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Video Card Buying Guide

written by: Tony J Palazzo•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 6/10/2010

You've decided it's time to buy a new video card. The main question, of course, is how to get the right card for your needs, as well as your system, without spending more than you have to. This guide to buying video cards will help you through the process by covering the main issues involved.

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    A Quick Overview

    As usage, performance capacity, and prices vary greatly, this video card buying guide is focused on general guidelines with recommendations, and applies terminology to the extent that is helpful with making an informed buying decision.

    The new or general computer user might ask what makes the difference in determining whether a graphics card is a good deal for the price. One suggestion would be to compare specifications of two video cards in the same price range, or compare prices of video cards with vastly different specifications to get a sense of perspective.

    The key is understanding the basic terminology of video card features.

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    A Non-Technical Approach to Specs

    The primary component of the video card is the GPU (graphics processing unit.) Two of today's most prominent GPUs are the ATI Radeon and the NVIDIA GeForce. The naming conventions of these GPUs provide an initial basis for comparison. For example, it can be understood that a Radeon HD 3650 is less powerful than a Radeon HD 5970 based on the series number alone. To get more specific requires comparing common specs. Since you'll usually see memory type, size, and bus width / memory interface listed as the main focus of a video card's description, it's important to understand how these elements are classified. Let's use the Visiontek Radeon HD 3650 as an example.

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    Visiontek Radeon HD 3650 Video Card - 512MB GDDR2, AGP 8x, Dual DVI, HDTV

    Video Card Buying Guide GDDR2 is the type of graphics memory. Other types of memory include GDDR3, GDDR4, and GDDR5. Generally speaking, the numbers 2-5 indicate the speed of the memory, with GDDR5 being the highest, so you can assume a video card with GDDR5 memory is going to outperform a card with GDDR2 memory. The 512MB designation is the memory size. Its bus width, which is listed in the specs, is 128-bit. Again, you can apply the same non-technical general rule that higher numbers equates with more power. The AGP 8x is the bus interface, or in plain English, the type of card slot. This is important to pay attention to if you have an older motherboard. AGP is gradually being replaced by the PCI-Express card type, and PCI-E cards won't work in an AGP slot.

    At the end of this product description, the Dual DVI refers to its connector type (which is digital, although this particular card is also compatible with standard VGA (analog) connection type.) HDTV is a general indication that it supports HD video, which makes it a good card for viewing HD DVDs and Blu-ray.

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    Budget, Performance and Enthusiast Levels

    Video Card Buying Guide - The HD5970 Now that basic specs have been covered, let's take a look at some video cards in different price ranges. - NVIDIA GeForce 7300 GT. This is a decent lower-end card at an affordable price ($44.99.) It's suitable for basic computing, such as general Internet surfing, office work, and playing simple online games such as poker or Farmville. It's an AGP card, which makes it a good choice for older systems.

    Moving on to the performance class, the Radeon HD5770, at around $160, is a great value. It's a PCI-E card with 1GB 128-bit GDDR5, making it suitable for 3D gaming. A card in this range will also perform well for image and video editing.

    Finally, our video card buying guide brings us to the high-end with the DIAMOND ATI Radeon HD5970 - 2GB GDDR5 with a 512-bit bus interface. At nearly $700, this card can handle any game today at the highest settings, but if you're in the market for this kind of card, a less powerful and significantly less expensive Radeon 5870 might be worth considering.

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    Compatibility Issues and Future Considerations

    Compatibility issues other than your card slot may include the capacity of your power supply; if it's below 450 watts, in some cases it won't be adequate for the card to function properly. Your system specs will also determine whether upgrading to dual graphics cards is feasible.

    When upgrading any system component, it's important to take into account not only your current needs, but what will satisfy your requirements for a reasonable amount of time; it's always better to get more than just what you need. It's worth keeping in mind that, as AGP will inevitably be rendered obsolete by PCI-E, staying current with perpetually increasing system requirements will require upgrading above and beyond the video card.