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Great Gaming PCs Need Great Graphics Cards

A major element in any great gaming PC is the graphics card — in fact, most of the hard-core gaming community have graphics cards (in the plural) because most of the current crop of cards are designed to link together to provide even faster frame rates and detail.

And that, friends and neighbors, is what it's all about: Today's games provide 3D realism, Photoshop-quality visual effects, and a level of display complexity that would have been absolutely unthinkable a mere five years ago.

However, your PC must be able to deliver those details at an acceptable frame rate (that's the number of times the game can update the image you see, expressed as frames per second or FPS). If the frame rate is too low, the fluid motion you expect from the game slows to a jerky crawl.

Today's PC games require at least 30 FPS (some can accommodate frame rates of over 100 FPS), and you can achieve that minimum 30 FPS in one of two ways:

  • Provide the performance. If your PC's graphics hardware is up to the task, you can enjoy every detail and every 3D effect at the full settings, and at the full resolutions supported by today's high-definition monitors.

  • Turn stuff off. If your graphics aren't fast enough for today's games, you'll have to disable details and 3D effects in order to reach that 30 FPS mark, significantly reducing the experience. You may also have to reduce the resolution of your system while you play. (In layman's terms, your game certainly won't look like it did on the back of the box.)

No need for speculation upon which option a hard-core gamer will choose.

Today's graphics cards carry their own on-board processors (called GPUs, short for graphics processing units), so don't be confused. There is more than one processor: the CPU, which resides on your motherboard, and the GPU, which resides on your motherboard (for integrated graphics hardware) or on a PCI adapter card (for a dedicated graphics card).

With the latest features in mind, here's what to look for when shopping for high-end video cards from AMD and NVIDIA:

  • DirectX 11 support. Games running on Windows Vista, 7, and 8 can use Microsoft's DirectX 11 graphics software to provide the most complex and detailed effects currently available on a PC. Any card you're considering should support DirectX 11.

  • A minimum of 1GB of on-board memory. Most of the current crop of cards carry either 1 or 2GB of RAM on the card — this is dedicated graphics memory, so it's separate from your PC's system RAM.

  • A minimum of one on-board fan. Again, adequate cooling is an absolute necessity for a high-performance gaming graphics card.

  • PCI Express 3.0 x16 connector. Today's fastest graphics cards use a PCI Express 3.0 x16 slot on your motherboard. If you're unsure what type of card slots are available on your PC, check your user manual (or your motherboard's manual).

  • Support for linking cards. Cards with NVIDIA processors can use SLI, while AMD cards offer CrossFireX — both technologies involve linking multiple cards together using cables. (Note that the cards must use the same brand of GPU, so choose the cards carefully and make sure that they are compatible — many gamers choose two of the same cards. Naturally, your motherboard also needs more than one dedicated graphics card slot.)

  • HDMI and DVI ports. Cards with both DVI and HDMI ports can connect to a wide range of monitors and HD TVs.

Pay close attention to graphic benchmark results while shopping for a new PC, motherboard, or graphics card. Most of the gaming community uses 3DMark 11 benchmark software from Futuremark when comparing specific cards. Hardware review sites like Tom's Hardware are a great resource when shopping, and it always helps to be able to benchmark your current graphics hardware as a starting point.

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