Introduction

Figuring out what sort of computer hardware to get for your next upgrade can be a tricky task, and if you are looking to get something for someone else it can be even more difficult. Some components have universal application, in that no matter what you will do with the computer they can improve performance. For most components, however, individual usage patterns will dictate how much benefit you will get from an upgrade. Processors, displays, and memory typically fall into the "universal upgrade" category; meanwhile hard drives, graphics cards, power supplies, cases, and other accessories may or may not help performance.

Today we will be taking a look at graphics card upgrades, so before we even get to the recommendations the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether or not you really need a faster graphics card. There are basically three areas that can benefit from having a better graphics card, with the fourth on the way in the near future. Starting with the future, you have Windows Vista, which will require a DirectX 9 capable graphics card at minimum in order to enable the Aero Glass user interface. Vista is scheduled to launch in the very near future, and we will take a closer look at the performance requirements in a separate article. Of the other three areas, one that we won't pay attention to here is the use of graphics cards for professional applications, simply because that is beyond the scope of this article. The remaining two areas of potential interest are video decoding/acceleration and computer gaming.

Video decoding support involves several things. First, you have performance oriented improvements - can the GPU reduce the CPU load during video playback? Second, you have the quality aspects - does the GPU make the resulting video output look better? Finally, video aficionados will definitely want to worry about HDCP support, not just for their graphics card but also for their display. We recently took a look at several of these areas in our HDCP Roundup and the HDCP H.264 decoding articles, while in the past we have looked at quality comparisons between NVIDIA's PureVideo and ATI's AVIVO. We will be taking a closer look at comparing the quality and performance of HDCP enabled graphics cards again in the near future, but for now we refer interested readers to the referenced articles.

We do need to insert one word of caution for people considering any new graphics card with the intention of using it for viewing HDCP content. If you have a display that requires a dual-link DVI connection, you're going to run into some problems. Basically, HDCP was architected to only support single-link connections, so you are going to be limited to viewing content at a maximum resolution of 1920x1080. What's worse is that as we understand it, HDCP is not supported over a dual-link connection at all, so if you have something like a 30" LCD and you want to view HDCP content, you will need to use a single-link cable. Welcome to the bleeding edge....

That leaves the final category and the one that the majority of people are most interested in: gaming performance. That is not to say that everyone worries about gaming performance, but rather that anyone who is seriously looking at a faster graphics card is likely to be doing so more for gaming than for anything else. If you don't play games, there is a very good chance that you don't need to worry about getting a faster graphics chip into your computer right now. End of story. Windows Vista and video decoding support might make a few more people look at graphics card upgrades, but for this Holiday Shopping Guide we will focus primarily on gaming performance.

As with our recent Holiday CPU Guide, we have quite a few price segments to cover, ranging from Ultra Budget GPUs through Extreme Performance GPUs. We also have to worry about multiple GPU combinations courtesy of CrossFire and SLI. With numerous overlapping products from both ATI and NVIDIA, it is important to remember that we will be classifying products based off of price rather than on performance, so in some cases we will have less expensive graphics cards that can outperform more expensive models. Finally, let's not forget that there are still a few AGP users hanging around, so we will mention those products were appropriate.

Integrated Graphics Solutions
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    Has been for about a year now, but a lot of people keep dragging their feet. The fastest AGP systems are still able to run most games okay, but if you really want high-end graphics performance you are going to have to upgrade to PCI-E. Reply
  • pottervillian - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    Merry Christmas, and thanks for a great guide! Reply
  • aakoch - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    I've never tried to run two/dual monitors. I have an old CRT (VGA) and a new LCD (DVI). Can any card with both slots run 2 monitors? Or only specific ones? Reply
  • Chapbass - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    I cant think of any gfx card that has dual outputs that CANT support dual monitors...so im gonna go with all of them can. definitely all the ones listed in this article (meaning everything that is current or close to current tech.) in fact, im doing dual monitors on my 6600gt (soon to be 8800gts!) right now : ). Reply
  • kleinwl - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    One point to add, would be PCI video cards. Since there are a number of Dell machines that have shipped without AGP/PCIE slots, it would be nice to know what PCI card you would recommend as bang for the buck. Right now I'm using Radeon 9250s... but I don't know if that is the best option. Yes, it's slow... but it's still cheaper than canning the entire system for people that want something just a little faster. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    The fastest currently available PCI video card is going to be a Radeon X1300 I think, going for around $110 (and I see at least one that has a $20 mail-in rebate). That isn't a very fast graphics card to begin with, and I would expect the PCI interface to further bottleneck the card, but I'm not sure there's anything better if you're stuck looking for PCI parts.

    I'm just looking around on Newegg, so perhaps there's something better elsewhere (I seem to recall seeing GeForce 6600 cards on PCI at one point, which might be slightly faster in some cases), but if you need more performance from your graphics subsystem you really will need to look at upgrading to a new motherboard/computer that supports something other than PCI graphics.
    Reply
  • mgambrell - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    Geforce 8800 may be fast, but it can't run directx10.
    http://forums.nvidia.com/index.php?showtopic=22248">http://forums.nvidia.com/index.php?showtopic=22248
    Witness the driver debacle. Just beware.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    Given that DirectX 10 is not actually available -- no games support it, Windows Vista hasn't shipped, and even after Windows Vista becomes available it will probably be a couple months at least before you get DirectX 10 enabled games (i.e. games that actually add new DirectX 10 features). NVIDIA says it best:

    quote:

    Please keep in mind that Windows Vista will not be available to end-users until the end of January. We'd like to assure you that Vista drivers for the GeForce 8800 will be available to download when Vista ships to end users at the end of January.


    The inability to run beta/nearly finished Windows Vista with all of the features enabled on brand new hardware isn't something that I consider a major problem. The nature of beta/release candidate software is that there are still many known problems. For all we know, DirectX 10 performance on the G80 chips is going to be terrible... or it might be the greatest thing since sliced bread. The only way we will find out for sure is when Windows Vista is finally released and we actually get games that use DirectX 10's new capabilities.
    Reply
  • Jodiuh - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    You guys list an EVGA 768-P2-N831-AR, but the one I got from Fry's electronics differs at the end w/ EVGA 768-P2-N831-FR. Does the FR=Retail, AR=Online? Or would AR be the newer "fixed transistor" SKU?

    Thanks for the guide!!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    Honestly, I have no idea. EVGA (and many GPU manufacturers) tend to have so many different SKUs available with only negligible differences between them. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the models has a slight tweak to the transistors, but as for which one is "newer/better" I don't know. You could always email EVGA and ask. Reply

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