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Integrated or discrete graphics?

Older computers had very basic graphics capabilities, lacking the means to even play video seamlessly, but that has changed in the past few years. Most newer computer processors, notably Intel's Core series and AMD's Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) chips, include integrated graphics that can stream high-definition 1,920-by-1,080-pixel video without a hitch. Processors with integrated graphics can even play many 3D games, assuming you don't mind playing at lower resolutions and graphics settings, and can live with the occasional bout of frame-rate stuttering.

AMD's A-series APUs and Intel's Sandy Bridge processors lead the way in integrated graphics, with the former offering far better graphical capabilities in benchmark testing. Intel's next-generation Ivy Bridge processors due out this spring, and AMD's forthcoming Trinity processor due out by midyear, promise to boost graphics performance even more.

The rise of integrated graphics doesn't signal the death of standalone video cards, however. Not all computer processors include integrated graphics, for one thing, and if you want to play the latest action games seamlessly or at higher resolutions, a video card is essential. Newer games require discrete video cards to activate their cutting-edge graphical bells and whistles. But even if you don't play action games, a basic video card will considerably increase the speed of all your computing activities. Video cards have their own processors and RAM memory, which liberates a computer's processor and memory from having to help power the display. With integrated graphics handling so many basic video-playing activities, manufacturers and reviewers are increasingly calling video cards "graphics cards."

Consumer magazines never cover discrete video cards and mainstream computer magazines rarely do, with the exception of the enthusiast-focused Maximum PC. The best reviews come from computer hardware review sites and websites devoted to computer gaming. Playing games and measuring performance to determine the best card in each price range is a labor of love for these enthusiasts, and we found many top-notch reviews. All of them measure gaming performance, but many of the best also evaluate mid-priced and budget video cards for less demanding entertainment tasks and occasionally even for business assignments.

Excellent, in-depth enthusiast reviews can be found at myriad websites: AnandTech.com, TomsHardware.com, HardwareHeaven.com, HotHardware.com, XBitLabs.com, LegitReviews.com, HardwareSecrets.com, HardOCP.com and plenty more conduct extensive testing and benchmark comparisons. However, most experts presume a high level of technical knowledge about video cards, and drown readers in terminology and data.

ComputerShopper.com, About.com, ExpertReviews.co.uk and TechRadar.com offer reviews that are more reader-friendly, but they can be less exhaustive than the critiques found at hardcore enthusiast sites. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.) Users at Newegg.com deliver critical post-purchase information from the field. Virtually all tech-heads directly compare cards in roundups, make distinctions that identify the best products and evaluate buying considerations other than just performance. Many also look at relatively inexpensive video cards.

All video cards are designed by two companies, Nvidia and AMD, neither of which sells cards under its brand name. Instead, they license the technology to other companies. According to reviews, many branded cards use stock Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon HD video card designs. That's why most reviews discuss reference GeForce or Radeon HD video card designs rather than individual brands of graphics cards. The best reviewers evaluate both, and compare brands of video cards based on or using the same design.

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