Video cards for PCs - also known as Graphics Cards - are the driving force behind your computer's video and gaming capabilities. If you want to improve your computer's gaming performance, the best place to start is with an upgrade to your graphics adapter. By doing so you'll harness the power of a separate card handling all the intensive video processing, rendering, and multimedia tasks while freeing up your CPU to handle other tasks. This delivers an overall faster and smoother PC experience - especially while playing today's graphics-intensive games. Modern graphics cards use the PCI Express interface to connect to your computer, which means you will need a PCIe x16 slot on your motherboard to use them. Older models can connect via the AGP or PCI slots, so be sure to check the specifications of your motherboard before you complete your purchase today.
Who manufactures most of the GPUS in the market today?
Two companies manufacture most of the graphics processors (GPUS) on the market today, Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Nvidia builds the GeForce and GTX lines of cards, while AMD builds the Radeon series.
Why do I need a Video Card?
Video cards create the graphics you see when you use your computer. If you're reading this text right now, it's thanks to the graphics card in your system. At minimum, upgrading this part of your PC can give improve your computer's performance in day-to-day tasks by making applications load faster and render smoother. If you choose a higher-performing model, graphics cards can help you run the latest games at high resolution or across multiple displays. Because video cards specialize in rendering graphics, they are able to generate virtual images with generally higher performance than CPUs. This gives your system the extra processing power it needs to play games, run 3D design applications, or to just give you a smoother day-to-day user experience.
What are the different options for Video Cards?
Options for video cards vary widely, so it all depends on what you want to do with your computer. For users who use their computers mainly for internet access and email, there are lower level video cards that help the graphical interface of applications render faster, and perform other behind-the-scenes functions to allow for an overall improved user experience. Mid-range cards are designed for users that like to play some games, watch HD movies, or do some lighter graphics work such as photo editing. Then there are performance-level video cards which are aimed at users who play graphically-intense games, create 3D models and animations, edit and render video, or overclock their system to improve performance.
Users who compete in games where the difference between winning and losing can be decided by a single shot use the latest NVIDIA GeForce and AMD Radeon cards. Their blindingly fast clock speeds, multiple processors, and large memory capacity make them a must-have for any gamer who wants to increase their K/D ratio to a fearsome level.
Professional designers, architects and 3D artists might be more in the market for NVIDIA GeForce GTX and AMD FirePro GPUs, which provide robust, reliable performance without the heavy price tag of their more powerful peers. There are also TV tuner cards that can allow you to view and record regularly broadcast programming right on your desktop computer to watch at your convenience. Depending on the applications and general use of your system, the options for video cards can be very broad.
What technologies are supported by the video card in question? Multiple Radeon video cards can be connected together through AMD's proprietary CrossFire technology to speed up the rendering of 3D graphics, but only if the cards in question have the capability to do so.
Examples of these technologies include AMD CrossFire, NVIDIA SLI, OpenGL, and DirectX, etc.
Where will I plug the video card into the motherboard?
There are 3 ports that are used to connect graphics cards to the motherboard: AGP, PCI, and PCI Express. These ports are not interchangeable, so make sure to research the connectors available on your motherboard before you purchase your new card.
The type and capacity of video memory (i.e. DDR3, GDDR5 clock rate specs, etc; 512MB, 2GB etc.) included on the graphics card is also an important factor in selecting the right card for your system.
Entry-level users are often on a budget or not too interested in video processing performance. Entry-level video cards are geared toward users who may occasionally play a game or two on their computer, but are usually running at low settings. Oftentimes this class of video cards is more suited to those that use their computers for non-gaming related activities such as web browsing or watching Youtube videos. The graphics cards that are considered entry level are usually very energy efficient and low in cost, but are only suitable for simple home theater PC, multimedia, or office tasks.
Performance or midrange users require a step up in terms of performance and gameplay. The graphics cards in this class offer a lot of value and features for the money. They can power more demanding PC games, but they generally cannot achieve high frame rates on the latest ones at their maximum video settings. These cards are the most popular video cards on the market because they fit the needs of the widest segment of users.
High end users and gamers are the ones that want the latest and greatest performance possible, without compromise. The highest- grade graphics cards run every game at max or near max settings, including games that require multi-screen outputs, high end 3d rendering, or 4K resolution displays. These cards require high-end power and cooling components supporting them; there's no point in building a budget PC and throwing in a high-end card. Every part of your system needs to be top-quality to get the performance desired, which often means high-output power supplies, upgraded fans, or even water cooling. These cards are definitely on the more expensive side of the spectrum, but if you are looking to have the highest performing PC available, this is the way to go.
PCIe vs PCI?
What is SLI
SLI (Scalable Link Interface) as we know it was first released to the public sector in 2004 and has slowly been gaining popularity since, especially among the gaming crowd.
An SLI configured system will have two discrete graphics cards, both of which must use the same GPU (Graphics Processor Unit), e.g. two GTX 580s but not one GTX 580 and one GTX 570; they don't necessarily have to be from the same manufacturer however. These cards also must be installed on a compatible motherboard which will have two (or more) PCI-Express x16 ports as well as a compatible chipset, either one of NVIDIA's own nForce or one of Intel's newer (P55/X58 or later) chipsets-don't take my word for it though, always check with your motherboard's manufacturer rather than assuming it does or doesn't. Linking the two cards is an SLI bridge, a small connector that provides a 1Gbps connection between the two cards, allowing them to function without stealing bandwidth from the PCIe bus. The SLI Bridge should be included in the purchase of any SLI compatible video card.
What is CrossFire
ATI stepped into the multi-graphics card racket a year later than did NVIDIA, but their offering is no less strong and is actually a little more forgiving. ATI Radeon cards don't necessarily have to posses identical GPUs to be CrossFired; any two cards from the same family, e.g. HD 5870 and HD 5850 (they're both from the 5800 family), can be linked together. This makes it easier to upgrade to CrossFire, since you don't have to buy two or three of the exact same card all at once to ensure proper linkage. To compensate, CrossFired cards are able to more dynamically share the rendering workload. NVIDIA cards typically split the work between them 50/50 while ATI cards can vary the ratio, giving less work to the slower processor and allowing the stronger of the pair to shoulder the greater burden.
Like SLI, CrossFire requires two (or more) PCI-Express ports, two (or more) compatible cards, and a compatible motherboard chipset. Though neither CrossFire nor SLI compatible boards are particularly rare, motherboard chipsets much more commonly favor AMD's CrossFireX, to the point that, if there are two PCI-Express slots on a board, and it doesn't specifically advertise SLI compatibility, it's safe assume it was built with CrossFire in mind.
What is the quietest video card out there?
For the purposes of this quietest video card discussion, we're going to look at the quietest air cooled "modern" generation graphics cards out there. While it's true you could go with a passively cooled video card (a video card that only uses a heatsink) but those cap out to lower-end chipsets only. If gaming or graphics performance isn't an issue for you, you could always go that route. Secondly you could run a water cooling system to cool your cards and/or your processor & other components to achieve near-silent performance. That's also definitely an option. But when you're looking at standard graphics cards that are readily available and cooled by a fan, what are the quietest options out there?
Low End Recommendation:
The Asus STRIX-GTX750TI-OC-2GD5 is a great choice for an HTPC or basic gaming build that you need a quiet card for. This card has an on-demand fan that will only spin up when you need it to. Asus calls this DirectCU II with 0dB Fan Technology. What it means is that you get silent gaming / non-gaming operation the fan stays completely off (0dB Noise). For more intense gaming the cooling system is optimized to run 58% cooler with 3x quieter performance. This is kind of a 'best of both worlds' cooler when it comes to quiet operation because you're getting a decent card, a good price, and fans that only run when needed. The card is entirely powered through the PCIe bus so you're dealing with a lower power draw that can improve your overall cooling without additional cabling needed. Great for a budget or light gaming build.
High End Recommendation:
Here you're getting a very capable card powered by the GeForce GTX 970 chipset. 4GB of memory with 3-way SLI support and a load of features. But what makes this special is that it (like many of the STRIX cards) has a whisper quiet idle mode that shuts off the fans when not needed. So again, you're getting 0dB when the fans are off and the fans will only come on when you're running advanced gaming. This is a pretty nice feature to have in a GTX970 card - a true sweet spot best bang for your buck chipset for gaming. This card is a little bit on the bigger side so you're going to want to use it on small form factor builds or HTPC's unless you are using a full size chassis or mid-tower ATX case. Many of our customers report nearly silent operation under load - you'll definitely be surprised by how silent this card runs when in use.