If your PC video games seem slow and choppy or you want to use your PC to create graphics or edit videos, you may need a better graphics card than the one that came with your system. This graphics card guide explains what graphics cards are and what to look for when purchasing a new one. With the many choices available, it's important to understand what to focus on and what to ignore when comparing features. We'll clear this up and help you make your decision with this graphics card buying guide.
What Are Graphics Cards?
Your graphics card, just like your PC, has its own processor and memory. It is designed to help take the load off your computer's processor and memory systems when displaying video on your monitor.
The graphics card is slotted into the motherboard and can be easily removed from your desktop machine for a replacement or upgrade.
Deciphering Graphics Card Names
The first thing you'll notice about different graphics cards is that there is a lot of information packed into the product titles. Some manufacturers list all the specs of the card in the title, while others use confusing custom terms.
The primary things you need to look for are what processor the card runs, the amount of memory you want, and the number of bits built in. The rest often represents marketing hype or features only dedicated tech-heads care about; we'll skip those unnecessary details in this graphics card guide.
Which Processor Is the Best?
ATI and NVIDIA are the two main manufacturers of graphics cards processors, with very few other companies competing in this realm. In addition to the processor, other elements including memory, output ports, and a few other features will be combined to create a complete graphics card. Cards from these two chip manufacturers come in a wide price range, and neither has a significant lead over the other in any key features we discuss in this graphics card guide.
ATI chipsets are found in the Radeon line of graphics cards, while products with NVIDIA processors are labeled as GeForce. You'll see three or four digits after the card's name, such as GeForce 630 or Radeon 4350. Typically the larger the first number, the newer the card. For example, a Radeon 4350 is newer than a 4100 but not newer than a card in the 5000 line.
A graphics card's processor is the single biggest factor in its performance, so try to get the best you can afford. But no graphics card guide can recommend a card based on processor alone; memory and number of bits factor in as well.
How Much Memory Do You Need?
The amount of memory (RAM) you need is dictated by whatever program you use that prompted you to upgrade your graphics card. Look at the video game or graphics program box for a recommended amount of memory needed for the graphics card. You may want a little more memory than that, to hedge against future software that will inevitably be hungry for even more memory.
Games and graphics or video editing programs love to use all the memory they can get to provide increased performance. A good graphics card guide rule of thumb is that more is always better, with higher-end cards being required for cutting-edge (3D) video games and graphics or video editing software.
How Many Bits Do You Need?
Graphics cards range from 64- to 512-bit. These numbers represent how quickly information travels between the processor and the memory. Another graphics card guide rule of thumb is that a good, budget-friendly card should have at least 128 bits, while a higher-end one should have at least 256.
Where to Start Your Search
The best thing this graphics card buying guide can recommend to begin your search is to look at how much you are willing to spend and what you plan to use your graphics card for. Cards that cost less than $100 can still give solid performance with demanding software like video games, though you will not likely be able to turn on all the flashy video options within the game. Top-end graphics cards (more than $500) allow you to play games in all their full glory with visual settings on maximum, or work with graphics and video editing programs with less slowdown.
Plenty of mid-range options between $200-300 can give you great performance without breaking the bank.
The graphics cards in older computers were placed in a PCI or AGP slot, but newer models almost all use a PCI Express slot. Be sure to check the manual your computer came with to find out the graphics card slot type before you purchase a new card.
Another thing this graphics card guide recommends keeping in mind concerns output ports. Graphics cards come with a port where you can plug in your monitor, but if you also want to connect an HDTV television to your PC, look for a card with an HDMI port.
We hope this graphics card guide has helped you understand what graphics cards are and which card is right for you. Remember to de-emphasize the confusing language found in graphics card descriptions and focus in on the processor, memory, and number of bits. You'll find the card that is right for you and doesn't break your budget.