Why a graphics card is important
Even though it's not always easy to find a bottleneck in a gaming computer, low performance is most often caused by a weak graphics card, not by a CPU or memory (unless you are really low on it.) Yes, there are some games, which are limited by a processor (CPU-intensive) or insufficient memory in certain conditions. But gaming performance mostly depends on a graphics card. The higher graphics settings you want to use in games, the heavier will be the load and the effect on performance. This is especially about screen resolution, antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, which put all the load only on graphics cards.
Sometimes you can play new games with old graphics cards, and they will even run rather fast. But video quality will be very low due to the lack of support for the latest video technologies. See the difference between such modes for old and modern graphics cards in STALKER: Clear Sky (DirectX 8 on the left, DirectX 10 on the right).
Image quality differs greatly. These screenshots look like two different games with different lighting and shadows. You will be able to play a lot of modern games at maximum video quality only if you upgrade your old graphics card. The same can be said about new Low-End graphics cards -- although they suit the requirements, they are too slow to play with comfort.
We haven't touched upon situations, when a new game refuses to start up, because it requires support for some features, for example, the latest shader model. Users of ATI R3x0/R4x0 cards (ranging from RADEON 9500 to RADEON X850 XT) faced a similar problem in 2006 in several games, such as Splinter Cell: Double Agent and Rainbow Six: Vegas. They couldn't even start these games, because those required support for Shader Model 3.0. The only solution was to upgrade graphics cards.
So, the main point of this section is as follows: "Never save on a graphics card for a home and/or gaming computer. It's the most important PC part for modern 3D games!" When you choose a graphics card for a home PC, you should try to allocate maximum budget for a graphics card, unless you plan on buying a new graphics card in the nearest future. In this case, if you don't have enough money for a good graphics card at once, you may buy an integrated system with a dedicated slot for a discrete graphics card. In all other cases you should choose a graphics card that is the most powerful and expensive for your budget (so much the better if it exceeds your budget). Moreover, a graphics card in a gaming computer must be more expensive than a CPU.
Even though there is no ideal combination of a processor and a graphics card (except for the most powerful CPU and graphics card possible), there is still a range of optimal combinations. This combination differs from game to game, and this difference may be quite noticeable -- there are more CPU-intensive games (auto simulators, real time strategies) and less CPU-intensive ones (first person shooters, arcades), where CPU and GPU loads differ much.
So, a graphics card is more important for modern games than any other PC component. It's better to have a mediocre processor and a powerful graphics card than a powerful processor and a mediocre graphics card. An acceptable minimum in mid 2009 for most games is Intel Core 2 Duo E6x00/E8x00, AMD Athlon 64 X2 6000+ or better.
Unlike last-year recommendations, we do not even mention single-core CPUs, and we recommend to consider triple- and quad-core processors. Dual-core processors are still an optimal choice, but they may be insufficient for some games already. For example, Grand Theft Auto IV, where quad-core processors significantly outperform CPUs with two cores.
So you'd better buy AMD Phenom 8x50 or Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600/Q8200 and higher. Such processors in gaming computers should be accompanied by at least Mid-End graphics cards, because it's not quite reasonable to buy a new Low-End graphics card for 3D games, or couple such a processor with the most expensive High-End solution.
These are such cards as ATI RADEON HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260 -- they are the most expedient cards now that provide sufficient performance. More powerful graphics cards will be expedient rather at extremely high resolutions, and their power will be limited by relatively low CPU performance. And low-end graphics cards are generally of little use in modern games with maximum graphics quality, considering a lifespan of a fully-fledged gaming system. As a last resort, you may buy GeForce 9800 GT or RADEON HD 4830, but not slower!
In case of more powerful processors, like Intel Core 2 Quad and AMD Phenom 9x50/Phenom II, you'd better get Upper Mid-End or Lower High-End graphics cards (price ranges are described further), that is at least RADEON HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260, better still GeForce GTX 285 or RADEON HD 4890. And it goes without saying that you should choose the fastest graphics cards (even dual-GPU solutions) for the most powerful CPUs. There is no upper limit here, but the bottom limit is GeForce GTX 260 and RADEON HD 4870. In our opinion, the optimal choice here is GeForce GTX 285. And if you are not afraid of dual-GPU problems: RADEON HD 4870 X2 and GeForce GTX 295.
Summing up the CPU/GPU balance, we can say that to make a gaming system balanced, a graphics card must be 1.5-2.5 times as expensive as a CPU. It's an approximate average, but you should heed the advice.
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