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Choose the right graphics card: 2012 edition

Loyd Case | Aug. 13, 2012
Modern graphics cards are intimidating, hulking beasts in a world of increasingly tiny PC components. Most of them are double-wide, occupying two expansion-slot spaces, even though they use only a single physical slot. Many require two power connectors and beefier-than-average power supplies. Their primary audience appears to be serious PC gamers, who use an arcane jargon of their own: frame rates, VSync, antialiasing.

Modern graphics cards are intimidating, hulking beasts in a world of increasingly tiny PC components. Most of them are double-wide, occupying two expansion-slot spaces, even though they use only a single physical slot. Many require two power connectors and beefier-than-average power supplies. Their primary audience appears to be serious PC gamers, who use an arcane jargon of their own: frame rates, VSync, antialiasing.

Graphics processing units, or GPUs, are at the heart of these cards, and their sheer physical size and transistor count--some models have in excess of 4 billion transistors--help explain why they consume so much power and require sophisticated cooling systems. The transistor count also suggests why these new graphics chips aren't just graphics accelerators: They improve performance across a broad range of applications.

What's in a Card

Graphics cards are impressive pieces of hardware. Let's take a look at what one of the latest cards, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 680, looks like when it's stripped bare.

The latest-generation midrange ($200 to $350) and high-end ($400 and up) graphics cards usually ship with at least 2GB and sometimes 3GB or more of very fast GDDR5 memory, which has a clock speed of 1500MHz but can clock effective speeds of up to 6000MHz (since the memory can move four data items per clock cycle).

Modern monitor connections are present, too. You'll rarely find a VGA connector, though most cards still ship with a DVI-to-VGA adapter if you really need it. Almost all cards include an HDMI port, and the latest products also offer some flavor of DisplayPort, the latest technology in display connections.

Questions to Ask

Now that you've seen what a card looks like when you rip off its cooling shroud, let's consider the crucial questions you should answer before buying a graphics card. Here are five important ones:

  • What types of games do you play?
  • What other applications do you run?
  • What is your budget for a graphics card?
  • What is your monitor's display resolution?
  • What is your PC's performance level?

What Types of Games Do You Play?

Some types of games demand more of a graphics card than others do. Here are rules of thumb that generally (but by no means always) hold true.

First- and third-person shooter games, like Spec Ops: the Line, are probably the most aggressive in pushing a graphics card to its performance limits. Newer shooters often take advantage of the latest hardware and software technologies in attempting to deliver the most immersive 3D graphics experience possible.

Strategy games tend to be somewhat less demanding graphically. Even strategy titles that can hammer a graphics card, like Total War: Shogun 2, are much more flexible about their settings and can run well on lower end hardware. Games such as Civilization V may support the latest graphics standards while running on fairly modest hardware.

 

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