Image credit: Dice.
Graphics Card Buying Guide
Most people associate the power of a personal computer with its CPU (central processing unit). Yes, it is true that the CPU is the heart of the PC. In today’s world, however, the CPU is becoming a less critical item in the overall performance of a computer. Perhaps equally – if not more important (in some uses) than the CPU is the GPU that the computer is equipped with. Technological advances in processor technology have taken CPUs to the point of processing power that even a budget priced CPU is not a restriction on the performance of a computer for the average or casual user who writes essays, browses the web, watches videos, etc.
Why do I want a dedicated graphics card?
If you are reading this then you are probably already interested in buying a new graphics card or perhaps just researching the benefits of doing so. The GPU is a highly specialized processor that is optimized for very specific operations – which is unlike the CPU, whose function is more generalized. Originally, the dedicated graphics card (obviously equipped with the aforementioned GPU) was primarily purchased and used for 3D game rendering. Pre-built computers such as those from Dell or HP typically come with what is known as an integrated graphics. This is to say that the graphics processor is built into the CPU/motherboard. Integrated graphics processors share the computers primary RAM and do not have the muscle to handle heavy GPU workloads such as playing 3D games that require a lot of resources (such as those required to play at higher screen resolutions or those with advanced features like anti-aliasing, real-time lighting and shadow rendering). Today, the function of the GPU and its ability to specialize has allowed it to be adapted to software applications beyond just gaming. This can include video rendering, image editing, or even projects such as Folding@Home (which is a distributed computing project that helps scientists study certain diseases).
What do I look for in a graphics card and how do I decide what I want?
Which graphics card you decide to purchase largely rests on two things: Your intended use and your budget. Will you be playing video games? If so, what kind? Are they casual games such as Bejeweled or highly graphics dependent games such as the latest Crysis, Battlefield, or other cutting edge titles? Or will you be focusing on productivity software such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Premiere? Graphics processors are primarily produced by only two companies: Nvidia and ATI. Many internet wars have been started over the advantages and disadvantages of the processors from each of these two companies, however, you typically can’t go wrong with either company, as they frequently trade “wins” in who makes the “better” processor at any given price point as new technology and models are released. In addition to the two manufacturers of GPUs, there are a myriad of companies that produce the video cards themselves. For example, ATI will produce a reference design or specification of their latest video card to other companies such as Sapphire, EVGA, ASUS etc. Those companies can then make changes to the original design and sell it as their own product. Prices range anywhere from the entry level budget dedicated cards ($100 and under), mid-range/mainstream cards ($100-$200) to enthusiast level cards ($200-$300) and the very high end cards that can exceed $1000!
What are all these features they describe on the box (or on the website)?
Let’s look at some of the typical items that one might read on a spec sheet on a product page for a given video card. Some key items are things like what manufacturing process is the GPU made using (Expressed in nm, or nano-meters. This is the size of an individual transistor in the GPU. Generally a lower number is better). A smaller transistor means they can fit more transistors in the same space of the GPU. Other benefits to having smaller transistors also generally would translate to better power efficiency and less heat generation. Another common item one would see on a product spec page would be the amount of dedicated memory that is on the PC board. To keep things extremely simple, essentially more RAM in your video card does not always transfer to higher performance. Probably most common need for a video card to be equipped with more RAM than 512MB or even 1GB are for those who play graphically demanding games at higher resolutions. Is your monitor only displaying a resolution of 1366×768? If so, the chances of a video card being able to utilize 2GB of its RAM are pretty much zero. Along with this, if the video card is a budget card, say under $100, it is unlikely that you will ever even take advantage of even 1GB of RAM. This is because the GPU itself doesn’t even have the necessary processing power to “fill up” that amount of RAM. There are many other things to consider, such as GPU clock speed (clock speed is the number of cycles per second a processor can perform). Generally, a higher clock speed among the same class/generation of video card is faster than a lower clocked model. There are many other items on the list of things to learn about that we won’t go into detail about, but they include (and certainly aren’t limited to) memory bus, memory speed, memory bandwidth, number of shader units, and number of texture units.
What will my budget get me?
Let’s look at each of the aforementioned pricing tiers. Starting from video cards under $100 we have very basic cards that are only a small improvement on the integrated video solutions provided in most mainstream computers. These usually allow for playing game titles from previous generations and don’t lend themselves well to playing graphically intensive games or gaming at higher resolutions. The next tier would be what most would call the mainstream category. This usually ranges from $100-$200. Cards in this range are suited to playing most modern gaming titles and displaying them at medium graphics settings. This is to say that you can configure your game’s settings to enable more features to make the game look better/more realistic while maintaining a playable frame rate (lower frame rates will make a game difficult to play or unresponsive, while higher frame rates make everything operate more smoothly). Most video game makers build their games around this price point. For example setting video quality settings to medium on a current title will typically yield acceptable results on a mainstream video card or price point. Next up is the enthusiast tier, which typically range from $200-$300. The typical consumer of these items would be one who is interested in extracting higher frame rates and performance with most visual settings enabled or set to a higher level. These consumers also typically play games at higher screen resolutions, which are also very taxing on the GPU. Finally, we have the high end models. Cards in this category can go from $400 all the way up to $1000. The market for these cards is obviously very small. These cards represent the cutting edge and the very best of what a video card manufacturer has to offer. Consumers of these products play the latest games at maximum graphical fidelity settings at extremely high resolutions and demand frame rates that are super high for extreme responsiveness. These people may be professional gamers or perhaps someone who is a professional video editor. Rendering video with software like Adobe’s Premiere can save massive amounts of time by utilizing powerful GPU architecture and the time saved in rendering may well be worth what seems to be an almost unreasonable investment!
In closing, there are a plethora of different things to consider when purchasing a video card. Making a decision can be as simple or as complex as you wish it to be. Fortunately, there are a great deal of blogs and websites that can help navigate you through them. These sites test various cards under various conditions and will help you weigh the cost/benefit ratio of many different models from many different brands.