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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.

What Is Your Budget for a Graphics Card?

Economic reality may constrain even the most discriminating hardcore gamer. Unless you have unfathomably deep pockets, you'll need to balance your desires versus your wallet. Look for discounts and sales, both online and retail. And bear in mind that your monitor may strongly affect your graphics card choices.

What Is Your Monitor's Display Resolution?

If you have an older, 1680-by-1050-pixel monitor, a good $250 to $300 card is the most you'll need, even if you enable performance-sucking features such as antialiasing.

On the other hand, if you want to run three Full HD monitors in stereoscopic 3D mode, a single high-end card may not be enough.

For most of us, the happy medium lies somewhere between. Today's typical display is 1920 by 1080 (aka Full HD), and a $300 graphics card usually does fine with such a monitor, though you may have to forgo some of the "ultra" detail settings.

That said, higher-resolution displays are likely to become increasingly common in the future. Even today, prices for 2560 by 1440 monitors are gradually sinking toward an affordable level .

What Is Your PC's Performance Level?

If you're running on a PC with a Celeron or Athlon II CPU, you can get some extra graphics oomph by upgrading to a better graphics card, but the improvement will be limited. Your goal should be a balanced system. If you add a GTX 680 to a PC that runs on a 3.1GHz Athlon II processor, the GPU will spend far too much time waiting for the CPU to finish its tasks. And an idle GPU is a sign of wasted money.

You should also check your PC's age. If you're still rocking on an original Core 2 Duo E6400 and a motherboard with PCI Express 1.0, spending more than about $200 on a new graphics card is a bad investment. You'll be much better off if you save your money and put it toward a new system, or at least for a motherboard and CPU upgrade, in the near future.

Key Terms

Here are a few key terms that can help you become a smarter shopper.

DirectX 11/DirectX 11.1

DirectX is the programming interface that most Windows-based PC games use. All of the latest graphics cards support the latest DirectX 11 API. If a card supports DirectX 11, it necessarily supports a bunch of features. For example, a card's packaging may mention "hardware tessellation" as if it were an exclusive feature, but all cards that support DirectX 11 must also support hardware tessellation.

Tessellation

This term refers to the graphics card's ability to generate additional game geometry, making characters and other objects with lots of curved surfaces look smoother.

 

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