Understanding and Choosing Video Cards and Components

Written by:  Daniel Barros • Edited by: Rebecca Scudder
Updated May 19, 2011
• Related Guides: RAM

An article describing how to select video cards from the vast array available at market for the consumer today. Specifically, how to pick the right manufacturer, the right amount of video RAM, and descriptors of what every piece of a video card means to the consumer.

You and Your Gaming "Rig"

Looking for the best PC Gaming Video Cards that money can buy? If you're new to the subject, learn the basics before you spend your hard earned money.

So, you're a console gamer, or perhaps a closet gamer, admit it - something intrigues you about the fact that you could be using that magical box that whisks you across the internet to play some great games on. But perhaps the cost is too much, or you're just not sure where to begin exactly. Fear not - when analyzed appropriately, building the best gaming PC is often a simple and inexpensive task (unless you're looking for the latest and greatest that the business has to offer). This article is the first in a multi-part series about building the perfect PC for gaming (which is often referred to as a Rig), in which we'll explore the mysteries of the video card - specifically which one is the right one for you.

Finding that Special Card

The best part about building a new gaming PC is the feeling you'll get once it's completed. Nothing cements that great feeling better than the right video card with the right specifications. Picking the wrong video card (be it a bad brand or an underpowered one) can leave even the mightiest of gaming rigs in the dust. That said, it's best to start with the basics of a video card.

First, what does a video card even do? Why make such a big deal about buying one? Motherboards have built-in video cards, why should I dish out 200 dollars for something I already have? The answer to all these questions revolves around what a video card actually does? Which is, that a video card serves as a secondary processor for your graphics needs.

A video card actually is almost like a miniature environment inside your computer reserved for gaming and video processing. Even if you're not a gamer, a video card in the modern landscape of LCD screens for computers is a must-have in order to get that high-def shine that everyone loves.

For a more detailed look at the video card read Heather Lormay's article, What is the Video Card?

Now that you know what a video card does, in simple terms, let's move on to the components of one. A video card is essentially composed of a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), Video RAM, an onboard cooling system, high-def (or standard-def) outputs, and a motherboard connector. Of these five things, the ones we're interested in the most are the GPU, the RAM, and the outputs.

The Three Musketeers

The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)

Serving essentially as the beating heart of the video card. A GPU is a sophisticated piece of technology dedicated specially to what are called floating-point operations, or 3D graphics rendering. In today's latest and greatest games, a GPU makes it possible to render the fantastic scenery in games like Call of Duty 4, or Crysis, while also doubling as a power center for your videos, lending them a hand whenever you boot up a DVD or play a movie from your hard drive.

The GPU comes in two flavors - Nvidia and ATI. I personally am an Nvidia man, and if you look across the internet, you'll find varied opinions on which one is best. As a rule of thumb, I stick to whoever has the latest technology and has it most readily available. Both companies release excellent products in a constant war of attrition to out-do one another. My next article will show which are the top 5 GPUs along with their respective cards and why.

One final note on the GPU - even though the unit is proprietary technology, both ATI and Nvidia license companies other than themselves to make the graphics (or video) card. It is a fruitless effort to try and find an "nvidia card" - rather, you should focus on finding a specific GPU, like the GeForce 8600 from Nvidia, for instance.


Video RAM holds a special place on the video card specifically for video-memory needs. RAM is most generally known as Random Access Memory, it is an essential part of the computer, moving information from the hard drive into the RAM in order to put it in use, then moving said information back out of the RAM and into the hard drive once more. Video RAM (if not integrated into the motherboard) serves as a special RAM reservoir for all your gaming and video needs - resulting in a crisper, richer experience. As a side note of interest, if you were ever curious as to what disk defragmenters do, aside from re-organizing things layers deep in the magnetic disk of the hard drive, they also push up to the top of the disk the items that you use the most, resulting in an overall speed increase for your computer.

Returning to the point about video RAM, it's actually quite simple and basic to human nature - more is better. However, buying a 2 Gb GeForce 6700 would be about the biggest mistake you could humanly make, which is why it is essential to be a master of balance and buy a good GPU with a good amount of RAM. Of course, the point is to buy a computer that you wouldn't have to re-finance your home to own - and that's likely to happen if you try to buy video cards on the very cutting edge of technology. A final note of advice on buying the card is that any card with less than 256 Mb of RAM is not worth your time and won't play the games you want very well.

The Outputs and Etc.

The outputs are another reasonably simple part of the card - they function to send the signal generated by your computer out to a monitor or projector. There are four basic connectors (in order of quality) S-Video, VGA, DVI-D, and HDMI. If your monitor is new and is part of that "latest and greatest" category mentioned before, you might have an HDMI slot in the monitor, however, most video cards function with the middle two connectors - VGA and DVI-D. Modern monitors have a digital and analog input, the DVI-D will be the digital input and can output resolutions digitally, resulting in a higher-definition experience, the VGA is the analog signal and can output the same resolutions but not with the same crisp-ness of the image. When buying a video card, make sure to check your monitor (and if you have a CRT monitor - don't even bother with the DVI-D connector, as it won't make too big a difference). The card you buy, as long as you buy in a retail package should include both cables (or at the very least a converter).

Ultimately, purchasing the video card is as much a personal experience as purchasing a car or a processor. It's important that you take into consideration what it is that your needs are - if you plan on gaming only a little, it's probably best not to blow your budget on some $500 monstrosity that will only be obsolete a few months from now, rather, buy middle of the road, where the cheapest prices are and where invariably you'll get the best experience. If you game frequently now and think you'll be doing the same when you finally get your rig going, go for something slightly more high-end. My end-all and be-all limit on buying a graphics card is about $250, and will comprise most of the cost of your PC, as will the processor. If you find your eye wandering towards the higher-end cards, just ask yourself if you want to be the one remembering how much you paid for it as you're tossing it out in 18 months.

In the next article, we review the top 5 gaming cards and their respective prices along with the best budget video card out there.

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