How to Chose a Video Card

I wrote this a while ago for SpiceWorks, and I found it cleaning a bit my document folder, so I decided to post it here as well.

This is not a complete How-To since Video cards change quite often, but it will give an idea and a place to start.

Not anymore the fastest card is the best, and it has gotten quite complicated.

Choosing a Video Card can seem a bit daunting…ok, a lot. It can be downright scary, but it does not need
to be.
To choose the correct video card there are a few pre-requisites.
List your CPU/motherboard, PSU and case if you have them already. If not, get a wish list. This is
important because it might dictate/limit what cards you can use.
  CPU: Your CPU is limited by the motherboard.  Here are a few CPU points
o  CPU speed. For single cards is not crucial. A core i3 510 has been demonstrated to be
enough for example. For Dual (or more) configurations the higher the clock the better.
o  CPU cores: games are optimized up to 3 cores. Dual core is a minimum. 3 core (or 4) is
desirable. 6 or more cores does not provide advantage, but rather disadvantage since
their clock speeds are lower than the quad counterparts.
o  AMD/Intel: this does not matter at all for the video cards
  Motherboard:  This is the most important decision
o  PCI Express 2.0 x16: most video cards will be PCIe 2.0 x16, so this is not a huge issue,
however some older boards are PCIe x16 (version 1). There are a few new ones that are
2.1m, but it is backward compatible
o  Dual, Triple and Quad video card configurations (Space): you need to have in
consideration the space in the motherboard. A lot of video cards are dual slot, and thus
they will cover the slot under them. There is also the consideration of connectors; video
cards can cover connectors like SATA, USB and system headers (LED, Speaker, power
button)
o  Dual, Triple and Quad video cards configuration (PCIe slots). A lot of video cards have at
least 2 PCIe 2.0 x16 slots, but they might not work in x16 mode with multiple video
cards. Commonly when there is a dual configuration (SLI or crossfire) the x16 paths are
shared, leaving an effective x8. With triple or quad configurations this is a bigger
problem, often reducing 2 Slots to x4.
o  2xPCIe 2.0 X16 SLI or crossfire, performs just a little better than 2x PCIe 2.0 X8 SLI or
crossfire, however it is possible that future cards will need more than x8 bandwith. X4 is
not recommended for gaming (unless PhysX dedicated)
  Case: an often overlooked item
o  The case needs to be able to accommodate the video cards and the rest of the
components. Super important key!!
o  If using SLI or crossfire make sure the last PCIe X16 slot has extra space, so the case
needs to be at least 1 expansion slot bigger than the motherboard. The reason for this is
dual slot video cards.
o  Mid-tower is a minimum, but they are still very cramped inside. Extended ATX and Full
ATX are preferable for solutions bigger than single cards. Using anything smaller is
possible, but the headaches are not worth it.
o  Deep measurements: the case needs to be deep, meaning, long from the front to the
back. A lot of video cards are very long, add that they require extra power and you could end up with a video card that is against a hard drive. I have this problem. To remove the
hard drive bay, I have to remove the video card. It is not a pleasant experience.
o  Air: ventilation is essential in SLI or crossfire configuration. Make sure there is enough
space to space the cards, and exhaust fans. Water cooling is very complicated with video
cards and sometimes impossible. Plan accordingly.
  PSU. The part that powers all your components.
o  For single card configurations your PSU needs to have at least 1 PCIe power molex (6
pin)
o  For SLI or crossfire the PSU requires at least 2 PCIe power connectors. Have in mind that
some cards require 2 connectors per card.
o  Total Watts: 700 Watts is a rule of thumb for minimum output power, higher is
recommended.  An 80+ PSU will save electricity be being more efficient
o  SLI/Crossfire PSU: Yes, this can be important. The reason is that the PCIe power
connectors are in separate V12 rails, not sharing power with other devices. A good PSU
will go a step further and even have separate V12 rails for each PCIe connector. The
more power the card consumes, the more this is important.
Now that we have the re-requisites (wow, that was a lot) we can go into the next part
Video Cards Features
We are going to completely forget about integrated video cards. After all, you would not be readying
this if you are trying to choose an IGP.
Dedicated cards basically come in 2 brands.
  Radeon, from AMD (ex ATI)
  Nvidia, these are the GeForce Line.
Radeon line up and features
  Eyefinity: starting with the 5000 line, Radeon has had a feature called Eyefinity, where you can
game on multiple monitors. Sounds amazing, right? 
o  The requirement for Eyefinity is at least 1 monitor connected thru the DisplayPort (there
are adapters to DVI and HDMI).
o  Not all games work with Eyefinity, but the list keeps growing
o  There are different setup styles, like 2×1, 3×1, 3×1, 2×2 (vertical setups are possible but
are not preferred for gaming)
o  Not all games perform well in different setup, for example FPS in 3×2 setup (6 monitor)
have the problem that the crosshair will be half in each center monitor.
o  Driving games are awesome in 3×1.  Having 2 monitors (left and Right) to give you side
view increases the inmersion.
  3D….AMD is working on the segment, but no real definition of when and what, so for 3D you can
forget it from AMD. There are solutions out there, but it is not completely defined
(http://www.iz3d.com/compatible)   Video card programming. AMD is working on bringing CPU tasks into the GPU, but still is behind
Nvidia
  Price: Radeon cards are usually cheaper to purchase and to run
  Power requirement: Radeon cards are usually more power efficient, with lower idle power
consumption and lower peak power (5000 and up)
  Stream: this is similar concept to CUDA in Nvidia cards. It supports OpenCL. However ATI stream
might not have continued development (will look more into this information)
GeForce line up and features
  CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture): starting with GeForce 8800 GT and up, Nvidia
cards support CUDA. This basically makes the computing engine in the GPU accessible thru
software. In theory this can be used to utilize the GPU as a computing supplement, or computing
device altogether. Currently software that uses CUDA are video editing tools mainly.
  PhysX:  it is a realtime physics engine. In theory when PhysX is enabled the physics calculations
are off loaded to the GPU where they can be processed faster. However there are some
arguments about how efficient the applications are.
  3D Surround (GTX 400 and up). Same as Eyefinity in AMD. It provides multi monitor gaming.
  3D Vision (8800 GT and up) Provides Active Shutter 3D technology. To  enable this technology it
is necessary the 3D vision kit (glasses) and 3D vision ready display (120 Hz monitor or projector).
  Nvidia cards enjoy the reputation to be faster (sometimes marginable thought) than AMD
counterparts.
  Nvidia has had several re-brandings, making it somewhat difficult to decide on better offerings.
When comparing Nvidia cards, care should be used not to confuse same cards with different
name, or same model with different technology (chips with less stream processors). For
example 8800GT, then 9800GT and then GTS 250 (the GTS 250 actually has some technical
changes compared to the 9800GT)
  SLI seems to scale better. This means that it is possible to get a higher increase of performance
going from 1 card to 2 cards in SLI compared to crossfire
Now that we have a list of features and requirements is a lot easier to choose a video card. The choice is
still not easy, but knowing what to look will help eliminate candidates.
The system that I like to use to decide on a video card (or any PC component for that matter) is
1.  Set a maximum price. I say maximum because there is really no range. So for example, $175 is
my limit, so I will try to get the best video card for $175. Sometimes it makes sense to go over a
little, or come down if there is no good defined product for that price. $175 is a good point for
example, because the GTX 460 1 GB or the Radeon HD 6850 are around 185!, Otherwise it
makes more sense to go down to the Radeon HD 5770 1 GB for 130$
2.  Set the features that you want. These are wish features. Depending on your maximum price
point the features might not be available. We are putting the features after the budget because
we tend to want all features  3.  Limitations and requirements. Here we analyze what are our limitations and requirements. Do
we have an older APG board? (time to change the whole PC). Can we use Dual cards? Do we
have enough power in the PSU, do we have enough connectors and space. Will be able to pay
the electric bill and turn on the PC, etc.
4.  Once we have all these organized, we probably still have several choices. At this point I like to
reference a chart that Toms Hardware publishes every month with the Best Graphics Cards for
the Money. If I am upgrading I look at the hierarchy chart, find my card and then compare to
what is tentative. Then I go and look at the recommendations in my price point.
I hope this how to helps you get the best for your buck when you are choosing a video card for your
gaming PC.
Disclaimer: I put this together in one day with what I know and a little research. It might need
corrections and updates, which I will try to do my best to correct mistakes that are pointed, and to
update it as well
 
References
PCI Express wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PCI_Express#PCI_Express_2.1
PhysX: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PhysX
ATI Stream Technology official site http://www.amd.com/us/products/technologies/stream-
technology/Pages/stream-technology.aspx
AMD FireStream (ATI Stream) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AMD_FireStream
Iz3D: 3D drivers http://www.iz3d.com/software
TH: ATI Stream: Finally, CUDA has competition http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/amd-stream-
gpgpu,2335.html
**25 years of Graphics history: a farewell to ATI in Pictures **** (referring to Stream “taking the
bullet”)*** http://www.tomshardware.com/picturestory/561-38-ati-history-graphics-cards.html
GeForce Apps (to find CUDA and PhysX software: http://www.geforce.com/#/GamesandApps
3D Surround http://www.nvidia.com/object/3dv-system-requirements-surround-technology.html
3D Vision http://www.nvidia.com/object/3d-vision-requirements.html
CUDA information http://www.nvidia.com/object/what_is_cuda_new.html Toms Hardware Best Graphics Card for the Money January 2011
http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/gaming-graphics-card-radeon-hd-6870-geforce-gtx-570,2834-
7.html

 

Notes and Updates

Up to date drivers are very important for getting the best performance out of games.

3D monitors have come down on price, but are still pretty expensive. 3D TVs might or might not work (not all 3D is made equal), so research the TV before hand if it is a deciding factor.

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