Desktop Video Card Buying Guide for 2016
Your computer’s video card enables it to output graphics to displays, including monitors, TVs, and projectors. It is also sometimes called a desktop graphics card, and it impacts 3D and video performance for many different types of applications. So if your computer slows to a chug when displaying 3D graphics but performs fine for everything else, your video card may be the culprit.
NVIDIA or AMD
AMD and NVIDIA provide GPUs and board designs for video card manufacturers to use. In addition to providing GPUs, they also develop their own drivers for them. So whether you choose an Asus or Gigabyte video card, the drivers will be from AMD or NVIDIA.
The matter of which one produces better GPUs can be a polarizing issue with an answer that often changes with new GPU releases. When it comes to choosing between the two, your best bet is to consult hardware reviews for the models you are interested in.
Video Card Terminology
Before you go shopping for any desktop video card, we have a few terms and specifications you should familiarize yourself with first.
Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) – The term GPU refers to the central electronic circuit on the graphics card, but it is also often used interchangeably with card as a whole. A GPU is similar to a CPU, but the former focuses on graphics instead of general computation. Other differences include, the number of cores a GPU typically has and the overall chip architecture.
Cores – A CPU may have up to a dozen or so cores but a GPU may have several thousand. However, they are significantly slower than their CPU counterparts and are more suited for simple calculations. AMD and NVIDIA market GPU cores as Stream Processors and Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA®) cores respectively. Generally, more Stream Processors or CUDA Cores mean the video card can do more parallel computations simultaneously. In the real world, it comes down to faster graphics processing.
GPU Clock Speed – It is a common misconception that GPU clock speed is the most important metric when comparing video cards. If two video cards share the same design and hardware, with their clock speeds being the only difference, the one with a faster clock speed would be the overall faster card. There are other factors that have a bigger impact on video card performance, including the amount of memory, design of the GPU, and the number of GPU cores. Ultimately, GPU clock speed is useful as a metric to compare different graphics cards that share the same GPU, but not when they have different ones.
Video Memory – Often called VRAM, it functions as onboard memory for the video card. It stores data that can be quickly accessed by the GPU, similar to how system RAM stores data for the CPU. More video memory means a graphics card can better handle high resolution textures.
Interface – A video card’s interface refers to the physical standard used to connect it to a motherboard. In years past, there were multiple competing interfaces, which made choosing the right one essential. Today, PCI-Express is the only interface type in use, though there have been several revisions to the standard. The revisions have been backwards compatible, so a PCI-E 3.0 video card works with a PCI-E 2.0 motherboard.
Connectivity – How your monitors and other displays connect to your computer is determined by the video card’s connectivity. Most video cards support DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. You should ensure that your monitor’s connection type is supported by the video card or get an adapter if it does not.
NVIDIA SLI / AMD CrossFire™ – Both SLI and CrossFire are technologies that enable the simultaneous use of two or more video cards in the same computer for better performance. In order to use them, you need to have compatible video cards and a motherboard that specifies SLI or CrossFire support.
Workstation Graphics Cards v. Desktop Graphics Cards
Both AMD and NVIDIA differentiate their desktop computer and workstation video card lines. Workstation cards typically cost more than equivalent desktop cards, and are geared towards graphics production and computing rather than outputting graphics for games. Workstation and desktop video cards typically use the same GPU, but the former are made using higher-quality components and use different software drivers.
For multi-monitor users, workstation video cards have the advantage of often having many more video output ports. If you plan to do production work, output to at least four or more monitors, or need raw compute speed, a workstation video card is the better suited for you.
Identify Performance Bottlenecks
If you have an older workstation, installing a new graphics card and expecting huge performance gains may be overly optimistic. Your system could be bottlenecked by another component, such as the processor, storage drive, or motherboard. If any of those components are more than several years old, you may want to consider upgrading those with newer models as well.
Finding the Right GPU
Choosing the right GPU can be a challenge, but it usually comes down to choosing the SKU that most closely matches your needs. AMD and NVIDIA typically offer a range of GPUs covering the budget, mid-range, upper mid-range, and performance market segments. To find the right SKU, check hardware reviews and comparison benchmarks.
Determine Your Memory Requirement
The amount of memory on board your video card determines in part the resolutions your computer can display smoothly. This becomes fairly apparent when it comes to 3D graphics, as higher resolution textures take up more video memory. When the video memory is fully utilized, the video card needs to stream data from the storage drive. This means slower performance overall.
If you plan to do 3D production work, you’ll want at least 2 GB with a 1080p resolution, 4 GB for 1440p, and more than 4 GB for 4K. But at the very minimum, you should have at least 1 GB of video memory.
Is Your Power Supply Up to the Task?
Don’t neglect power requirements, as high-end desktop and workstation graphics cards pull quite a bit of power. Exactly how much depends on the GPU, but expect one card to require up to 300 watts for itself in some cases. If you want to use two graphics cards in SLI or CrossFire, double the power needed. After you determine your system’s total power requirements with the graphics card, ensure that it does not exceed 80% of your power supply’s rating. If the video you need uses more power than your system can provide, then it’s time to upgrade your power supply as well.
Does Your PC Case Have Room?
You also need to address the matter of whether or not the video card can fit inside your computer case. High-performance graphics cards tend to be physically large as they need big heat sinks and fans for cooling. You should consider measuring your computer case’s internal clearance for a video card.
The right graphics card is the one that will get the tasks at hand done quicker without exceeding your budget. It comes down to reading reviews and looking at benchmarks to see if a graphics card matches what you want. After doing that research, consider the points above to see if it matches your system. Whichever desktop video card you choose, at least it will be better than integrated motherboard graphics.