Part IV: Choosing the Right Video Card
I know it has been a little bit of time between my last article in this series and this new one, but there has just been so many good things to write about, and there is only so much time in a week. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you. After all, building really cool computers is one of my favorite things to do.
Our new build is coming along, but now the time has come to choose one of the most important parts of our computer – the video card. The video card is the piece of hardware in your system that renders and displays whatever you happen to see on your screen. This card, sometimes referred to as a graphics card, is the piece of technology that drives any type of graphics on your screen, from the basic desktop all the way up to the complex 3D graphics in some of today’s most popular games which require the kind of graphics card only found in a high-end or VR-ready gaming pc. Without it, your computer wouldn’t be very useful at all.
Types of Cards
There are different types of cards available for your system. What type you choose ultimately depends on what you want to do with your computer. The types of cards are:
- On-Board Graphics
- Graphics Cards
Each of these types of cards bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the desktop table and each one has a use where it excels. Let’s take a look at each of these types.
On Board Graphics
On board graphics are basically graphics chips and processors that come on your motherboard. This means that you don’t actually have to install another video card in order to see what is going on with your computer on your monitor. You can just connect the monitor straight to your motherboard using one of the available ports.
This is really nice if you don’t need anything but very basic graphics, meaning these cards are perfect for things like word processing, web browsing and the like. Unfortunately, they aren’t very good for much more. Some of these on board systems will run a few games here and there at very basic settings, but if you want to game, you need to check out other options.
That brings us to graphics card. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are where you want to be if you plan on doing any type of video editing or gaming. These cards plug into slots on your motherboard and usually have their own processor and memory devoted just to processing the video on your computer. But be careful, there are many different cards out there and they all run at different speeds and provide different levels of performance. Some won’t even match up to the on board graphics that come with your motherboard.
Still, if you invest just a little bit of extra money to invest you can easily get a graphics card that is great for gaming. If you invest a significant portion of your build money to the graphics card, you can pick up a really incredible graphics card that will run almost any game you throw at it at the highest of settings.
Types of Cards
There are two major players in the video card market today – NVIDIA and AMD. The GeForce line from NVIDIA along with the Radeon line from AMD are some of the best graphics cards out there. However, there are many different types of these cards, some of them more powerful than others. Currently, NVIDIA reigns supreme as the leading manufacture, but just because they are at the top doesn’t mean that should be the one you should choose.
This is where you want to spend the most time in your search. There are many different types of cards out there all with different chips. The faster the video processor on the graphics card, the better the card. The very latest processors will make for the most expensive video cards, just like your main CPU on your system. When you are looking for your card, try to get a card with the fastest possible processor at the time that you are shopping. Even if you have to sacrifice a little memory, overall you will get the best performance out of the newest and fastest graphics processor.
A lot of marketing goes into bragging about the amount of memory included on cards. You may think that the more memory means a better card, but that is far from being true. In fact, it really comes down to the speed of the graphics processor and not the memory. But it can make a little difference. If, for example, you have two identical cards except for the memory, the one with the most memory will usually win. But if you have a faster processor on one and lower memory, that still could be the best card for you as overall it will perform much better even if it only has 2 GB of RAM instead of 4 GB.
If you really want more power, you could always try running more than one video card together. In this setup, you will need two of the exact same type of card and room in your motherboard to install them. You can’t do this without running identical cards. While you may think this will give you twice the power, the reality is often very different. In actuality you will see a bump of about 30% or so depending on the cards and the technology and the speed of your motherboard. Still, it is a great way to build a true gaming powerhouse.
A Word on Noise
Video cards generate a lot of heat. To cool these parts down, most video cards use fans mounted to the sides of them. These fans do a great job keeping the cards cool but are often noisy. The more powerful the card, the noisier the fan. When you build a gaming rig, this may not be too much of a concern, but if you want to create a machine that is good in an office, you may want to choose lower end cards that don’t need fans or go with the on board video instead.
How to Choose
It can be quite difficult to sort through all of the different cards out there. But I am here to help. If you follow just a few easy to do steps, you can easily cut your way through all the different types of cards to narrow down your choices.
1. Think about how you use your computer.
First, you must figure out exactly how you use your computer now and how you plan on using this new desktop you are building. If you want to do a lot of video editing or gaming, you are going to want to invest some money into the graphics card for your system. You may even want to consider dual cards for true power performance while you are playing your favorite games. If, on the other hand, you only use your system for work or Internet surfing and social media, then you could save a little money on your build by choosing to stick with the on board video included on your motherboard or a lower end video card that will get the job done.
2. Decide on a video card brand.
This will be one of the first of your decisions that you will have to make. There are two main manufacturers of video cards today – NVIDIA and AMD. Currently, NVIDIA currently holds the advantage in the video card market with their GeForce line of cards. However, don’t count AMD and Radeon out just yet. They still make some great quality cards and if you are building a system powered by an AMD processor going with a Radeon can net you many benefits.
Still, in an all out war on speed and power NVIDIA is currently the leader, just as Intel is the leader in the processor market. Personally, I would choose one that you think will compliment your system the best and then begin researching the different models of these cards from there.
3. Set your budget.
As much as we would all like to not have to worry about money, it is just a reality in the world we live. You need to decide before you continue shopping how much money you are willing to spend on your new video card/cards. How much of your budget you can dedicate to a video card can have a major impact on the types of cards you can buy. Remember, the larger your budget for a video card the more powerful card you can get. If you need high end graphics, then it is imperative that you dedicate at least a portion of your build budget to the video card. That way what you build will actually work for you.
4. Pick your speed and memory settings.
Now that you know what manufacturer you prefer and how much you have to spend, it is time to start shopping. Do a search for products that meet your budgetary requirements from the manufacturer you prefer. Once you do this, make a note of the processor and RAM settings on each card. Begin to whittle down your list based on these specs and try to settle on a speed and memory goal for your new system. You may have to make a sacrifice here and there based on budget limitations, but use this time to narrow down the cards you are considering for your new desktop build.
5. Read reviews and check benchmarks.
Once you have your short list made, it is time to find out exactly how well these cards performed. There are countless numbers of sites out there dedicated to bringing you reviews and benchmark tests of all the video cards every released. If you need a little assistance, check out this link and use it to locate the cards you are considering to see where they fall.
Use these reviews to cut your list down even further until you have just a few cards in your list. Once you have it down that low, the time for your final decision is upon you.
6. Make your final decision.
It may be hard to do, but the time has come for you to buy your video card. You have narrowed it down to your top three choices, but now it is time to decide your fate. Personally, of your final choices I would look for the card that provides the most power and memory for your dollar.
Your choice in video cards will be a major factor in how you will use your computer once you are finished building and testing it. No pressure. Don’t worry, it’s actually not as hard as it sounds. Knowing what you want to do with it will be a great help in selecting the perfect video card for your system.
If you do find that the card you chose doesn’t quite hold up to the performance you expect, you can always upgrade it later. That’s the great thing about custom builds. They are very easy to upgrade and you can constantly switch out parts and upgrade it as many times as you want. If you are like me, the computer you end up with a year later will be very different from the one you build at the beginning, but that’s the fun part. There is nothing quite like building a new machine and evolving it over time to always be the best computer to suit your needs.
Next week, we will continue this series by looking at power supplies and how much power you will need to properly power your system.