Graphics Cards Buyer’s Guide
A graphics card, also known as a video card or a GFX card, slots into the motherboard of a PC or MAC and is responsible for the generation of the screen images by translating the data received from the CPU. There are many different graphics cards on the market which can make selecting the right card a confusing task for the first time buyer.
This expert guide aims to explain the different types of graphics cards and their uses; important features to take into consideration when reviewing graphic cards, as well as provide guidance on the types of cards are available within the various budget ranges.
Available types of graphics cards
The best way to determine which graphics card to purchase is to first assess what types of applications are going to be used. If the PC is going to be used for running graphic-intensive games then a fast performing graphics card is needed.
There are three main types of graphics cards: Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP); Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) and PCI-Express. AGP has been around for some years now and is good for running general applications, while PCI-Express is a newer technology, offering high performing graphics processing and therefore popular in the gaming market. PCI is fast becoming obsolete and is mainly found in older PCs.
In this guide we will concentrate solely on PCI- Express cards.
The following specifications are important to consider during the graphics card review and selection process.
- Expansion Slot Compatibility
All motherboards have expansion slots into which the graphic cards are plugged. Check the motherboard specification to see whether it is compatible with AGP; PCI or PCI-Express graphics cards. Once you have determined the slot type, check the speed of the slot for compatibility. There are several variations of slot speeds, including: AGP x4; x8 and PCI-E x4; x8; x12; x16 and x32.
- Core chip
The most important feature of graphics cards is the core chip. For gaming graphics cards the chip manufactures are NVIDIA and ATI (now bought by AMD) and the chips are called GeForce and Radeon respectively. Both chip manufacturers have broad product lines from budget to high end consumers. Normally, all you need to know is that the more expensive the graphics card is the better core chip processor is. Still, we recommend you to read expert reviews to better understand the small differences between the core ships offered today.
- • Core Clock
The core clock speed is the speed at which the graphics processing unit (GPU) interprets the data from the CPU and generates the images. It is measured in megahertz and helps to accelerate the time it takes to display images. To ensure the best response times, select a graphics card with a high core clock speed.
- • Memory
All graphics cards come with built-in memory. This random access memory (RAM) is dedicated to processing graphics and is responsible for storing the information during the image creation process. As a rule of thumb, if you only need to use your PC to run normal office applications then a 64MB should be sufficient. If you intend playing games, creating graphics or running 3D animation applications then you will need a graphics card with more RAM, 256MB at a minimum, the more the better.
- • Memory Clock
The memory clock speed of a graphics card is the data transfer speed between the card’s built-in memory and the graphics processor. The higher the speed, the better the performance.
- • Graphics Card Output
Graphic cards can offer several options for output display devices including VGA; ViVo (Video in/ Video out) and DVI (Digital) output. In order to display images on a TV, select a card which offers either TV-out or S-video. To connect to a video camera select a card with a ViVo connection. LCD monitors will require a DVI graphics card connection.
Entry level budget
Graphics cards can be incredibly expensive, however if you are not looking for the top of the range graphics processing capability and will only use the PC for basic functions like surfing the internet or general office tasks then it is possible to purchase an entry level graphics card.
The ATI Radeon HD 4550 is competitively priced at $55. This PCI-Express card has a GPU clock speed of 600MHz; a memory clock speed of 500MHz; a 64-bit memory bus width and a frame buffer of either 512MB or 256MB. It has also received a good overall rating of 75% from expert reviews. See www.testseek.com for further information.
These entry level graphics cards do not offer the performance required for graphic-intensive applications like games, however for normal processing they are quite adequate.
If you need a graphics card for running games and graphic applications then it is best to look at higher performance graphics cards.
The Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX+ has a core clock speed of 738MHz and a memory clock speed of 2200 MHz. This 512MB PCI-Express graphics card has a good response rate for games and offers dual DVI and HDTV output connections. This well-received graphics card has an average expert review rating of 76%, and is available for around $145.
Top performing graphics cards to be used with very high resolution monitors can be very expensive, but are well worth the investment to make the most out of your high definition PC.
The XFX GeForce 9800 GX2 Video Card is said to be one of the fastest single card solutions on the market, but it does come at a cost at around $400. This 1GB PCI-Express card is designed for high definition and with a core clock speed of 600MHz and a memory speed of 2000MHz. It is the ultimate gaming card. It also supports dual DVI; HDMI and HDTV. One of the best graphic cards around, it has an average expert review rating of 83%; refer to www.testseek.com for further information.
No matter how fast the graphics card is, the CPU speed is also important for you overall system performance. If the CPU is slow there is no point in buying a top speed graphics card as the CPU is responsible for passing the information through to the GPU, therefore you will not get optimum use out of the card.
Always use testseek.com to get updated information about which graphics card to choose. Graphics cards are short lived products, new generations are coming out once or even twice a year so always keep updated.
Disclaimer: This guide was written in late 2008 and the specific product recommendations may be outdated. However the basic discussions in this buyer's guide may still be of great value.
Written by; TestSeek staff