Beginners Guide To Graphics Cards
Most computer users never give a second thought to what video graphics subsystem is generating the images on their monitors. It's enough for them that the entire video system works, they can see their desktops, and who really cares about anything else.
They are not necessarily wrong in this belief as for the vast majority of computer users out there, as long as the video subsystem generates pixels in the proper resolution for their screens and provides a sufficiently fast refresh rate of 70 Hz or more to avoid that pseudo-strobic flickering you see sometimes on older CRTs, who really gives a second thought about graphics cards?
It turns out that the video subsystem is a critical part of your PC and with the upcoming "Fusion" in the next few years of the computer processor (CPU) with the graphics processor (GPU), computer users should be aware of what all this circuitry does and why they should care.
Of course, if you're already a gamer, enthusiast, prosumer, or image management professional you are in a completely different league and you may find that the GPU is of greater importance and impact to what you do with your PC than the CPU and you'll be up to your ears in multi-card solutions as Crossfire and SLI.
Here are the basics so any computer user can master the lingo:
Slot: AGP was the standard for many years but PCI Express (PCIe) has now taken over thanks to its advanced features and much greater bandwidth. If you are stuck with an older motherboard without PCIe, my advice is not to seek out the AGP cards that are still in the market, but consider changing your motherboard. There are plenty of perfectly serviceable motherboards out there with PCIe that etailers sell for $40 to $60. Much better to change the motherboard and have a PCIe video card that you can migrate to your next system than shell out for an AGP card that has no upgrade capability. Note that higher end modern motherboards have a PCIe 2.0 slot which offers double the bandwidth of the 1.0 version. In this case, by all means get a PCIe 2.0 card and enjoy the benefits.
Memory: You should choose a graphics card that has the maximum amount of memory in your budget range. More memory equals greater performance from the card, including higher display resolutions on larger screens, and vastly improved 3D renderings which are very important in the newer high-end games as well as to art and video professionals. The current "sweet spot" is 512MB, but many cards are coming onto the market with a full 1 GB of RAM.
DirectX: This is a common battleground for advanced computer enthusiasts. All graphics cards currently on the market support DirectX 9 (DX 9) and many now offer support for the Windows Vista only DX 10 and 10.1. What advantages will you get from DX 10? Almost none unless you plan to run a game or use software that specifically takes advantage of that level. For 99% of the users out there DX 9 is just fine.
Connectors: Most modern flatscreen monitors have DVI connectors, however, there are many new video standards which are generally incompatible with each other. You would be well advised to ensure that your monitor and card are happy with each other before you pull out your plastic, as some will require different connectors and very large flatscreen monitors may call for a dual link DVI. If your card only provides a single DVI, you're out of luck.
Shop, shop and shop around! Graphics cards plummet in price like the Coyote falling off a butte. At the time of writing, Nvidia had just dropped its prices on the very high end GeForce GTX260 from $399 to under $300 to counter similarly featured and priced AMD-ATI's Radeon HD 4870. An educated graphics card consumer can realize big savings!