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When it comes to upgrading your computer, there are few investments you can make that are better than a dedicated graphics card Can Shared Graphics Finally Compete with a Dedicated Graphics Card? Can Shared Graphics Finally Compete with a Dedicated Graphics Card? There are two kinds of graphics cards for PCs: dedicated and shared. Read More  — especially when you’re playing games or editing video. Realistic 3D graphics and advanced video renderings aren’t cheap.

But buying a new graphics card isn’t a straightforward process. If you know these five things before you pick one out, though, you’ll know everything you need for making a good decision.

1. Performance Is Expensive

This is the hard truth about graphics cards: if you want top performance, you’ll have to pay top dollar. And the highest-performing cards are very expensive. You can easily pay up to $600, $800, or even $1,000 to get a world-class graphics setup.

Of course, you don’t need to pay this much for great performance because there’s something called diminishing returns. At some point, you end up getting less value for each additional dollar you spend.

geforce-titan

When do diminishing returns start? Some people say it starts around $500. If you spend more than that, the improved features aren’t much better and are only worth getting if you want to play games on extremely high resolutions or with a large multi-monitor setup Two Monitors for an Extended Desktop: 3 Things You Should Check First Two Monitors for an Extended Desktop: 3 Things You Should Check First You'd think that all you'd have to do is plug any video display into the computer port on your laptop or PC. Well, it's a little more complicated than that. Read More .

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For the most part, mid-range offerings — meaning graphics cards in the $200 range — are more than enough for the average consumer.

2. Decide Your Needs Before Shopping

Once you start shopping for a graphics card, it can be easy to get caught up in model numbers, proprietary technologies, processor cores, and the huge number of different statistics that come with each graphics card.

In the grand scheme, these things actually aren’t all that useful to know about for the vast majority of people. What does matter is deciding what exactly you want to do, and then figuring out which specs will help you do it.

civ-beyond-earth-requirements

For example, do you want to be able to play Fallout 4 on PC? Or are you hoping to spend a lot of time with Civilization: Beyond Earth? Look at the graphics requirements of the games that you think you’ll be playing and see what they require. Use that as a baseline.

Think about how much money you want to spend, too. You’ll probably have to adjust your initial budget once or twice while shopping, but it’s a good idea to start with a price in mind.

video-card-benchmarks

Once you have an idea of what you’re going to need and how much you want to spend, check www.videocardbenchmark.com to see how different cards compare at a given price point. Also look at Tom’s Hardware’s gaming benchmarks to see how specific cards perform on the games that you want to play.

3. RAM Is Top Priority

As I mentioned before, every graphics card has a slew of difficult-to-understand statistics that describe it. However, you can ignore most of them and just focus on a couple.

One of the most important is RAM, which is how much memory your graphics card has to work with. (This is separate from your system RAM, which is used for non-graphics-related gaming operations.) Obviously, the more RAM your card has, the more computations it will be able to make and the better graphics you’ll get.

ddr3-vs-gddr5

Even more important than the amount of RAM, however, is the type of RAM. DDR3 RAM used to be the standard for high-performance graphics cards, but technology has moved beyond that. As of today, the best type of RAM you can go with is GDDR5, like you’ll find on the EVGA GeForce GTX 750Ti and the Sapphire Radeon NITRO R9 380.

In essence, the difference between DDR3 and GDDR5 is memory bandwidth What Is High Bandwith Memory, and Do You Really Need It? What Is High Bandwith Memory, and Do You Really Need It? What is High Bandwidth Memory? What problems will it fix, and do we really need it? Read More  — more information can pass through graphics cards with newer RAM technology.

4. Reference vs. Non-Reference Coolers

If you aren’t a graphics card enthusiast, it’s likely that you’ve never heard of “reference” or “non-reference” coolers. Before we can explain the difference, you need to understand how graphics cards are sold.

Manufacturers, like AMD and Nvidia, make the actual cards and sell them directly to consumers, but they also sell them to other companies who make modifications and sell their own versions of cards. The cards from the manufacturer are called “reference” cards while any modifications make them “non-reference.”

reference-vs-non-reference-coolers

And one aspect that’s frequently modified is the cooling system. Reference cooling systems generally have a single fan offset to one side, which will send hot air out the back of your computer case.

Non-reference cooling systems are more likely to have two fans mounted so that they blow hot air directly away from the graphics card and into the computer case. This means there will be more stress on your computer’s cooling system How Heat Affects Your Computer, And Should You Be Worried? How Heat Affects Your Computer, And Should You Be Worried? From time to time, we all get concerned about our computer's temperature. But should we be worried? Read More to prevent overheating, but non-reference coolers tend to be quieter and more effective.

To choose between the two, you may want to monitor the temperature of your CPU PC Operating Temperatures: How Hot Is Too Hot? PC Operating Temperatures: How Hot Is Too Hot? Excessive heat can affect your computer's performance and your hard drive's lifespan. But how can you tell if it's overheating or just hot? Read More while you’re gaming. If it gets up to 55 degrees Celsius, you’ll want to push hot air out the back of your case, but if you have a solid cooling system in place, going with an aftermarket non-reference cooler will give you a quieter boost to your graphics.

5. Always Check For Compatibility

With any graphics card, there’s always potential for compatibility problems. Common issues include things like the power source (Does it need PCIe inputs? How many amps does it need? How much power does it consume under load?) and the size of the card itself (Will it fit inside your computer case?).

Pro Tip: Your motherboard will need a PCIe 16-slot, and you’ll have to measure the distance from this slot to any components that could interfere with your graphics card. Compare this to the length and width of the card (available online or from the manufacturer) and make sure you have a little extra room all around.

geforce-compatibility

You’ll also need to figure out if the card will need to draw from an external power supply Power Supplies Explained: How To Pick The Perfect PSU For Your Computer Power Supplies Explained: How To Pick The Perfect PSU For Your Computer Most geeks interested in buying new hardware or building a new system think first of the processor, graphics card and perhaps the hard drive. These components have the most impact on performance, so they are... Read More . Some lower-end cards get enough power from the PCI port on your motherboard, but you should plan on hooking up your power supply to the card as well. If it needs more power, your power supply will need to use the proper cables, or you’ll have to find an adapter.

Also, you’ll need to make sure that there’s enough power being put out of the supply to keep everything in your computer up and running.

Never Forget: Do Your Own Research

If you know how you’re going to deal with each of the factors above, you should have no problem finding the right graphics card for your computer. Spend some time on forums reading about the performance of particular cards with your preferred games. Check out benchmarking sites. Decide how much you’re willing to pay.

Once you’ve done that, you should be set!

What factors do you take into account when buying a new graphics card? What other questions do you have about upgrading? Share your thoughts below!

Image Credits:thinking man by Ollyy via Shutterstock

  1. Sorin
    June 5, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Message to writer of the post - You have no idea what are you talking about in some parts. So you are telling that size of vRAM matters ? never , just if you use more then 4 displays with high resolution. per example 1GB of GDDR5 will run much smoother then 3GB of DDR3 video memory.. get your facts straight ! :)

  2. Zhong Jiang
    November 14, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Have you mention about the graphic card naming conventions that would indicate the performance of the card? Such as Radeon R series, Nvidia GTX sereis...etc.

    • Dann Albright
      November 17, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      I thought about including that in the article, but because there are so many third-party cards that incorporate the same technology, and the names aren't always super clear, that it wasn't worth it. But if you're familiar with a specific company's graphics cards, this definitely can be useful information. Thanks for pointing that out!

  3. A41202813GMAIL ..
    November 14, 2015 at 2:13 am

    Whenever Possible, All Cards ( Not Only Graphic Ones ) I Need Should Be:

    A - PciExpress1,

    B - Low Profile,

    C - Have All Sorts Of Bracket Combinations,

    D - Have Drivers For All OSs After W2000.

    ---

    Specifically For Graphic Cards:

    E - At Least, 128MB Memory,

    F - VGA Port Included.

    ---

    XPOCALYPSE FOREVER !

  4. ringhalg
    November 13, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    It's amazing the size of many of the graphics cards, I think they could be made smaller. Why is the PCI-e slot always near the top, just under the processor where it can get in the way of the system RAM and sometimes the hard drives? In some cases, you can't add other expansion cards because either the graphics card physically blocks the expansion slots or adding an expansion card will block airflow to the graphics fan.
    /end rant

    • Dann Albright
      November 17, 2015 at 8:54 pm

      Yeah, that can definitely be a pain. Some of the cards are getting smaller, but with so many companies trying to pack the absolute maximum power into their cards, you're always going to find massive cards. I don't know that there's a great solution for this except for finding a card that fits well in your machine—and if you can't, making some modifications so everything works well.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Steady Kambodji
      November 19, 2015 at 3:22 am

      That's why they release big-ass gaming motherboards for big-ass graphic cards. Easier access to RAM and SATA slots. For middle-end or non-gaming motherboards, you'd be better off using nano form graphic cards (which unfortunately aren't always easy to get) or use middle-end graphic cards which usually have smaller size.

      • Dann Albright
        November 23, 2015 at 1:59 pm

        Yeah, that makes sense. If you're building up a computer for gaming, getting a giant motherboard is definitely the way to go. And if a smaller form-factor card is going to work for you, it seems like a pretty good idea to go with it.

  5. TeeOne
    November 12, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    I bought my current system with a really good graphics card long ago. At some point my system started to blue screen a lot and I figured it was the graphics driver that was doing the damage. After that, I started to look at the HCL (Hardware compatibility list) from Microsoft to verify that they had tested the graphics card, and possibly already had the drivers built in.

    Not sure what the case is with Windows 10. Does anyone have feedback?

    • likefun butnot
      November 13, 2015 at 2:27 am

      @TeeOne,

      nVidia cards are notoriously funky with Windows 10. There was a patch shortly after release to prevent the nVidia provided drive from overwriting the one from Windows Update, but that doesn't sound like your problem at all.

      Bluescreens can come from lots of different components. You can always go look in your Windows Event log to get more information and from there it's probably just a matter of internet searches.

      For the most part, the Microsoft tested and signed drivers will be several revisions behind releases from AMD and nVidia, and for most purposes the certified drivers are probably fine. Graphics hardware can basically be assumed to be compatible at least to the degree that a basic driver won't crash Windows.

      • TeeOne
        November 13, 2015 at 6:12 am

        Thanks for the info. Much appreciated.

      • Dann Albright
        November 17, 2015 at 8:55 pm

        Thanks for chiming in on this one—that's great information!

  6. likefun butnot
    November 12, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    20 years of pulling dead video cards out of desktops tells me that nVidia reference coolers are a thing best avoided, but at the moment, nVidia's hardware doesn't get particularly hot in comparison to AMD's anyway.

    I usually pick my graphics hardware on the basis of getting the quietest cooling system I can within a given range of performance. I'm not going to overclock and I don't care if one card can manage 1.3% better performance than another, but even slight reductions in noise make hardware substantially better for me.

    • Dann Albright
      November 17, 2015 at 8:57 pm

      Yeah, prioritizing your choice based on quiet cooling is definitely a smart idea. With the amount of power packed into today's cards, that's going to be one of the more important factors anyway, unless you're playing the newest games on an absolutely massive monitor.

  7. Victor J. Guedes
    November 12, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    Actually Ram ain't top priority. Not anymore, it is. Nvidia do a lot more with a lot less, for instance, as they use compressing technology. Also, CUDA cores (and their AMD equivalent) are far more important for a better performance, overall. VRAM is something to pay attention to, as well, though, if you want more texture withtout stuttering. But FPS is more about raw GPU capacitty, which is measured in the more trustworthy way, by the amount of cores (since clock might convert very differently to real performance from architecture to achitecture).

    • Dann Albright
      November 17, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      Thanks for the input; that's all really good to know!

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