How to Buy Your Next PC Graphics Card

David Strom

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So I have a confession to make. I am not a computer gamer. Even after creating the site last year for Tom’s Hardware, and hiring a bunch of freelancers and assigning tons of stories about gaming (the twitch refers to the way many gamers flick their controls to blast away opponents or whatever it is they do), spending more time in front of a screen than I already do doesn’t get me too excited.

A combination of the coming of Windows Vista and more interest in Second Life has motivated me to get smarter about the gaming world. My first step was to try to have a rig that would work well with games. This became A Project, and started to suck me in.

For those of you that build your own PCs from scratch, this isn’t a problem: you buy the parts that you need, and you can get yourself a decent machine that has plenty of graphics horsepower. But I don’t really have the time to start a construction project right now.

So I thought I would just upgrade a relatively recent Dell that I bought earlier this summer. Off we go.

This might be old news for some of you, but bear with me. There are three principle interfaces and two vendor families. First are the interfaces: ordinary PCI, AGP, and the newer PCI-Express. They use three different electrical connections, and rather then get involved in the bus speeds and feeds, you have to make sure that whatever your motherboard has will match the card that you buy.

So I carefully examine my Dell, which usually has the cover off anyway so this doesn’t take any time at all, and I realize that it can’t be easily upgraded, because like most lower-end PCs, all it has is the ordinary PCI slots that take the oldest graphic cards and not very good ones at that. We’ll get back to it in a moment. Let’s talk about the two principle families of graphics adapters, one from ATI (now owned by AMD) and one from nVidia. They are roughly equivalent, but each family has dozens of different products. And they are not labeled for easy parsing: for example, ATI uses the “XT" moniker to refer to higher-end cards, while nVidia uses the label to refer to lower-end cards.

I found a great couple of pages that give you the stats of the ATI family and the stats of the nVidia family.

They are maintained by Gabriel Torres, of Brazil of all places. He does a solid job of showing you what is the makeup of each card. The things to look for (in decreasing order) are the size of the memory interface (128-bit or even better, 256-bit), and how many pixels per clock tick the card processes. Secondary importance is the actual clock speed of the graphics processor – if you can push more bits through per tick, you are ahead of the game, so to speak.

Okay, armed with this information, I first take the path of least resistance – a block away from my house is an Office Depot, and they have in their nice new store a grand total of four graphics cards for sale. Two of them are AGP cards – which don’t fit in my Dell. Two of them are PCI cards, which are so crappy that they aren’t much of an improvement over the integrated graphics that I already have. I return home, go online to, and find an ATI card that is about $100 that seems to offer the most promise. Remember, the old PCI cards aren’t the shiny new ones that ATI and nVidia are currently making, so you aren’t going to get a lot of horsepower here. But at least I will have something that (assuming that I got the right part), will give a bit of a boost to my (now looking a bit aged) Dell.

So now I start thinking about trying to buy a PC with a decent graphics card pre-installed from the major online retailers. And after about an hour surfing around the Web, I have come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible. Most of the lower-end model PCs come with Intel or otherwise low-end integrated video circuitry, which is how I ended up with the configuration that I have. Forget about buying a laptop with decent graphics, unless you want to pay lots of dough and have to buy an asbestos shield for your legs if you actually intend to use it on your lap.

Dell sells a couple of desktop models, the Dimension E521 and C521, which can be configured with ATI X1300 Pro cards. You will end up paying close to $1000 for these models, by the time you outfit them with enough RAM (I recommend 2 GB these days) and a few other essentials. The X1300 Pro is what I would call the lowest high-end graphics card you should get, meaning that they sell plenty others that can deliver more firepower (and also cost more than the base PC too). But that is the total selection you have from Dell when it comes to buying something with better graphics at a reasonable price-point. They do sell their XPS line with lots of other higher-end options, including graphics card choices, but those start at $2,000 and quickly go up from there to nearly twice that.

HP and Lenovo only sell desktop models with integrated graphics chips, at least of the models that I examined. Gateway had a lot more choices of graphics cards, but you had to first de-select the default option for buying Microsoft Office before you went into configuring the PC – that was annoying. And they only sold PCs with Intel CPUs, which is also annoying, because many gamers prefer the AMD processors. I could get a decent PC for a little bit more than $1300, with a higher-end nVidia GeForce 7900GT, or if I wanted to spend more I could go to the top of the ATI line and pay for a X1900 dual-card solution. Clearly, they get the whole gaming thing over at Gateway.

Are you still with me here? How hard does someone have to look to find what they want to buy? And I haven’t even gotten to my DirectX horror stories either. I’ll save that for another day, because once you get your graphics card, you have to deal with the many splendored thing that is DirectX, and match the right version with what your game and card requires.

Now, some of you might be saying at this point, Strom, you are being silly, because any serious gamer is not going with Dell or Gateway, but going to either built it themselves or buy the ultra-high-end lines line like VoodooPC (now owned by HP) or Alienware (now owned by Dell). These machines start at around $4000, though. There is a long way to go from the $500-$1000 ordinary PCs that most people are buying from the major retailers.

Graphics is going to be a big deal in the coming year, as more people with Vista-ready machines realize exactly how unready they will be with their miserable integrated graphics cards. And it is too bad that the retailers can’t do a good job of putting the products together that will make sense for this market. And it is also too bad that there seems to be a hole in the marketplace between the ultra-high end PC (at $3000 and up) and the PCs that most of us will pay for that are about half to a third of that.

David Strom is a noted speaker, author, podcaster and consultant who has written two books and thousands of magazine articles for dozens of IT publications such as Computerworld, eWeek, Information Week and Network Computing. His blog can be found at , and he can be reached at .


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