Ask Maximum PC: Which Videocard Should I Buy?

Maximum PC Staff

It’s really the question I dread the most. Possibly because it gets asked the most - via Twitter, through email and in online forums, everyone wants to know: “What graphics card should I buy?”

This question is often unaccompanied by any additional information, like system specs, what apps are being run and how much money is in the budget, which makes finding an answer rather complicated.

So today we’ll be walking through the process of answering that age old essential question: what graphics card should you buy? To answer that question, we first need to answer some other questions.

What Do You Want to Do?

Take a close look at your applications. This is the most important question you should ask yourself. Let’s run down a few scenarios. After we talk about what you want to do, we’ll discuss potential hardware issues and budget.

Hard Core PC Gamer.

PC games are more graphics intensive than ever, so upgrading your graphics hardware can mean a boost in both performance and eye candy. This is particularly true if you’re running a GPU that doesn’t support the latest graphics API. On the AMD side, that means you’re running a Radeon HD 4000 series or earlier; on the Nvidia side, it means you’re running something pre-Fermi (i.e., 200 series, 9000 series or earlier.)

HTPC Enthusiast.

Let’s say you’re really into home theater, and have a spiffy home theater PC. Assuming you’re interested in only light duty gaming at best, what GPU is best for you? If you’re running the latest Sandy Bridge (Intel 2nd Generation Core architecture), like the Core i3 2100T, you may not need a new GPU – Intel HD Graphics works well with home theater applications, particularly with the most recent drivers. You can even run 3D Blu-ray with Sandy Bridge Graphics

However, if your system is running an older CPU, a low-end discrete graphics card with a good video encode/decode block, like the passively cooled XFX Radeon HD 6450, might be ideal. These types of cards use very little power, do a great job with video encode and decode and can even perform GPU assisted transcoding with the right application.

A fanless, entry level GPU makes for great home theater PC graphics.

Content Creator.

If you’re into photo or video editing, or make heavy use of professional 3D apps, a GPU upgrade can mean a considerable increase in both performance and productivity. Professional graphics cards are considerably more expensive than the consumer version, yet often offer lower performance in games. The professional graphics market values different features, like efficiency, software customization and validation across a range of pro apps.

Nvidia and AMD professional graphics cards may be better suited for pro applications, but could be slower for gaming.

In some cases, though, you can get away with a consumer card. Adobe, for example, supports a handful of Nvidia-based consumer GPUs in its CS5 suite. But check to make sure the hardware you’re considering and the software you use will play well together.

Everyday Desktop User.

Maybe you, or the person who will be using the system, just uses it for “normal” stuff – you know, office apps, web surfing, light duty graphics chores. Modern integrated graphics, like AMD’s upcoming Fusion desktop CPUs or Sandy Bridge graphics may be good enough. However, like the HTPC enthusiast, users with older CPUs may want entry level or even midrange discrete graphics cards.

That’s because modern office applications increasingly have visual components. Microsoft Office uses Direct3D in charting modules. WebGL is becoming increasingly important in web-based apps. GPU compute is becoming more common in video transcoding and photo editing. There’s no need to get a killer high end GPU, but a solid midrange card based on Nvidia’s GTX 560 or AMD’s Radeon HD 6850 would be good, long term solutions.

Now that we’ve looked at application profiles, let’s think about supporting hardware.

PC System Considerations

Once you know what your application goals are for a new graphics card, it’s time for a dose of hard reality: the system you have may limit your graphics performance.

Let’s say you’re running on an old Core 2 Duo E6600: dual core, no Hyper-Threading, 2.4GHz. It’s running in a P965-based motherboard with the venerable Nvidia 8800 GT. You want to upgrade to some of that DirectX 11 goodness you’ve heard about. So you plop down some hard coin for a pair of eVGA GTX 580 SC graphics cards.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Dropping that much GPU horsepower into an aging Core 2 Duo system is -- simply put -- a waste of money. Even though most modern games tend to be highly graphics intensive, a pair of high end GPUs running in SLI or CrossFireX mode will spend a lot of time waiting on the CPU to finish some task.

In an ideal world, you want a balanced system. You don’t want the CPU to have to wait for the GPU or vice versa. Actually achieving system balance tends to be a shifting goal, however. Even if the applications mix is hard core PC games, some are more graphics intensive than CPU intensive. Others are heavily weighted towards the processor. Our hypothetical Core 2 Duo user might do better to upgrade to something more modest, like an Nvidia GTX 460 1GB card or Radeon HD 6850. Alternatively, if she really has the budget for a high end SLI rig, compromise a bit, get a midrange card and upgrade the motherboard, CPU and memory.

Another key consideration is the powers supply. That Core 2 Duo E6600 rig probably doesn’t have the PSU juice to run a pair of GTX 580s in SLI mode. That means a PSU upgrade. What seemed like a simple GPU upgrade suddenly becomes more costly.

That Core 2 Duo example is fairly simplistic, but more complex technical issues can also rise up to bite you. For example, those spiffy new Z68 motherboards running Sandy Bridge processors sound fabulous, but you’re still limited to a total of 16 PCI Express lanes for graphics in most of the mainstream solutions. So if you want to run two or more graphics cards, then you may be limiting GPU performance, particularly at very high AA and shader settings. There are exceptions, like Gigabyte’s GA-Z68X-UD7 board, which incorporates Nvidia’s Nforce 200 PCI bridge chip, which adds more PCI Express lanes for graphics. Limits on PCI Express lanes probably isn’t an issue with dual midrange cards, but if you plan on plopping in a pair of Radeon HD 6990 cards (assuming you can actually find two of them for sale), the additional PCI Express lanes might prove useful.

This Gigabyte board is one of the few Z68 boards with an Nforce 200 chip, supporting more than one PCI Express x16 slot.

Display Support

How many displays do you have on your desk? If the answer is “more than two,” then the graphics card equation shifts more towards AMD.

Right now, I’m running three 30-inch displays on my desk, all connected to a single Radeon HD 6970 graphics card. Of course, not everyone needs or wants three or more monitors on their desk. If you do, and you want an Nvidia-based solution, you’ll need at least two graphics cards – unless you’re running the dual-GPU GTX 590.

Nvidia’s GTX 590 can drive more than two displays, but needs two GPUs to do it.

AMD offers robust support for the latest DisplayPort 1.2 standard. That’s not all that useful today, but by mid-2011, we’ll see LCD panels with DisplayPort 1.2 connectors, as well as hubs. What this means in a practical sense is the ability to daisy chain multiple monitors off one DisplayPort connection. That will substantially simplify cabling. Even today, all AMD 6000 series GPUs can run three displays, with some models supporting five or more.

On the other hand, Nvidia’s support for stereoscopic 3D, whether in gaming, movies or 3D photographs, is much more robust than AMD’s. Some display makers are even making the necessary 120Hz refresh rate displays with embedded Nvidia 3D Vision sensors in them, like the Acer HN274H. And if you have serious Nvidia GPU horsepower, you can even have your stereoscopic 3D gaming spread out over three displays – but you’ll want high end SLI at a minimum and three-way SLI is even better. Stereoscopic 3D gaming is one the greatest performance hogs you’ll find in modern PC gaming, so the more GPUs, the better. It’s no wonder that Nvidia is pushing 3D Vision so hard – it looks good and sells more GPUs to boot.

This 27-inch Acer display has a built-in Nvidia 3D Vision sensor.

Display Limitations

You’ve got one of the latest 27-inch monitors, complete with rich, saturated colors and fast response time. You’ll want as much GPU horsepower as you can to drive your spiffy display, right?

Well, not really. Odds are, that display is a 1080p monitor: 1920x1080 pixels. If you’re lucky, maybe it’s 1920x1200. There are a handful of near-$1K 27-inch displays that run at 2560x1440, but those are as rare as teeth on a chicken.

In fact, most users often have smaller displays, running at 1080p or even lower resolutions. A good, midrange GPU, like the Radeon HD 6950 or Nvidia GTX 570, can run your games at 4x anti-aliasing and never even break a sweat. So if you’re really running a single 1080p display, you may not need multiple GPUs or even the highest end single GPU card.

Operating System Issues

Let’s say you’re totally sold on the idea of those shiny new DirectX 11 games, with spiffy features like hardware tessellation and SSAO lighting effects. You want to run them in all their DirectX 11 glory, and are ready to plunk down cash for a new graphics card.

You want SSAO, HDR lighting and tessellation? You won’t get it on Windows XP.

If you’re running Windows XP, forget all that eye candy goodness. You’ll definitely get a performance bump with a current generation graphics card, but you won’t get DX11… or even DirectX 10, neither of which is supported in Windows XP.

Your Budget: The Ultimate Reality Check

Once, a long time ago, I stood in an electronics retailer and watched a buyer come up and check out the aisle of graphics cards. He had a magazine clenched in his hand. I realized the magazine he was holding had one of my graphics card roundup articles. I watched him as he looked at the magazine, looked at the shelf full of cards, looked back at the magazine, and then finally picked up the cheapest card he could find and headed for the checkout stand.

Most of us have limited resources, and have to juggle what’s important and what’s not when it comes to managing our budgets. So no matter how much you may yearn for a badass, liquid cooled, six core fire breathing game system running triple SLI, your bank account and credit card limit may have other opinions.

It all goes back to the balanced system. You ultimately need to look at your application needs, your system specs and your display. Factor in how much money you can spend, and that will ultimately determine what you can buy.

The cool thing is just how much graphics card you can get these days for under $300. The performance of some of the newer midrange GPUs is nothing short of amazing, and absolutely smoke the $600 GPUs of a few years ago. So while games are adding more graphics features, it’s very likely you can still get superb graphics and a terrific gaming experience without sacrificing the down payment on a new car.

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