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A Beginner’s Guide to PC Video Cards: Choosing A Card

Thursday, March 13th, 2014 by | Filed Under: Hardware & Peripherals

The video card is an essential component in a gamer or home theater’s buff’s setup. It can be the difference between mediocre graphics performance and screaming fast high definition goodness! Like most things these days, you often get what you pay for, but how do you know where to begin? In a previous article, we discussed how to identify what type of card you currently have on your system. Now, we look at what you need to know before purchasing a new card. 

How Do I Pick a New Card?

If you find that the video card you already have is not up to the task, then it’s time to go shopping. However, be prepared to find a wide variety of options. Video cards can be bought for as little as $30 but can cost as much as $900 or more.

With such a wide range for prices, you need to know how to narrow things down a bit, so here are a few of the key considerations to bear in mind when choosing a new video card.

  • Brands: Basically you will be looking for either an AMD (Radeon) or an NVIDIA (GeForce) card. There are other third-party manufacturers like ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI, but they all make variations of existing AMD or NVIDIA technologies, so my original statement stands. These two are the brand leaders in this market. Does it matter which one you get? Not really. Many are loyal to one brand or the other, but both have comparable models. Speaking of which…
  • Models: Video cards work off a fairly predictable numbering system. Basically the higher the number, the better the video card. Right now, NVIDIA, for example, have their 700 series, which is about as good as you can get from NVIDIA. The 780 is better than the 770, which is better than the 760 and so forth down the line. AMD is a little different. They have their 7000 series cards, which are superseded by their 8000 cards, but then you go up to the R7, while the R9 cards are the absolute top of the line right now. With this in mind you should be able to judge what is a top, middle and low-end card.
  • GPU: The brains of your computer is the CPU (Central Processing Unit), but when it comes to video cards, the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is the crucial component. The more powerful the GPU is, the greater the card’s ability is to handle intense graphics applications like games and videos. A GPU is rated in megahertz (MHz), just like a CPU.
  • RAM: More RAM does not always mean a better card, because it works in tandem with the GPU to determine the overall speed of the card. Just know that there are different kinds of RAM, and that the newer RAM is faster than the older RAM. DDR2 for instance, is not as fast as DDR3, which in turn is not as speedy as DDR5. However, when comparing two like for like cards, or for displaying high resolution content on a screen, more RAM is almost always a good thing.
  • Cost: Like I said earlier, you kind of get what you pay for with video cards, so buy what you can afford but watch out for rebates. If you buy your video card at online retailers like newegg or Tiger Direct, you will often find you can lower your final cost of ownership with a mail-in rebate.

Of course, there are other things to consider like the maximum resolution of the card vs the resolution of the display you are going to use it on. So, check the card supports the resolution you want to show it on. Cards also vary in size, so make sure that you have the space you need inside your PC, and some need additional power to make them run, but that may depend on your PC and how powerful its power supply unit is.

Last, but not least, if you want to compare some video cards side by side, check out the comparison charts at Tom’s Hardware for some up to date comparisons.

~ Jonathan Wylie

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