How To Buy Graphics Cards!

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9/17/2012 9:19:35 PM

We help you learn what to look for when buying a graphics card

Choosing which graphics card to buy is rarely an easy or straightforward task. Since most of us only upgrade them every couple of years, we have just enough time to forget what to look for before we have to learn it all over again. In particular, the constant turnover of models means that trying to select the latest or most powerful cards can feel like a gamble if you aren't careful.

That said, a new graphics card is one of the smartest choices available if you want to spend a large amount of money on an upgrade for your PC. Although you might be most familiar with them as gaming accessories, a good graphics card can improve your computer in ways that stretch to almost all areas of use, and for that reason, picking one requires careful consideration.

Description: a graphics card

If you're hoping to run the best games on your PC, you need a card capable of bringing them to life in enough detail to do them justice, and no amount of extra processor cores or additional RAM sticks can improve the way games look as much as installing a new graphics card would. But further than that, graphics cards can give you access to higher resolutions on your Windows desktop, allow you to view movies in 3D, or add support for multiple simultaneous monitors. Their role in general computing shouldn't be downplayed.

Especially if you're not a gamer, it's quite likely that the only graphics chipset in your PC is the bog-standard one that came with your motherboard. On-board chipsets are more than adequate for basic computer operation, but they're never impressive and only rarely do anything more than the absolute minimum. So assuming you want to upgrade your PC with a new graphics card, where do you start?

How much should you spend?

With graphics cards, the sky's the limit in terms of performance and quality. The more money you spend, the better the results will be. That said, unless you have an absolutely top-end system, there comes a point where you're probably paying for capacity you won't use (read the 'Technical Constraints' section for more details on that). Still, if you can afford it, there's little reason not to buy the best graphics cards on the market, which could mean you end up spending as much as $640 to $800 for high-end GeForce 600-series or Radeon 7900-series cards. Both costly, but with the performance to match.

If you can't afford the best (and most of us can't), you'll want to look for the best value cards instead. One good way to save money is to drop back a series and buy a slightly older card. The Radeon 6000-series and the GeForce 500-series both provide cards that are still competitive but should be substantially cheaper against the best cards of the current generation.

Description: Flex Sapphire hd 7870

Alternatively, if you want to get something from the mid-field, aim for cards that are priced around $320, give or take 20%. Cards at this price level are still good enough to be worth paying for, but not so neutered that they'll start struggling after a year. Of course, if you still use your on-board GPU and don't have a graphics card at all, anything is better than nothing, so don't be afraid of buying cheaper technology if you can't spend more.

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

There are two major companies producing graphics chipsets - AMD and NVidia - both of which have their own sets of perks and quirks. The thing is, neither manufacturer is substantially better than the other in any substantial way. NVidia cards are slightly faster under their current iteration, but not noticeably. Furthermore, AMD cards are slightly cheaper, offsetting any differences.

If you're running an AMD-based system already, it's more likely that your motherboard and CPU will have features that can combine with AMD's Radeon graphics cards, and the same is true for Intel systems and NVidia GeForce cards. Essentially, though, the two brands are equivalent to one another. Especially at the high end of the market, performance is functionally indistinguishable from game-to-game.

This means that you can probably base your considerations on price alone, and in that case, AMD cards tend to be slightly cheaper. Even then, you're only looking at a saving of maybe £10 or $32, so you can safely investigate the actual features of the card instead. Does it have the right ports you want? Does it have one or two fans? Is it double-height or not? Those factors are all more important to you, ultimately, than the manufacturer you choose.

It's worth noting that the structure of the graphics card industry is a little unusual. Although AMD and NVidia design and produce the GPU chips that power their cards, both companies sell those GPUs to other manufacturers, who produce their own versions of the graphics cards based on AMD and NVidia's specs. The original design of the card is called a 'reference' version, but card manufacturers - companies such as Sapphire, Gainward, MSI and their ilk - may add features not seen on the reference cards. Extra ports, additional fans, and factory overclocks are just three things you might get from one manufacturer but not from another. Even after you've picked a card model, you may find yourself comparing two competing versions of the same product.

The key thing here is not to split hairs. Unless you're specifically after a premium overclocked model or want a second HDMI port that's unavailable on another card, there's no reason to avoid (or select) a particular manufacturer. As long as the GPU is the same, there's no need to worry too much over the slight performance differences from one manufacturer to another.

Description: Radeon HD 7850

What technology should you look for?

Graphics cards are incredibly complicated components, in many ways akin to an entire computer in and of themselves. Once you know the price range you're looking for, you need to compare the technical qualities of a card. This is how to do that.

The GPU is the most important part to pay attention to. Although the model numbers and price give you a rough guide as to how good a graphics card is, cards in the same model line can sometimes contain different GPUs, and some may even be renamed versions of older cards using an older GPU. For reference, the latest-generation GPUs are Kepler (for NVidia cards) and Tahiti (for AMD).

Another thing to take note of is that memory, in graphics card terms, is only worth comparing against cards of similar capabilities. A 1GB Radeon HD 7850 is worse than a 2GB Radeon HD 7850, but they'll both offer better overall performance than a 2GB Radeon HD 7770. Decide how much memory you want last, because its impact will be small in overall terms. The exception is 3D cards. If you're planning to run games in 3D, you want as much RAM as possible, since your graphics card will be rendering twice the number of frames.

Is now the right time to buy?

At the time of writing, NVidia and AMD are just about to release their latest earnings reports, and economists have cut the profit estimates for both companies ahead of what are believed to be poor results. Financial uncertainty means that prices and supplies become volatile, but it's hard to say how. They may cut prices t try to sell more units, but they may also try to restrict supply so that product isn't left to depreciate on shelves.

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The constant turnover of the graphics card industry does, however, guarantee that whenever you buy a card, it'll turn up substantially cheaper in a few months and will be replaced by a much better model within a year. That means that there's almost no such thing as a good time to buy. You can buy a graphics card whenever you like and it'll follow the same trajectory.

That said, NVidia's latest chips are moving to a 28nm fabrication process, which means that their latest technology is the most advanced and energy efficient. AMD will move its own graphics cards chips to 28nm (from 40nm) next year, so be aware that these developments are coming and plan your purchase accordingly. Such shifts are less frequent than most development cycles, so if you can wait for a 28nm-based card, you'll be marginally more future-proof than before.

As components, graphics cards have a long lifespan when properly cared for, and can run in a PC for over five years without wearing out. Overclocked cards, or those that are subject to heavy use may wear out faster, but in all likelihood, the card will become obsolete before that happens. To keep playing the best games at reasonable speeds, you should expect to upgrade your graphics card once every two years, give or take a few months.

What are the technical constraints?

The thing to remember about graphics cards, from a technical perspective, is that they're so powerful that if you spend too much on one, you might find that the other components in your PC actually limit its capabilities. Before buying a card, you need to make sure that your PC is good enough to handle it.

For example, there's little point buying a graphics card so that you can run games at higher-than-HD resolutions if your monitor's native resolution is only 1920x1080 (or even lower). Games look best when you run them at the same resolution as your monitor, because it means every virtual pixel corresponds with an actual one. At resolutions higher or lower than the native one, visual information has to be artificially inserted or dropped in order to make the picture fit the screen, so even a substantially better graphics card might mean you end up with a edges that actually look more jagged under those circumstances.

And, of course, if you're planning to make use of your graphics card's 3D capabilities, make sure you have a 120MHz monitor. Most are 60Hz, but because of the way 3D images work, the monitor needs to update twice as fast to achieve a 60Hz framerate.

Similarly, you need to make sure that your power supply is sufficient to run a graphics card. The average power supply currently runs at around 450 to 500W, but efficiencies vary and some lose a lot of wattage to heat conversion. The best graphics cards can draw 300W or more just by themselves when running at full pelt, which might mean that if you buy a top-end card without upgrading your PSU, your PC might not actually be able to power itself when you try to play a game.

You may also encounter problems if there isn't enough amperage on the 12V rail (found on the 20+4-pin PSU connectors) so ensuring that your PC contains a high-quality PSU is key to running a high-end graphics card. Be sure to investigate the power requirements of any card before you buy it!

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Finally, make sure you have a CPU that can actually handle the games and software you're planning to run. Although graphics cards can assume the bulk of the burden normally handled by the processor, you'll find that certain features are still CPU-intensive. If you only have a slow Core i3, don't think that buying a pair of top-end card will allow you to run high-res 3D games on multiple monitors!

What's The Alternative?

If you don't want to splurge on a graphics card, you have two main options that you could pursue instead:

1.    Improve Your CPU

A CPU upgrade is another way to improve general performance in your PC in ways similar to installing a new graphics card. You'll get faster-running games and smoother overall performance. However, CPU upgrades are just as costly as graphics cards upgrades and less specialized, so there's no guarantee that the performance improvements will be as good as you're hoping. Indeed, this is only really an option worth taking if you don't play many games and want to see general improvements in applications, multimedia or otherwise.

2.    Make The Most Of What You Have

If you're only a casual game-player, your on-board graphics card might be enough to get by. Intel's Sandy/Ivy Bridge GPU components (Intel HD Graphics) are capable of running most games at reasonable speeds and capabilities if you turn off some of the more intensive features, such as real-time shadows and such cosmetic flourishes.

Alternatively, before you buy a new card, you could try overclocking your current one. If you're resigned to a new purchase anyway, it's worth a shot - though be aware that it could damage it irreparably if you don't choose your overclocking levels carefully.