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A Primer on Selecting a Video Card for Your Desktop Computer

written by: John Garger•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 5/20/2011

Choosing the right video card for your computer is crucial to enjoying your computer’s display capabilities. Learn how to choose the video card for your computer that will give you the most enjoyment.

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    Video Card

    In the early days of home computing, computers were all-in-one packages with little opportunity to upgrade and change their configurations and capabilities. Today, computers are highly granular allowing the greatest opportunity for upgrades and custom configuration.

    Perhaps second only to the CPU, the video card is the most important component in your computer. The video card dictates much of a computer’s capability and is one of the most cost effective ways to upgrade an aging computer. Read this document to learn the basics of video cards and a method for choosing the video card that is right for you.

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    The Basics of Video Cards

    GeForce 6200A Video Card A Video Card is an electronic component that plugs into your computer to deliver the graphical capabilities of your computer. Video cards range in price from under $25 to over $1,000. This range is testament to the wide array of choices and options available when buying a video card.

    Most computer buyers do not worry too much about the video card that ships with their computer. They trust that the card that comes with the computer contains the latest and greatest technologies. Unfortunately, the video card is one of the components on which computer manufacturers skimp to drive down the prices of computers. The manufactures can do this because the average consumer is unaware of how vital the connection is between what a computer can do and what its video card can do.

    Some computers do not even contain a separate video card; they use on-board video (i.e. a video card built right in to the motherboard). This is another method used by computer manufacturers to drive down prices. On-board video is severely underpowered for all but the most basic of computing such as using e-mail, typing letters, and doing home finance. If you will be using your computer for gaming, watching movies, and other multimedia applications, be certain your computer ships with a separate video card that has the capabilities you need.

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    Tips on Choosing a Video Card

    Without getting into the minute details of video card technologies, there are some steps you can take to ensure you get the graphical capabilities you need. First, if you are buying a low-budget computer, be aware that the computer’s video card is likely to be either on-board or an out-of-date generation. Again, this is how computer manufacturers save a buck for themselves and lower prices on their computers.

    If you will be using the computer for any kind of gaming, a good rule of thumb is to choose a video card that is either a current generation or one-generation-old card. Current generation cards from companies such as nVidia and ATI can run well over $500. One-generation-old cards often run around $200 to $300. These cards are much more economical and provide a decent level of power for current games.

    For hard-core gamers, you can save some money by buying a card that is at the lower end of the latest generation cards. Newly released video cards always carry with them the highest price tag because of skimming.

    Skimming is the pricing strategy of charging very high prices for a product just released to the market. The purpose is to “skim” off customers who are willing to pay exorbitant prices for the right to say they have the best video card on the market. As soon as the next video card is released, the older one is likely to drop in price dramatically. Since there is often little difference between the number one and the number two (or three or four) video card, smart buyers can save a lot of money by opting for a lower-end current generation video card.

    Some high-end gamers can even opt for multiple video cards in one computer. So called SLI or Crossfire technologies allow for two, three, or even four video cards. Of course, putting more than one video card in your computer can be very expensive. Not only do you need to spend money on multiple video cards, you must also have the right power supply to connect to those power-hungry graphics cards. However, if you want to get the absolute maximum performance out of your computer’s graphical capabilities, this is the best way to do it.

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    A video card is your connection to the graphical capabilities of your computer. If you spent too much money, you may be buying features you will never need. Buy too little, and you risk outgrowing a video card before its time. The ideal situation is to strike a balance between price and capability.

    Start by assessing your needs now and in the near future. If your current video card is just not cutting it, opt for a better card now. If your computer is doing what you want it to do, put off buying a new video card until you really need it. Finally, do not get caught up in the hype generated by the video card manufacturers. Do your homework, talk to an expert, and develop a plan to get the most out of your computer’s graphics at the lowest price possible.