Which graphics card to buy?
I will attempt to succinctly cover this very complicated topic.
First, some definitions and starting points.
I have had back luck with ATI (now AMD) products, and therefore this article will only concentrate on NVidia products.
A name of a manufacturer is stated on a graphics card, along with NVidia, ATI, or AMD. Not everyone knows that "NVidia" does not make these cards; they only make the main chip of the card. The name of the manufacturer affects the quality, value, and cost of the unit. It also determines the warranty, service, and support available. Cheap graphics card can be made from Asian manufacturers, but good luck trying to find support or attempt to return it.
You should buy a graphics card made by the same manufacturer which made the chipset (Northbridge and Southbridge combination). Since features on the chipset usually require installation of a number of OS utilities, drivers, and so forth, not only will a graphics card by a different manufacturer double the number of installed software, but it may also conflict with features of chipset feature software. Since my motherboard has NVidia chipset, then I will therefore only buy NVidia graphics cards.
When you install a graphics card, go into BIOS and disable on-board graphics adapter (if your motherboard is equipped with one). This may free up shared video memory and prevent conflicts.
HDMI and DVI interfaces go along together, so you do not need to worry about incompatibilities. For example, if you have two monitors, or are planning on having them, then a graphics card with one DVI port and one HDMI port can be used with any combination of HDMI or DVI monitors.
Display Port is a newer interface, and it is a push by Hollywood and media companies to introduce a "secure" standard, in which content passes from the source (such as Blu-ray disc) to the monitor without any ability for you to copy or rip off the content. I am not interested in the Display Port standard.
Warranty and support. When purchasing any computer equipment, make sure that there is a return policy available if you are purchasing from a reseller. Get the extended warranty. It is also wise to spend a moment, and check the OEM's reputation, availability of drivers and support, and their warranty and service policies.
I do not do gaming myself. This article is not for those with thick wallets (or credit cards with high limits), or for those who are looking for the fastest graphics card. This article will show cards in the less than $100 range, with affordable and capable cards available for $50.
The older NVidia lineup used the following numbering system. The series was named by a single digit, such as 8 or 9. Three more digits were added to the series to specify a particular card of that series. For example:
|Category||Number range||Suffix||Price range, new||Memory Type||Outputs||Example products|
|Mainstream||000-550||SE, LE, GS, GT||≤$100||DDR, DDR2||VGA/DVI||GeForce 9400GT, GeForce 9500GT|
|Performance||600-750||GSO, GTS, GTO||$100–$175||DDR2, GDDR3||VGA/DVI
|GeForce 9600GT, GeForce 9600GSO|
|Enthusiast||800-950||GTX, Ultra, GX2||≥$175||GDDR3, GDDR5||VGA/DVI
|GeForce 9800GT, GeForce 9800GTX|
These "thousands" 8XXX, 9XXX, etc series are obsolete. They can still be purchased by gaming enthusiasts for fast performance for advanced, but older games, but are of no interest to us.
The newer NVidia series are the "hundreds" naming convention, for example:
|Category||Prefix||Number range||Price range, new||Memory Type||Outputs||Example products|
|Business, Home Theater PC||No prefix, G, GT||00-40||≤$100||DDR2, (G)DDR3||VGA/DVI||GeForce 210, GeForce GT 220|
|Video Games, Multimedia||GT, GTS||40-50||$100–$175||(G)DDR3, GDDR5||VGA/DVI
|GeForce GT 240, GeForce GTS 250|
|GeForce GTX 260, GeForce GTX 280|
The 200 and 300 series are obsolete. Also, they could only support DirectX 10. Therefore, you should only purchase a card in the 400, 500, or 600 series.
Which card to purchase in the series depends on your future use of the card, and on your budget. If you will not be playing advanced games, then you do not need the GTX or 50-95 type of cards. At the same time, picking a G or GT card with a 00-40 designator might buy you limited amount of performance for the cost of the card. I suggest you stay away from X10 cards (410, 510, 610) as these are mass-retail cards, and are worth very little.
There is no need to go with the latest and greatest, if you are not a hardcore gamer. Any card in the 400 to 600 series is technically capable and featured. Actually, their advanced features such as DirectX 11 are not even used most of the time either by the Operating System or most available games. Therefore, to stay within budget, you can pick a GT or GTS card in the 40-50 range, while being flexible about the series of the card. The increasing series (4, 5, 6) are currently just small upgrades and polishes of the previous series.
Now, let us move to more technical aspects of choosing a card.
We want to buy a DirectX-capable card, since Windows 8 and future games will be using this feature. All cards in the 4, 6, and 6 series are DirectX capable.
We want a memory type which is GDDR2 or faster. DDR stands for Dual Data Rate, and refers to the RAM (Random Access Memory). G stands for Graphics, and you should choose this type for faster memory. Also, DDR speed goes up with the increasing number at the end. Therefore, DDR3 is faster than DDR2.
We will be picking a PCI Express x16 card. x16 stands for the width of the card. Numbers such as 2.0, 2.1, or 3.0 denote PCI Express bus upgrades, but most motherboards will not be up to date with these newer standards anyways.
Do not purchase any refurbished computer equipment. Most computer equipment which is returned was returned for a reason, or was damaged. You don't know what the original reason for return was. Also, in most cases you lose warranty coverage with a refurbished part.
As you are searching online, you will see cheap NVidia Quadro cards. These cards are for Computer Aided Design and Photo and Video Editing computers. They are essentially GeForce cards with minor hardware and software tweaks, and are sold for a premium. We are not interested in these cards.
You will also see lots of listing for Low Profile, Low Profile Ready, Small, etc cards. If your computer is a full tower system, then you should avoid these cards, as less features can be crammed in the small space of the card. However, if you have a slim, thin, or small tower for a manufacturer such as Dell, HP, etc, then most of the full-featured graphics cards which are not Low Profile will not fit in your computer tower. Those which say they are "Low Profile Ready" have a changeable bracket (for a shorter one).
For memory size, you want 512MB or larger. If you get anything less, then these cards have a feature they will not tell you about, called TurboCache (ATI / AMD calls it Hyper Memory) which means that when the graphics card runs out of its own memory, it will steal from your main computer RAM.
SLI refers to a method of having two purchased cards process half the screen of a game each. ATI (AMD) calls their equivalent CrossFireX. Purchase of two cards is required, and you must ensure that there is enough space for the two cards (and two PCI Express slots, of course). A power power supply is required, as well.
Fast (enthusiast grade) graphics card require a dedicated power connection straight to the computer power supply. Check whether your graphics card needs this, and what kind of connector it requires.
THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURE
OF A GRAPHICS CARD IS
The first thing I have noticed after plugging in a 8800 GT 512MB GDDR3, $210 card was the incredible amount of noise it created. The fan would come up full speed as the computer was turned on, and BIOS came up. The fan decreased its speed and noise as the computer finished booting. However, the long time ago when I used to play games on this card, it would crank up the fan speed and noise as it was busy crunching data.
This is what prompted me to go to liquid cooling. However, I have since become disillusioned with liquid cooling. The algae growth required labor-intensive, damage-prone, and costly periodic maintenance every 4 or 6 months. Glycol-based coolant leaks as I was connecting and disconnecting hoses during every periodic management caused several incidents of corrosion damage to the motherboard (repairable with a soldering iron), and similar damage to the graphics card, the latest of which killed my card. Coolant had to be re-purchased every time I did maintenance (at least $30). And no one told me that the liquid cooling system will have a fan itself which is more than noticeable. That, and the fact that it was too hard to find a waterblock for my Northbridge, which meant that my system was a hodge-podge of fan-cooled and liquid-cooled components.
If have taken out my liquid cooling system, and had to purchase an MSI ATI Radeon HD 2600XT (low end -- don't try to look it up) as an emergency replacement of my graphics card which was damaged by the periodic maintenance effort. And then I was reminded;
HOW INCREDIBLY LOUD "GAMING" GRAPHICS CARDS ARE
This is anyone who builds computers themselves will encounter. Some amount of effort (varying levels) is placed to make sure that consumer grade, mass-retail computers are not very loud, but a system you build yourself will sound like a Boeing 747 trying to take off.
Never mind the fact that the fast-spinning fans move a large amount of dust, into your filters, and past the filters and inside your computer case.
The reason computer manufacturers choose noisy fan is because a noisy fan is cheaper than a large heatsink make of expensive metal (bottom cost), which is also heavy (shipping). Also, a small plastic noisy fan is cheaper than a larger, high-quality fan.
Therefore, my best advice, which will have save you sanity, money, tinnitus, and dust-cleaning is:
Buy a silent graphics card
These come with large heatsinks, and come without a fan. Note, however, that they assume you have sufficient airflow in your system already, with three or more of the following fans available: power supply fan, CPU fan, front-mounted fan, side-mounted fan, top-mounted fan, and that the airflow is properly set up (in from the front bottom, thru the hard drives, thru the CPU, out the back top). Only one of the choices at the end of this article applies if you have low airflow, only one fan, you are modifying a retail computer (they are not designed for beefy graphics cards), or the rest of your system is liquid cooled.
As of this writing, my overall best recommendations for a budget, but capable graphics card is (in the order of decreased recommendation level, current as of this writing). All prices are from Newegg:
1GB GDDR3, HDCP Ready, Low Profile Ready. $46. For: Budget. See update below.
1GB DDR3, HDCP Ready, Low Profile Ready. $50. For: Budget. See update below.
1GB DDR3, HDCP Ready, Video Card, $55. For: Budget. See update below. Appears to be low-profile ready, but is not stated so. Low-profile bracket might not be included.
2GB DDR3, HDCP Ready, Low Profile Ready, $60. For: Budget. See update below.
1GB DDR3, HDCP Ready Video Card. $77. For: Gamers. This card seems to be rock-solid in its ability to dissipate all the generated heat. Notice that this card is an X40 card, in contrast to X20 cards above. Notice also the full-height, and double-slot requirements of this card. This is the only card I can recommend, based on the fact that it is an X40 card.
1GB DDR3, HDCP Ready, $70. For: Gamers. Notice the full-height, dual-slot requirement. I am not familiar with Zotac.
1GB DDR3, HDCP Ready, $50. For: Low airflow (only one or two fans in computer), mass retail computers (their are not designed for hot graphics cards), liquid cooled systems. Note that this is an X10 card, and I therefore do not recommend it.
2GB DDR3, HDCP Ready, Video Card, $52. For: Memory-intensive, but entry-level tasks. Notice that this card is an X10 one. The only good thing about this card is its 2GB of memory. This card can therefore be useful for players of non-graphics-intensive games which nevertheless require a large amount of memory, or for CAD, video, and image editing users.
Readers who follow my articles know that I only write quality articles I myself would love to find elsewhere (then I would not need to write anything). Because of this, I always follow up with real data any of my statements, expectations, and conclusions.
I have received my GIGABYTE GV-N520SL-1GI GeForce GT 520 and put it to a test. I have found lackluster (poor) performance.
My Windows 7 Experience Index lists the Desktop performance for Windows Aero for this card to be 4.6, making this the lowest score among other parts of my computer, and its "limiting performance factor". Even the before-mentioned ATI Radeon HD 2600XT was a reasonable 6.4 in that test. I did see this on Wikipedia before I purchased this card:
"On 13 April 2011, the GT 520 was launched as the bottom-end card in the range, with lower performance than the equivalent number cards in the two previous generations, the GT 220 and the GT 420." [Wikipedia]
This is exactly what I have meant when I said that it is no longer necessary or meaningful to buy the latest generation of NVidia cards. Such an old beast as an 8800 GTX still remains a very powerful and fast card (with liquid cooling that I had, otherwise the fan noise is unimaginable when playing a game).
Therefore, after this finding, I can no longer recommend 00-30 cards even for a non-gamer, since modern HD video, multimedia, and Windows Aero requires a powerful graphics card even if you do not intent to play games. Therefore, the only card I can recommend, based on the fact that it is an X40 card, is the ASUS ENGT440 DC SL/DI/1GD3 GeForce GT 440.
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Page last modified 05-Feb-17 20:40:42 EST
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