Consider your other hardware before buying a graphics card
Installing a video card is very similar to changing a light bulb in an overhead
fixture. You can do it yourself, as long as you get the right version and
your computer has a place for it -- not all of them do. Contemporary graphics
cards are made to fit into PCI-E slots. Older computers and motherboards
used standard PCI or AGP slots for discrete graphics, but those connections
are no longer actively supported.
If your computer has integrated video, its motherboard may or may not have
a PCI-E upgrade slot. You must find out before you consider adding a card.
Ultra-compact or HTPC cases such as slimlines or all-in-ones rarely have
the physical space to accommodate a video card. They also lack sufficient
interior space to dissipate the heat generated by high-end gaming.
Positives and negatives to overclocked videocards
A major point of differentiation between competing cards is "overclocking." That
means running a graphics card's GPU -- and sometimes its dedicated memory,
as well -- at a higher speed than rated safe by Nvidia or AMD. Since GPU
clock speeds are the major driving force behind video card performance, overclocking
results in better performance at no additional expense, but it comes with
inherent dangers. Overclocking generates extra heat, which shortens the life
of hardware and could cause system instability, failure of other components
and burnout of overclocked components. The risk can be mitigated by cooling
down video cards using additional PC case fans or third-party water cooling
If you're still interested in overclocking, you can buy a factory-overclocked
card or do it yourself. Reviewers cite advantages to each option. Since doing
your own overclocking often voids your warranty, factory overclocking protects
your investment. On the other hand, you pay a little more for a factory-overclocked
card, and experts sometimes say that a stock card can be overclocked to a
higher speed than a factory overclocked card. Reviewers generally test video
cards at stock and overclocked speeds.
While factory overclocked cards are generally very stable, they can still
suffer from the negative effects associated with tweaking clock speeds. Long-term
performance is a big concern, making user reviews at Newegg.com more valuable
than expert critiques. For example, several computer pros say the Gigabyte
GV-N560SO-1GI-950 (*Est. $260), a "Super overclocked" GeForce GTX
560 Ti, delivers great specifications for the price and excellent extras.
HardwareHeaven.com says "almost every aspect of this product impresses," and
gives the card both Performance and Gold awards. However, dozens of complaints
at Newegg.com say the GV-N560SO-1GI-950 is simply pushed too far, making
it unstable and prone to crashing over time. Repeated reports of buggy driver
firmware and poor customer service only exacerbate the problems.
We take user reviews into account while evaluating factory overclocked cards
for this report, and the Gigabyte GV-N560SO-1GI-950's issues drive home the
point that users should be careful when overclocking video cards on their
own. In addition, experts say to keep the following considerations in mind
while hunting for a discrete graphics card:
- Do you even need a graphics card? Advances in integrated video technology -- where a CPU and GPU are
combined on the same chip -- allow many modern PCs to play high-definition
video without any discrete graphics whatsoever. If you own a relatively
new computer and aren't interested in gaming, there's a good chance you
don't even need a video card.
- The clock rate and RAM are key specifications. The higher the
clock rate and RAM, the higher the performance and price. Cards for
serious gaming should have at least 1 GB of memory, although entry-level
cards often have only 512 MB. Other specifications such as the shader clock,
memory clock and texture-fill-rate all affect performance. If you want
to learn how to understand and compare these specifications, we link to
good tutorials in the Useful Links section of this report.
- Consider power requirements. High-end video cards require considerable power, but experts say
computer power supply wattage ratings are significantly understated. If
you want a GeForce GTX 580 card, for example, you need a power supply rated
much higher than the minimum 600 watts specified by Nvidia. More powerful
cards might also have additional cables that need to be connected into
smaller PCI-E x8 or PCI-E x6 slots to help with power requirements, so
make sure your motherboard has the necessary slots available.
- Can your processor
match the video card's power? While it's much less of a problem than it
used to be, experts say you'll want the power of your video card to roughly
correlate with the power of your computer's processor. If you don't, the
slower component won't be able to handle the data as quickly as its counterpart,
a problem known as "bottlenecking." For
example, a low-end CPU won't be able to keep up with a high-end graphics
card, slowing down performance. Today's mid- to high-end CPUs such as
Intel's Core i5 and i7 chips and AMD's FX or Phenom chips are recommended
for serious gaming computers.
- Identify which software features you want. More expensive
cards include extra technologies that can improve your gaming
experience. Both AMD and Nvidia support 3D graphics, but only Nvidia has
accelerated PhysX technology that allows for smoother action in games that
support it, and experts say AMD's Eyefinity multiple screen technology
is the best of its kind.
- Consider the extra features. Although overclocked and custom-cooled
video cards are different, experts say cards based on stock Nvidia
GeForce or AMD Radeon HD video card designs perform identically. Reviewers
say that brand reputation, warranty and extras like bundled games are the
discerning factors between stock cards.
- Look for DirectX 11 support. Although older
titles might require only previous versions of the software such as
DirectX 9 or DirectX 10, make sure the card you choose has DirectX 11 support
since virtually all new 3D games need it. All of the cards covered in this
report include DirectX 11 support.
- Decide what output connectors you need. Video
cards have a wide variety of video connections. Digital HDMI is the
most commonplace, and the majority of cards offer analog VGA/D-Sub and
digital DVI connection for use with older or less expensive monitors that
don't support HDMI. Other common connectors include analog component video,
composite video and S-video for connecting to a TV, and digital DisplayPort.
If you want to link multiple screens using a card with compatible technology
-- such as AMD's Eyefinity -- make sure the video card you choose has enough
connectors to meet your needs.
- Decide whether you want one or more video
cards. Some high-end motherboards have several PCI-E x16 slots for
video cards. They can be installed in either SLI for Nvidia or CrossFire
for AMD configurations, whichever the motherboard supports. If you plan
to install two or more graphics cards, make sure they're compatible with
SLI or CrossFire. Since most gaming cards are large and cover two or more
PCI-E slots, be sure to plan for that when planning your purchase. However,
setting up and maintaining multiple graphics cards can be tricky, especially
for inexperienced system builders; reviewers say one excellent video card
is better than two good ones.
- Case requirements. If you're in the market for a high-end gaming
card, you need a big case. Many high-end cards are oversized and literally
won't fit in all cases. And even if the card fits, make sure there's
plenty of space for ventilation.
- Active vs. passive cooling. A fan is generally
more effective at dissipating heat than just heatsinks or other passive
methods. However, a fan adds noise. Several manufacturers offer video
cards built with custom cooling technologies that often blend copper or
nickel heat pipes, one to three fans and heatsinks. These cooling technologies
are a major point of differentiation between video cards from the same
series of GPUs. Many enthusiasts prefer to use aftermarket cooling methods
such as water cooling or additional case fans instead of using the hardware
on the video card.