Desktop Video Card Buyer's Guide

How to determine what type of graphics you should have in your desktop PC

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Founder's Edition Graphics Card
GeForce GTX 1080. ©NVIDIA

How to determine what video card to get with a computer purchase is heavily dependent upon what the computer is going to be used for. I tend to find that there are four categories that people can be placed in when it comes to computer usage and video card needs: casual computing, graphic design, light gaming and serious gaming. Even if you don't fall into one of these categories, you may still find a graphics card useful for your PC.

Before going into detail about the different categories, I will mention that it is possible to upgrade the video card on most desktops. Most modern desktop systems feature a PCI-Express graphics card slot, also referred to as a x16 slot. There are several version of PCI-Express from 1.0 to 3.0. The higher versions offer faster bandwidth but they are all backward compatible.

So a PCI-Express 3.0 card will work in a PCI-Express 1.0 slot. Older systems used AGP but this has been discontinued in favor of the new interface. Be sure you know which your PC uses before buying one to upgrade your graphics. Also, be sure to know what the wattage of the computer's power supply as this will likely determine what kind of card can be installed.

Casual Computing

Casual computing tends to be those tasks related to using the computer for word processing, web browsing, watching a video or listening to music.

None of these tasks requires much video processing power at all. For this category of computing any choice of video processor will work. 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 displays.

While many PCs can easily go up to a 2560x1440p resolution display without difficult, many integrated solutions still lack the capacity to properly drive a display at the new UltraHD resolutions.

So, if you are planning on using such a high resolution display, be sure to check the maximum display resolution for any video processor before purchasing the computer or video card.

Many integrated solutions now offer some acceleration for non-3D applications. For instance, the Intel Quick Sync Video found on most of their Intel HD Graphics solutions provide acceleration for encoding video. AMDs solutions offer a bit broader acceleration for other applications such as digital image applications like Photoshop.

Graphic Design

Individuals looking to do graphic design or even video editing will want a few more features with the video card. For graphic designs, it is generally good to have higher resolution capability. Many high-end displays can support up to 4K or UltraHD resolutions allowing for more visible detail. To use such displays you may be required to have a DisplayPort connector on the graphics card. (Note: Apple computers use a port referred to as Thunderbolt that is compatible with DisplayPort displays.) Check the monitor for requirements. Another feature that may be of interest is multi-monitor support. This allows the graphics card to support two or more computer displays at once expanding the graphical workspace.

Photoshop CS4 and later users can gain benefits from having a graphics card to boost performance. At this point, the boost is more dependent upon the speed and amount of video memory than it is on the graphics processors. It is recommended to have at least 2GB of dedicated memory on a graphics card with 4GB or more being preferred. As for the memory type on the graphics card, GDDR5 is preferred over DDR3 cards because of its increased memory bandwidth.

Light Gaming

When talking about gaming, I am referring to games that use 3D graphics acceleration. Games like solitaire, Tetris and Candy Crush do not use any 3D acceleration and will work fine with any form of graphics processor.

If you play 3D games every once in a while or even on a regular basis and do not care about it running as fast as possible or having all the features to enhance the detail, then this is the category of card you want to look at.

Cards in this category should fully support the DirectX 11 graphics standard and have at least 1GB of video memory but 2GB is preferred. It should be noted that Direct X 11 and 10 games will only fully work on Windows 7 and later. Windows XP users are still restricted to Direct X 9 features. For particular brands and models of the processor, check out the selection in the Best Video Cards from $100 to $250. Most of these will be able to play games up to 1920x1080 resolutions typical of most monitors with varying quality levels.

Serious Gaming

If your next computer is going to be an ultimate gaming system, then you want to make sure that you have a video card that matches the capabilities of the system. It should be able to support all the current 3D games on the market with acceptable frame rates with all of the graphic detail features turned on. If you also intend to run a game on extremely high-resolution displays or across a 4K or multiple displays, then you want to look at a higher end graphics card.

All performance 3D video cards should support DirectX 12 and have at least 4GB of memory but preferably more if you intend to use it at very high resolutions. For particular brands and models of processors, check out the selection in the Best Performance Video Cards. Be warned that if you are looking to add one of these cards to your existing desktop, make sure that you have the proper wattage power supply to support the graphics card.

Many of these cards now also support variable display rate frame technologies including G-Sync or FreeSync in order to smooth the image when playing a game. These features currently require specific compatible monitors and graphics cards. If you are interested in such a feature, you want to make sure your card and monitor are both compatible with the same technology for it to work.

Specialized Computing

While the primary focus for graphics cards has been on 3D acceleration, more and more applications are now being used to access the improved math capabilities of graphics processors compared to traditional central processors. A whole range of applications are now written to take advantage of the GPU's capabilities for improved performance.

I mentioned this somewhat in the graphics design section above, but there are a greater range of applications than just graphics. They can be used to help process data in scientific research such as Seti@HOME or other cloud computing tasks. It can help reduce the amount of time that it takes to do video encoding and conversion. It is even possible to use them for mining of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.

The problem with these specialized tasks is that the choice of video cards is very highly dependent upon the programs that will be accessing the card. Some tasks run better on a specific brand of graphics card or maybe even a specific processor model from a brand.

For instance, AMD Radeon cards are generally preferred for those doing Bitcoin mining thanks to their improved hash performance. NVIDIA cards on the other hand tend to perform better when it comes to some scientific applications like Folding @ Home. As a result, try and do research into any heavily used programs before selecting a video card to make sure you are getting the best fit for your need.