If you have chosen a desktop as your computer of choice, chances are there was a reason for that choice. One of the most common reasons that consumers choose to buy a desktop is because they want to play games. While laptops today will play many of the games, you often have to invest a significant amount of money into a laptop just to get a graphics card powerful enough to handle the games. Once you do, you are then stuck with that graphics card until you buy a new laptop.
With desktops, however, you can easily purchase the best high-end gaming PC graphics card and then upgrade it down the road if you need to get a little more graphics power. This allows you to keep your computer more up to date so you can run all the latest and greatest graphics related software quite easily. Of course, you can’t just run out and buy a graphics card like you would a toaster or a microwave. Before you make your purchase, you need to do your homework. There are many factors you need to consider before you buy a graphics card. If you don’t, you could find yourself with a card that either wasn’t what you were looking for or one that isn’t compatible with the hardware of your desktop. Today, let’s take a look at what factors you need to consider before you buy a new graphics card for your desktop.
Figure Out How You Will Use It
Before you can even begin shopping for a new graphics card, you have to know how you plan on using it. Understanding what you want to get out of your graphics performance on your PC is a necessary first step to ensure that you don’t over or even under buy when selecting the perfect graphics card. Are you looking for a card that will help you with graphics or video editing? Or maybe a card to drive some of the latest and fanciest games filled with HD eye candy for you to enjoy? Take a second and just jot down why you want a new video card. Hell, you may find that you don’t even need a new video card after you look at how you want and/or do use your computer. But I’m sure most of you will, and knowing how you will make use of it is the perfect first step.
Set Your Budget
I know. No one likes to talk about money, but let’s face it, it is important. Video cards are not cheap and if you are working on a strict budget, it could impact what card you select. That being said, you can still find a great card in the $300 range and some decent cards even cheaper than that. Sure there are cards that are much more expensive than that out there, but you will begin to see diminishing returns on their performance compared to their cost once you read the over $300 mark. Still, if having the very best of the best is your goal, be prepared to fork over a hefty chunk of change for that card.
Take a Closer Look At Your Desktop
Remember, that new card you buy will have to go inside your desktop. Have you even looked inside it recently? Or ever? Before you can buy a video card, you need to take a look at your desktop and make sure the motherboard supports the type of technology required for high end video cards. Once you make that confirmation, you need to open your case and have a look inside your computer. High end graphics cards are much thicker compared to the traditional expansion card you slide into a slot on a desktop, so you need to make sure your computer has enough room for the cards in the first place. Can you image if you spent the money to buy the card only to find it won’t even fit inside your desktop?
While you’re at it, you need to go ahead and check out other possible limitations of your desktop that could impact performance. For example, does your desktop have enough memory and a processor fast enough to handle the latest games? If your processor has some age on it and your memory is low, you won’t see the boost in performance that you really want from a new graphics card. If you are in the market for a card, maybe it is also time to look at overhauling a few other internal components so you get even better performance on your favorite game.
Take a Look At Card Models
This is probably the most difficult part of shopping for video cards. When you begin to look, you will start seeing all of these different types of models of video cards that are available from the manufacturers. Learning what these really mean and how they stack up is essential if you want to buy the right video card.
There are two main video card makers in town – ATI and NVIDIA. ATI is owned by AMD and they offer a wide range of video cards perfect for high end gaming and graphics processing. NVIDIA, on the other hand, is currently the leader in the graphics market on both desktops and even laptops. They boast some of the fastest video cards in the business and offer a huge selection of cards all with their own strengths and benefits.
Now, I could probably spend an entire post just trying to teach you how to navigate the complex model numbers you will find on video cards from both manufacturers. Today, unfortunately, I just don’t have that kind of time, as there is much more I need to tell you about video cards. But, let’s take a look at a few of the highlights. In most cases, the bigger the number, the newer the card. Of course that isn’t always the case. If you see an M attached to the name, it is usually slower and most often designed for laptops. Ultimately, what you have to do is look at what hardware each model has. Look for things like memory size, types of memory, processing and bandwidth speed. In some cases, you could find a lower numbered product that has better hardware than one that appears to be newer.
I know, it is quite complex. However, you will begin to pick up on how things are named and designed after spending just a few minutes looking through all the of the different video cards that are available. Once you get the feel for it, it will make your video card shopping much easier.
A Word On Memory
One thing you will see a lot of when shopping for graphics card is memory. Different cards will boast different amounts for memory from 1 GB all the way up to 4 GB and even higher these days. While you may think bigger is definitely better, the real answer isn’t so black and white. Sure more memory means more can be stored on the card, but what really makes the biggest difference is how fast it can process what is stored in the memory. What you need to look for is the bandwidth and the processor speed of the card. This will be what really determines how fast a card really is.
For example, if you have two cards one with 4 GB of DDR3 memory while the other has 2 GB of GDDR5 memory, the latter will be the better card. GDDR5 memory provides twice the bandwidth of DDR3 memory so it can process the graphics information MUCH faster compared to the other card. What that means to you is the one with the smaller amount of memory will actually be able to process more than the other card that has a lot more memory.
Judging cards based on the amount of memory they have is the most common mistake video card shoppers make when buy a new video card. But now you do, always look for the type of memory and the processor speed. By doing so, you can find the fastest card possible even if it doesn’t boast impressive sounding memory stats of some of the cards out there that are actually slower.
To Pair, Or Not to Pair
There is a trend out there today that many gamers have bought into, and that is running not one, but two video cards in their computers. On the Radeon line of cards, this pairing is known as Crossfire while on the NVIDIA cards it is referred to as SLI. Now, while you may think that by running two cards, you will get twice the graphics processing power, in actuality you will only receive a bump of about 25 to 50%. Some high end systems even have the ability to run three and four graphics card configurations as well, but as you add cards you suffer from even more diminishing returns.
Running all these extra cards also has a few drawbacks as well. Some software simply can’t make use of it effectively and you will occasionally notice some inconsistencies in your picture as well as the occasional micro-stuttering which can get really annoying. These systems will also generate quite a bit of noise and heat in your system as well, forcing you to either deal with the jet engines or look to other cooling options.
That’s not to say it can’t be worth it. If you are running complex multiple monitor setups running HD resolutions on all of them, then multiple cards may be the best answer to get the performance you need, but you just need to be aware of any of the potential drawbacks you may encounter by choosing multiple cards for your graphics solution.
Noise and Cooling
I mentioned noise and heat earlier on multiple card setups, but this issue is not limited to running multiple GPUs on your system. High end graphics cards can generate quite a bit of heat as they work to process your favorite game or stream your video across high definition monitors. Because of this, graphics card manufactures today often include a fan built directly onto the card to help cool it. This fan, while effective, isn’t the quietest fan you will find. So you can almost guarantee that your computer will be louder after installing a graphics card into it.
So, if you are going to add a video card, you need to be prepared for the noise and you need to make sure your desktop is ready to vent the added heat to your system. Make sure all pathways and fans are clean and clear of any dust or debris that could restrict airflow and cause your system to heat up much hotter than it should.
As you can see, it can be a little complicated when it comes time to select a graphics card for your computer. But have no fear. By simply going through our list above you can navigate the complicated and often murky waters that are graphics card and make a selection that is right for you. Just remember, don’t skip anything on this list. If you do, you could end up with a card that doesn’t perform as you would have hoped or doesn’t even work with your current desktop. But if you follow this list carefully, you will easily be able to make an informed and educated decision about what kind of graphics card you want to buy so you are happy with the card you end up with that will power your gaming and other graphics related tasks on your desktop until you are ready to again do your homework and upgrade that card to something even better.
What video cards do you like to use in your desktop? Let me know in the comments, I would love to hear what cards you prefer. Also, if you have any other questions about shopping for video cards or would like my opinion on a few cards you have selected, just let me know and I will do my best to answer you as quickly as possible.