Ten Things to Know Before Buying a Video Card

Shopping for a new video card for the first time? Find out what you need to know before making an expensive mistake.

By James Yu - posted June 28, 2006

Selecting a video card upgrade can be an intimidating task. Unless you've kept up with all the GPU announcements and performance reports, it's practically impossible to know which cards are worth buying. Graphics processing units, like CPUs, improve year after year, and that means there's a staggering selection of graphics cards available to choose from and retailers just love to place obsolete cards right alongside the latest and greatest. If you're not careful, you could very well end up paying a lot of money for technology that's already a generation behind. Here are 10 things you need to know about video cards before shopping for one.

1. Memory isn't everything

Having 512MB of memory isn't going to help this Radeon X1300. You'd do much better with a 256MB Radeon X1600.

Here's the deal. You need a video card that has a decent amount of memory to play games at high-resolution with quality graphics settings enabled. Good video cards usually have lots of memory because all of that GPU horsepower will go to waste if you don't have enough memory space.

However, the video card manufacturers know that novice buyers look at memory size as one of the main comparison points between different cards, and that's why it's very common to see cards with cheap GPUs sporting 256MB or even 512MB of memory, which is sort of like dropping a 110-horsepower engine into the body of a muscle car. The underpowered card might have some of the right numbers on the spec sheet, but its poor performance will show once the gaming starts.

2. It's all about the GPU

Memory is important, but the real heart of the video card is the graphics processing unit. When you're browsing through video card names, the most important thing to look for is the GPU type, since that little chip is responsible for all of the video card's 3D performance. Today's best GPUs come from Nvidia and ATI, but it's not enough just to buy a video card with a "Nvidia GeForce" or "ATI Radeon" GPU. You also have to pay attention to the model number since Nvidia and ATI label all their cards from the sub-$100, entry-level cards to the $500 high-end monsters with the same GeForce and Radeon brand names. Higher model numbers are better, but you should also pay attention to additional modifiers at the end, such as GT, GS, GTX, XT, and XTX, since they often reveal important shader and clock-speed information. Study a few video card reviews or game performance guides to get familiar with the current models to see how they compare.

3. Pipelines, shaders, and clock speeds

The GeForce 7900 GTX has 24 pixel pipelines.

You could look at a GPU's clock speed and the pixel pipeline count to get a rough idea of the card's performance level in the early days of 3D acceleration. Today's GPUs have evolved to do much more than brute-force pixel processing. Lighting and other effects that used to take several pipeline "passes" can now run though a shader program to get the same results with fewer passes and less wasted work. GPUs now have specialized processing units dedicated to crunch through complex vertex and pixel-shader programs. Shader units might become an important specification to watch in future video cards as games become more shader-intensive. ATI has recently started reporting the number of shader units it has assigned to each pixel pipeline in its Radeon X1900 XTX line.

For the time being, you can still judge current GPUs by the number of pixel pipelines they have. GPU manufacturers also report vertex pipelines, but we haven't seen any games that bottleneck at the vertex-processing level yet. Entry-level cards usually have four pixel pipelines. Midrange cards have 8 or 12 pipelines, and high-end cards have 16 or more pipelines. Higher clock speeds are always better, but if you're choosing between pipelines or clock speeds, it's usually better to select more pipes over more MHz. Having eight pipelines running at 400MHz is much better than having four pipelines running at 500MHz.

4. Windows Vista and Direct3D 10

Microsoft plans on shipping its newest Windows operating system, Windows Vista, in early 2007. The new OS will feature DirectX 10, an updated collection of functions that software applications can use to access various system resources, including the 3D graphics card. The new version of DirectX incorporates a new version of Direct3D designed to streamline the graphics pipeline by reducing CPU overhead and moving more work to the GPU. Windows Vista will still work with current DirectX 9 video cards, but you'll need a DirectX 10 video card to run DX10-enabled games at the best settings.

We expect Nvidia and ATI to ship their first DX10 cards in the second half of this year, but you don't need to rush out and get one if you're afraid of game-compatibility problems. Game developers understand that it will be several years before the DX10 installation base surpasses the DX9 installation base. All games, including Vista exclusives Halo 3 and Shadowrun, will be DX9 and DX10 compatible for several years after Vista's arrival.

5. It's (almost) always a good time to buy

The fierce competition between Nvidia and ATI has rewarded us with a fast 3D technology development cycle. The GPU manufacturers release a new line of chips every 12 to 18 months, which results in a steady stream of increasingly powerful cards with more and more features. Manufacturers also tweak designs to increase clock speeds and add new features to refresh product lines several months after the initial architecture rollout. Since many new features are forward-looking, such as H.264 high-definition video acceleration and advanced Shader Model support, it might be a year or two before the actual content becomes widely available.

It's always a good time to buy if you don't have to get the best card available. Video card prices fall quickly since new product introductions constantly push older or slightly less powerful hardware into more affordable price ranges. The worst-case scenario is buying a high-end card right before Nvidia or ATI release a new line of GPUs, but even then, you still end up with a very powerful card that will have no problem running the games you want to play for a very long time.

6. You don't need to spend $500

The GeForce 7900 GT is currently one of the best values available for under $300.

The newest top-end cards ship at $500 or more, but you can always find several high-performance cards in the $200-$300 range. This price range usually offers the best performance for the dollar because it includes a mix of current-generation enthusiast-level cards as well as discounted high-end cards from the previous graphics generation.

Check out pipeline and clock speed specifications when comparing two cards from different technology generations. If the specs are roughly the same, go with the newer card since it'll have support for more advanced features. Newer chip architectures are also more efficient so you'll get more performance out of the same number of pipelines.

7. Do you have the power?

System power requirements have become a major concern now that video cards have grown into strong, power-sucking behemoths. Video card manufacturers print the power-supply recommendations on the side of the box. The printed number is often slightly higher than actually necessary since it accounts for poor power-supply quality and overloaded systems. Mid- to high-end single cards usually require a 400W or 450W power supply. Requirements for dual-card setups such as a CrossFire Radeon X1900 XTX configuration start at 550W.

8. AGP and PCI Express

Since its introduction two years ago, PCI Express has replaced AGP as the standard graphics slot in currently shipping systems. PCI Express offers two to four times more bandwidth than AGP, and almost all new video cards come in the PCI Express format. The GPU manufacturers throw a bone to AGP system owners once in a while with a new GPU like the Nvidia GeForce 7800 GS, but all the best equipment comes out for PCI Express first.

If your PC system is more than two years old, it probably has an AGP slot. Upgrading to PCI Express will be expensive since you'll need to replace the motherboard, CPU, and memory, but if your system is more than two years old, it might just be the right time to upgrade your entire PC anyway.

9. SLI and CrossFire

You can get four GPUs in a single system with two dual-GPU GeForce 7950 GX2 cards.

You'll also need PCI Express if you want to upgrade up to a dual video card configuration. Getting dual-card systems up and running (and showing performance gains) is a complicated matter. You need to have the right kind of motherboard, a compatible set of video cards, and a passable power supply.

Nvidia and ATI both offer competing dual-card formats, which require their own specific motherboards. Nvidia introduced SLI (scalable link interface) first in 2004, and has used the time since then to solidify the platform and even build up an SLI certification program for crucial motherboard, power supply, and memory components. You can pair two SLI-approved GeForce cards from different manufacturers as long as the GPU types match. ATI launched its CrossFire dual-card technology in 2005. As with SLI, CrossFire requires a CrossFire-enabled motherboard, quality memory, and a beefy power supply. Matching ATI cards is slightly more complicated because you need to pair a "CrossFire Edition" card with a "CrossFire Ready" card to get two cards working together. Check out our recent SLI vs. CrossFire Grudge Match feature to compare the cards' performance.

10. Make sure you actually get a video card

If you're buying a prebuilt system online, pay careful attention to the video card option. If the selection menu only lists "integrated graphics," close the browser window immediately and find another model that offers real video card options. Graphics built right onto the motherboard are fine for basic desktop applications like word processing and browsing the Web, but they aren't powerful enough for gaming unless you consider 15 frames per second at 800x600 acceptable performance.

Discuss your video card buying tips!

What do you look for when buying a video card? What video card upgrades are you considering right now? Enter your thoughts below. Feel free to comment on someone else's responses, but please stay on topic. We're talking about video cards here!

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Discussion

511 comments
jjleshko90
jjleshko90

James, can my FX5600 play the upcoming CoD?

DarkLight748
DarkLight748

And why I am going this on the home page?

DarkFlare78
DarkFlare78

i need a good video card to be able to play black ops, anyone know what I should get?

juggalojay845
juggalojay845

i need a video card for the sims3.i have an Intel[R] 82845G/GL/GE/PE/GV graphics controller on a dell 2004 desktop computer.which video card should i get?

Bytor60150
Bytor60150

@xophaser I'm not so sure about that. Even though they are being phased out for higher end 8 and 9 series cards, I've had a lot of success w/ my BFG 7600 256 GT OC. Yes, it is a older card, but w/ my E6300 dual-core and 2 gigs of RAM, it's actually not a bad rig. I can run all of my fav. PC games,(CoH,C&C:TW, WoW, Q4, Hellgate: London, The Witcher:EE), and many others at medium to high settings. It's certainly better than the 8500 GT since it has a faster core clock and more pipelines compared to the 8500's 512MB. The only draw back is that you have to keep the fan running at 100% when gaming because it will overheat. It's a little noisy but I usually game with my headphones on, so it's not a big deal.

xophaser
xophaser

No reason even with limited buget to get a 7000 series

Atul88
Atul88

Hey i m thinking to buy nvidia 7300gt because i m in the limited budget, does n e 1 have this 1???? hows its performance ??? plz tell me...

PineappleHead33
PineappleHead33

Woah, nate, wait before buying anything. I have an 8600 GT with a 430W power supply and it doesn`t really work properly. You have to also take into account the amount of power other parts take up, like the CPU. I`d Reccomend a 500W power supply that would work with the 8600 and 9600. And for the cards, I`d go with the 9600 because it has more RAM, clockpeed and so forth. And for the Frames per second, on Call of Duty 4, the most FPS I get with my 8600 GT is 75, Whereas with the 9600 GT I get 125. And both of the prices are pretty close, so it`s a no brainer. Go with the 9600.

nate1222
nate1222

I've got a GeForce 8500GT(512MB) and Oblivion looks pretty damn close to its XBox360 counter-part. I'd know, I own both versions. I'm considering getting either a GeForce 8600GT or 9600. I don't want 8800 because it'll require 1GB RAM and my rig has 2GB RAM (that's its max capacity). But if I get the 9600 I'll have to buy a new power supply. My current (sh---y) power supply is 300W. I'll need 450W for 9600. 8600 runs on 300W. Both 8600 and 9600 only require 512MB RAM. My BIG CONCERN is in May when I get Mass Effect for my PC. I hope like Hell an 8600GT will pull it without too many comprimises.

hopyman2
hopyman2

I'm having a problem determining which kind of ports I have: PCI, AGP, or PCI-E. How do I know ?

TeknoBlade
TeknoBlade

Why is the 8600 GT 1GB $10 less than the 8600 GT 512MB, given that it's twice the size?

Zivleton
Zivleton

I'm thinking of buying the GeForce 7600GS 512MB AGP. Can anyone tell me how good it is and what games will it run?

kTvTv3
kTvTv3

bdrgtech 2 8500's isn't bad, but if your looking to play games like crysis, my best bet is you MIGHT be able to play it on medium, on low resolution.

kTvTv3
kTvTv3

HaMHaMHami The 8800GT and the 8800GTS are EXTREMELY CLOSE in performance. The 8800GTS beats the 8800GT SLIGHTLY, by very LITTLE only though. Plus the GTS is around $100 more than the GT, so I'de go with the 8800GT if you want to save money at get the same performance.

is0lati0n
is0lati0n

I'm getting a 8600 GT (it's all I could afford atm) and was wondering if I could run games like Crysis? Please PM me back, thanks.

HaMHaMHami
HaMHaMHami

Well i'm really confused right now cause i want to buy a video card but i just cannot decide to buy a geforce 8800GT or geforce 8800GTS 512

PuffstaJones
PuffstaJones

How could I check what my power supply is without opening the case? (if there is a way)

Vann009
Vann009

Help i have an ati xpress 200 which is a motherboard and the video card is intergrated into it can i still add a separate video card from nvidia to my motherboard?

Vishant
Vishant

Is it easy to change the power supply unit? got a 200W unit (pre-buit system) and reading above it's definitely underpowered!

bdrgtech
bdrgtech

i got two 8500GT XFX cards with 256mb paid 79 bucks for each one

ninten5
ninten5

Hi, I'm looking to build a system this summer and I was thinking if I should add the new geforce 9 series graphics card in there or go with the already known 8800 GT?

Donners22
Donners22

I do like that point about new buyers being sucked into buying cards by their memory rather than GPU. I fell for that when I first got my computer, and am still regretting it. I'm thinking of upgrading to an 8600GT.

-CheeseEater-
-CheeseEater-

Well, I upgraded from a GeFore 4, to a 8800GT 512MB...I might just say that the performace increase was awsome :lol: :P

DlMEBAG
DlMEBAG

I have a 8800GT, I haven't played any games yet (need to instal it first) but I hope its good.

viewtifulshmoe
viewtifulshmoe

I just ordered a XFX PVT84JUDD3 GeForce 8600GT XXX 256MB for $99. far from top of the line but its better then what i have now, which is no graphics card at all.

digitalmohsin
digitalmohsin

i have chaintech geforce 6200A, it works like the 8=====D of 80 years old man

jazziey
jazziey

i think the best card for AGP is the X1950 PRO 512mb

c4bloy
c4bloy

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

dumdum32
dumdum32

I bought an 8500GT recently - great performance for only 100 bucks. (www.vtechindustries.com.au).

Zuul13
Zuul13

I need to get a rig. I've been using my brother's for too long. If I want to play Crysis, I've gotta fork over the money.

bigmartin79_
bigmartin79_

Can't wait til I upgrade my PC. But it probably wont be for another year or two...or at least when DX10 Games is worth getting vista and everything is more shifted over. So for now I'll sit on my 6600 GT PCI-e card and ride it into the ground playin company of heroes, oblivion, F.E.A.R., etc... Go nVidia!!

Makhdoom82
Makhdoom82

Well done Gamespot, Now where was i ? Hmmmmm ???

cmiquila
cmiquila

Great article indeed. I just HAD to buy a Radeon X1300 in order to upgrade a very poor performing Dell XPS 200 with a radeon X600 that came with my system, and this guide was a must. I had no other choice but to go for this card because of the poor power capability of the XPS 200 (275 watts). The X1300 was the only card in a SFF format that could work on my PC. Having said this, if you are into the SFF PCs like me, stay away from the XPS 200 (now 210). The chassis is just too narrow for upgrades, and quite frankly the system overall is not a good gaming system. Next time I'll go for shuttle or Falcon, even if you pay more. The XPS 200 is a good multi-media computer, but gaming can be frustrating

krisalid
krisalid

you find lots of useful information here;good article

cameron06
cameron06

man I cant remember the computer I order had an SLI ready 8800 GTS 640MB, I sure the mother board acccepts SLI but I dont know about the cards, i'd much rather get another 8800 GTS 640MB for christmas then sell the one I got and get a GTX

lord-of-gamers
lord-of-gamers

lol great guide but im still not 100% sure what i should be looking for in my upgrade - i just keep looking at the highest price and biggest number on hte name rofl...

maxhell04
maxhell04

I personally think that NVidia cards are much better than Radeon cards...they usually perform better in benchmarks, and all the NVidia cards I've owned have performed way past my expectations. Also, you don't need to spend $500 for a card ever. The $200 range cards are totally amazing will will do anything you need them to do.

Bennycal
Bennycal

to joe_elwick, the 8800 is definetly worth extra money, but get a 8800, not an 8600, the 7950 or even 7900 is better than the 8600's.

Bennycal
Bennycal

Hi, which of these is better as there the same price: 1. Nvidia GeForce 7900GS 2. ASUS Radeon X1950 Pro. Thanks!

randanis
randanis

what kind of graphics card are available for lap-tops and are they as good as the full size PC's

g8summit
g8summit

my best graphics card purchase has been the geforce 7600, i bought it a year ago for around 200 cdn and its still capable of running high graphics on games like company of heroes at reasonable rates.

JamesL007
JamesL007

I would go with Radeon x1650, the ATI series has always worked best for me. Peace

giannisbofilios
giannisbofilios

@DarkFlare78 i would definitely recommend you the nvidia geforce gtx 860(cause on my computer it runs perfectly) but you should give me more information on your pc (like cpu, ram, motherboard...) so i can tell you what should you buy