laptop, the better the video card will be. If the laptop is used to run graphics-intensive applications, make sure before purchasing that it comes with a video card that can handle the workload as upgrading will likely not be a feasible option.


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Features to Consider

After considering the different types of video cards that are available, the next step is to become familiar with the specifications and features that the different video cards have to offer. Remember, not all video cards are created equal! It is important to understand which specs and features matter and how they pertain to the performance of the video card when deciding which video card will best suit your needs. Below are explanations of the features and specifications to what to focus on when purchasing a video card.

GPU

The heart of the video card is the Graphics Processing Unit, referred to as the GPU. This is what is responsible for the card's performance. Commonly, the model number of the card is an indicator of how powerful the GPU is – the higher model numbers in a series of video cards tend to be better, but also pay attention to any modifiers at the end of the model number, such as XT, GT, GS, etc. These modifiers can reveal important information about the card, such as clock-speed and shader information. The speed of the GPU (measured in GHz) will determine how fast the GPU can render 3D graphics for programs. A GPU can also have multiple processor cores, just like a CPU, which can help boost the performance of your video card.

Memory and Clock Speed

Memory and clock speed are both important considerations when selecting a video card. Nowadays, a Gigabyte of memory is standard for most video cards. Anything less and chances are it will perform slower when dealing with high resolution and details. However, more memory doesn't always guarantee better performance, either. Some 2GB cards are slower than some 1.5GB cards. This is due to the card’s specified clock speed. Therefore, it is best to consider both the memory and the clock speed when searching for a video card.

Size

Most people don't put much thought into the size of a video card. This wasn't an issue when almost all computers were tall towers. However, now that PCs come in a variety of sizes, it is crucial to ensure that the video card will fit into your tower. Usually, the more powerful a card is, the longer it is. With a smaller case, such as a microATX case, the video card options will be limited.

DirectX Support

Video cards support different versions of Microsoft's DirectX “APIs” (Application Programming Interface, ability to communicate among various computer programs). These APIs offer different graphical and processing features. For the gamers out there, the higher the number of DirectX that a card supports, the more realistic a game's images will appear. Be sure that the video card that matches the DirectX requirements of the software being used.

Power Requirements

While power requirements may not have been a consideration a few years back, today's video cards use a lot more power than the video cards of yesteryear. It's not uncommon for a quality video card to demand between 110 and 270 Watts from the power supply. A powerful graphics card under a full load can require as much power as the rest of the components of the computer combined. When upgrading a video card, make sure that the power supply is capable of providing what the video card requires.

Thermal Design Power

Video cards generate heat. The thermal design power specification assigned to a video card explains just how much heat the processor is going to generate. This will directly affect the type of cooling device needed for the computer once the card is installed. Overheating is a primary danger to a computer. Make sure a cooling system is in place that can handle the level of heat produced by a particular card.

Slot Compatibility

The motherboard of a computer comes equipped with expansion slots for accepting components such as video cards. These slots transfer power and data to and from the video card. Each type of slot has its own shape. Identify the type of available slot your motherboard has so as to ensure that the video card selected is compatible.

Output Ports

Monitors are usually connected to video cards with DVI ports (Direct Video Interface ports). Almost all current video cards have this. Some video cards will have two to enable more than one monitor from the same card. There are two different types of output ports – single-link (which can connect monitors with a resolution of up to 1,920 x 1,080) and dual-link (which can connect monitors with a resolution of up to 2,560 x 1,600). Some have HDMI ports or mini HDMI ports for connecting to HDTVs and similar devices. When purchasing a video card, make sure that the output port (or ports) match the display device.


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Which Video Card Is Best for Me?

Below, the most common video card purchasing groups are generalized to help narrow down the options for the video card that will best serve your needs. If you identify with more than one of these consumer groups, don't worry. Simply find a video card that has the features and specs that are needed for both purchasing groups.

Home Users

  • Power Requirements
  • Thermal Design Point
  • Slot Compatibility

Home users’ needs are very different from the needs of business users and gamers when it comes to video cards. Home users’ graphics needs are often not nearly as intensive as some of the other purchasing groups, so a lower-end video card at a lower price will serve just fine.

The first thing to do when selecting for a video card is ensure that your system can handle the power requirements of the card. While a dedicated power supply probably will not be necessary for a video card for home use, it is good to double check that the system can handle the power needs of the new video card.

Also consider the video card's thermal design point. If the existing cooling system is not able to dissipate the heat that will be generated by the video card, either select a different video card or upgrade the cooling system.

Also consider the slot compatibility when purchasing a new video card.  By ensuring slot compatibility before purchasing the card, you won't run into any unpleasant surprises when installation time comes.

Home Office Users

  • GPU
  • Size
  • Power Requirements

If you run an office out of your home, your video card needs may be quite different from the needs of the average home user, especially if your work is graphics intensive. First, identify the video cards that can adequately handle your graphics needs, while keeping the purchase price within budget.

Definitely consider the GPU of video cards. While some home office users may be able to get away with a lower-end graphics card that has a less powerful GPU, others may need a higher-end graphics card with more GPU power. Just remember, as model numbers go up and the power of the GPU goes up, the price usually goes up as well.

Also consider the physical size of the video card. In a standard size tower, size should not be an issue. If, however, a smaller tower, such as a microATX case, is being used, be sure that the video card selected is compatible with the smaller form case.

Also make sure to take the video card's power requirements into consideration. If your home office work does not involve graphics-intensive tasks, you likely won't need a dedicated power supply. If, on the other hand, your work does involve high-end graphics, consider a separate, dedicated power supply to support the video card that will best meet your needs.

Small Business Users

  • GPU
  • Memory and Clock Speed
  • Output Ports

When purchasing a memory card for a small business, ensure that the GPU is powerful enough to deliver the performance needed. When researching video cards, remember that the higher the model number is, the better the GPU is likely to perform. That doesn't necessarily mean you must buy the top-of-the-line video card, but it will at least help in narrowing down options within a certain manufacturer.

Also look at memory and clock speed when purchasing a video card for a small business. Efficiency is important and time is money. Be sure that the card is fast enough to keep up with the computing and graphics needs.

In addition, consider the output ports on the card. Match the selected video card ports with existing displays or monitors, or with the devices that will be acquired.

Corporate Users

  • GPU
  • Memory and Clock Speed
  • Slot Compatibility

The needs of corporate users are also unique when it comes to video cards. Which video card needed for corporate computers depends on the intensity of the graphics-related work being done.

The first thing to look at is the GPU of a video card. Determine the required speed – the faster the GPU, the faster the video card can render 3D graphics for the programs that employees use. Once again, when selecting video cards, keep in mind that as the model number increases so does the power of the card's GPU.

In addition to the GPU, also consider memory and clock speed. These specs will also determine how fast a video card is able to perform. Just remember that neither memory alone nor clock speed alone rate how well a card will perform. Look at both of these specs together to get an accurate picture of a video card's performance ability.

Also consider motherboard slot compatibility when shopping for video cards for corporate use. Ensure that the slots are compatible with the video cards selected. If the slots are not compatible, the video card will be of no use.

Gamers

  • GPU
  • Memory and Clock Speed
  • DirectX Compatibility

Gamers tend to be some of the most demanding consumers when it comes to the purchase of a video card. This is because many of the games on the market are very graphics intensive nowadays. To get the full gaming experience, you’ll need a video card that can do the job and do it well.

The first thing to look at is the GPU of a card. The GPU will determine how fast the video card can process the information it receives. The speed of the GPU is measured in GHz. The higher the GHz, the faster the video card will be able to perform. You may also want to look for video cards that have multiple cores on order to play high-end 3D games.

Next, look at memory and clock speed. The more memory a video card has, the more data it can handle at a single time. Gamers tend to need video cards with a higher level of memory and clock speed than the average computer user. Make sure to look at both of these specs together to get a good picture of how fast the video card will perform.

DirectX support should also be an important spec for gamers. Microsoft's DirectX APIs offer different graphics and processing features. The higher the version of DirectX that a video card supports, the more realistic the games images will appear during gameplay. Check the DirectX requirements of the games that you play to ensure the video card supports that version of DirectX.


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Frequently Asked Questions

What Does Hz Mean?

Hz stands for hertz. The Hz ratings that are given to a video card's GPU are measurements of speed. One hertz is one processor cycle per second, one kilohertz (1kHz) is 1,000 hertz per second, and one megahertz is 1,000,000 processor cycles per second.

What is Video Acceleration?

Video acceleration uses the video card’s CPU to speed up the display of text and graphics on the display and enables graphic effects. The video acceleration of your video card will determine how quickly things appear on your display and whether or not you can use all of the graphics effects available in the software you are using.

Can I Use More than One Video Card?

The motherboard determines the maximum number of video cards. Some motherboards allow installation of two or more cards, with each card being connected to its own monitor. Other motherboards may allow you to pair video cards for display on a single monitor, enabling an increase in performance. Check your motherboard to determine which possibilities are available.

What is Integrated Graphics?

For many years, a standalone graphics card was needed to render graphics. Nowadays, however, it is possible to get "integrated" graphics with your CPU. While integrated graphics are not suitable for gamers or those who need graphics-intensive performance, they are usually adequate for word processing, email, Web-surfing, etc.


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How-To Guide

How to Install a Video Card

When selecting a video card, first double-check the card's compatibility with your motherboard. If the socket is not compatible, the video card will not fit properly. To add a video card to a motherboard, first unplug your computer, then extract the motherboard. If the motherboard already contains a video card, remove the old card from the motherboard. Be sure to note the card's placement when doing this. Once the old video card is removed, install the new card in the same fashion as the previous one. Make sure not to “force” the pins when you are attaching the video card to the motherboard. Once the video card is affixed to the motherboard, put everything back into place and test the system.

How to Increase Power Supply for Your Video Card

If the video card you buy consumes too much power for your current power supply, you have two options. You can either install a dedicated power supply for your video card or you can upgrade your system's current power supply so that it can handle the power needs of your video card.

If you do decide to add an additional power supply to power your video card, ensure that the second PSU is attached to your PC case with screws in order to ground it. You will also want to ensure that both power supplies turn on and off at the same time. To do this, you will need to wire the green wire on the second PSU connector into the green wire on the main PSU. This ensures that the motherboard can turn both PSUs on and off together.

How to Find What Video Card Your Computer is Currently Using

Exactly how to determine which video card is currently being used will depend on the computer’s operating system. If there are no operational problems with the card, go to "Device Manager" and click on "Display Adapters." Look for the video card and right-click on the name. Then click on "Properties" and a window will pop up showing you the properties of the card and, in some cases, the location of the card.


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Techie Stuff

Pixel Throughput

Pixel throughput is the texture and render output units that determine the number of pixels that a graphics chip can produce each cycle. A 1920 by 1200 pixel grid on a 24-inch monitor works out to be over two million pixels. The pixel throughput determines how smoothly images will display on the monitor.

Video Card Overclocking

Overclocking your video card means running it at a higher speed than it was designed to run. It is one way to boost your video card's performance, but it also has risks and usually voids the manufacturer's warranty.

It is important to note that when overclocking a video card, your PSU may need to provide it with more power than what is shown in its specifications. Your video card can only run at certain speeds with set amounts of voltage. It is important to note also that raising your voltage past the stock level may decrease the lifespan of your card.


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