Although this guide is mainly based on video cards, it was impossible not to cover a bit of the other topics associated with upgrading a video card.
Nvidia GeForce and ATi Radeon Buyers Guide
What do you need a graphics card for? Word processing, internet browsing, gaming?
Many computers have built in (integrated) video cards. This means that when you plug your monitor into the VGA (video graphics array) slot, you're plugging it directly onto a port that is part of the motherboard. This slot is good enough to take you down the internet highway and view sites, such as eBay. Or to do some work on excel, word, or maybe just for sending emails. These are very simple tasks for a graphics "card".
What if you hunger to play the latest games on your PC? Well odds are, your onboard video wont do the job. This is most likely what brought you here.
You've heard that you need a video card and you probably looked through the thousands of eBay listings offering you one, but what does everything mean? If anything, you're probably more confused now than when you started looking into buying a video card.
There are 2 main manufacturers you want to look for when buying a video card, ATi and Nvidia.
Think of a video card sort of like a computer, it has its own processor and memory. The more memory and faster processor, the better. ATi and Nvidia both manufacture processors for their own line of video cards, sometimes called GPUs (graphics processing units).
They license their technology to third party manufacturers. Most likely, you won't buy a video card directly from Nvidia or ATi. You'll probably purchase one from Sapphire, Asus, BFG and many more.
When you're just beginning to learn about video cards, the specifications manufacturers list on their box could be confusing and frustrating.
First, lets discuss interface type. There are 2 main choices, AGP(accelerated graphics port), and PCI Express(PCIe). This is the slot that is in your computer where you will install the video card. Modern PCs will most likely have a PCIe slot, while some "older" PCs will have an AGP slot.
AGP video cards will have something of this sort printed on the box: AGP 2X, 4X, or 8X. This is simply stating which speed the card can run at on certain AGP slots on the motherboard.
2X = 533MBps(megabytes per second)
4X = 1.07GBps(gigabytes per second)
8X = 2.1GBps(gigabytes per second)
For 8X, you should do some research on your motherboard to see if it can run 8X cards. Buying an 8X card and using it on a motherboard that can only go up to 4X doesn't mean that it won't work, it'll just be limited to 4X and not run at 8X.
PCIe slots have become the standard on modern PCs. Although a lot of AGP cards and AGP motherboards are still around, PCIe will work a lot faster than AGP and is currently top seller in the market.
There are far less PCI (not PCIe) video cards around than AGP or PCIe. These cards are best for older systems without an AGP or PCIe slot. They are very limited in terms of performance and are not very good for gaming, especially not for todays demanding games.
Now, memory. Todays games are very demanding, the more memory your video card has, the better. The card can "process graphics" better with higher amounts of memory. You should really look into getting a card with no less than 256MB of memory if you want to play todays games. You should get a card with GDDR3 memory since this is the type of memory on todays high end cards.
Memory clock speed: A faster memory clock speed, preferably above the 900MHz mark, will handle this better than a slower memory clock speed.
Theres also core clock speed to consider, this deals with the processor speeds of the card. 350MHz or higher should suffice with newer games, as a minimum.
Now, pixel pipelines. A simple definition would be that it is a part of the video card that transfers pixel information. The more pixel pipelines, the faster the card can process pixels. Current top-end video cards offer 16 and 24 pixel pipelines, such as the Radeon X1900 XTX (16 pipelines) and the Geforce 7900 GTX (24 pipelines).
Current video cards and their number of pipelines:
ATI 9700/pro=8 pipelines
ATI 9800/pro=8 pipelines
ATI x800pro=12 pipelines
ATI x800XL=16 pipelines
ATI x800XT PE=16 pipelines
ATI x850pro=12 pipelines
ATI x850XT=16 pipelines
ATI x850XT PE=16 pipelines
Nvidia 6200=4 pipelines
Nvidia 6600LE=4 pipelines
Nvidia 6600/6600GT=8 pipelines
Nvidia 6800LE/XT=8 pipelines
Nvidia 6800("6800NU")=12 pipelines
Nvidia 6800GT=16 pipelines
Nvidia 6800GS=12 pipelines
Nvidia 6800Ultra=16 pipelines
Nvidia 7800GT=20 pipelines
Nvidia 7800GTX=24 pipelines
Nvidia 7900GT=24 pipelines
Nvidia 7900GTX=24 pipelines
Newer cards might have dual DVI ports for monitors that support DVI. Make sure you check to see that you have both VGA (regular 15pin) and DVI connections to match your card. Although most cards come with adapters, if not they are easily found.
What DirectX Does:
Simply put, DirectX is a Windows technology that enables higher performance in graphics and sound when you're playing games or watching video on your PC (Source: Microsoft). The latest cards are designed to take advantage of the latest version of DirectX. While older cards are designed to support older versions of DirectX. Older cards can still be used with newer versions of DirectX, but they just won't be able to take advantage of all the new features.
Cards also offer other input, such as S-Video for hooking up your video card directly to a device with S-Video, such as a TV.
Video In Video Out (VIVO), enables video cards to have bidirectional (input and output) video transfer through one connector, by using a specialised splitter cable.VIVO is featured on some video cards, such as the Nvidia GeForce range and the ATi Radeon series. It can receive input from RCA or S-Video sources. However, at this time, S-Video is more widely used for VIVO by both Nvidia and ATi. Some VIVO cables also support the output of component luminance, and 2x chrominance, enabling HDTV support. However as this connection is not digital it does not support HDCP which would be required for official HDTV support as set out by the EICTA (European Information, Communications and Consumer Electronics Technology Industry Associations). -Source: Wikipedia
If your main interest is video capture, you might be interested in models such as the ATi Radeon All-In-Wonder series. For example, an ATi Radeon X800XL All-in-Wonder has all the features of the X800XL, with bonus features for video capturing.
Nvidia's main model is the GeForce, while ATi's is the Radeon. Up until recently, ATi was offering more "Bang for the Buck". Now, Nvidia has introduced new cards for a competing price, it seems Nvidia might have a slight advantage, but don't count ATi out, these two companies go back and forth when it comes to who has the best card for the best value.
There are plenty of old GeForce and Radeon cards around. If you just want something basic, you can easily find either of these models for under $80 (on eBay, big retailers still over-charge for the name).
Important Update: Most present day video cards require additional voltage from your power supply (PSU) to function. A 350W PCIe compatible power supply is generally the minimum, considering you have other standard components also using the power from the PSU (hard drive, CD-ROM). You will have to connect the 4 pin molex connector (for AGP cards) or the 6 pin PCIe connector (for PCI Express cards) from the power supply unit directly to the video card.
Some cards require a minumum of 400 - 450W just to power them (with a standard setup), while configurations of 2 cards or more (SLI and Crossfire) require even extra wattage.
If you are looking to upgrade your power supply unit for your video card, consider purchasing one with connections for SATA (serial ATA), a 20-24 pin motherboard connector (older power supplies usually have a 20 pin connector, but motherboards of present usually require a 24-pin connector), and a PCIe 6-pin connector. Although there are adapters for each feature mentioned, purchasing PSU's with these extras will save you more time, money, and possibly frustration.
UPDATE 06/02/2006 - Hardware T&L
Transform and Lighting is a term used in computer graphics, generally used in the context of hardware acceleration (Hardware T&L). Transform refers to the task of converting spatial coordinates, which in this case involves moving 3D objects in a virtual world and converting the coordinates to a 2D view. Lighting refers to the task of taking light objects in a virtual scene and calculating the resulting colour of surrounding objects as the light falls upon them.
In Modern 3D games with complex and detailed lighting effects, the high number of points to be transformed and lit is a computationally intense process, which is why 3D graphics cards offer acceleration.
Here is a list of cards that support T&L:
Radeon - SDR, DDR, LE, 7200, 7500, 8500, 8800, 9000, 9200, 9500, 9600, 9700, 9800, X series and up
Nvidia - Geforce SDR/DDR, Geforce2, Geforce3, Geforce4, Geforce FX series and up
The following popular cards DO NOT support T&L:
ATi - Rage, Fury, Radeon VE, 7000
Nvidia - Riva, TNT, TNT2
If there are discrepancies in the lists above, please email me so I could update it, thank you.
UPDATE: 06/12/2006 - MEMORY (for gaming)
Chances are, that if you're looking to buy a video card, you like to play games on your PC (no, I'm not psychic, I just took a wild guess). Am I right, or am I right? Now, I understand that the more different sections I add, the more it seems you have to spend. Upgrading your memory is totally optional as is everything else, but it does make a BIG difference while gaming. 512MB will do just fine for word processing and internet browsing, but when it comes to games of current, it's usually the required MINIMUM. Usually the company who made the game will recommend what they believe will do fine. For example, I play BF2 (Battlefield 2), the minimum memory requirements to play is 512MB, but on the box of the game itself it recommends 1GB (double of 512MB, which is actually 1024MB but commonly stated as 1GB). Okay, stay with me here... So I had 1GB installed in my system which was fine, but when a game loaded up, for the first few seconds (actually a bit longer), my system seemed to be 'laggy', it stuttered, but it would finally catch up and then playing was smooth after that, until I had to load into another game. Well I took the risk of spending more money and upgrading to 2GB of memory, which I do not regret. Not only does my system not stutter in the beginning of a game anymore, but it loads much quicker than before and I tend to be one of, if not, the first one into a multiplayer game online, where I very much enjoy being able to set up to 'kill' other players while they wait to load. So I would definitely have to recommend 2GB if you can afford it, 1GB will do just fine though. Here's a great guide for learning a little about PC memory:
Back to the video card:
Recommendation for Budget Buyers:
ATi Card Prices have dropped(08/09/2006)
Higher end cards such as the X850XT PE which outperforms the X800XL is under $200. Awesome Deal.
For ATi, I recommend ATi's Radeon X800XL (or higher). A card that can handle all of today's games (as of 05/04/2006), with most features from ATi's high end cards, 16 pixel pipelines (ATi's current retail maximum), 400MHz core clock speed, 980MHz memory clock speed, available in AGP and PCIe format, with no need for additional power from your PSU (for PCIe version, AGP might need to be connected) for a very affordable price here on eBay.
Currently a good price for an X800XL (as of 06/13/2006) is anywhere from $85 - $115 on eBay for the PCIe version, anywhere from $100 - $135 for the AGP version, anything less would be great.
For Nvidia, I recommend Nvidia's Geforce 6800GT, a card with 350MHz core clock speed, and 1000MHz memory clock speed. Both the AGP and PCIe versions of this card require for you to plug them directly with your power supply unit.
Currently a good price for a Geforce 6800GT is $100 - $150 (as of 06/13/2006) on eBay for the PCIe version of this card. Look to pay anywhere from $150 - $200 for the AGP version.
Type this into your eBay search for a good number of choices: Radeon x8* or Nvidia 6800*
Why are PCIe based cards cheaper than the "older technology" based AGP cards, you ask?
PCIe is the choice for manufacturers and the proof is in the market. While PCIe and AGP cards offer very little difference in performance, PCIe has more future potential and for manufacturers, sticking with AGP and making it for those who can't upgrade to PCIe comes at a cost. The cost is then passed on to the customer (and most likely exaggerated a bit for profit).
Here is what Nvidia has to say about PCIe:
"NVIDIA is continually working with partners to develop technologies and products that enrich your computing experience, and PCI Express is a prime example. PCI Express is a brand new high-performance technology for PCs. By working hand-in-hand with Intel in the development of this revolutionary bus architecture, NVIDIA provides cutting-edge tools that enhance your experience and prepare you for the future of computing.
With a scalable bandwidth that far exceeds that of AGP 8X and PCI buses, NVIDIA's PCI Express solutions deliver a new level of computer performance. NVIDIA's desktop, mobile, and professional PCI Express solutions deliver faster graphics and system performance for every type of computer user."
For the High Rollers and Big Ballers:
(08/09/2006) AGP USERS LISTEN UP: 7900GT is available for AGP, it is called the Gainward BLISS 7800 GS+ Silent 512MB GDDR3! Available only in Europe for about $442 USD This card has a 7900GT GPU and runs 24 pixel pipelines.
Nvidia's latest HOT retail monstrocity is the Geforce 7950GX2 (as of 08/09/2006)! With a core clock of 500MHz and memory rate of 1200MHz (1GB GDDR3) and 24 pixel pipelines, this card is awesome! There are toned down versions of this card, like the 7900GTX/GT, which is also awesome! Of course, the GX2/GTX versions are the cards that will need the deed to your house, starting at around $450 - $600 (for the GTX/GX2 versions). The GT sells for around $300, but it's nothing to worry about if you're a baller!
ATi offers the ASTONISHING Radeon X1900XTX (as of 06/13/2006)! With speeds that directly compete with Nvidia's pride, the X1900XTX has a core clock of 650MHz and memory clocking in at 1550MHz (512MB GDDR3) with 16 pixel pipelines! This will also empty your account (pocket change for a hustla like you), available for $500+. This card also has a little brother (X1900) who only asks for the allowance of $300 per purchase.
Both companies offer the world when it comes to gaming, they are both top notch!
Remember to always look at the specs and try to purchase a card that meets ALL the specifications I listed. Otherwise you might have to update your video card again sooner than you'd like. If the item listing does not include the specifications of the card, it's best to send a message to the seller and ask.
DeLL PC Owners:
Since I get many questions with people who own Dell PC's, usually newer Dells have a power supply of 305 watts. Which is barely enough to count on, but be ready to replace the power supply, just incase.
Many folks seem to own a Dell Dimension 4600. If you do, your computer consists of an AGP slot (just answering this repeated question ahead of time). For other models, please contact Dell or view their website for specs.
Some Dell PC's restrict you to using a certain type of PSU. If you own a Dell, look in the back of the computer case to where you plug in the power cord. There might just be an opening on the case to where you plug in the cord. If you're going to replace the PSU, make sure the connection is in the same location as the Dell PSU. Otherwise you have 2 options, to pull your hair off in frustration, or take out a saw and really "customize" your PC!
I hope this update has helped you learn the basics of video cards and aided you in choosing which card is best for you. I hope to see more of you out in the PC gaming world.
Feel free to contact me with info I might have missed (to update article)or for further questions.
08/09/2006- Although I have taken time on covering much about cards, some people still find this guide not useful. If I fail to cover a topic, please ask. I will reply, unless I reach my maximum number of messages for the day (ebay's fault), in which I will reply the next day. If I state incorrect info, please correct me. I am always wanting to learn. I dont do this for anything more than knowing I helped someone. I have been at the point where I bought the wrong part because it was incompatible or not what I needed. I want to help people avoid the frustration that cost me time and money. I have kids too and I enjoy knowing that their dad built them something they will enjoy. I just ask for your simple thanks, just say thanks and I wont have to TRACK YOU DOWN, KICK YOUR DOOR IN AND PIN YOU DOWN UNTIL YOU SAY IT! Just kidding!