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 on what the computer is going to be used for. However, it's also important to consider if your motherboard can support the card, as well as what ports your monitor has available, since it's the monitor that the video card will be attached to.

For example, it'd be unwise to opt for the cheapest video card if you're a hardcore gamer, and very much unnecessary to choose a high-end, gaming video card when you just want to browse the internet or stream YouTube.

Another factor that influences the kind of video card to buy is the type of monitor 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.

What's Your Computer Usage Type?

Let's consider that there are four main categories you could 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 feel like you fall into one of these categories, you might still find a graphics card useful for your PC.

Casual Computing

Casual computing can be explained as tasks related to using the computer for word processing, web browsing, watching a video, or listening to music. These are very much common tasks that don't require much video processing power.

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.

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

If you're 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 graphics 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 Adobe Photoshop and similar digital image programs.

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's generally a good idea 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 might be required to have a DisplayPort connector on the graphics card. Check the monitor for requirements.

Note: Apple computers use a port referred to as Thunderbolt that's compatible with DisplayPort displays.

Users of Adobe Photoshop CS4 and later can benefit from having a graphics card to boost performance. At this point, the boost is more dependent on the speed and amount of video memory than it is on the graphics processors.

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 on the graphics card, GDDR5 is preferred over DDR3 cards because of its increased memory bandwidth.

Light Gaming

When we mention gaming in the context of a video card, we're talking more about ones that use 3D graphics acceleration. Games like solitaire, Tetris, and Candy Crush do not use 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 1 GB of video memory (2 GB preferred). It should be noted that DirectX 11 and 10 games will only fully work on Windows 7 and later; Windows XP users are still restricted to DirectX 9 features.

For particular brands and models of the processor, check out our selection of the best PC video cards for under $250 USD. Most of them can play games up to a resolution of 1920x1080, which is typical of most monitors with varying quality levels.

Serious Gaming

Is your next computer slated to be your ultimate gaming system? Make sure to get a video card that matches the capabilities of the system. For example, it should be able to support all the current 3D games on the market with acceptable frame rates when all the graphic detail features are turned on.

If you also intend to run a game on extremely high-resolution displays or across a 4K screen or multiple displays, then you should look at a higher-end graphics card.

All performance 3D video cards should support DirectX 12 and have at least 4 GB of memory, but preferably more if you intend to use it at very high resolutions.

See out list of the best performance 3D video cards if you're looking for a gaming graphics card for your PC. It should be noted that if you're looking to add one of these cards to your existing desktop, make sure that your power supply has the proper wattage 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 out the image when playing a game.

These features currently require specific monitors and graphics cards. If you're interested, you should make sure your card and monitor are both compatible with the same technology.

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.

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, and it's even possible to use them for the mining of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.

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

Do research into any heavily used program before selecting a video card, to make sure you're getting the best fit for your need.

What Kind of Monitor Do You Have?

A video card doesn't do much good without a monitor, but your monitor might not even be appropriate for some types of video cards.

You might find that you either need to purchase a different monitor for your video card or that your video card purchase is determined by the kind of monitor you have.

The first thing you should do when matching your monitor with a video card is look at the back to see which cable ports there are. VGA ports are the most common but you might instead have one or more HDMI or DVI ports too.

Let's consider that your monitor is pretty old and only has one VGA port, and nothing else. This means you need to either make sure that your video card supports VGA (it probably does) or that you purchase an adapter that can convert DVI or HDMI from the video card, into a VGA port so that your monitor will work with the card.

The same is true if you have a dual monitor (or more) setup. Say one monitor has an open HDMI port and the other has DVI. You need to make sure to buy a video card that supports both HDMI and DVI (or can at least use one or more adapters).

Is Your Motherboard Compatible?

It's possible to upgrade the video card on most desktop computers, but the exceptions occur when there aren't any open expansion ports. Aside from integrated graphics, the only other way to use a video card is by installing it to an open expansion port.

Most modern 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.

This means that a PCI-Express 3.0 card will work in a PCI-Express 1.0 slot. Older systems use AGP but this has been discontinued in favor of the new interface.

Make sure you know what your PC uses before buying one to upgrade your graphics. As mentioned above, be sure to know the wattage of the computer's power supply too, since this will likely determine what kind of card can be installed.

The best way to check up on the hardware that can be used with any particular motherboard is to check the manufacturer's website for a user manual. ASUS, Intel, ABIT, and Gigabyte are some popular motherboard manufacturers.