What to look for in a video card?

By matrix86
Apr 20, 2010
  1. Hey guys, i've gotten good at knowing what to look for in a processor and in a motherboard, but I am clueless with video cards.

    I am currently working on picking out parts for a future build (being unemployed and about to start school again I have no money to do it now). I already know that I will get the i5-750 and will be running Win7 Ultimate, and will be using the G.Skill Ripjaw series RAM (which seems to be the most popular choice for the i5). I haven't chosen a motherboard as of yet.

    As for usage for video card, my wife and I will be occasionally sharing the computer, though I will most often be the one using it.

    My usage:
    ~Simple video editing. Nothing with special effects as of yet.
    ~Watching movies (DVD, not Blue Ray) and using Media Center
    ~Playing Mafia Wars on Myspace and playing older Sim City games
    ~And the basic web browsing and M$ Office usage

    My wife's usage:
    ~Photoshop, Illustrator, Corel Painter (she does a good bit with photography and graphic arts)
    ~Playing newer Sims games
    ~Watching movies

    Also, there will be 2 monitors hooked up, so i'll need something that can handle that. And there is the possibility that I may also want something to hook my cable TV to so I can watch TV on my computer if my wife or daughter have the TV occupied (so we're looking at something with a TV tuner and 2 video ports).

    So, with the information i've given, what do I need to look for in graphics card? I'm not asking you to go out and find one for me as that should be my job, not yours. I'm just asking what should I look for in one based off of the information I have given. And this will also help me to learn more about these cards as well. I like to learn about the things I buy rather than just buying them because someone said they were good...especially since I am going into computers for a career.
  2. red1776

    red1776 Omnipotent Ruler of the Universe Posts: 5,219   +157

    Hi Matrix,
    At the risk of being self promoting, this might help. Its the GPU section of a guide I wrote. The whole guide is here.
    Hope it helps.

    10) The Gpu
    A few years ago cpu frequency doubling speed every 18 months came to a flying halt at about 4Ghz due to a limit in manufacturing process and the inability to dissipate the added heat that came with speeds above 4.0Ghz. the industry then turned to putting multiple cores on the same die. It was also around this time that GPU development garnered a lot more attention and R&D by manufacturers and the result is a hyper competitive market. for the purposes of a budget game build, the sweet spot at this time is in the area of $80-$120. there are really a great selection of powerful GPU's that can be had in this price range. don't get me wrong, the GPU is a critical component to your budget game build. games now are more GPU dependant than ever, and will remain that way, however , don't get carried away and purchase a GPU that your new system will not be able to use to its fullest extent(again the diminishing return factor).

    I often see a couple of faulty assumptions in the area of selecting graphic cards. 1) folks making a choice based only on core speed, core speed is way down the list as far as purchasing considerations for a GPU. 2) I have seen many folks not get a Nvidia GPU because they compared the 'streaming processor' count of the ATI products with that of the Nvidia. the problem with this is that the ATI and the Nvidia GPU architecture are of completely different design and not comparable. it has been generally accepted by the industry that approximately 200 of the Nvidia SPU's are equivalent to 800 of the ATI SPU's. Right then. here are some of the things that I take a hard look at when selecting a Gpu, other than the reviews and bench tests of course.
    A) SPU count : streaming processing units,(sometimes referred to as 'unified shaders') once you do the conversion between the Nvidia's spu's and the ATI spu's, this can give you an indicator of a cards capability.

    B) The 'FLOP'
    short for 'floating point operations (per second) this stat can be a little difficult to find, but entering 'detailed specs 'on the cards you are considering into Google or the like, will usually yield you this spec, and is useful in comparing the 'processing power' the card has. the higher end cards these days have crossed the gigaflop barrier and are usually somewhere in the 1-2.5 teraflop range, with the midrange cards in the .5-1.0 teraflop range
    C) memory bus width
    I am not usually taken with a card that has less than a 256bit memory bus width, however ATI has made an art (or game) depending on how you look at it, of hitting a price point of trading 256bit bus width for the an 128bit bus width by using DDR5 in lieu of DDR3, and the performance comes very close to breaking even. but that aside, usually cards that have a 256bit bus width and up are the ones that are more powerful .
    None of these alone is the end all for determining how the card will perform in your real world desktop, but they are good indicators as to the 'horsepower' a card has. as an illustration that the core speed is not a very important tool in determining the card you should be considering...consider this, the most powerful graphic card on the planet is the Nvidia GTX 295, and runs at maybe the slowest core speed of all the high end cards @ 576Mhz. and to tie it in with the above it has 480 shaders (1800 in ATI terms) 1.79 Teraflops and has a 896bit bus width (2x448)
  3. hellokitty[hk]

    hellokitty[hk] Hello, nice to meet you! Posts: 3,433   +143

    Its pointless to set down a build now, when your not going to buy anytime soon.
    Most of the time, graphics card statistics are utterly worthless if you just look at the specifications.
    Say the gtx 470 has 448 processors and the HD5870 has 800, which is faster, still the 470, even though the clockrate is much slower too.
    The best way to tell is to ask, or look on benchmarks.
  4. red1776

    red1776 Omnipotent Ruler of the Universe Posts: 5,219   +157

    You just made my point HK. If you understand what the specs are and what you are looking at, the specs will almost always give you a very good indication of the capabilities and capacities of the cards. 1) Nvidia 'SPU's' and ATI 'SPU's' are of completely different architecture and cannot be compared, they are apples and oranges. 2) Nvidia 'SPU is roughly equal to 4 ATI 'SPU' 3) core clock speed is last on the list of importance when comparing different cards. (i covered both of these in my explanation) 4) the 5870 has 1600 SPU's not 800.

    and 5)
    He asked for info on GFX cards to learn to make comparisons for himself.
  5. hellokitty[hk]

    hellokitty[hk] Hello, nice to meet you! Posts: 3,433   +143

    I can't tell if your chastising me or thanking me. Anyway, to the thread starter, those specs are generally unhelpful since he is "clueless". I think benchmarks and articles are most valueble at this point, its hard to understand what the specs will translate to in performance without example.
  6. red1776

    red1776 Omnipotent Ruler of the Universe Posts: 5,219   +157

    just giving him what he asked for, what info is important to evaluate when comparing cards as he stated that he is going into computers as a career. If thats the case he will need to know more than how to read someone Else's bar graph's. So again, hope the info helps Matrix.
  7. LinkedKube

    LinkedKube TechSpot Project Baby Posts: 3,481   +44

    I'm going to be the bottom of the barrel and answer the thread just as its questioned.

    You want to look for a vga that can play anything you like now and within the next year on at least medium graphics.

    You want a card that wont make you overspend your budget, because they're usually upgraded more frequently than other parts for gamers.

    You want something with a good warranty. I like evga's warrantly/upgrade system, although Ive never owned one.

    If you're playing on a monitor that's 22" or smaller you just may be wasted some vga by buying a high end vga from todays world. I think 90% of us use below 22" of lcd so if you're in this box you may not want to consider a card that was released this year if you "just want to play."
  8. klepto12

    klepto12 TechSpot Paladin Posts: 1,115   +9

    an all around great card would be the 5770 imo it will keep u going for a while and is a great card to boot with dx 11 support.
  9. red1776

    red1776 Omnipotent Ruler of the Universe Posts: 5,219   +157

    I will second Kleps pick. Good up to 1920 x 1080 for most games and crossfires beautifully if you choose to add a second card in the future.
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