iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






Graphics Card Buyer's Guide

Version 1.2, 29.02.2008


Computers are rapidly evolving, most components of a usual home PC get outdated way before they go out of service. You will notice evident performance shortage in modern 3D games in time: low frame rates even in medium video quality modes, increased load times, lagging, etc. New games are released each year, system requirements constantly growing. So a home computer purchased just a year and a half ago, on which games ran perfectly, becomes too slow and prevents you from playing modern games. (And many people just cannot comprehend how hardware can get outdated in such a short period of time.)

Games are usually the heaviest burden for home computers, their requirements to most PC components - CPU, graphics card, memory, and even hard drive - are constantly growing. Upgrading these also implies upgrading a motherboard, PSU, and other components, which have no direct relation to performance. It's difficult for a usual consumer, unaware of hardware issues, to determine a bottleneck. Moreover, users often know just that they have some Pentium processor and some GeForce card. If they want to upgrade, they have to figure everything out.

When you decide to upgrade a graphics card, you should understand that you are to change one of the most important components, which requires skills to choose and configure. You should also understand that you will have to learn the basics of 3D to make the most of your graphics card. Otherwise, you'd better buy a ready gaming rig or even a game console instead of upgrading your old PC.

If you make a choice on your own, the most important step is to find the right balance of all PC parts. A computer should be assembled of components belonging to similar price ranges (these will be described in the second part of the article.) More or less balanced up-to-date gaming computers cost no less than $1000 for a system unit. You should not think that the upgrade will solve the problem for several years to come. Games will run well in high resolutions only at the beginning. Then they will release new games, which will eventually become too much for any old machine. New graphics cards are usually rolled out each six or twelve months. A new series is usually noticeably faster than the previous, supporting new technologies quickly mastered by game developers.

Graphics cards are usually called "expansion cards" to be installed into special slots on a motherboard. This is done to facilitate upgrades, in the first place. The cheapest video solutions can be integrated into a motherboard chipset. Although they can be generally used to play 3D games, they are very slow and work well only with common office applications and 2D games. Modern gaming graphics cards offer a lot of new technologies, descriptions and reviews of which contain a lot of terms, incomprehensible to most consumers. So upgrading a graphics card is not that simple. In order to simplify the task for inexperienced users, we decided to publish a guide on how to buy a graphics card.

A user can purchase a new computer or upgrade the old one by buying some new components (and getting rid of, selling, etc. old parts.) By replacing major PC components, you can often increase its performance at a small cost and be able to play modern games at acceptable frame rates.

It's expedient to sell your old computer and buy a new one, only if you can get a fair price for your old hardware. And if you have time to replace your computer each year and a half. Besides, you'll have extra problems with selling your computer, backing up your data, and probably computerless periods when an old computer is already sold and a new one is not yet bought. So it's often better just to make a partial upgrade. The primary task in this case is to find the bottleneck(s) and upgrade as needed. Of course, you should upgrade a PC before it's too old and can increase performance by replacing a couple of its parts. If your computer gets too old (two-three years or more), it's easier to just sell it and buy a new one.

All pros and cons of various approaches are described in the article Strategy and Tactics of Home PC Upgrades. Since this guide is intended for inexperienced users, we'll describe only major issues that appear when you choose and buy a graphics card. This material gives basic knowledge of modern graphics cards, but it's intended for readers, who are already familiar with the topic.

Next: Why a graphics card is important for a gaming PC

Alexei Berillo aka SomeBody Else (sbe@ixbt.com)

April 8, 2008

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