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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  • spidey81 - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    I was reading this article hoping to find a decent low priced card and when I saw the ultra budget section I thought I had found just that. But when I went to check the prices and specs of the cards listed the recommended 7300GT part was listed at several sites as only having a 64 bit memory interface instead of the listed 128 bit. The part number they posted was EVGA 256-P2-N443-LX. I didn't even find this product on the EVGA website. If someone knows the the deal is with this or even where to find one I'd appreciate it as a 128 bit intereface card versus 64 bit is a major performance booster especially in the price range I'm looking at. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    I have modified this text slightly now. The cheapest EVGA 7300 GT is available for $75 at Newegg, but you're right that it is only a 64-bit memory interface. For about $10 more, I would recommend a Biostar 7300 GT instead, which comes with slightly higher clock speeds and a 128 bit interface. (It's also available at Newegg.) Reply
  • semo - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    quote:

    ...and a power supply capable of delivering 1.21 Gigawatts of power, by all means go nuts.

    page 7
    is that a joke i'm not getting or should it say 1.21 kilowatts. if it is the later then why so much power? i would think a quality psu delivering 850 - 1000 watts should be fine. and where does the 1.21 figure come from? adding the maximum tdp values of all the components.

    does anyone know when will we be getting low to mid end dx10 cards or when will gdx10 exclusive games start to come out that do not work on anything less than dx10
    Reply
  • Chapbass - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    ROFL you just made my day man. go watch the movie Back to the Future with michael j. fox from the mid 80's...1985 i think. the "doc" in that movie makes a comment (actually he screams it) saying that you need 1.21 gigawatts in order to provide enough power for his time machine to work.


    a complete joke, hes saying that you need a ginormous (aka. big, high wattage) PSU in order to run some of these guys. yeah, 800 would be PLENTY imo.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    Cue Hewey Lewis and the News! "Gotta get back in time....." :D

    Glad some people got the reference.
    Reply
  • bilbo3660 - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    The reality is you can run quad-core, three 8800GTX, water-cooling and overclock this monster on the Corsair 620W just fine. Review was done at the Inquirer. http://www.theinquirer.net/default.aspx?article=36...">http://www.theinquirer.net/default.aspx?article=36... Reply
  • LoneWolf15 - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    It looks like the new 256MB Radeon X1950XT is a heck of a buy for anyone running a 20" display or less at least.

    This guide is much appreciated. I especially think your note on older high-end graphics cards is a good one, though I might place even more emphasis on it so that some people could make a good choice to buy used rather than new (especially AGP folks, many of whom will be best served by a top-end used card like the 6800Ultra or X850XT).

    Reply
  • RamarC - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    No mention of the 7900GS at all??? And the 7900GT AGP was a ghost even when it first released, so why would you even mention it and then keep mum about the 7800GS AGP which is still easy to find? Reply
  • VooDooAddict - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    Agreed ... (For those who want to stick with NVIDIA) 7900GS is a great price/performance point.

    It's afordable and offers great performance on the 19" and 20" wide displays that are so popular right now.

    I don't see any reason for someone to buy a 7900GT over a 7900GS right now they fall into the same perforamnce bracket. For people upgrading ... there are still quite a few people out there with SLI boards too. And while yes it's better to just get a more powerful single card. Many people can only afford XX right now. The ability to upgrade by adding a second card later adds some precieved value to people.


    I do have to say, Good timing on your article. It's a confusing time for GPU upgrades. With the 8800s out the picture isn't as clear for people.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 13, 2006 - link

    I thought I had mentioned those cards, but you're right: I didn't. I have now added text to page 5 covering the higher-end AGP offerings in more detail. Reply

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