Although we have covered this area in the past (remember the tutorial on how to buy a video card?), we thought that a little update on the subject could not hurt. Video card technology is rising quickly, and GPUs are getting better and better with each passing month. Because of this rapid advancement in technology, the average user gets sometimes confused when buying such a device. Also, the manufacturers of video cards give them names and specs that are complete gibberish for most.
For example, in a video card, unlike what you see in a CPU, you have not one, but three clock values (the ones measured in MHz and GHz) and other specs that don’t make any sense. What is important to know, is that these specs can be very misleading, and if you go for the biggest numbers, you might end up with a video card that is not as good as others in the same price range.
Bigger numbers – more power?
Not quite true. Although the bigger numbers mean something, sometimes you pay for those numbers and you do not get anything in return. For example, a video card with 4 GB of VRAM (this is the video memory) can have the same performance as one with 1.5 or 2 GB of VRAM memory. Why? Because that memory is not directly proportionated to the amount of power a video card has, but that is the “pipeline” the video signal travels from the GPU to the monitor. Bottom line is that the video resolution of your screen is the one which determines what video card you need. For bigger screens and resolutions, the video card needs more power, for smaller screens, less.
Also, if you buy a video card, you need to think at what you are going to use it? Are you a casual gamer who plays indie games, a hardcore gamer or you want to see movies on a big HD screen? For each type of load, there are lots of video cards that can do just fine, but if you need only a small amount of GPU acceleration for a HD movie, it would be a waste of money to buy a top of the line video card, the same is true, if you play just a few, non-demanding games, you will not need a high end video card. Also, for graphics rendering and video editing, you might need specialized video cards, like the nVidia Quadro video cards, specially designed for these tasks, but not not good in gaming or others tasks.
nVidia or ATI?
As in the case of Intel vs. AMD, this aspect is not as important as in the past. Although they both have different approaches when it comes to GPUs, at the end of the day both nVidia and ATI make really good video cards. ATI gives its video cards lots of memory, up to 4GB in some cases, and this seems to work (looks like AMD, the owner of ATI does the same thing with its CPUs), but nVidia, like Intel, gives its video cards the very latest technologies and lots of raw power. Nowadays, the difference in performance, especially in gaming is not that much and so, what it boils down to is: what do each of us prefer? I myself am a nVidia fan.
Do your research
The first step in buying a video card is to know what you will use it for, then consider your monitor, what resolution it has, how big it is, or if you have an array of multiple monitors, what is their total resolution. Then look at your motherboard to see what type of video card slot do you have. After this, when you know all of these things, go look for the video card that matches all your criteria, do not pay too much attention at the other specs until you find a few video cards that work with what you have.
After this, search the web for benchmark results, reviews, and scores on those video cards. See what the experts say and from there, make your choice. There are lots of such websites, that offer great information about video cards and other components. A good example of such a website is Tom’s Hardware and also, communities of tech lovers and overclockers (like overclock.net or hwbot.org) are a great source of information.
Branded or unbranded?
If you ever gone browsing a store for video cards, you saw that the same product is offered by multiple companies. So you might see a nVidia GTX 680 that has the ASUS logo on it, or the Gigabyte or EVGA. Those companies buy unbranded video cards from the nVidia factory and then, re-engineer them for better performance. Sometimes they change the entire PCB, only keeping the GPU itself. Also, they add custom cooling systems, making those video cards much better than when they left the factory.
Top video cards at the moment
Because personal preference would stand in the way of making an accurate top, we decided to let the numbers speak. The overall performance of the video cards, tested on the same system and in all the same conditions paint a vivid picture of the performance each of them pack. Also, because technologies differ from nVidia cards to ATI cards, putting them head to head is the only way to truly find out what potential each of them has. In the fallowing charts, you can clearly see the difference in FPS (frames per second) and temperature of the video cards while running the same games and benchmark (Shotgun 2, Dirt 3 and Heaven 2.5 benchmark).
Test 1 – HD performance and maximum temperature
Test 2 – DirectX 11 gaming performance with and without tessellation active
Although a video card might prove to be the most expensive component in your PC, it is one of the most important. But technology seems to go in the direction of simplifying our choices. New models of CPUs from both Intel and AMD have integrated video processors, true, they are vastly inferior to video cards, but in the future, we might see them as one chip. Until then, remember that choosing your video card has as much to do with specs as with the environment it will operate in (I dare to say that the environment is more important): the case, the motherboard and the screen.