Mon, 10 Feb 2003

Choosing the right graphics card

A graphics card is in charge of making sure you can see the characters, lines, buttons, menus, colors, windows, photos, movies and everything else on your display monitor. Using a computer without a graphics card is like driving with your windscreen covered in mud. Most computer systems do not even want to boot up if they detect that the graphics card is missing.

In the past few years, mainboard makers have usually incorporated the graphics card into the mainboard or the motherboard itself. That simplifies installation and saves you money, too.

But your requirements may change but your budget does not allow you to buy a new PC. For example, your child wants to beat his friend in a computer game, because that is the only way he thinks he can prove his existence. In that case, the built-in graphics subsystem has to be disabled and you have to install a new graphics card.

It is amazing what the new graphics cards contain, really. Most of them now have their own processors and fast memory that we did not even have on our PCs just five years ago. Take the Asus V9900, for example. This graphics card is powered by the nVidia GeForce FX graphics processor unit (GPU) and comes standard with 128 MB DDR2 memory. This card is so complex and generates so much heat that it requires its own fan. It is not surprising then if such graphics cards command a price equivalent to that of a locally built Pentium 4 system.

Is this graphics card for you? Well, if you are a hardcore gamer and you work at one of those "wet" state-owned companies, it may be. But if you use your PC as an everyday productivity tool, a US$30 or even cheaper graphics card will do. If your mainboard already has a graphics card, do not even bother.

There are other reasons why you may need to buy a new graphics card. If you have just bought an LCD monitor, usually you will get better display quality if you use the Digital Video Interface (DVI). With a DVI, you eliminate the double conversions of the video signal sent to the monitor. There are also graphics cards with dual-interface both analog and digital, and this will be a good choice as it may allow you to connect your PC to two monitors at the same time. They may also have a TV-Out port, so that you can connect your PC to a TV monitor for a large-screen gaming or DVD watching.

Two companies are now leading the GPU industry, nVidia and ATI. nVidia controls a far larger market share and is known for its GeForce2, 3, 4 and FX processors, while ATI touts its Radeon processors.

What other features should you pay attention to if you want to invest in a new graphics card? Definitely, it should come with the right software driver for the operating system that you use. Fortunately, in this Internet era you can always download the latest version of the software driver for your hardware. Second, do not settle for anything less than an AGP 4X card, although the standard is now AGP 8X. It may not be important at this point, but if you upgrade your mainboard then it may be useful to stick to this spec. Do this only if your current mainboard already has an AGP slot. Older mainboards only have PCI slots, so you cannot fit your AGP card into it.

If you are willing to spend a bit more, check out the card's supports for Direct3D and OpenGL. These are used in some high-end 3D modeling and gaming software.

Finally, as new graphics cards appear on the market every few weeks, find user reviews on the Internet about those cards you may want to buy. However, the overriding question should always be, what are you using your PC for?

-- Zatni Arbi