Graphics Card Features to Look for When Upgrading
Having a terrific graphics card isn’t all about blasting aliens to kingdom come. A fast 3D video card can speed up the display of digital video and even the operating system eye candy provided by Windows 7 and 8. Here's what to look for when considering a video card upgrade.
Although today’s video cards look like any other typical adapter cards, they usually fit only into a dedicated PCI Express video card slot, so check your motherboard manual or PC manual to make sure that your machine will accept a PCI Express video card.
However, after you install a PCI Express video card, you enjoy the fastest possible video performance; if you’re a hard-core gamer, any new machine you build or buy should be equipped with a PCI Express video slot! (In fact, most high-performance motherboards now include a second — or even third — PCI Express slot, allowing you to use multiple video cards to catapult your gaming performance through the roof!
Rate the performance of a particular card while you’re shopping by checking the box or the manufacturer’s website for benchmark results that you can use to compare with other cards.
The differences among chipsets
You won’t find many differences among chipsets, which are the separate graphics processing unit (GPU) brains that power today’s top 3D video cards. The two major players in the PC video card chipset battle are
NVIDIA: The cutting-edge crew at NVIDIA has produced some of the fastest video cards for the PC in recent years — currently, they offer the GeForce series of processors.
AMD: ATI Technologies is now a division of AMD, but the company has been producing popular video chipsets for well over a decade now, including the current AMD Radeon line of performance graphics processors.
Here’s the payoff for you, the consumer: The fastest offerings from either company deliver more performance than PC gamers are likely to need for at least six months. However, a powerful video card also appeals to videographers and photographers who demand super–high-resolution images — Photoshop, Lightroom, and Premiere are perfect examples of programs that will take everything your card has and then some, especially on multiple-monitor setups.
Other video card features that you’ll want
Naturally, you can evaluate more than just chipsets and connectors when comparing video cards. Keep an eye out for these features and specifications while you shop:
Onboard random access memory (RAM): Like your motherboard, your video card carries its own supply of memory. Today’s cards typically have anywhere from 128MB to 2GB of memory. Again, the general rule is to buy a card with as much onboard RAM as possible. More RAM equals higher resolutions, more colors onscreen and the best special effects.
Driver and standards support: Any PC video card should fully support the Microsoft DirectX video standards — now at DirectX 11.0 for Windows 7 and 8 (or DirectX 10.0 for Windows Vista). Gamers will also appreciate robust OpenGL support (an open video standard that’s becoming very popular in 3D action games). Support for these standards should be listed on the product’s box.
Maximum resolution: The higher the resolution a card can produce, the more your monitor can display at once — and not just in games, but documents, digital photographs, and your Windows Desktop. Today’s cards can reach truly epic resolutions, such as 2560 x 1600.
The maximum resolution you can display on your system also depends on the monitor you’re using. Therefore, if you upgrade to the latest video card but you’re still using an old clunker of a monitor with a maximum resolution of 1024 x 768, you’re stuck there. (Time to invest in a new display.)
Video capture and TV output: A card with these features can create digital video footage from an analog TV signal (that’s the video capture part) and transfer the image you see on your monitor to a TV, VCR, or camcorder (the TV output part). If you want to create video CDs or DVDs from your home movies on VHS tape, spend a little extra on a video capture/TV output card.
TV tuner: A card with a built-in TV tuner can turn your PC into a TV set, including giving you the ability to pause and replay programs on the fly (like how a TiVo unit works with a regular TV). You can use a traditional high-definition digital TV antenna or connect the card to your cable or satellite system.
Multiple monitor support: Most new video cards allow you to connect two monitors to one card. This is considered a must-have for video editing and 3D or CAD work, and hardcore gamers crave that extra real estate as well. You can either see two separate Desktops or make the two monitors into a seamless Desktop. Imagine the size of your Windows workspace when it’s spread across two displays!
MPEG hardware support: Digital video is typically stored in MPEG, AVI, or MOV formats. (The most popular is the MPEG format.) Without the compression that these video formats offer (which shrinks the size of the digital video file), you would never squeeze a full-length movie on a single DVD.
Although your PC can use software to encode (create a compressed MPEG file) and decode (read a compressed MPEG file) MPEG files on your hard drive or DVDs, a video card with built-in encoding and decoding features can really speed up the process.
This hardware support is particularly valuable if you’re going to do serious video editing on your PC because you cut down the amount of time required to save your movies to disk.