Graphics cards are a key computer component for any user that needs to do graphically intensive tasks. Even jobs that used to be done by the CPU, such as video encoding, can now be done by the GPU too. So you need to choose a graphics card carefully, based on your needs.
The graphics card market is incredibly competitive and there are many cards to choose from. That’s great for consumers in general, but it can turn choosing which card to spend your money on into a nightmare. So here are the things you have to take into account when deciding what you need a new graphics card for.
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What’s the Use?
When you choose a graphics card you need to know what you will be using it for. There’s no point in buying a card whose power you’ll never use or getting one that’s inadequate for your needs.
If you are a gamer, who are the largest market for performance cards, you’ll mainly care about things like raw power and gaming features. If you are someone who does video editing, or CAD mid-low end cards could be perfectly fine.
A good method to figure out what your use case is could be to list the software that you’ll be using on the computer the card is meant for. Pay attention to the recommended GPU for the software and use the highest one as a starting point for your GPU market segment selection.
While it’s usually OK to go with the back-of-the-box recommendations for things like video editing or CAD, games need to be a bit more discerning.
Different software developers have inconsistent views on what “playable” performance is. If you want to play a game with visual smoothness and responsiveness, you want a card that will run it at 60 frames per second at the native resolution of your monitor.
The lower limit for playability is 30 frames per second. Any lower than this and games become noticeably laggy and choppy. If you have your eye on a card look for comparative benchmarks in recent games or for the specific games that you want to play.
Monitoring the Situation
Speaking of native resolutions, the monitor or monitors you intend to use are an important factor in your decision. The “native resolution” is the actual number of pixels the monitor has.
Rendering more pixels, especially in 3D graphics applications, take ever more GPU power. It also needs more GPU memory. Most midrange graphics cards can now cope handily with video games at maximum setting at 1920×1080.
If however, you want one of those newfangled ultrawide screens you’ll have to dig deeper for more cash to get a beefier card. Remember to only look at benchmarks done at the resolution you want to use your software.
The More the Merrier
For productivity reasons, multi-monitor setups are now very popular. Most graphics cards can handle two screens easily. If you want a triple or even six monitor setup, make sure that the card in question supports it and has connectors that work with your monitors.
The power supply unit of our computers is something easy to forget about, but it’s a crucial factor when you have to choose a video card. The GPU is one of the most power-hungry components in your computer.
Pay attention to the recommended power supply unit the card manufacturer stipulates. If your current PSU is not up to scratch you have to include the price of a new one in your graphics card budget.
The easiest way to figure out what sort of PSU you need or if your current one is good enough is by using a PSU calculator. Also, note whether the PSU in question has the right auxiliary power connectors for the GPU you want.
Size Matters After All
Another common mistake people make when they choose a graphic card is buying a card that will not physically fit in their computer cases. Higher-end graphics cards can easily be 30cm long. So make sure your case has the space for it.
It’s not just length either, GPUs can take up a single slot width, but dual-slot cards are very common. True beasts may even take up three slots. That can be a problem if you have other expansion cards in slots next to where the GPU should sit.
Figuring out if your chassis and other components will work together can take quite a bit of research and legwork, but luckily sites like PC Part Picker can immediately tell you about some of the most obvious conflicts.
GPUs get hot. Like really hot. So graphics cards tend to have quite substantial cooling solutions.
When you choose a graphics card, picking the right type of cooler is crucial if you want it to stay cool while also not driving you insane with noise. There are generally three choices:
- Blower-style cards
- Open air dissipation cards
- Water-cooled cards
Choosing the Chill
Blower cards can get noisy, but they don’t interfere with the air in the rest of the case. These tend to work well in small cases where the card has its own vent right next to the intake. It can then cycle cold air through it independently.
Open air cards pull air from the case and then blow it over the card components. In cases with good internal airflow, these are great and tend to be quieter then blower cards that can sound like jet engines under load.
Pre-built water-cooled cards provide the best cooling and lowest noise, but you need to have space for the tubing and somewhere to mount the radiator. They are also more expensive, but well worth it if you can accommodate one.
Choose a Graphics Card Wisely
The final and most important tip when you choose a graphics card is to be patient and not buy a card on impulse. If you choose the right GPU it will keep you happy for years. Choose a dud and you’ll just be opening your wallet sooner than needed.
Lead Image By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
GTX 1070 By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
GTX 1080 STRIX by BagoGames via FLickr
Water-cooled GTX 1080 image is public domain via Flickr