123. The Under-rated Video Card
By Andrew D. Wright
Why is this laptop so cheap? my friend asked. The ad listed a fair-sized
hard drive, powerful processor, and lots of memory. They don't say
anything about the video card, I told him. It's probably crap. The
manufacturer was taking advantage of the fact that most people know jack
about video cards to cut the cost of the laptop.
Of all the components in a modern home computer, the video card has had
the most spectacular evolution, developing into a mini-computer of its
own. A modern video card can out-perform the computer's main processor for
some types of math and the better ones have memory that's faster than the
A video card handles all the mathematical heavy lifting presenting a
picture to you on a monitor. Your video card and monitor should be able to
handle a refresh rate of 85 - 100 Hz. With a high refresh rate, you'll
have less eye strain looking at the monitor.
In Windows you can set the monitor refresh rate by going to the Control
Panel then Display then Advanced. Click the Monitor tab and there will be
a drop-down box with the different available refresh rates. If you have a
really old monitor and your screen turns to gibberish when you try a new
refresh rate just wait fifteen seconds without pressing any keys or mouse
buttons and it will snap back.
If you use your computer for playing video files or gaming, a good video
card is essential. Newer video card processors have a lot of
image-correction power for automatically fixing up lower-quality video
playback in real time.
Better video cards have their own dedicated memory, rather than sharing
the slower computer main memory. The speed of the video card memory will
have a very big effect on the video card's performance.
You'll see the memory with labels like DDR2, DDR3, and GDDR4. In general
the bigger number means faster memory so GDDR4 memory is faster than DDR3
which is faster than DDR2. Faster is better: a video card with an older
video processor and 256 MB of GDDR4 video card memory can out-perform a
video card with a faster better video processor and 512 MB of DDR3 memory.
For regular home computers there are two main kinds of video card. If the
computer was put together before mid-2006, it probably has an AGP video
card slot. If it is more recent than that, it should have a PCI Express
video card slot. PCI Express video cards are faster than AGP video cards.
The two types of card are not compatible.
Users with the older AGP video card slot can still upgrade their video
cards but should be careful not to spend too much money on a new AGP video
card, since it won't be usable in any newer computer.
Some computer makers use video cards built-in to the motherboard as a
cost-cutting measure. It is usually possible with these types of computer
to disable the motherboard video card and install a better regular video
card. Check your computer documentation for more info.
For gamers the ticket is to find the right combination of features at the
right price. Both main video processor makers NVidia and AMD-ATI sell
their latest chips and reference circuit board designs to lower budget
manufacturers, who then modify those designs to make their own versions of
the video cards.
It is worth shopping around for the best deals, but in general a pretty
good video card can be bought in the $200 - $400 price range.
Using the latest video card drivers will also help increase performance.
The drivers on the CD that came with the video card will be several months
old so it is best to get the latest drivers from the video card maker's
website. These are regularly updated.
AMD-ATI website: http://ati.amd.com/
NVidia website: http://www.nvidia.com/
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Originally published 11 January 2008