by Staff Writer
When serious video-gamers, video editors and designers need heavy-duty graphics power for their computers, they turn to video cards. Factory-installed computer hardware is good enough for ordinary applications, but video graphics cards are necessary for nearly any 3D graphics rendering or high-definition video. This video card buying guide will help you know exactly what to look for in a video card that will be powerful enough to run your graphics-heavy programs.
Video card components: Many engineering programs, 3D animation programs and video games simulate a three-dimensional space, as opposed to regular 2D applications and programs. The integrated graphics on your motherboard can handle simple 2D graphics and maybe even simple 3D rendering. But 3D rendering takes a lot more processing power and memory. Video cards add that extra computing boost to your computer using several principle components:
GPU: GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit. Just as your computer has a CPU that handles calculations and operations for your computer, your video card has a processor that specifically handles graphics processing. A GPU can have multiple processor cores, just like CPUs, which can help boost performance. The faster the GPU (measured in GHz), the faster it can render 3D graphics for programs.
RAM: Video graphics cards include a certain amount of their own RAM, or random access memory, for processing graphics data. The amount of RAM included on a graphics card is a good indication of its performance capability. The more memory the card is designed with, the more data it can handle at one time.
Motherboard interface type: Your video card connects to the motherboard in order to get power as well as exchange data with the CPU and system memory. How a video card connects to the motherboard is an essential part of your video card's functionality.
Heat sinks and fans: Video cards tend to consume a lot of power and put off a lot of heat while processing. They often include built-in heat sinks and fans to help keep the temperature down and boost performance.
Power: Video cards tend to be power-hungry. If your video card will draw more power than your computer's power supply is capable of providing, you may need a new power supply to work with it.
Dimensions: Video card sizes do not vary too much. A typical graphics card will be 10 to 12 inches long, 8 to 10 inches wide and about 3 inches thick. You probably won't have any trouble fitting most video cards into most computer cases, but it's wise to measure available space around the expansion slots in the case and compare it with the video card dimensions before buying.
Motherboard compatibility: Your computer's motherboard will come equipped with expansion slots for accepting components like video cards. These slots transfer data and electricity to and from the video graphics card to the CPU and system memory, and each type of slot is shaped differently. Your video card must match the type of expansion slots on your motherboard to be compatible.
PCI: PCI, or Peripheral Component Interconnect, is the slowest interface type for video cards. PCI video cards were later replaced by AGP video cards. If your motherboard accepts PCI video cards, you can still get pretty good graphics processing.
PCI-X: Not to be confused with PCI-Express video cards, PCI-X was an expansion of regular PCI. These cards are twice as long as regular PCI video cards and they're quite rare.
AGP: An AGP, or Advanced Graphics Port, video card has significantly faster transfer rates compared to PCI video cards. This interface is largely being phased out in favor of PCI-Express video cards.
PCI-Express: This is the interface used by almost all new video cards, also abbreviated as "PCIe." These video cards have extremely fast transfer rates, allowing them to process more graphics data much faster than other interface video cards. PCI-Express slots can feature between one and 32 lanes, usually written as "x8" or "x16," for example. A PCI-Express slot may accept a PCIe card with a higher lane rating but only run it at a lower speed. So, if you want to use the full capability of your PCI-Express x16 video card, your motherboard slot must support 16 lanes.
Video output connections: Many video cards feature more than one video output port for sending video to a computer monitor or TV. You may see video cards with VGA, DVI, S-Video, HDMI and even component video ports. Video cards with HDMI connections will typically have digital media protection features that make them compatible with Blu-ray drives and other HDMI video devices.
Multiple video cards: Some video-card manufacturers build cards that can work with one or more other video cards on the same machine. Using multiple video cards can significantly boost your computer's graphics processing power. You can use multiple video cards if you have enough expansion slots and your motherboard supports multiple video cards.