Gaming Graphic Cards

To choose the best graphics card for a pleasurable gaming experience, we must analyze four different factors: performance, utility, and compatibility, and cost.

Performance

Easily the most important of our four factors, performance is a measure of how effectively the graphics card performs its job. Overall performance can be summarized by looking at the following qualities of a graphics card:

GPU Speed

GPU speed determines the overall ability of the graphics card to perform rendering and post-processing work, and is therefore the single most important quality of any graphics card.

Today, the clock speed of a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is measured Gigahertz (GHz). Moderate graphics cards produced nowadays generally run around 1.5 - 2.0 GHz, while the fastest cards available on the market operate at close to 5 GHz.

Available RAM

The on-board RAM provides a graphics card with the ability to store image frames in memory prior to sending them to the monitor or screen. The amount of RAM determines how many frames may be kept in storage, and for how long.

The longer a frame is kept in memory, the more time the card has to perform post-processing effects like bloom lighting and vertex shading. Additionally, keeping more frames in memory means that more frames-per-second can be sent to the monitor, improving the smoothness of motion experience by the user.

The overall memory of a graphics card is measured in Megabytes (MBs) or Gigabytes (GBs). While some manufacturers still provide low-end graphics card with 256 or 512 MBs of memory, nearly all graphics cards provided specifically for gaming enthusiasts have at least 1 GB of memory, and the fastest cards have 4 GBs.

Component Speed

The speed of the RAM, the RAM bus, and the RAMDAC all provide performance boosts to image generation. However, since they work in conjunction, no single one of these components can provide a meaningful boost in performance without a similar increase of the other two.

Increasing the speed of the RAMDAC without a similar increase in bus speed will create a bottleneck, or a choke point, where one part of the graphics card must wait for the other to perform a function before it can continue working.

For this reason, it is wise to seek an increase in the speed of all components on a graphics card, rather than having one specific component speed criterion.

Utility

Many graphics card ship with special peripheral or proprietary software that enhances certain gaming graphical functions. Both Nvidia and AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) graphics cards come with dashboard programs that allow users to customize a great number of performance options. Some of these functions will work in certain games, while others will not.

For instance, the Nvidia proprietary physics software - PhysX - works with newer games, but may cause errors with older games. While PhysX can be turned off from the Nvidia dashboard to prevent these errors, the performance improvements promised by cards built around the PhysX software may suffer, while performance improvements from another manufacturer may not.

Additionally, third party software must be considered. Microsoft DirectX is a requirement for almost all PC games, therefore any gamer seeking a new graphics card should take care to purchase a product that fully supports DirectX software.

Remember that new versions of DirectX are periodically released - as of this writing, the newest version is 11. Some cards support DirectX 11, and some do not. Care must be taken to ensure that DirectX compatibility, and the compatibility of any other relevant third party software, are synchronized between any games the user wishes to enjoy and the new card being purchased.

Compatibility

Some graphics cards are not compatible with certain kinds of software. It is highly recommended that user view the documentation of their favorite games or game publishers to determine driver or peripheral software requirements, and to compare these requirements against the documentation of any graphics cards considered for purchase.

In the event of a software or driver conflict with a particular game, the user may or may not be able to return the graphics card for a refund, so care should be taken to make sure that all software requirements are met before purchasing any new graphics card.

Cost

Finally, we reach the subject of cost. While this may be a roadblock for many users - not all of us can afford the latest and greatest technology - we consider cost last because of the vast number of graphics cards available on the market, and the equally vast number of vendors that sell them.

After determining the requirements of the graphics card, and minimum acceptable levels of performance, it simply becomes a matter of finding a graphics card that contains the best possible combination of qualities while fitting a certain price range.

The best method of price shopping is to identify a graphics card, or several cards, that are in or around a specific price range, and then Google those cards specifically. Myriad options for purchasing exist, and many vendors offer discounts and deals that will swing prices on graphics cards by as much as 25%.

There is no single place to find the best deal on cards. Finding a bargain requires a bit of research, but might mean $100 or more in price difference.

Summary

By applying these four factors when selecting a gaming graphic card gamers can avoid frustrating incompatibility or performance issues and fully enjoy their favorite games.