I used to associate video cards with gaming, thinking that if gaming wasn’t your thing then there wasn’t any point in investing in a separate graphics card (the terms video card and graphics card are interchangeable.) To the contrary, I’ve come to see the video card, or at least the graphics processor found thereon, to be one of the lynch pins of a good computer.
The core component of a video card is the GPU (graphics processor unit); a dedicated processor that only deals with video, but does it extremely well. Without exception, everything you see on your computer screen passes though a GPU; a personal computer wouldn’t function without one. However, having a GPU doesn’t necessarily mean you have a video card, in fact you probably don’t!
A hefty majority of computers today don’t contain a dedicated graphics card, but instead use integrated graphics, which means that the graphics processor is built into the motherboard. Manufacturers do this because it’s cheaper and more convenient, both for you and them, but that doesn’t make it the best choice for a fast PC. GPUs, like CPUs, require memory to use as a workspace. Integrated graphics processors “borrow” your system memory, hogging RAM that could be used to run your programs.
This is where a dedicated video card comes in handy. A dedicated card features not only a GPU, usually higher-end than the one you’ve got on your motherboard, but also incorporates it’s own memory—freeing your system memory for other jobs! So, in effect, upgrading your PC with a separate video card is like adding more RAM to your system in addition to boosting its video power.
Graphics card improvements don’t have to be expensive, with viable upgrades beginning at only $20.00, and they can serve a variety of needs. Here’s a quick list to help you decide what to look for in a video card upgrade:
Make it faster: If you don’t currently have a video card and you’d like to install one for the speed boost to your system, pick a card between $20 and $40. Any choice will likely be an improvement over the integrated video unless your computer has an unusually powerful GPU built-in (which means it was probably expensive.)
Use two monitors: Virtually any video card can support two monitors; just make sure the ports on the card match up to the ports on your display. If your two monitors both have VGA and DVI ports, buy a card that has VGA and DVI. If you’ve got two VGA monitors then get a card with VGA and DVI along with a DVI to VGA adapter. (Did you follow that? I’ll be sure to get a post about video connectors up soon!)
Display to your TV: To display your computer on your TV you’ll need a video card with a TV compatible port. For modern TVs you’ll need an HDMI output, older TV’s will need an analogue connection which means S-Video. Check the back of your TV to see what you’ve got and grab a video card to match.
High Definition: If you’re looking to improve the quality of your video you’ll want to focus on resolution, higher resolutions generally mean sharper video. You’ll also want to use a digital video signal, which means HDMI, DVI, or the up-and-coming Display Port. Using VGA or S-Video outputs puts the video through a conversion process that will reduce video quality.
Gaming: Gaming is where the more expensive video cards come in to play. Gaming cards typically have 1GB of RAM or more and cost anywhere from $70-$80 to several hundred dollars. Beefy video cards are a must for fast paced games and will drastically improve performance over integrated components.
Modern video cards are installed into a PCI-Express x16 port found right on the motherboard. The only real trick here is making sure you have the port (nearly all computers do) and that the port is empty (they nearly all are). Installation is as easy as popping the card into the slot and running the software that will come with it.