This guide is for everyone who wants to purchase a graphics card but isn’t exactly sure how to pick the “perfect” one. Maybe you are upgrading, buying a graphics card as a gift for a child or friend, or even building a new PC — this guide will help ensure you get the one you need.
When it comes to purchasing a graphics card, the first thing you want to do is narrow down which ones are compatible with the computer it’s going to live in.
The follow are some of the pieces of information you are going to want to know with modern day graphics cards:
The cards interface:
Before you can get a graphics card, you need to know that it will go into your motherboard. Generally speaking, most cards these days are PCI-E (PCI Express), but some legacy computers still use AGP. With regard to PCI-E, there are now different ‘versions’ if you will, PCI-E 2.0 and PCI-E 2.1 (the newer one). Some graphics cards will support 2.1. Anything consideration with the interface is if your motherboard supports multiple PCI-E slots. If so, you may want to purchase a graphics card that supports SLI or Crossfire, which in short is running multiple graphics in a single computer. You can always add the additional card later, but generally the cards need to be pretty much identical.
Power Consumption: Some modern day graphics cards will suck the power so hard, your local nuclear power plant will have to increase reactivity to 102% just to keep up. Make sure that your computers power supply has enough power available to run your card (or cards) and still power the rest of your PC. Usually you can get the power requirements from the specifications page of the graphics card. We generally recommend going with a pretty haus power supply, 600-800W for modern cards. The power is there if you need it; it will not just pull 600W all the time.
Power Rails: If the graphics card you are purchasing has 6-pin or 8-pin connectors, make sure that your power supply has these to power the card. If not, some adapters are available for 4-pin to 6/8-pin, but in the general case, if your power supply didn’t come with these — you probably don’t want to use one of your 4-pin rails to try and power your graphics card. Consider upgrading power supplies in this case. As an aside, dedicated 6 and 8 pin rails tend to work out better.
Physical Space: You would be surprised the number of people that buy graphics cards that WILL NOT after purchase fit into their computer. Some of these things are massive. If you have a small form factor case such as a Shuttle PC or mini tower, make sure the dimensions of the card (specifically length) play well together with the case. There are also cases where the graphics card is so “thick” that it can impact, touch, or be impeded by transistors, the north bridge, custom CPU coolers, and other hardware in the computer. I’ve pretty much seen it all.
Video Outputs: You need to know what you are going to hook this graphics card to. How many monitors? What are the inputs on those monitors? Do they support 1080i/p? Do you want HDMI, DVI, Display Port connectors, VGA outputs? There are so many permutations I dare not go into this much, but long story short, make sure you can plug your graphics card into your monitors, TVs, or brain once you by the thing.
Ok so great, once you make it this far and know that you aren’t going to buy a graphics card that pulls too much power, doesn’t fit, is the wrong interface, or has connectors for which you have no plugs — we can look at more important factors like performance and how to achieve it for your specific purposes.
6. Requirements: The next logical step is to consider your requirements for the graphics card. Ask yourself the following question: “What am I looking to accomplish with this graphics card?” If your primary task is to work with 3D media, movies, video editing, graphics design, and the like — you are going to want to look at Workstation cards in the genre of AMD Firepro or NVIDIA Quadro for instance. If you want to play computer games such as World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, or Pokemon — then you want to consider a gaming line like AMD Radeon HD or NVIDIA GeForce GTX. In many ways, the work station cards are actually much better “GPUs” , but the drivers are not meant for gaming. We’ll get to drivers later.
7. Application Benchmarks: If you can, you want to look for application benchmarks and see how certain graphics cards are performing on the graphics card you want to buy. Take for example you want to play World or Warcraft. You want to look for World of Warcraft benchmarks where people compare multiple graphics cards performance across that game. This gives you an idea of how GPUs should perform in that application, bearing in mind their computer hardware will be different, as will their software and drivers to some extent. Toms Hardware may be a good place to start for per application reviews and benchmarks.
8. GPU Benchmarks: After that, check out how graphics cards compare with each other in the general case (not application specific). This is basically what our site does, so you can check out our “compare graphics cards” page. You don’t want to buy a GPU that is only better at one application because you probably won’t exclusively use that application or game forever.
9. Price: By this point, you probably have a good idea of the GPU / graphics card you want to buy. We personally recommend NewEgg.com for purchasing graphics cards, because they always have very competitive prices and sometimes you can even get a free game, free shipping, or some other promotion with the purchase. As far as branding, just look at the reviews. Try not to be the first person ever to buy a card, get one with a lot of purchases and a lot of reviews if you can — preferably 4 stars or higher. MSI (Microstar International) is my personal favorite brand, but I have been building MSI PC’s since I was in utero so I may be biased.
10. Drivers: Once you get your card, do NOT use the drivers that come with the CD. Go to the manufacturers website (NVIDIA or AMD) and download the latest and greaters driver package for that graphics card. If for some reason the latest drivers cause stability issues with your application or system, try a slightly older version and roll backward until one works well. Sometimes the latest drivers are not always the most stable, but they are a good place to start.