by Steve Brown
No doubt you've heard people brag about the extraordinarily powerful video card (or, sometimes, cards) in their computer. The graphics may be impressive, but what about the high price tag? While it's impossible to avoid paying for the latest and greatest video cards if you want to play the newest games at maxed-out video settings, countless people are quite happy to play their older favorites. Still, sometimes you want to upgrade your video card to get better performance from a game you may have bought within the past year or two, or sometimes you simply want to get a video card that's "good enough" for the latest games. This guide offers some tips on getting an excellent video card at a price you won't regret.
Broadly speaking, games are designed around video cards that are available around the same time as the game. While this means that the newest games generally call for the newest video cards if you want the best performance, it also means that, if you spend most of your time playing older games, you can get by with a video card that was new when that game was released.
If you watch the life cycle of video cards, you'll see how video cards start out expensive, but their prices steadily drop as newer cards are released. If your favorite game has been out for a year or two, then you might consider upgrading to the card that was top-of-the-line when that game first came out; now that the video card is later on in its life cycle and has had some time to be replaced by newer cards, its price is likely to be far lower than it once was.
Keep in mind that newer video cards can still offer higher performance for older games, especially with the advent of 3-D games that can almost always be played at higher resolutions and at higher frame rates. Remember -- even if you have the detail settings turned all the way up, that doesn't mean the game can't benefit from an even more powerful video card. Higher resolutions get you a finer, smoother image, and higher frame rates make the whole game smoother to play.
If you tend to play older classics more often than newer games, then you may hit a threshold of how well your game can perform. Once you hit that threshold, newer hardware may not make any noticeable difference in how the game plays. For example, older 2-D games, including things like adventure and real-time strategy games, often only support a handful of resolutions; they simply don't have the ability to correctly render their graphics at higher resolutions. The 3-D games generally don't have this problem, because so much of the graphics in 3-D games are generated on-the-fly. The texture images used to render 3-D games are the exception to this, but that won't prevent you from playing a 3-D game at a higher resolution; it may, however, keep it from looking much better than it did at a lower resolution.
Doing extensive research into video cards is a chore for most people. Fortunately, there are several resources for video card reviews. Many organizations get their hands on each and every video card that comes out and test the performance of each. Resources like these can be a great place to look to find the highest performing video card for the money or to compare similar video cards from different vendors.
When it comes time to select a video card, make sure it matches the slot type of your existing card. That is, if your current video card is AGP 8x, don't accidentally buy a PCI Express card that your motherboard can't handle. By the same token, if your existing video doesn't use the highest performance slot that your motherboard has, this might be a great time to upgrade. As a rule of thumb, you should prefer PCI Express to AGP and prefer AGP to PCI. When it comes to specific AGP cards, AGP 8x is faster than AGP 4x and so on. If you're not sure what slot your existing card uses or that your motherboard supports, the manuals for each should shed some light.
There are some standards for video cards that can make it easier to pick a video card that will give you the upgrade you want. The majority of games use a set of standards called DirectX, making the DirectX version that your video card supports highly important. If, for example, your game says that it supports DirectX 10, but your existing video card only supports DirectX 9, you're very likely to see significant improvements by upgrading to a video card that supports DirectX 10. Many graphical features that the game is capable of displaying may either not be appearing at all or may be appearing in a simplified form because your video card does not support the version of DirectX that the game was designed around.
When you install an aftermarket video card in your computer, you will want to pay attention to that card's power requirements. Video cards often draw a lot of power from your computer's power supply, and an under-powered computer may freeze or reboot out of the blue; also, it's possible that components will be damaged or destroyed if your power supply fails. A high-quality aftermarket power supply is always a good investment in your computer system.
Video cards generate a lot of heat, especially while you're gaming and the card is being taxed to its limits. An overly hot computer interior can shorten the life of not just your video card but any of the components in your computer. If your computer case does not have good air flow, a simple upgrade to your case and fans may well save you money on video cards (and everything else in your computer) in the long run.
Finally, keep in mind that the video card does not act alone in producing the images that you see. The CPU affects the speed of the entire system, and a slow CPU may be hindering your video card's performance in a variety of ways. Also, your video has to get the data on what to draw from the game by way of your computer's memory; this means that slow memory, or not enough of it, may be holding back your video card. Even the RPM speed of your hard drive can sometimes play a role in how quickly your video card gets the resources it needs to do its job. (Watch for long-loading screens where the hard-drive activity light is constantly lit; this is a surefire sign that a faster hard drive could help you get back to the game more quickly.) Your computer's motherboard effectively orchestrates all of the interaction between your computer's component, and a high-quality motherboard can make a huge different in a gaming system. If you want a truly optimized computer system, optimize all of your components in tandem instead of relying on an expensive video card to compensate for other sub-optimal components.