Desktop Video Card Buyer's Guide

How to pick a desktop graphics card

If you want to watch movies or play games in 4K on your desktop computer, the computer needs a powerful video card. When choosing a video card for your PC, make sure the PC's motherboard can support it and that the monitor has the necessary ports.

Powerful modern high end computer graphics card
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How Much Do PC Video Cards Cost?

Video cards range in price from under $100 to over $1,000. While more expensive cards typically offer better performance, you shouldn't base your decision on price alone.

If you're a hardcore gamer, don't choose the cheapest computer video card (also called a graphics card) that you can find. Likewise, if you only browse the internet or stream YouTube, there's no need to choose a high-end graphics card.

If you recently purchased a graphics-intensive video game or application for your computer, the existing video card might work fine. One way to check is by running a benchmark.

What Kind of Monitor Do You Have?

Since the video card attaches directly to the monitor through a video cable, it's important to realize that not all monitors and video cards have matching ports. If your monitor doesn't support the type of video card you want, you might need to upgrade the monitor.

The first thing to do when matching a monitor with a video card is to look at the back to see which cable ports are available. Older monitors may only have VGA or DVI ports, but newer displays support HDMI. If you have an old monitor, you can purchase an adapter that converts DVI or HDMI into a VGA port. However, older displays cannot render 4K resolutions, so consider buying a new monitor.

The same is true if you have a dual monitor setup. If one monitor has an open HDMI port and the other has DVI, you need a video card that supports both HDMI and DVI.

Is Your Motherboard Compatible?

To install a video card on a PC, the motherboard must have open expansion ports. Most modern systems feature a PCI Express (PCI-E) graphics card slot, also referred to as an x16 slot. There are several versions of PCI-E from 1.0 to 4.0. The higher versions offer faster bandwidth, but all versions are backward compatible, so a PCI-E 3.0 card works in a PCI-E 1.0 slot. Older systems use AGP, but this has been discontinued in favor of the new interface.

To determine what types of hardware can be used with a motherboard, check the manufacturer's website for a user manual. ASUS, Intel, and Gigabyte are some popular motherboard manufacturers.

What's Your Power Supply Wattage?

To use the best PC video cards on the market, you'll also what to know the wattage of the computer's power supply since it determines what kind of card can be installed. However, this should only be a concern if you use your PC for graphics-intensive gaming.

What's Your Computer Usage Type?

After you determine what types of video cards your computer can support, the next step is deciding how much processing power you need for your purposes. Tasks that video cards are responsible for can be broken down into a few general categories: casual computing, graphic design, casual gaming, hardcore gaming, and specialized computing.

Video Cards for Casual Computing

Common tasks like word processing, web browsing, watching videos, and listening to music don't require much video processing power. If you mostly use your computer for these activities, any video card will suffice. It can be integrated into the computer system or be a dedicated card. The only exception to this is extremely high-resolution video such as 4K.

Many PCs can easily go up to a 2560x1440 resolution display without difficulty. However, many integrated solutions can't properly drive a display at the new UltraHD resolutions. If you plan to use a high-resolution display, check the maximum display resolution for the video processor before purchasing the computer or graphics card.

Many integrated solutions offer some acceleration for non-3D applications. For instance, the Intel Quick Sync Video feature found on most Intel graphics cards provides acceleration for encoding video. AMD's solutions offer a broader acceleration for other applications such as Adobe Photoshop and similar digital image programs.

Video Cards for Graphic Design

For graphic designers and video editors, it's recommended to have at least 2 GB of dedicated memory on a graphics card, with 4 GB or more being preferred. As for the memory type, GDDR5 is preferred over DDR3 cards because of its increased memory bandwidth.

Most high-end displays can support up to 4K or UltraHD resolutions, allowing for greater visual detail. A DisplayPort connector on the graphics card may be required to use these displays.

Apple computers use a Thunderbolt port that's compatible with DisplayPort displays.

Graphics Cards for Casual Gaming

Games like solitaire, Tetris, and Candy Crush don't use 3D acceleration and work fine with any graphics processor. If you occasionally play 3D games, and don't care about the games running as fast as possible or having all the features to enhance the graphics, look at this category of cards.

Cards for casual gaming should fully support the DirectX 11 graphics standard and have at least 1 GB of video memory (2 GB is preferred). DirectX 11 and 10 games only fully work on Windows 7 and later. Windows XP is restricted to DirectX 9 features.

You can find midgrade PC video cards for under $250. Most can play games up to a resolution of 1920x1080, which is typical of most monitors with varying quality levels.

Graphics Cards for Hardcore Gaming

If you're building a dedicated gaming PC, you need a video card that matches the capabilities of the system. It should support all the current 3D games on the market with acceptable frame rates when all the graphics enhancement features are turned on.

All high-performance 3D video cards should support DirectX 12 and have at least 4 GB of memory. Preferably more if you intend to use it at very high resolutions. Many of these cards also support variable display rate frame technologies, including G-Sync and FreeSync, which smooth out the image when playing a game. These features currently require specific monitors, so make sure the card and monitor are compatible with the same technology.

Video performance is often more dependent on a computer's memory speed than the graphics processor.

Video Cards for Specialized Computing

The primary focus for graphics cards has been on 3D acceleration. However, more applications are being used to tap into the improved mathematical capabilities of graphics processors compared to traditional CPUs.

For example, these cards can process data in scientific research or other cloud computing tasks. High-performance video cards can reduce the amount of time it takes to do video encoding and conversion. It's also possible to use these video cards for mining cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Some tasks run better on cards made by specific manufacturers or specific processor models from a particular brand. For example, AMD Radeon cards are generally preferred for Bitcoin mining because of improved hash performance. NVIDIA cards, on the other hand, tend to perform better when it comes to some scientific applications like Folding@Home and SETI@Home. Research any heavily used program before selecting a video card to make sure you get the best fit for your needs.