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Graphics Card Buying Guide

As of July 31, 2009.

July 31, 2009



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GPUs, models, and vendors

It's been easy to choose a GPU vendor for a graphics card in recent years. In fact, there are only two major vendors in the market of discrete GPUs: NVIDIA and AMD. These two companies produce most GPUs for discrete graphics cards today, and you should only consider their products, when you choose a gaming graphics card.


ATI logo NVIDIA logo

Not long ago you could find rare graphics cards based on GPUs from other vendors, e.g., S3 Graphics, a division of VIA Technologies. They were not a global success and were sold mostly in the Chinese market. These products should only be considered from the historical point of view, although this vendor still designs modern GPUs and even announces new products from time to time. The third powerful player should enter the market in future (Intel), but it will hardly happen in 2009.

The most interesting graphics card series (at the time this article was updated) are ATI RADEON HD 4800 and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 200. Cards from these series are expedient in performance and features, they all support DirectX 10, and the ATI card -- even DX 10.1. These solutions were rather expensive last year, and some of them were available only in the High-End segment. But now they are present in all market segments, starting from $100 (AMD products).

The choice between ATI and NVIDIA is always not simple. Each price range has its own leaders, so it's hard to point out the best vendor. Besides, each series of graphics cards has its pros and cons. For example, NVIDIA GeForces do not support DirectX 10.1 API yet, but they feature the actively promoted hardware-assisted physics computing -- NVIDIA PhysX. In return, all ATI solutions evidently have higher peak performance of arithmetic units, which may have a positive effect on performance in some modern games. NVIDIA can oppose NVIDIA CUDA and 3D Vision. So we can say that they differ in functionality, but not always obviously.

Choosing a model

If you are not ready to pay any price for performance and prefer reasonable expenses, there is no point in pursuing High-End solutions. The best choice would be Mid-End (or Upper Mid-End) graphics cards, able to provide comfortable framerates and high-quality image in all modern games at decent, if not maximum, settings.

You can choose a model of the preferred price range using information from our i3DSpeed and graphics card references. As the latter are too large, they are published as separate articles and updated regardless of this guide:

But since these references list only theoretical features of all existing modern graphics cards, it would be hard to draw final conclusions based on them. Still it's very convenient to make your choice based on the i3DSpeed (former 3Digest). This large monthly review sums up and compares graphics cards performance in the latest games and describes quality issues. It also provides necessary screenshot galleries and lists games bugs.

What's more important -- it provides graphics card ratings, which show relative performance with price taken into account ("usability ratings"). According to ratings, you will be able to find the most expedient solution with the best price/performance/features ratio. Our recommendations on how to choose GPUs and cards using the i3D-Speed are published in the last part of this guide. We'll periodically update them to keep up with the rapidly changing market.

Choosing a vendor

AMD and NVIDIA do not sell ready graphics cards. That is done by their partners, including ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, Sapphire, Foxconn, BFG, Gainward, Leadtek, Chaintech, Palit, XFX and many others. All of them, including smaller market players, manufacture and sell graphics cards based on GPUs from the two companies mentioned above. All these solutions have their pros and cons, important or not. Let's find out what you should pay attention to and what you may ignore, considering all the previous information on graphics cards.

In the past graphics cards used to have drawbacks because most vendors were designing and manufacturing cards on their own. Sometimes they made mistakes, so users had problems with stability, image quality, overheating, etc. Now that most graphics cards copy reference designs, most problems are gone. Now you can mostly stumble upon bad coolers or slower memory chips. But this usually happens in the Low-End and Lower Mid-End markets, being quite rare in the High-End world.

The absolute majority of High-End graphics cards are manufactured at certain plants by orders of AMD and NVIDIA. Their partners buy ready graphics cards and sell them under their trademarks. These companies sometimes change cooling systems, use their labels, complete bundles, etc. Even coolers are rarely modified on expensive cards -- all vendors mostly offer identical products with different labels. Sometimes there are clock rates differences, if NVIDIA or AMD grant permission for overclocked modifications.



As you can see, these products differ only in cooler labels. And this is about all High-End products! In due time RADEON X800 and GeForce 6800 were the top -- manufactured only by ATI and NVIDIA orders. All other companies just had to buy ready cards. Same with RADEON X1800 and GeForce 7800. And so forth, including the modern RADEON HD 4890/HD 4870 X2 and GeForce GTX 285/GTX 295. And only when (and if) solutions descend to Low-End, ATI and NVIDIA start selling GPUs to their partners, so that they can manufacture cards on their own. Of course, this does not happen with every solution. Some just disappear, being replaced with newer models, and no vendors produce them on their own.

So, High-End cards are nearly identical. There is only a few improved models. But the situation with cheaper cards is more diverse. Low-End solutions, especially OEM ones (boxless, in anti-static bags) require special attention. In this case you should read reviews at our website. You should pay special attention to installed memory, if it's not covered by heat sinks. That's where budget solution vendors often try to save money. However, you can rarely come across cards with memory that is faster than necessary.

Even though all top graphics cards are identical and are manufactured at the same fabs from the same components under control of GPU vendors, some of them still have increased clock rates. Such products are just tested by graphics card vendors in their laboratories after they are bought from GPU vendors. Labs select graphics cards that can operate at increased clock rates. Graphics cards that failed tests are used as regular products with standard clock rates, while selected cards are sold under a different name.

It's actually impossible to advise you a certain vendor, because much depends on a given graphics card. We can only give basic recommendations. You should buy retail products, because OEM ones may differ from official specifications by reduced clock rates, etc. -- this often happens with cheaper graphics cards. On the other hand, it's also wrong to blindly distrust OEM products. Some of them are quite decent and have reference features at lower prices.

You shouldn't buy the first product you see. Before you buy a card, you should study its reviews (e.g. here and here), and see how it looks along with its bundle. Thus you will be sure you'll get what you want. Special attention should be paid to features listed on the box. Vendors often provide model names, modifications, clock rates, and other technical specifications mentioned in this guide.

Speaking of those almost identical expensive graphics cards (Upper Mid-End and High-End) manufactured at the same fab, it's preferable to choose solutions with improved non-reference cooling systems, because they are often better in terms of efficiency and noise. In other respects, you should be guided by price, bundle, and warranty in the first place.


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