The Definitive Guide to Buying a Graphics Card

graphics card buying guide

A graphics card is designed to ease the burden on your computer’s processor and memory systems while displaying video. It has its own processor and memory and selecting the right or wrong one can have a significant impact on your computer and your user experience. If you have done any amount of window shopping, you probably already know that there are a plethora of options. How do you find the best graphics card for you? Well, you can start by checking out our comprehensive graphics card buying guide.

Suitability

To find the best graphics card for you, you need to carefully consider what you want to be able do with it. Are you a casual PC user, who just wants to surf the net and play a few games that aren’t particularly taxing to the system? Are you a gamer looking for the best possible visual experience? Or are you an editor, looking to get serious work done? Casual users can generally get away with a lower-end model, but gamers and editors will need more than that.

Web browsing and casual gaming

If you basically just use your PC for word processing, web processing, and casual gaming, then you don’t need to buy a separate graphics card; you can just use the integrated graphics that are built into your PC’s processor or motherboard.

If you play games like World of Warcraft, then your integrated graphics chip needs to be a recent AMD or Intel chip. However, in situations such as this, a dedicated graphics card is the better option and those not looking to play particularly taxing games can get away with purchasing a lower-end graphics card.

The best graphics cards for gamers

When we talk about gamers, we are really talking about two main types—mainstream gamers and what some sites have termed “insanity gamers,” which is description that I personally like.

casual gaming rigMainstream gamers: What we’re talking about here are the gamers who want their Crysis, Modern Warfare, Skyrim, etc. games to run smoothly with no stuttering, who want clear graphics in a high resolution.

The majority of gamers reading this article will fall under this category. If this applies to you, then you’ll want to pay attention to your game’s RAM requirements, a graphics card’s frame rate (a good graphics card should have 60 FPS (frames per second) or higher. You can typically expect to pay $130 to $200 for the mid-range graphic card that this type of gaming requires.

If more processing power without a crazy-high price tag appeal to you, the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 is probably the best option on the market. In fact, it is the card most reviewers are currently recommending to those who want an awesome gaming experience without paying a price equal to that of a mortgage.

gaming 3 monitor setupInsanity gamers: These are the gamers who want top-notch 3D gaming capability, who run their games at a high resolution across multiple monitors, and/or those who want to be able to crank up their games’ details settings for the best possible picture.

Once you enter this realm, you can easily find yourself paying anywhere from $500 to over $1000 for a graphics card. Examples of cards in this category include the GTX 980 and the AMD Radeon R9295X2, which will set you back about $1000. There is another option, however, and that is to run multiple graphics cards (if your computer has the slots).

In cases such as this, running two GeForce GTX 970s will allow you to run games at 4K resolution and will outperform a single 980. This is the option most industry experts are currently recommending.

The best graphics cards for editors

If you are a serious editor, then you need a graphics card that is made for rendering for ultimate performance and minimum frustration. The basic rule here is that the more you are willing to spend, the faster the card you will be able to buy, which results in faster editing and rendering, and the more specialized video processing power you can harness, such as color correction, chroma keying, and the ability to composite multiple layers of HD video.

(For editors who have very little knowledge about the intricacies of graphics cards, which, I’m assuming, refers to the majority of those reading this, most, if not all, major editing programs list graphics cards and computers that have been proven to work well with their software. You can find this information on their websites and it will save you a lot of headache and time.)

3d animators

3D animators: If you are running a 3D animation workstation, you will need a higher-end graphics card than editors who do not use 3D. This is especially true if you run your programs for extended periods of time; in cases such as this, editors should look at NVIDIA’s Tesla and Quadro lines, which provide the precision needed for computer-aided design, as well as the stability for those than run them constantly.

You should also look at the individual cards sold by other companies, like MSI and EVGA, as they typically add extra features to their cards that may make one more suitable than another. In other words, do not assume that two cards offer the same features and performance simply because they are the same model number if they come from different companies.

API: Application programming interfaces allow software developers to have direct access to a graphics card’s capabilities. There are several different types: OpenGL and DirectX deal specifically with real-time graphics rendering for 2D and 3D work; CUDA, OpenCL, and DirectCompute all allow the creation of programs that may not be directly tied to onscreen graphics. This includes things like video encoding, sound processing, and physics.

Editors putting together a serious workstation would do best to check out NVIDIA’s Quadro line and AMD’s FirePro line; prices in these lines can run from $500 to over $2000.

Consider your current system

Contrary to popular belief, buying a super high-end graphics card does not automatically equal super performance. In other words, the key to solving your graphics card dilemma is not to simply throw the most expensive, souped-up graphics card you can find into your system, but to find out that works best with your current system or the system you are putting together.

Your CPU

cpu processorHow old is your CPU? Older dual-core CPUs will not be able to keep up with higher-end graphics cards, so purchasing one is a waste of money. If you’re not ready to upgrade your CPU, the smartest move is to choose a mid-range graphics card that your CPU can handle. After all, there’s no use paying for hardware that you can’t use.

Your display

ASUS ROG Swift PG278Q

ASUS ROG Swift PG278Q Monitor

Older monitors, like a 1280×1024, do not require high-end graphics cards in order to perform; in cases like this, it is once again best to select a mid-range model and save your money. However, if you are running multiple 1920×1080 monitors, a higher-end card is a necessity. Additionally, running multiple monitors takes more processing power in general, so it is important to make sure that the card you choose has plenty of memory, clock speed, and shader cores.

Compatibility

There’s no use buying an awesome graphics card if it doesn’t work with your computer, so the first thing you need to do is understand your needs in this department.

video slot pci-eVideo slot: There are two types of video slots: PCI-Express and AGP. If you’ve bought your computer since 2005, you will most likely have a PCI-Express video slot, though it is still worth checking, as you will need to know the size of the slot, x1, x2, x4, and x16. Most graphics cards require a size x16, which provides the fastest speed of the four options. Your computer may have a PCI slot, which is shorter than that of a PCI-E. The best way to tell the difference between a PCI-Express slot and an AGP slot is to check the color—AGPs are almost always brown, while PCI-Express slots are white or another color.

Video port: There are four different types of ports and your computer may have a combination of them; for instance, my laptop has both an HDMI and a DVI port. The graphics card you select must be able to fit at least one of the ports on your computer. The four types are:

Video Port

Specification Options

For non-tech heads, figuring out what a card’s specs mean and understanding how they affect performance can be quite a chore, as can prioritizing your spec needs. If you are reading this guide, then chances are that you have very little knowledge regarding the intricacies of video card specifications—and that’s okay. What is most important is that you have a general understanding of how the major specs of a card affect performance and user experience. (For example, you should know what “RAM” is and how the amount of it affects performance.) Here is a good rule of thumb for memory choices:

1 GB: This is ideal for office use and light gaming with older games.

2 – 3 GB: This will suffice for the average gamer that uses one monitor.

4 GB+: These cards are meant for multiple monitor setups, or graphic-rendering needs.
Obviously, cost will also be a big factor in how much memory is chosen. If you find a great deal on a card with equal power but superior memory, it will be worth the premium.

GPU

best graphics card - nvidia vs amd radeonA graphics card’s GPU, or graphics processing unit, will tell you the most information about a card’s capabilities. GPUs have names like GTX 690 or Radeon HD 7970. In almost all cases, a higher number means better performance and a higher price tag. Most graphics cards use NVIDIA, AMD, or Intel GPUS. As for which one is the “best brand of graphics card,” they are all pretty equal in terms of performance, though the most advanced tech-heads may be able to tell the difference between them, most users will not be able to do so.

NVIDIA and AMD are certainly the most popular products currently. If you are looking for maximum compatibility and performance, check out what kind of chipsets your PC motherboard uses. If it uses AMD, select an AMD graphics card; if it uses NVIDIA, buy an NVIDIA graphics card. That is the smartest way to find the best graphics card brand.

Maximum resolution

Maximum resolution is the highest resolution a card is capable of outputting. If a high resolution is important to you and you want to buy a graphics card to accommodate this, it is integral that you check the maximum resolution supported by the video ports on your computer. Purchasing a card with a high maximum resolution will do you no good if your ports cannot support it.

Memory

A graphics card’s memory affects image quality and resolution. When we talk about a graphics card’s memory, we are talking about RAM– the type, the amount, the speed, and the bus width. There are two types of RAM: GDDR5 and DDR3. Of the two, GDDR5 offers better performance and is the preferable choice. DDR3 is typically found on the most basic of cards. Be careful if you are looking at lower-end video cards—the GPUs in them often have more memory, but they are using DDR3 RAM, so you’re not getting an incredibly good deal.

graphics card ram

Of course, what is more important to most people is the amount of RAM, because more RAM mean better performance, right? Wrong—industry experts say that one of the biggest mistakes a consumer can make is to focus on RAM amount. More RAM means a higher price, so to figure out how much you need, check the memory requirements of the programs you use most often, or of the program that was running poorly enough to cause you to want to upgrade your graphics card. Find the highest amount, and then look for a video card that has a little bit more than that. Generally speaking, more RAM means better performance, especially for gamers and editors (more on that in the “Suitability” section), but you don’t want to buy a lot of RAM if you are never going to need it.

Memory speed is reported MHz and it reflects the speed at which a video card can access the data stored on the RAM. If you want to avoid having to wait for your video card, a higher memory speed is better.

Bus width is the measurement of the amount of data the card can access from the memory each clock cycle. If you typically run programs that require a lot of video memory, you should opt for a larger bus width so as to be able to efficiently transfer data.
Ultimately, if you want a good, general idea of a card’s memory performance, check the bandwidth, which is a calculation based on the other memory specifications and will tell you the speed of a card’s memory.

Speed

A graphics card’s speed determines the frame rate, input lag, and frame latency; it depends on two factors—the number of shader cores (NVIDIA refers to its shader cores as “CUDA cores” and AMD refers to the them as “stream processors.”) and the GPU’s clock speed, which is measured in Mhz. When shopping for a graphics card, look for a card that, in addition to everything else you need, has the fastest clock speed and the greatest amount of shader cores available within your budget.

Cooling

graphics card coolingFun fact: when your GPU gets too hot, it slows down its speed, resulting in poor performance. The more power a GPU uses (and the higher-end graphics cards tend to use a lot), the more heat it puts out. Improper cooling can result in you frying your CPU like an egg on the sidewalk in July. There are two basic types of cooling systems—reference coolers, which funnel hot air out through the back of the case and keep the inside of the PC cool (but tend to be rather noisy), and aftermarket high-performance custom coolers, which are unique to the manufacturer. Custom coolers tend to cost more and release hot air into the case, but they are much quieter and keep the GPU cooler.

The type of cooling system that you need should be largely dictated by your system’s overall normal temperature. If your PC tends to run hot (over 55 degrees Celsius) during gameplay, opting for a reference cooler is the smarter option, even if it is noisier. If your current system stays pretty cool, a custom cooling system will be quieter and may even extend the life of the GPU.

Now, if your system’s temperature is still too hot, then consider liquid or air cooling, which can cost considerably more and make installation tougher, but it will keep your GPU and CPU from Alex Mack-ing onto the floor.

But How to Find the Best Graphics Card Then?

To ease your decision on selecting the best graphics card, I’ve prepared a comparative chart that includes 12 top graphics cards. I’ve tried my best to include graphics cards for every budget to assist your buying decision. Just refer to the chart below and see what fits your needs.

Ultimate Graphics Card Comparison Chart

NameCore Clock (MHz)Memory Size (GB)Memory TypeMax Display ResolutionMinimum Power Requirement (Watts)CrossFireX or SLI CapabilityDimensions (in.)
L x H
GeForce GT 730



9022GDDR52560 x 1600300No5.7" x 2.7"
Radeon R7 250X

10002GDDR54096 x 2160400Yes7.91" x 1.50"
EVGA GeForce GTX 750 Ti


11762GDDR54096x2160300No6.70" x 4.38"
Sapphire Radeon R9 270

9202GDDR54096x2160500Yes8.98" x 4.29"
EVGA GeForce GTX 760

9802GDDR54096x2160500Yes9.5" x 4.38"
GeForce GTX 970


12164GDDR54096x2160500Yes9.5" x 4.376"
Radeon R9 290X

10304GDDR54096 x 2160750Yes12.01" x 4.49"
Sapphire Radeon R9 295X2


10188GDDR54096 x 2160450Yes12.12" x 4.13"
EVGA GTX980 Superclocked

12664GDDR54096 × 2160500Yes10.5" x 4.376"
EVGA GeForce GTX TITAN Z

70512GDDR54096x2160700Yes10.50" x 4.38"
Nvidia Quadro K6000


90012GDDR5 4096x 2160Yes10.5" x 4.376"

 

Final Words

Seriously, if you are in the market for a new graphics card, have a look at my Ultimate Graphics Card Comparison Chart above and choose the card that meets your needs. Any of the cards on our chart are reputable, great for casual to advanced users and are some of the best in the world.

Sources

Amazon.com. Graphics Card Guide. Available from: http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000120931.

Bach, Matt (2013) Specs Explained: Video Card. Available from: http://www.pugetsystems.com/labs/articles/Specs-Explained-Video-Card-463/.

Ellison, Tim (2014) What is important in choosing a Video Graphics Card? Available from: https://helpdesk.flexradio.com/hc/en-us/articles/202118528-What-is-important-in-choosing-a-Video-Graphics-Card-.

Herman, John (2009) Giz Explains: How to Choose the Right Graphics Card. Available from: http://gizmodo.com/5305571/giz-explains-how-to-choose-the-right-graphics-card.

Morris, Paul (2014) What’s Under the Hood: Video Cards Buyer’s Guide. Available from: http://www.videomaker.com/article/17182-whats-under-the-hood-video-cards-buyer%E2%80%99s-guide.

Murray, Matthew (2012) How to Buy a Video Card. Available from: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2371083,00.asp.

Rathbone. Andy. How to Find the Right Video Card for Your Computer. Available from: http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-find-the-right-video-card-for-your-computer.html.

Vernon, Julian (2014) How to buy a graphics card—Six things you must know about GPUs. Available from: http://www.pcgamer.com/how-to-buy-a-graphics-card-six-things-you-must-know-about-gpus/.

Wallossek, Igor (2013) Workstation Graphics: 14 FirePro And Quadro Cards. Available from: http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/best-workstation-graphics-card,3493.html.

Woligroski, Don (2015) Best Graphics Cards For The Money: February 2015. Available from: http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/gaming-graphics-card-review,3107-5.html.


4 thoughts on “The Definitive Guide to Buying a Graphics Card

  1. Ethan K on said:

    Hey I wanted to ask something. What would be better to focus on while looking on the memory of the graphics card – the speed or the total capacity (how many MB or GB it has)? For example, which would be better to buy – a graphics card with 2 GB DD3 memory or with 1 GB GDDR5 memory?

    • Hi Ethan,

      The higher the resolution in games, the more VRAM there should be since more textures & packs need to be loaded.
      Due to technologies such as AA, MSAA, AF, QSCAA.. those really feed on the VRAM depending on the game.

      However some cards are not powerful enough to use the extra VRAM. For example there’s no difference between HD 5670 512 MB and 1 GB as the GPU itself is weak enough not to handle that amount of RAM which is the case of your 2 GB DDR3 card.

      GDDR 5 is much faster than GDDR3 in transfer rates, almost double the speed.

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