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Computer Components Explained: Graphic Cards

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Cesar Aracena
PHP Enthusiast and quite advanced in IT in general
A little history
Back in 1997 when I built my first custom computer using the revolutionary Gateway website I didn’t have much to choose from except for the CPU. The race between computer manufacturers was held back by processor manufacturers. They used to bring a new CPU every month or so and speed was the goal. Everybody thought that processors were going to run at 20 Gigahertz by 2010 until in the first years of the 21 century they realized that the money wasn’t in speed, but in the number of processors inside the chip. That’s when things begun to be interesting.

Companies from all over the world started to work in faster data transmission between components and bigger storage. The race took different ways: better and faster motherboards that could support those new processors and new memory systems for those motherboards. By 2002, manufacturers finally begun working hard to deliver the best user experience possible using those components. Audio got a little bit better (actually, there is nothing to improve in that area) and video started taking shape.

I’m sure anybody more than 30 years old can remember playing Digger, Sokoban and Prince of Persia with 1, 2, 8 and 16 colors in your PS2. You could get sick just by playing those more than 2 hours. We didn’t need all that green or orange in our lives! Well today everything has changed. Heck I can take my computer out of my backpack today, turn the screen over and start drawing in thousands of colors. No more huge 20-pound monitors on our desktops.

The question is what to buy now. As I said above, 14 years ago you didn’t have much to choose from but now you have all those brands and models. Well this article is the first one of a series that is aimed to help you choose the right components for your new computer based on what you need. We’ll start with the graphics card.

Note: The following information comes solely from my experience and for no reasons should be considered as a strict guide to follow. Like me, it’s always open to suggestions from more experienced people but I hope it serves as a guide for you in helping making a decision.


What is a Graphic or Video Card?
A Graphics Card is what translates all the information provided by your Operative System (OS) and the software you run in it and displays it in your screen or monitor. There is a common tendency to refer to a Graphics Card as GPU and it is a term somewhat accepted, when used in the right context, between people with advanced knowledge in computing and actually is not that far from the truth as GPU stands for “Graphics Processing Unit” and like a CPU (Central Processing Unit) does all the “thinking” for the computer, the GPU process everything inside a Graphics Card.

Sometimes programs run hidden in the background without you even noticing they are there but some other programs need to show you stuff so you can interact with them. For example right now you are reading something in your browser. That “image” you are looking at, which contains an address bar, some buttons and a webpage inside which has letters, numbers and more buttons is a web browser that is generated by a program. You can interact with it by telling “go to this address” or “scroll the page down to see more content”.

You might say “OK, but I can do the same with a 10-year-old video card” and guess what, you would be right! The only problem is that new graphics-intensive programs are commonly built using new technology (or programming languages). That new technology needs to be handled by your computer and, when it comes to graphics or displaying things; most of that handling is done by your graphics card. If you have an 8-year-old GPU installed in your system, I can bet you are not using the latest web browser of your choice to read this article.

Note: Older Graphic Cards connected to the computer using a port called AGP and new ones use a different port called PCI-E (PCI Express). If you are upgrading a computer more than 2 years old, make sure to read the documentation that came along with it (specificaly the manual for your motherboard) or find it on your motherboard's manufacturer website and make sure you buy a Graphics Card that is supported by your current system. AGP Cards are very hard to find these days and if that is what your computer supports, then you will likealy end changing your systems all together.

Most Popular Brands
Luckily (or unluckily) for us there are only two main manufacturers of the technology behind Graphic Cards for home users and enthusiasts. That is, two companies that work to discover new ways of packing more and more speed and processors inside a simple Graphics Card. There is ATI, a division of AMD who also is one of the two biggest CPU manufacturers and NVIDIA® who works alone. These two companies work day and night to, well basically break records in speed and performance. There are other companies that specialize in more complex solutions to suit specific needs. One of them is Matrox that decided to stay focused on one mayor sector of consumers that specialize in video recording, editing and broadcasting.

Both ATI and NVIDIA® are so busy trying to make great discoveries that they don’t have time to make a thousand Graphic Cards each day for us consumers to buy so they took a few other companies to build these cards and signed multi-million contracts with them. These are the companies that sell you products you buy and they use the technology provided by the two beasts.

Want variety? Well you have variety. Some brands are well known and some are not. Some provide great warranty and proven technical support and then again, some don’t. I can only speak for those that I and my colleagues have worked with but you can get a general idea of who to trust.

ATI Cards Manufacturers
There are many. ASUS, Club 3D, GIGABYTE, MSI, Sapphire, XFX, etc. You can see an official list of “partners” at: http://support.amd.com/la/kbarticles/Pages/AIBPartners.aspx

Which one should you trust? Well it depends mostly on two things: Personal experience and location but to me XFX, ASUS, Sapphire and GIGABYTE are the ones I trust the most.

NVIDIA® Cards Manufacturers
Again, a lot of them. Some of the brands repeat here: MSI, GIGABYTE, XFX and ASUS but there are also other brands like EVGA, Zotac, Galaxy, Sparcle and PNY. You can see them all at http://www.NVIDIA®.com/object/graphics_cards_buy_now.html. Just press any “Compare and Buy” button for the model you are interested and look at the manufacturers.

Once again, from these manufacturers I trust mostly EVGA, GIGABYTE, XFX, ASUS, Zotac and PNY.


What to look for
Depending on what you use your computer for, you should start by selecting one of the two technologies. ATI or NVIDIA®. Both have their ups and downs. There is no easy way to show their pros and cons because it depends on what you want them for -- and everyone has different needs, but I will try and make a list of common needs so you can place yourself in one group or another.

Graphic Development & Video Edition
OK, I will try to explain this in the most accurate way. Go for NVIDIA®! It doesn’t matter if your neighbor has just purchased a zillion-dollars ATI card, if you are going to work either with photography, digital images or video, any good NVIDIA® card will perform way better than his for the same job. For example if you work with rendering software, CAD software, Adobe’s Creative Suite (any Adobe application actually), vector graphics (CorelDraw, etc.) and that kind of programs, NVIDIA® is THE way to go.

I’m not being picky about this one. Any NVIDIA® card that is somewhat new has PhysX® support and it just ROCKS when it comes to these kind of applications. PhysX® adds great realism to your videos and smooth edges to images. It’s great, but it’s only available on NVIDIA® cards. Look at any example video at http://www.nvidia.com/object/physx_new.html.

Please read further below on how to spend only the money you need to spend on this
after the title “Don’t Waste Any Money”.
Home Entertainment
Home Entertainment is basically a PC connected to a TV. Of course there are many more things you can do to enhance the experience like adding a home theater and special devices to control what you see in your TV when viewing movies from your computer (you don’t want to go to your computer’s room to pause and play!). Anyways, if you have a TV and a Computer, then you can watch movies from it while sitting on your couch and drinking a cold beer. You don’t have to be in that uncomfortable chair in front of the computer. All you need is a Graphics Card with any digital output that your TV can take or at least the necessary converters for it. New TVs now days have HDMI input which you can connect to the HDMI output of your card and transfer both video in High Definition and audio or you can use separate cables for audio or video… it depends mostly on your TV capabilities.

The Graphics card to choose here? Whatever you’d like. It depends mostly on what you use your computer when not watching movies. Read further below for more information about other uses besides Designing and watching movies.

Gaming
Ah the Holy Grail of computer manufacturers. Why? The reason is simple. While most people (even companies) spend just the right money for the necessary equipment, gamers tend to spend whatever money they can get their hands on to build faster and bigger computers. Remember all those movies with a “young kid” about 35 years old living in their mother’s basement, surrounded with computers and monitors and a couple of gaming consoles in the corner? Well those are gamers. Some of them could buy a new expensive car just by selling all their gear. Some could buy a cheap apartment!

While gamers tend to have more than one Graphics Card (yes, in some cases you can stick up to four in the same computer), they don’t usually hold to them for long. The reason is simple. Like processor companies, video card manufacturers have a race to bring faster cards into the market, sometimes forgetting to keep the price low. They tend to release a new card every other month and a new line or series every one or two years. A new card could mean a little more memory or speed for their processors (yes, most expensive cards have not one but two processors) and a new line or series usually means well, that you should throw everything to the garbage and start over because everything has been revamped. It’s like someone who invents a car that uses 10 times less gas and can go 10 times faster… say bye to your old car. Everyone would love to get the new car.

The problem with this is that sometimes NVIDIA® gets the lead because of some huge improvement in a new series and sometimes ATI does the same so if you are a gamer, you should know that everything could change in a year or two and the card you bought today for a thousand dollars could be worth just a few hundreds when you discover something great that came out to the market.

As for now (September 2010) both manufacturers or brands are kind of tied up. When it comes to their most expensive cards, ATI Radeon HD5970 and NVIDIA® GTX 480 offer almost the same results. I personally consider the ATI Radeon HD5970 with 4GB (yes, you’ve read well, 4 Giga Bytes) of memory is better. ATI was also the first one to bring us support for DirectX 11 which is a plus but again, they don’t have PhysX® which is good for many games too. Look at the video at http://www.nzone.com/object/nzone_mafia2_home.html.

A bad thing about the ATI Radeon HD5970 is its physical size. You need a huge case to make it fit in. It’s also very expensive (Two processors and 4GB or memory in a card. Did you expect it to be cheap?). It’s cooling system is also kind of loud if you don’t use water cooling on it.

To make this short to understand, my conclusion for gamers: If you have a computer just for gaming and the usual Internet browsing, go for ATI.  If you have the money, go for two ATIs, but if you plan on doing anything else besides just gaming (i.e. design, video edition, etc.) go for NVIDIA®.  As a matter of fact I use an XFX ATI Radeon HD5870 card and I just can't complain. It works perfectly even for me who constantly use Adobe Creative Suite 5 and the games well, I can't ask for more. I would purchase a second card just like this just for the fun of it.

ATI will offer you a little bit lower FPS (Frames Per Second) rates but in a more stable way.  Video-intensive games like Crysis and Battlefield Bad Company 2 can bring an NVIDIA® card’s FPS from 100 to 30 in any explosion while an ATI user’s FPS will go from 90 to 80 in the same moment. ATI also saves you from the common flickering that NVIDIA® cards have in these games. So basically, for 3D gaming, choose ATI.

Programming & Developing
Come on, let’s be honest. You can run any programming software in any computer so you don’t have specifically needs or requirements for a Graphics Card but still, I would go for NVIDIA® in this case.


Don’t Waste Any Money
Marketing is one thing you have to be very careful about when choosing the components for your computer. For example, NVIDIA® will try to trick video and graphics editors into buying cards that are exactly the same as other of their cards but 5 times as expensive. These are called Quadro®. They are offered as the only viable solution for editors for rendering graphics and specially video 10 times faster than with an ordinary GTX card. This is actually a lie. The Quadro® cards in their low and middle range forms are exactly the same cards as the top-of-the-line GTX cards but costs several thousand dollars.

It is true that Quadro® Graphic Cards are made from the ground up to work better using OpenGL and not DirectX (like end-users Graphic Cards) but basically this is because they are told to work that way. There are several websites out there that offer information on how to “unleash” that hidden potential in normal cards. It’s not even against the law to do so! It involves only using a modified version of the drivers for the card.

Of course if you are setting up a professional video edition studio or recording studio, you might want the extra power that’s offered with the high-end Quadro® cards and right out ofthe box, but be ready to pay a small fortune for each one or you could go for Matrox. These cards and external boxes can handle all the hassle of video capturing, encoding and broadcasting by themselves.


Power Requirements
When you buy a new Graphics Card, you must make sure it will “fit” in your current computer. As stated before, make sure your motherboard supports the technology for the Graphics Card you are getting (most likely to be PCI-E 2.0) but also make sure your computer’s PSU (Power Supply Unit) is big enough. A normal computer uses a total of about 300 to 400 watts. Some Graphic Cards use between 100 and 200 watts so any PSU with 550 watts or more will handle all that perfectly but the bigger Graphic Cards will use up to 300 watts so make sure your PSU gives at least 650 watts but in this case, the more the better.


Conclusion
Well it’s obvious that NVIDIA® have the lead on Graphic Cards for the moment (well, except for the ATI Radeon HD5970 Black Edition) but they are not far ahead. Actually we are all expecting ATI to release a new line or series of cards any moment now so be prepared for it. My guess is that it will rock.
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