How to Choose a Video Card?
By Dr. Michael and David Boss
Updated March 13, 2013
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There is a great variety of Video Cards, or Graphic Processing Units (GPUs), available for the average PC user or computer enthusiast. It's often difficult for those who aren't well versed in the technological terms to determine just what features they might need or desire. Sometimes the prices of the cards can be daunting, and it's hard to see what really differentiates one brand or iteration of a model from another. This article was written to help answer some of the key questions consumers might have about video cards and to help determine what will give them the biggest bang for their buck.
First, let's explore what a video card does. A GPU will process and interpret graphic data on behalf of your computer. It exports this data to your display in a user defined pixel resolution, such as 1920x1080 (HD). The function of the video card is to expedite the rendering of graphics with its onboard processor and memory, which shifts that burden away from the CPU. This creates a better user experience when the PC is working with graphic intensive data. This includes running Windows Aero, decoding video on YouTube, inputting TV signals, rendering 3D models, playing video games, and using multiple displays.
Motherboards and some newer CPUs (Ivy Bridge) have integrated, or built-in, graphic chipsets. With these integrated chipsets a webpage might not load as fast, and images might take a few seconds to cache in. Comparatively, most people don't know what they're missing out on in terms of the performance and speed increases that a dedicated graphics card can provide. For the light to average PC user, integrated graphics can provide a satisfying experience. However, for above average PC users a motherboard includes an expansion slot in which a dedicated graphics card can be utilized, consequently increasing performance and creating a superior experience for the user.
Conventional wisdom usually portrays video cards as something that professionals or gaming enthusiasts procure to increase their productivity or performance. A video card would have many benefits for professionals that specialize in graphic design, video editing, photo manipulation, and the rendering of 3D objects. It would increase the speed of their production and the performance of their computer under graphic stress. But let's not play down the significance that a video card could have on the average users' experience. As integrated graphics usually preoccupy a given amount of CPU bandwidth and memory storage, they can suppress your computers true potential.
There have been several breakthroughs in speed over the past decade. The main difference would be the transition away from the parallel AGP bus (dedicated to graphics) to the serial PCI express bus. PCI express in itself has progressed through the years and is currently on its third iteration, with more bandwidth now than ever before. Generally speaking, PCI Express 3.0 has the potential to transfer data up to 16 times faster than AGP.
Video card speed is generally determined by three factors: chipset speed, amount of memory, and the speed of the memory. There are two main chipset brands, Radeon and GeForce, produced by AMD and Nvidia respectively. AMD uses the GCN architecture, codenamed Tahiti, on a 28nm chip which is optimized for gaming and computing. With 28 compute units, each with 64 vector units, that makes for up to 1792 stream processors backed by 3GBs GDDR5 of 384-bit memory. Nvidia uses a Kepler GPU architecture which they designed from the ground up to maximize performance not only in DirectX 11 games, but in performance per watt as well. Their SMX streaming multiprocessor is twice as efficient as prior generations. With some of their more popular GeForce cards, Nvidia has achieved 1344 CUDA cores on 2GBs of 256-bit GDDR5. It should be noted that AMD's stream processors and Nvidia's CUDA cores are not directly comparable, so the difference in number of cores does not necessarily correlate to a disparity in performance.
Having an ample amount of memory for your GPU is often a major consideration when purchasing a newer generation card. But keep in mind that speed matters as well. For example, let's say that you have two cards to compare. The first card has 1GB of 256-bit GDDR5 and the second card has 2GBs of 128-bit GDDR5. While having an extra gigabyte of memory on the second card may seem like an immediate advantage, the speed of the memory is critical in performance. That is to say, the 1GB of 256-bit GDDR5 will run faster than your 2GBs of 128-bit GDDR5, while also giving greater performance (in most circumstances).
For those who are looking for a great HD experience (1080p), than they should note that certain video cards have been designed with this is mind. An example of this would be Nvidia's 600 series. Their GeForce 660ti or 670 would allow users to maximize most, if not all, of their video settings when playing any game in HD. Another example would be AMD's Radeon 7700 series (or above). These Radeon cards would also allow users to generate the maximum amount of performance when running HD resolutions on graphic intensive applications.
It would behoove of me to mention that your monitor may need to be upgraded in order for you to fully utilize the true potential of newer generation GPUs. Playing a game in 1920x1080 is only possible if your monitor allows for or supports it. If you desire this experience for gaming and computing, be sure you have the proper hardware to make that happen. This means that if you're still using an old CRT monitor, then you're really not pushing the envelope of your video output. Upgrade to a new widescreen LCD or LED monitor with 16:9 ratio capability and 1080p support. Also, you should determine if your current motherboard has a PCI express slot that supports newer video cards. If not, it may be time to upgrade your board as well.
Criteria for an average user: If you're an average computer user, than you might not find a dedicated graphics card as valuable as other power users. If you're doing simple computer tasks like working with spread sheets, word processing, and e-mail, an inexpensive video card of an older series would do just fine. For these users, price may be the most important factor. You may even be able to get away with just using the integrated graphics of your current CPU, if it has this capability.
Criteria for an above average user: If you're an above average user and surf the web on a daily basis in addition to other common PC tasks, a video card is a must and may be optimal for your user experience. Modest speed and price should be the main factors of consideration. You don't need the bleeding edge technology that computing enthusiasts often seek. You will notice that web pages load their graphics faster and YouTube videos should buffer quickly as well (this experience may vary depending on your internet speed).
Criteria for a professional graphic user: If you're a graphic designer, video editor, or CAD worker, speed and performance are the most critical factors for you. A video card with high-resolution capabilities and a large amount (3-6GBs) of fast memory (256-384 bit) is recommended. This will provide you with an excellent rendering time and keep you waiting less while working more. Keep in mind that HD (1080p) is also determined, or limited by, your monitor's maximum resolution.
Criteria for a gaming user: By definition, gamers love high speed, especially raw processing and memory speed. They often choose the most advanced chipset with the highest amount of memory. Although, there is often a budget buy available that gives them the middle ground among these two factors. The most advanced, and often most expensive, video cards are designed for gamers. Keep in mind that these higher-end gaming cards can add quite a bit of ambient heat to your case. It is advised that you buy a mid-tower or full-tower case with ample amounts of fans to keep your systems heat at an acceptable level. You may even consider getting a card with water cooling built in for maximum heat management.
We hope that this article has been of some aide for you in your process of determining what video card to buy. If you have any questions, comments, queries, or concerns, please don't hesitate to leave a review at the bottom of the page or post on our forums.
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