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A Beginner's Tech Guide: Choosing A Video Card

Updated on January 24, 2008
ATI Radeon X1950
ATI Radeon X1950

What Are Video Cards?

Video cards are a vital part of today's computers. In today's world, if you want to do anything besides checking email, writing documents, and listening to music on your computer, you're going to need a separate video card (more on that later). Games, video production, 3D Studio MAX, anything that requires complex visual imaging on your computer will certainly benefit from a video card.

However, for those that are new to the market, it can be very confusing. There are many kinds of video cards, with many kinds of connectors. Choosing the wrong one may mean that it won't install into your computer or that it wont be powerful enough to do what you need it to do.

What About Integrated Video Cards?

Integrated video cards are video cards that are built into motherboards (the primary piece of the computer where everything is conneted to). However, these video cards are generally very weak and not good for anything but simplistic tasks. Forcing them to play games can be a grueling experience. It is highly recommended that you buy a separate video card.

What is AGP? PCI/x16?

These terms will likely appear on any box of a video card you wish to buy, so make sure to look at them before you buy it.

PCI - This is a standard port inside your computer. Any computer made within the last 15 years has these ports inside of it. They were once used for Video Cards, but they just couldn't keep up with increased demands for speed and power. They maxed out at 256 MB (MegaBytes). The most powerful PCI Video cards by today's standards are mediocre at best.

AGP - Successor to PCI. Since the PCI port couldn't keep up, AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) was created to work with increasing demand. Nevertheless, in recent years even AGP hasn't been able to keep up with the more powerful Video Cards of the day. They max out at 512 MB

PCI x16 - This is today's standard. Almost all new video cards use this kind of connection. Their limits haven't been reached yet. Currently, top video cards have as much as 1 GB (GigaByte, or 1000 MegaBytes).

VGA (left) S-Video (center) and DVI (right)
VGA (left) S-Video (center) and DVI (right)

What Are DVI and VGA?

These are the type of connector the video card has on the outside of it. VGA is the older kind and DVI is the newer kind. However, there are still many monitors today that use VGA. Make sure that you buy a video card with the correct outside connector or your monitor won't be able to be plugged into it. Some recent video cards have both connectors on the outside for either kind of monitor.

A 1 GB Video Card
A 1 GB Video Card

What Should I Look For On My Video Card?

The first thing you should ask yourself is: what's on your motherboard? Do you only have PCI slots? Or do you have AGP or PCI x16 slots. Instead of opening your computer and checking, which can be dangerous if you're new to this, there is a far easier way to find out.

Go here to download a free program called Belarc Advisor. It tells you everything that's inside your computer. Look on the right side for Main Circuit Board, and check for the Board name. Copy and paste that name into a Google search. Generally, you'll get many results that tell you everything about that motherboard, including whether it has AGP or PCI x16.

Once you find that out, you need to determine how much memory (MB) you need.

128 MB - In today's 3D computing world, this card won't play many computer games very well that were created in the last 3 years.

256 MB - If you want to stay relatively cheap, this is your best bet. Nevertheless, this card still cannot handle some of the newer games, and in the future it will be able to handle less and less.

512 MB - For a good, solid gaming experience, this is the way to go. It will play anything on the market today at least decently, and will be able to manage for at least a few years. If you have AGP or PCI x16 I highly recommend this card if you don't want to spend a fortune.

1 GB (1000 MB) - This...costs a lot of money. You won't find them cheap. But they'll play anything and for the next 6-8 years you won't need anything new.

However, there are more factors to consider than just this one number.

Reviews!!

ALWAYS ALWAYS look at reviews from other customers. Don't look for product reviews on the manufacturers website; they are obviously biased. Go to a place like newegg.com and check out the reviews for any video card you want to buy. NewEgg has a great selection so they should show just about any video card you're interested in. If it has hundreds of reviews, and it's not at a 4/5 star rating at least, stay away from it. You can certainly find better.

The Manufacturer

Make sure to get the video card from a reputable manufacturer. They have the best warranties and generally more reliable parts. Some big names are ASUS, EVGA, HIS, MSI, and PNY. Every computer store on the internet sells video cards from from at least some of these big name card makers.

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    • profile image

      paul 

      7 years ago

      What about power supply requirements? I Bought a Raedon 4350 in '09 because the psu in my new HP Pavillion model #a6700f came pre-crippled with a 300 watt psu and that was the best card that would operate at that wattage.

      Now my card has just died, and I want another one. How about HDMI port? I have a 37" LCD 1080p x 120HZ. that I want to use for HD movie viewing. VGA analog port works, but DVI/HDMI better!

    • profile image

      CSAman 

      7 years ago

      Newegg.com has loads of Video Cards. Newegg is great for anything you need.

    • profile image

      cheryl 

      8 years ago

      Tried newegg.com - not a good website for video/graphics card (only have 3 and they are in the $300-500 range)

    • profile image

      rajiv jadhav 

      8 years ago

      Very good article. Gives in brief all a beginner needs to know before deciding to upgrade his Video card in PC

    • pwily profile image

      pwily 

      9 years ago from Utah

      Also, for basic computer uses such as spreadsheets and wordprocessing, an external video card (USB to DVI) is now a pretty good option since you can't always add another video card to your computer (especially if it's a laptop).

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