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Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 9/15/06 Nongamer needs recommendations for video cards

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) September 14, 2006 9:51 AM PDT

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9/15/06 Nongamer needs recommendations for video cards

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 9/14/06 9:51 AM


Hi! I have decided to build my first desktop computer and have a pretty good handle on all the components except graphics cards. How does one go about choosing a graphics card? I am a middle-of-the-road user. Some of the major applications I use are Adobe Photoshop CS2, Open Office, Firefox (heavy Web surfer), Adobe Acrobat 7, Windows Media Player, Visual FoxPro 9, SnagIt 8, Picasa2, and assorted utilities, such as antivirus and antimalware apps. I have looked at different graphics cards but am very confused about their capabilities. It seems most boards are built around speed, and they all seem to be targeted at gamers; they cost from $300 to $600 and up. I'm trying to get a video card that is geared toward my usage at a reasonable price. I am open to recommendations. I don't believe I need all the bells and whistles. Could someone explain the options and try to determine what I really need? I'm so confused. I will be running Windows XP Pro.

Submitted by: Bob C.



Bob, for what it's worth, unless you're a die-hard gamer, there's really no need to spend $600 for a video card. Most $30 to $80 cards will do the trick and then some.

The first thing to do is look at the motherboard you're buying and what kind of support is built into it. Is it AGP or PCIe? AGP is a standard that seems to be on its way out. PCIe (PCI Express) seems to be the up-and-coming technology. Before going any further, you will also need to know what your motherboard will support beyond the basic functions, that is, does it support SLI or CrossFire?

SLI and CrossFire are two technologies by Nvidia and ATI, respectively, that allow you to use multiple video cards or cards with multiple GPUs (graphical processor units). Given the list of things you said you wanted to be running, neither SLI nor CrossFire is going to do much for you. It would be like sticking a dragster engine in the family's grocery-getting car. Yeah, you get to the store in 3.4 seconds (instead of 1.2 minutes), but you're getting 2 gallons to the mile. Those high-end graphics cards, while able to do a bazillion polygons per second, also tend to require 500-, 600-watt, or larger power supplies. Not to mention the cooling tower from a small nuclear reactor to keep the heat in check.

Truth be told, NONE of the apps you've mentioned is really graphically intensive. In fact, for the most part, your computer will be just fine with a regular, standard, "low end" to middle of the road video card.

The biggest concern, given your needs, is the monitor you're going to be using. What's the max resolution? 1024x768, 1280x1024, higher? Does the monitor have DVI or analog inputs? Make sure the card you choose will have the right type of output onboard.

On average, I'd recommend a card with at least 256 MB of video memory. While I realize you mentioned you are planning on running XP Pro on this computer, Vista will be coming out in January and you never know you might be upgrading to it someday in the future. It never hurts to think ahead and pricewise - the difference between 128 MB and 256 MB is hardly worth pinching $5 to $10. Always think ahead.

There are a LOT of brands out there - but 99% of those video cards are built around chipsets made by two main competitors - Nvidia and ATI. The 3rd major player in the graphical arena is Intel - but most of their video gear is designed into their own motherboards and laptops. As to which direction to go - both offer equally decent standard desktop graphic displays. The remaining percentage are fringe players that are on their proverbial last legs.

Choosing your options as to which chipset is usually a matter of preference. As far as which I would choose - it doesn't really matter too much to me. One of my older boxes (3 yrs old now) has an ATI video chipset built in. The new box I built this year has an Nvidia chipset built into the motherboard AND has an add-on Nvidia PCIe card. All three have been quite adequate for the tasks I've thrown at them - with one exception - the one built into the motherboard on the new box. Given that computer is running Vista (Beta 2), it made more sense to put in an add-on card, with its own separate memory. This way it's not sapping 128 MB from the main memory pool. Vista's happier with the full GB of RAM devoted to it.

Bonus features can generally be pretty cool - tho, sometimes useless. As an example - video cards with built in TV tuners. TV tuners included with modern video cards generally support older style ANALOG cable. As to how long analog cable will be offered up and supported, that remains to be seen. Additionally, you will probably need additional services - such as another cable drop, maybe a cable box (depending on your cable service) and the software you need to setup and record using your video card. Of course, these may be things you're not interested in.

Above all, consider the PRICE. Use sites like to find deals on the video card you ultimately decide on. Some vendors will have the same video card for less money than others. It never hurts to shop around.

So, to recap - the main things to consider are:

1.) The type of slot available on the motherboard.

2.) The output display (Monitor) and the resolution you want.

3.) Any bonus features (built in TV tuner?) available...

4.) Price!

From this point, your best bet would be to read the reviews of individual cards/chipsets or better still, look at the specs for the specific card online. Most manufacturers will post them on their web site.

Submitted by: Pete Z. of Los Angeles, California

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