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Evaluating your graphics card needs - Full iVirtua Guide
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Tue Jun 17, 2008 5:32 am Reply and quote this post
If you happen to have a friend or a family member who’s an expert oncomputer graphics cards, you’re in luck. Bring that person along withyou while you shop, and you’ll benefit from their experience.

If,on the other hand, you don’t have a game techno-wizard to call on—or,if you’d like to understand what you’re buying before you spend yourhard-earned cash—you’ve come to the right place. In this section, Ihelp you determine which graphics card features you need, includingimportant considerations such as video memory, the bus type, andexternal connectors.

Built-in versus add-on
Today’s PCs use two different types of graphics cards, and each has advantages and disadvantages:

Built-in cards.A graphics card in this category isn’t really a graphics adapter cardat all, because it’s actually integrated into the motherboard. Abuilt-in card doesn’t require an AGP slot or a PCI slot, so amotherboard with a built-in card can fit into a smaller case anddoesn’t take up a valuable slot. (This explains why graphics cards areoften built-in on computers that use thin workstation cases, which arecommonly called pizza box cases.) If you’re building a new PC, rememberthat a built-in graphics card is usually easier to configure than aseparate adapter—and integrated graphics cards tend to be lessexpensive than their removable counterparts. On the down side, anintegrated video card may not let you install additional video memory.

Separate adapter cards.
A graphics adapter occupies either an AGP or a PCI slot in yourcomputer. Naturally, a separate card is the choice of gamers who willbe upgrading their graphics hardware to keep up with the cutting-edge3D chipsets and visual effects in the latest video games. If yourgraphics adapter suddenly stops working and you need to replace it, aseparate graphics adapter card will ensure that you don’t have to sendback your entire motherboard for service or replacement, too.


Ifyou’re considering a graphics upgrade for your current motherboard andit has a built-in graphics card, you’re facing a brick wall (unless youcan add a daughter card, or disable the integrated card so that you canadd a PCI graphics card).

Understanding resolution and refresh rate

Askany computer power user—especially a gamer—what specifications are mostimportant in selecting a graphics card, and two figures are almostcertain to be included in the group: maximum resolution and maximumrefresh rate. In this section, I discuss both of these importantcriteria.

Resolution makes the graphics card
Resolutionbegins with the smallest unit displayed by your graphics card—a singledot, called a pixel. Pixels are the building blocks of every imagedisplayed on your monitor; they’re arranged in lines across yourscreen, and your graphics card controls each pixel individually forbrightness and color. For this reason, everyone expresses resolution asthe number of pixels displayed horizontally by the number of linesdisplayed vertically. For example, a resolution of 800 x 600 means thatthe monitor displays 800 pixels horizontally across the screen and 600pixels vertically.

Windows 98 still supports a minimumresolution of 640 x 480, and some games still use thisresolution—typically for big, bright graphics that don’t need a lot ofdetail, as in a casino game. However, almost all games that need finedetail—from role-playing games and strategy games to 3D first-persongames and simulations—now use resolutions of 800 x 600 or 1,024 x 768.Your desktop also benefits from a higher resolution, as you can displaymore of a larger document, Web page, image, or spreadsheet (or justmore program icons) on the screen at one time.

As you’veprobably already guessed, I would recommend that you keep your desktopset to a resolution of at least 800 x 600 (or, if your eyes don’t mind,1,024 x 768 is even better). If you can switch resolutions inside agame, you’ll probably find the resolution control in the Options orSetup screen; many games automatically set the resolution based on thespeed of your processor and the amount of video memory on your card.

The importance of the refresh rate
Whatis the refresh rate of a monitor, and why is it such a big deal forgamers? That’s a good question. But before I answer it, I need todescribe how your computer actually draws a video image on yourmonitor. (Don’t worry: I’ll try to keep this from getting boring.)

Agraphics card creates an image on your computer monitor by “painting”it with electrons—in fact, the image is emitted from a phosphorescentcoating that glows on the inside of the monitor tube. The coating glowswhen it’s hit with a stream of electrons from the electron emitter(commonly called an electron gun) at the back of the monitor; theseelectrons move across the inside surface of your monitor, one line at atime, from top to bottom.

However, while the electrons arefocused on another portion of the screen, the phosphorescent coating onthe area that’s already been painted starts to dim, and then thecoating stops glowing entirely. So the monitor must redraw the imageconstantly to keep it bright, as shown in

Asyou probably expected, the refresh rate (also called the vertical scanrate) of a graphics card-and-monitor combination refers to the numberof times per second that your computer redraws the image on themonitor. As a general rule, the higher the refresh rate, the better;although you can’t see it with your eyes, the majority of computersredraw each pixel on the monitor at least 65 times per second (giving arefresh rate of 65Hz). Resolution is also tied to refresh rate: Asresolution goes up (which uses more video memory), refresh rates willdrop accordingly.

Here’s the bad news: 65Hz isn’t enough for anyPC owner, especially gamers. A dedicated computer gamer needs a higherrefresh rate for several reasons:

A gamer can spendhours in front of a monitor, and a higher refresh rate reduceseyestrain for most people. Even though you may not be able to noticethe screen being redrawn, your eye can discern the difference between arefresh rate of 60Hz and 75Hz. The more times the screen is redrawnevery second, the more stable the image appears, and the less itbothers your eye.

Many games require higher resolutions in therange of 800 x 600 to 1,024 x 768, and higher resolutions generallylook better with a higher refresh rate.

Because an image is morestable at a higher frame rate, small details onscreen are easier todistinguish with a higher refresh rate.

A higher refresh rate reduces flicker in all of your games.


Therefore, keep these recommendations in mind when you’re shopping for a graphics card or monitor to use for gaming:

Ifyou’re shopping for a monitor, always try to find one in a local storeso that you can evaluate it with your own eyes: Specifications don’ttell the whole story. As a demonstration, run your favorite game on themonitor before you decide.

Always look for a graphics card andmonitor with a refresh rate of at least 75Hz. For most people, thehigher the refresh rate, the better the image; in fact, some expensivehigh-end graphics card-and-monitor combinations (commonly used forcomputer-aided drafting) can handle refresh rates of over 100Hz.However, I’ve met gamers and other computer owners who swear that theyprefer a lower refresh rate. Only your eye can make the decision, sotry out a monitor at 75Hz or 80Hz before you buy it.

Both yourmonitor and your graphics card must support the same refresh rate inorder for you to use it. Setting your monitor for a higher refresh ratethan recommended by the manufacturer can permanently damage it!(Windows 95 and 98 may alert you of this problem as well if you try toset your refresh rate too high.)

If your monitor and graphicscard have Windows 95 or 98 drivers, your computer can automatically setthe optimal refresh rate for your particular hardware combination. (Ofcourse, that’s “optimal” according to the manufacturer, so it may notsuit you perfectly. But at least it’s a good start.)


Unfortunately,there’s one problem with shopping for a card with a high refresh rate:This particular figure often isn’t mentioned! Most manufacturers don’tinclude a card’s refresh rate in their advertising, so it’s up to youto visit the company’s Web site and dig a little deeper. You’ll alsofind these benchmark figures mentioned in articles covering graphicshardware in gaming and computer magazines. Sometimes a little sleuthingcan make the difference between a good graphics-card choice and a greatchoice, so avoid the temptation to buy quickly. And turn a critical eyetoward those flashy graphics-card magazine advertisements.

Contributed by Editorial Team, Executive Management Team
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