Buying a new computer can be an expensive ordeal. When you go to a big box retailer or manufacturer, you often pay for components you don’t need or get overcharged for the ones you do. The best solution is to build your own computer. What most people don’t realize is it’s actually surprisingly easy to do. To help you design your next computer, or just to become familiar with what to look for, WorldStart is doing a 10-part series on the components you’ll need to build your own computer.
In each part, I’ll offer recommendations on the components discussed. I’ll recommend parts to accommodate those both looking for value and those looking for high performance. Since manufacturers are always updating styles and features, your final decision should be based on your own judgment, aided by the knowledge you gain from these articles. You know what you want from your PC, I’m here to help you design it.
Part Eight: Graphics Card
The graphics card is responsible for processing and outputting video to your monitor. Many processors feature an integrated graphics chip which can perform most of the basic day-to-day video tasks. Dedicated video cards are ideal for more advanced functions like playing video games or using applications that can be sped up by dedicated video hardware. When it comes to graphics cards, the terminology is very important to understand.
Dedicated / Integrated: This term explains whether the graphics chip is built into the processor or on a discreet video adapter. In general, dedicated cards perform faster then integrated graphics cards because dedicated graphics cards feature larger, specialized chips and memory to perform graphics functions.
Clock Speed / Memory Speed: The clock speed is rates the speed of the graphics card and its memory performance. This measurement isn’t as important, as most graphics cards improvements are based on their core design and not their clock speed. Only compare clock speed / memory speed between same model/generation cards. Example: ATI 7850 860 MHz vs. ATI 7850 900 MHz.
Memory Type/Size: The memory on the graphics card is used to process information on the card and is a critical component. Integrated graphics cards will share a portion of main memory, while dedicated cards will have separate memory on the card. GDDR5 memory is significantly faster then DDR3 memory and at least 1 GB of memory is ideal.
Memory Interface: The memory interface is a measure of how much information the memory can transfer at any one time, larger interfaces like 256 bit or 384 bit provide more bandwidth then the same memory type on a 128 bit interface.
Cores / EU’s: The cores of execution units (EU’s) are similar to a processor’s individual cores and relate to how much information can be processed at one time. This is only relevant when comparing the same generation of cards to differentiate between models. Example: One model in the 600 series of Nvidia cards may have 1392 cores where the higher model may have 1536.
Ports: The ports on a video card are the way you connect a monitor to the card. Most modern graphics cards will feature at least one DVI or HDMI port. Higher end graphics cards often have multiple ports and can connect multiple displays at the same time.
Interface: This refers to the type of slot that connects the card to your computer. Most modern video cards will use a PCI-E x16. PCI-E 3.0 x16 is the latest standard for dedicated video cards, but many motherboards only include a PCI-E 2.0 x16 slot. The good news is a PCI-E 3.0 x16 card will work in a PCI-E 2.0 x16 slot, just at a slower maximum transfer rate than if it was in the native PCI-E 3.0 slot.
Power Requirements: Most dedicated video cards will require a certain wattage of power supply and require dedicated 6 pin PCI-E power connectors. Most 500 watt or higher power supplies will include these dedicated connectors.
If your computer has integrated graphics and you’re only doing web browsing, e-mail and other typical office tasks, there is no need to buy a dedicated graphics card. If you want to start playing games or take advantage of graphics card accelerated apps, then upgrading to a dedicated card is definitely worth the money.
Budget Graphics Card – EVGA GeForce GTX 650 Ti BOOST 1GB 01G-P4-3656-KR – $149.99
The GeForce GTX 550 Ti Boost edition is a fantastic card offering very pleasan game-playing experience at 1080p with medium to high setting depending on the game. The card features factory overclocked processor and memory timings, and has output ports for HDMI, DisplayPort and two DVI connections. For legacy VGA monitors, uses it comes with a DVI to VGA adapter. The card requires a 450 watt power supply and a dedicated 6 pin PCI-E port and works in both PCI-E 3.0 x16 and PCI 2.0 x16 slots.
Premium Graphics Card – XFX Double D Radeon HD 7970 3GB FX797ATDJC – $299.99
The Radeon 7970 Double D edition is an amazingly fast card which recently took a huge price drop to become a true value among performance video cards. At resolutions up to 2560×1600, you can max out every setting in a game and still have 30+ frames per second of smooth gameplay. The card features a factory overclocked processor and memory timings, and has output ports for HDMI, 2x mini DisplayPort and two DVI connections. The card currently comes with your choice of three games plus Crysis 3, which boosts the already great value.
The card requires a 500 watt power supply and two dedicated 6 pin PCI-E power connectors, and works in both PCI-E 3.0 x16 and PCI 2.0 x16 slots. I’d recommend a 650 watt power supply though, because if your buying this card you’re likely to also have some other power-hungry devices in your system. For maximum bandwidth, use it in the PCI-E 3.0 x16 slot if your motherboard has one. If I had to complain about the card, it would be the fact that AMD is not always as fast with driver updates and optimizations as Nvidia.
P.S. If you’re set on a performance video card but want a Nvidia card for the driver updates, a good alternative would be the Asus GeForce GTX 670 GTX670-DC2OG-2GD5 for $329.99.