iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






Graphics Card Buying Guide

As of July 31, 2009.

July 31, 2009

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Other considerations

When you choose a graphics card, you should take into account some other peculiarities, which we are going to review now. These include non-gaming usage, various features of power supply, heat emission and cooling, as well as physical dimensions.

Non-gaming usage

If you buy a graphics card for a computer that won't be used for modern 3D games, it will be non-gaming usage. For example, HTPC systems (home theaters based on computers) or computers for 2D and 3D graphics professionals. Such cases have absolutely different requirements to the graphics core, and recommendations from this article won't do here.

In case of office and basic home usage (text editors, spreadsheets, non-professional photo processing, simple games, etc) it does not matter what solution you choose. So the best choice here is a graphics core integrated into the chipset. All it has to do is to work with a display and possess primitive 3D features and performance to run modern operating systems (for example, Aero in Vista and OpenGL counterparts in Linux).

HTPC will also do better with an integrated chipset or a simple low-profile graphics card with a passive cooling system. You'd better go with modern graphics cores (even the cheapest and integrated ones) that feature powerful units for hardware video decoding. And AMD solutions have a little advantage here, as they have sterling support for hardware-assisted VC-1 video decoding. NVIDIA cards delegate some of this work to a CPU. However, hardware-assisted video decoding has lots of reefs, which cannot be covered in this article.

It's both much more complex and simpler with professional 3D graphics and similar usage. Simpler because GPU manufacturers offer special series for such tasks. More complex because such solutions are very expensive, and some users replace them with regular graphics cards. That's where you should be careful. However, such cards are beyond the scope of our guide, we deal primarily with graphics cards for games and home usage.

Power supply

As a rule, PCI Express slot does not supply enough power for most modern High-End video cards. Therefore such solutions are equipped with special 6-pin and 8-pin connectors at PCB edge (on the photo). If your PSU is new, it might offer the same connectors, so you can do without any adapters. If not, you would naturally need an adapter to plug a card to any 4-pin Molex connector.


As you can see, the most power-hungry graphics cards need two more power connectors (sometimes 6-pin and 8-pin connectors) besides the 75 W provided by PCI Express. Your PSU must be able to provide sufficient power for your graphics card. Modern High-End graphics cards and products to come in the nearest future consume up to 150-200 W. They alone require 12-18 A over a 12 V line from a power supply unit! When you choose a PSU for a powerful system, you must consider that a computer has a lot of other power consumers. Thus you should pay attention to solutions providing at least 25-30 A over 12 V lines. Mid-End graphics cards can power from PCI Express alone, but they also need high-quality power supply units. Do not save on PSUs.

Cooling and physical dimensions

The second important issue is a cooling system. As graphics cards consume much power, they dissipate much heat, which must be driven away by coolers. If there's no cooler or it's inefficient, a GPU will overheat and fail. Relatively slow graphics cards can be cooled passively with heat sinks. But most products still have active cooling systems with heat sink(s) and fan(s).

The larger heat sink surface is, the more efficient it is (if everything else is identical). It's often hard or even impossible to install a heat sink of necessary size to cool efficiently. Besides, chips are not that large anyway. Because of this vendors use heat-pipe solutions, which improve heat transfer and allow to use larger coolers on smaller chips.

A typical active cooler features a heat sink and a fan that drives air through the former. Such coolers may occupy a slot or even two. In the former case you will be able to install an expansion card into a neighbouring slot. But coolers on High-End graphics cards are often too large to fit into a single slot and will prevent you from using the next one. These solutions are usually made as turbines driving hot air outside through the rear panel. This approach improves overall cooling and reduces air temperature inside a system unit.

Big cooler

But cooler thickness is not the only obstacle. Some High-End graphics cards are also too long. Almost all modern High-End graphics cards are very long (since GeForce 8800 GTX they are usually based on 270 mm PCBs, prior to that card manufacturers had made their products 220 mm long), so they cannot be installed in some popular PC enclosures with removable HDD cages. And where they fit, only a couple of millimeters remain between the card and enclosure. You should take this into account as well, when you buy a graphics card, our reviews always mention physical dimensions.

Noiseless cooling

Another important issue for many users is noise. Some coolers on graphics cards are equipped with small high-speed fans. They are very noisy, especially when GPU temperature goes up. We can only advise you to read reviews, including ours, to choose a card that you like, because various products may differ much, unless they copy the reference design. If you want to assemble a noiseless system, you should find a fanless passively cooled product. However, these are rarely used in high-performing cards -- mostly in Mid-End products.

Passive cooler

As you can see, a passive cooler can also be large enough to pose installation problems. It might block other PC components and prevent efficient enclosure ventilation. If you want to install such cards, you should carefully plan ventilation inside your system unit.

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