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Graphics Cards

Buying Guide
Reaching clock speeds as fast as some computers and having memory equival...
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Buying Guide

Reaching clock speeds as fast as some computers and having memory equivalent to that of your latest system; video cards are moving full speed ahead when it comes to progressing on the market. CPU changes and revisions seem to come every two quarters or so, where as video cards seem to change overnight it feels like some days. This is a component in your computer that may be the most essential one to some people and the least to others. For those of you who do nothing more than browse the web and email, you simply don't need to worry about video card requirements. However, once you start to touch the gaming arena, you will suddenly realize the large roll of the video card in your system.

PC Requirements
The first thing you need to consider when looking for a new video card is what kind of card you actually need. The number one mistake made by inexperienced buyers is assuming that any video card will work in any system; this is not true. There are two common graphics ports being used, the old and dated AGP which is still around in many older systems people have and the new PCI-Express. Don't mix these up! An AGP card will not fit in a PCI-Express slot and a PCI-Express card will not fit in an AGP slot! Since PCI-Express is the current video standard, this is the format you will see almost all new video cards being made in, especially the higher end ones. Low and mid range video cards should work in almost any system setup because they do not draw much power nor do they produce large amounts of heat. You will start to require specific system hardware requirements once you get into the higher end cards and the X2 cards where two physical video chips are built into one card. Higher end cards and SLI/Crossfire setups (covered later) will produce large amounts of heat so one of the biggest things you will want to look into with these is cooling. Your case must be well cooled and extra fans to help cool these video cards are often suggested. Next is the power, high end cards can draw an extreme amount of power, especially when you're running 2+ of them in one system. PCI-Express video cards require either a 6-pin or 8-pin video card connector from your power supply. Almost all new power supplies will have these connectors now, most using 8-pin ones where the last two pins are removable to accommodate 6-pin cards. If you're planning on doing an SLI or Crossfire setup, then make sure the power supply has enough power connectors and power to run however many cards you plan on having in the system.

The Name
When searching for a new video card, there's two names you will continually be bombarded with; ATI and Nvidia. Just like Intel and AMD compete in the CPU sector, ATI and Nvidia are competing in the graphics card sector. Both have many great options to consider when shopping for a low, medium or high end video card. As well, both have many advantages and disadvantages on their competing cards. I'm not going to say that one name is any better than the other because it doesn't quite work out that way. Once you know what you're looking for in a video card, the best way to narrow down your choices is some simple research. See what people are saying about the current cards at the time you're buying and who's card currently has an edge over the other because things like that seem to flip back and forth quite often. Once you've found the one you know you want, then it becomes time to narrow down the card's manufacturer. Unlike CPUs where Intel makes their chips and AMD makes their chips, graphics card companies do a lot of outsourcing. Nvidia themselves don't make any retail cards, they leave that up to the many manufacturers who are their retail partners. A few common names in this field are Asus, XFX, E-Vga, BFG, etc.; there is quite a large list of manufacturers. The same goes for ATI cards, although ATI also does make some cards themselves too. After the manufacturer has the chip, it's up to them to offer whatever features they want on the card (within the constraints offered by whatever chipset they are building around). Some manufacturers may offer more memory than others and some may offer radically different cooling than others. The list of differences can be huge amongst the different companies making cards for a certain chipset, so you also want to research into this quite closely too!

The GPU, or graphics processing unit, is the equivalent of your CPU but in graphics card form. This is the central processor on the video card that determines how powerful it is as well as what it's secondary capabilities are. Each series of GPU released by it's appropriate maker generally has three major variants; the high end version, the mid-range version and a low end version that typically can't handle much gaming. These cards can range from about $30 Canadian for the low end up past $700 Canadian for the high end. Amongst the three major variants of each GPU chipset, it's not uncommon to see other minor variants too. Endings like “GS”, “GT”, “GTX” and “X2”, just to name a few, will denote slight changes in GPU speed and memory capacity on those cards.

The X2 term that's starting to appear on some of the highest end cards isn't just a marketing gimmick. The X2 is actually denoting two individual graphics processors on one video card. These cards usually require quite a large amount of space in your computer case because of their length and size. Not only do they have two separate GPUs but there is also a huge cooling mechanism required to keep that all safely cooled! Most of these X2 cards will also support Crossfire or SLI which can give your system the horsepower of up to 4 separate graphics processors!

The other major thing you will want to look at with the graphics processor you choose is what version of DirectX it supports. Although very few games support the new DirectX 10 at this time, this is the way that things will eventually start going just as we saw when DirectX 9 first came out many years back. If you do plan on gaming and putting a lot of money into a card, then I suggest making sure it's from a current series that will support DX10. If you're looking to either not game or game current/older games lightly, then DX10 support won't be as crucial for you.

Video Memory
The video memory is memory located on the video card itself and it used to store information like texture buffers and the Z-Buffer. Since video memory needs to be refreshed so often, it commonly uses high-speed memory to keep up to these changes. DDR and DDR2 are already fairly old terms for new video cards already, which use a special kind of memory called GDDR, a graphics-specific kind of memory. The larger the amount of memory available, the larger of a buffer you can store which means you can game at higher resolutions and higher quality settings. Keep in mind though, having a 1gb card may not mean you can suddenly play any game at full quality! Many other factors still come into play with video cards, like how fast the main GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is, how many pipes it has and how fast it can access the memory you have available. Lastly, let me say that if you are not a gamer, then you need not pay attention to having lots of video memory. As long as you have enough to run your current operating system then you will be just fine.

Crossfire and SLI
Now that I've used the term, I must explain myself too. Crossfire (ATI) and SLI (Nvidia) are different ways of utilizing two separate graphics cards for game rendering. Each technology has slightly different ways that the rendering is handled though. SLI can be used in two different render modes; Alternate Frame Rendering and Split Frame Rendering. Alternate frame rendering uses each card to draw one frame, ie. Card 1 draws all even frames and card 2 draws all odd frames. Split frame rendering uses each card to draw a part of each frame. How much of the frame each card renders will be determined dynamically through the drivers based on card load. Crossfire also can render in both the same ways that SLI can but it also has it's own “SuperTiling” mode too. SuperTiling is achieved by dividing the screen up into 32x32 pixel blocks and each card renders alternating blocks. By using X2 cards with either Crossfire or SLI, it is possible to achieve up to four individual graphics processors working in one computer system. Lastly, let me clarify that when using SLI or Crossfire that the video memory of your cards is NOT added up like many people think! Since each card is still operating individually to draw textures and frame buffers, each card is using it's own memory for it's own work!

To Conclude
For those that didn't already know it, I hope the information I provided you will get you started on the right path for buying your next video card. Gamers will be the ones who need to pay the most attention to it because the video card will quickly become a vital component in your system. If you aren't a gamer, then you probably learned a lot of information today that you won't ever need to apply when shopping for a run-of-the-mill video card to run your applications for you. All you need to remember is to take into account the games you want to play now and what may be coming in the near future and what their system and DirectX requirements are. With the price of higher end video cards, you certainly don't want to be buying another anytime soon just because you should have spent an extra few penny's on the initial purchase! Happy shopping!

Author: Steve Blackwell of Dreamware Computers

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