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Graphic Cards

Graphics Cards Buying Guide
When it comes time to enter the world of PC gaming and di...
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Graphics Cards Buying Guide

When it comes time to enter the world of PC gaming and digital media most users with an off the shelf system will run into one problem; errors that their video card is incompatible with what they're trying to do. For PC enthusiasts, they already know about this vital piece of hardware because they are the ones who spend triple digit bills on keeping one step ahead of the game. For casual users, this is likely a component most don't even realize exists because they take it for granted when they turn on their computer. As you can see, for some people this will be a component worth spending some money on where as for others it may be something you never even need to worry about.

The first step to video card shopping is to determine your needs with the card. If you're an avid gamer who plays the latest games then you will certainly want a higher end card for much better performance and longevity. Casual gamers and/or those who don't need to play the latest and greatest will be fine with looking into a mid-range card with a good price to performance ratio. If you fall into the category of someone who does not game at all and needs a computer for nothing more than simple tasks then you will likely want to look into a low-end card that will be compatible with your OS but doesn't have the extra features marketed towards gaming use. When you start looking further into the offerings of each major graphics chip manufacturer, Nvidia and ATI, you will see that each series of card is generally divided into three major variants; the high end, mid-range and the low end. Since the actual video cards are made by other manufacturers (except ATI who makes some of their own) you will then find several variants on each line of card as well. An example would be the Nvidia 8800, 8800GT, 8800GTS, 8800GS, etc. Just make sure you find out what any small differences may be between cards you're looking at to assure the best value for your dollar! Now that you're familiar with the basics behind how video card chips are divided up, it's time to look a little further into some of the terms and numbers you'll hear thrown around in reference to them.

Memory on a graphics card does much the same thing as memory on a computer does. To put this into a simple explanation; it's used to store various buffers which aid in the display of standard images as well as accelerated 3D images. For gamers, things like resolution and game quality settings will be the factors that play most into memory consumption. The higher the resolution and quality settings, then the more detail the game has to draw out in the memory buffer. The amount of memory is ever-increasing in new video cards and so is the speed it runs at. Just like your system memory, graphics card memory also has a clock speed that determines how fast you can read and write to it.

With many people choosing to connect their computers into a variety of different types of displays, like computer monitors, TVs, etc. it is also important to make sure your new video card has the right connections for the job. Most new computer monitors will have DVI and VGA connectors because this allows them the maximum compatibility with new and old computer systems. If you have the option, running DVI from your computer to the monitor will be your best bet. Since DVI is a digital signal you will get better picture quality than an analog D-Sub cable will provide. Additionally, since most new DVI supporting monitors and video cards also support HDCP (high definition content protection) you will also be setup for viewing high definition content as well as any uses that future operating systems may have for this protection feature. Most video cards will also have an S-Video output, a component output, or even both. Looking at some of the newest models we are also starting to see HDMI outputs for true high-definition output to any supporting display or TV.

With a lot of games and even some software being built around Microsoft's DirectX 3D engine, you'll want to make sure your new card will support at least the latest version of DirectX that is used in whatever applications or games you are trying to use. If you're going out and buying a current-series card then don't even bother with this because you know it will support the latest DirectX version on the market. However, if you're going out with a bit more of a budget in mind and are looking into previous generation cards, then make sure you read the box carefully to make sure it will be able to handle what you're buying it for. You'll also find some other terms to watch out for as well. The Shader Model number will be something else that can be just as important as the DirectX number.

Probably the last two major things you may need to consider will be the cooling of the graphics card as well as the power requirements of the card. Most graphics cards will be cooled one of two ways; actively with a fan or passively with a large heatsink/heatpipe cooler. Passive cards are generally limited to the lower/mid-end cards in any product range because most of the higher end cards simply create too much heat to be cooled without a fan. For casual home users, home theatre PC builders and office/recording studio owners, a passive card is a perfect way to go because it emits zero noise into your surrounding environment. Higher end cards generally use one or two fans to cool a fairly large heatsink/heatpipe cooling unit. Generally these are temperature controlled fans so you don't need to worry about them screaming away at full speed all the time when not needed. Lastly is the need to make sure your system has the correct power requirements for the card you're installing. Low end video cards will draw their power directly from the PCI-Express slot, so they won't be able to take anymore than is already there. It's when you get to the mid to high end cards that they will require an additional one or two power connectors from the power supply to meet their needs. Graphics cards use their own style of PCI-Express power connector, so you won't just be plugging in any old molex plug. PCI-E power connectors will either be of the 6-pin or 8-pin variant. Make sure you read the box carefully to make sure that your power supply not only has enough wattage to run your new card but also has the proper connections. A quick thing to keep in mind is the quality of your power supply itself. You probably don't want to be running an expensive video card on a dirt-cheap bargin bin power supply. These power supplies will often have poor voltage control and low amperage and/or multiple low-amp rails instead of one large rail to power devices through. Although you may have the correct wattage of power supply to meet the needs of your new card, if it's cheap or poorly designed it still may not be able to keep up to the highest end cards out there! For more info on this I suggest Googling how PC power supply rails work.

As I mentioned throughout this article, the attention you put into buying your video card will vary with everyone out there. A lot of everyday users don't need anything more than a card to simply get the job done for their day to day work. It's when you get more into gaming and certain digital media (ie. Bluray) that you will see the need for a better graphics card in your system. The internet is your friend when researching what the latest offerings are for video cards before you hit the shelves to buy. One you know what you're after, compare what different manufacturers have to offer in that range and in no time at all you'll find just the card you need!

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