I’ve been using my built-in nvideo 7050 video card for a while now and for a built-in card it’s pretty good. I get decent compositing and Urban Terror plays around 30 frames per second but I’ve come to realize that I just want to be able to do more: play better games, watch HD video… so I decided to update my video card and now I’m amazed at what it can do. If you’re thinking about upgrading yours, this is what I learned from mine.
Digging in the Pockets
Yeah that $200 dollar top-of-the-line video card looks cool, but most of us don’t wanna spend dollars like that for something we use a couple hours of the day. Video cards can be pricey but even on a modest budget you can get a decent card a good step up from a built-in one. Good $40-80 cards can be found that can easily double frame rates and help you play new or newer games. Save yourself a little budget for a power supply too as video cards take a good amount of wattage and many stock desktops only provide power for the components involved. With $100 (minus $20-40 in rebates) you can get a fifth tier video card and a power supply to go with it.
Whats Your Motherboard Got?
Pop open your hood to see what you got (or if you’re lucky enough you’ll have an owners manual that tells you). In most recent desktops for the last few years are PCI Express slots and are very good for video cards. If you have an AGP or PCI even these can have cards added that can help improve performance. For the purpose of this upgrade I’ll be talking about PCI Express.
A PCI Express slot will look something like this (see bottom of page). If you’re not sure, look closely at the motherboard. Alot of motherboards print a small label like PCIE next to the slot. If you got that, you’re good to go. This could be either a PCI Express 1.0 or 2.0 slot. 2.0 slots add alot of bandwidth but at this time no video card is really able to take advantage of it. You also don’t need to worry about what PCI Express version video card you buy either as 2.0 is backward-compatible with 1.0.
Queen of Hearts – Picking the Right Card
To pick a good nvidia card, nvidia appends their card versions with a couple letters. The version tells the capabilites of the card (OpenGL 2.1, DirectX10…) while the lettering indicated performance. GS cards are clocked the lowest, GT is middle, GTS is high, and GTX is extremely high. For example the 9500 GT is nvidia’s last generation card with medium performance. A good place to compare video card performance is Tom’s hardware’s video card hierarchy page (includes nvidea and ATI).
It’s pretty hard to go wrong with any of top level video card but a word of warning: not all branded video cards are alike. Because third party companies assemble the components together you will occasionally see a components that are skimped on. I’ve seen a number of poor reviews on what normally should be a pretty good video card. I get alot of my reviews at newegg. Newegg offers good prices on alot of different cards and they have a customer review section for each product, so most of the reviews are pretty up front. Compare the card with different vendors that offer the same branded product to be sure you’re getting all you should.
A couple things I noticed comparing vender cards was that some of them offer a good number less stream processors and others would use old memory chips. There can be any kind of cavaets like this so keep your eyes open. Memory isn’t terribly expensive these days and you should at least try to find something with DD3 or above.
The amount of memory you choose is important too. I had one person tell me that 512 MB of memory is the sweat spot, that you would never really use more than that. But when I tried Crysis on my 756 MB graphic card, it almost maxed it out. Memory on the video card is almost directly proportional to the resolution. I have a 1440×900 resolution which isn’t the biggest so if you have something bigger you might want to consider a 1 GB card. Memory spills over to the computer memory but it’s better if it’s kept on the card.
Another thing to consider when getting a video card is what type of outlets it has. Most newer cards have two DVI’s and a HDTV outlets (and sometimes svideo).
Fire and Brimstone (or Noise, Heat, and Size)
If you looked over some video cards already you’ve noticed how big some of them look. Unfortunately most video card specifications don’t have measurements listed. When there’s not alot of space by your PCI Express slot look at the reviews and see if anyone else had trouble getting them in. If they did you should look for a low-profile card. Or you might wanna take a chance and try to put one in – most manufacturers are good about taking back such products.
Think about just how hot your card may get too. The high-powered cards available have a good size fan on them but that fan isn’t going to do alot of good if your computer case has hardly any vents. A card that gets too hot is gonna have a much shorter life span.
One of the most common gripes I read in the reviews about video cards was how that some of them sounded like a helicopter taking off. Yeah these cards get pretty hot and your bargain basement versions don’t put alot of money into quiet fans. If you think a constant buzz is gonna bother you after awhile you may have to look into a more expensive card with a better fan or a card with less performance.
9/10 Ladies Prefer the Graphic Man
If you anticipate you’re going to need a real workhorse of a computer, and you got the extra slot for it, remember SLI. SLI is Nvidia’s technology that allows graphic cards to work in parallel process to one another (ATI’s is called Crossfire). To utilize this technology though you’ll need a an nvidia motherboard 680i or greater and a supported PSU.
Power Supply (PSU) and Cables
No shying off it, almost everyone is gonna have to get one. It’s not fun to have to pay the extra cost of another PSU but I can tell you they are fun to put in. Do yourself a favor and don’t think you might just get by. If a PSU gets overtaxed it will shut down your computer or possibly even worse things. And don’t listen to what the video card recommendations say, alot of times they just give an estimate and have no idea what you are running in your computer. Newegg has a PSU calculator that will give you a good idea what you need.
Now check what cable connections you need. Unplug your box (all external connections), destatic by touching the frame, and trace all your PSU connections. You’ll probably need at least these: 2 SATA power (one for hard drive another for DVD/CD), one main power (motherboard) 24 pin connector, a 4 pin CPU power cord, and a 6 pin PCI-Express cable. The 6 pin PCI-Express cable isn’t a big deal as most cards include a dual-molex to 6 pin adapter and most PSU’s have at least 4 molex cables. For the motherboard cable almost all new ones have a 24 pin slot, the PSU’s though (to be compatible with older motherboards) have 20 and 4 pin cables that can be snapped together. When you look to buy make sure the cables are long enough. SATA plugs are often put on one wire several inches apart, are your components close enough together?
Someone in the know posted in a forum that for a good video card you’re gonna want 30 amps on the rails. I couldn’t get more information on this but I’m pretty sure he meant that you want 30 Amps delivered to your video card. One molex cable on my power supply has 16A and another has 17A they plug into the dual-molex adapter that in turn plugs into the video card. I’ve played games for several hours at a time and haven’t had any problems.
Also look to be sure that you have the necessary room for a larger PSU. I wasn’t expecting it but the unit I bought was a good inch deeper than the original and made for a tight fit.
Real cheap PSU’s start around $15 dollars but you might be able to find a good enough one for a basic system at $20. Most people recommend though that you look for PSU’s beginning at the $40 price range.
This is my first time buying a video card so if I messed something up or missed anything important, let me know!
Configuring the BIOS, Linux and a good budget video card are in Upgrading Your Video Card Part 2.