- 2D or 3D: that is the question
- PCIe or AGP
- Graphics card models
- ATI cards
- ATI variations
- Nvidia cards
- Nvidia variations
- What the specs mean
- Other features
- Other components
- Power usage
- Integrated graphics
A vital component of any PC, the graphics card is a key performance component, especially in respect to 3D games. Put simply, it is an expansion card in your PC that processes image data and outputs it to your monitor.
Graphics cards act as processing powerhouses, offloading from your CPU much of the hard work of calculating how scenes look, particularly in 3D graphics. Taking a 3D scene and rendering it to the screen takes an incredible amount of processing power. So much processing power, in fact, that the fastest graphics processors often have more transistors than mainstream CPUs, require fans to cool them and need direct links to power supplies.
A graphics card has multiple components: a graphics processor, or GPU; memory for graphics operations; a RAMDAC (more on RAMDAC later) for display output, and potentially other ancillary components to TV output and capture, SLI and the like.
2D or 3D: that is the question
A graphics card should be purchased in accordance with your needs. The simple rule is that all currently available graphics cards are up to snuff for 2D operations. If 2D is as far as you want to go, then you should look for a low-cost solution, perhaps even go for integrated graphics.
It's 3D graphics performance that really separates the wheat from the chaff. The performance of the graphics card will directly influence both the frame rate and image quality of 3D programs and games. There are huge differences between the low and high-end cards in this respect.