5th in our series, we’ll look at the Video / Graphic system.
The objective of the “About The Computer” series to provide a simplistic layman-style explanation on the various computer components that makes up a computer – whether it is a Desktop unit or Laptop / Notebook unit.
With the understanding of the components, readers will have better knowledge as to what should they pay attention when it comes to buying a computer.
What Is The Video / Graphic System?
Some call it Graphic Card, some call it Display, some call it Video Card – whatever it is, it points to the same thing – that device that channels processes graphical data and channels it to your monitor.
If you look at my reviews, you’ll see that I call them GRAPHIC CARDS and run gaming benchmarks to show the processing capability of it. Those are swappable cards, meaning you can upgrade them as long as your system supports it.
Being able to output graphics doesn’t mean it uses a card as well, modern day motherboards come with onboard graphic system. Take for example the Asus M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3, it comes with an onboard graphic system so it’s ready to go even without having to install a graphic card.
There is a catch however, these onboard graphic system are sufficient for everything but gaming, which often it performs at practically crawling state despite having lowered the graphic details, here’s one for example.
How Does It Work?
A graphic card is a component on your computer that feeds data to your monitor. For example, you’re reading this website now. The computer and the operating system, along with whatever else in there, passes the information to the graphic system and it passes the content to be displayed on the monitor. So every thing you see on screen, every moment whether there’s movement or not, are constant streams of data passed to the monitor.
The above is what we tech guys often look at, looks really scientific right? Relax, there’s no need to know every bit of it. 🙂
ATI / nVidia / Others
At the time of this article, 2 major players in the graphic system market are ATI (under AMD) and nVidia. These giants have been fighting each other for ages, and at the time of this article, graphic cards based on ATI’s Radeon graphic engine holds the ground for being value-for-money.
What you need to understand is that ATI and nVidia are NOT the people who are selling the cards, they’re the people being the GPU (graphic processing unit), which is pretty much like how AMD and Intel are for the CPU.
These GPUs are then assembled on graphic cards by the companies that make them, such as Galaxy, Asus, Gigabyte, Palit, Gainward, Powercolor, XFX, BFG, Leadtek and so on.
What Graphic Card For You?
If you’re not into gaming, just use the onboard graphic system. It’s capable as it is, works fine for movie playback and playing Flash-based games and such. Even simple games work fine, or if you don’t mind gaming at obscenely low resolution and details.
For those who would love to get more out of their games, then getting a graphic card is the way to go. Graphic cards nowadays are PCI-E based, PCI-E is the type of the expansion slot on your motherboard where you install the graphic card on.
So what should you look for?
You should understand is that the GPU is the component that effects your gaming framerates the most. Look at the the image above again, you’ll see that the GPU is GF100, the name is nVidia GeForce GTX 470.
For the budget conscious individual, you start off by setting your budget. From there, refer to price lists of the graphic cards that fall within your budget. After that, do a search over the Internet for reviews of the GPU, just type something like “gtx 470 review” for a general search. If you see any card that fancies your liking, you can try something like “galaxy gtx 470 review”.
On the other hand there are those who have no budget constraints and looking to get satisfaction out of a game, let’s say you’re looking for something that you can play Bioshock 2 at 1680×1050 with 4xAA at a decent framerate. The logical step would be to read reviews on the various GPU available and hopefully, come by a review that uses that particular game for benchmarking……… of course not everyone uses that game for benchmark, so you’ll just have to estimate what’s good to go with the game. A good way is to visit forums, for example lowyat.net (oh hey, goldfries is there too!) and get feedback from users who actually played that game and get to know what graphic card and setting they used.
Remember that not all games are equal. The graphic engine varies, some are more demanding than others. Call of Duty : Modern Warfare 2 is less demanding compared to games like Crysis, Battlefield : Bad Company 2 and Splinter Cell : Conviction.
In fact, some games work better with ATI GPU while others work better with nVidia GPU. I use nVidia GPU as I run folding@home when I’m not gaming. nVidia based graphic cards are known to have much better folding performance compare to their ATI counterparts.
Bits, Bytes, Bandwidth
There’s a whole lot of misinformation going around, saying that 256 bit is always faster than 128 bit. 1GB is always faster than 512 MB. Those are simplified generalizations that have mislead many.
For example, the 7600GT was a 128 bit card works just as fast as my 256 bit 6800 Ultra, and when the 8800GT 1GB was released, it was slower than the 512MB version.
What many do not understand is that those figures were not meant to be taken as a SOLE figure to determine performance.
The BIT is what we call BUS WIDTH. It is one of the factors used to calculate the BANDWIDTH of the graphic system.
The formula is ( BUS WIDTH / 8 ) * MEMORY SPEED * MEMORY TYPE = BANDWIDTH
Let’s refer to the GTX 470’s GPU-Z screen capture again.
(320bit / 8 ) = 40 bytes
Memory speed = 837 Mhz
Memory type is the multiplier. GDDR3 = 2x . GDDR5 = 4x.
Put it all together it looks like 40 * 837 * 4 = 133.9 GB, in the end the GPU is still the deciding factor of performance and those specification (eg memory speed, GDDR type and others) are tied to the GPU type.
I’ve also come by shop keepers who mislead customers by telling them to pay more for a low end card with more graphic memory, claiming it helps in performance. The reality of thing is that low end GPUs (the BRAINS on the graphic card) aren’t powerful enough to utilize those large memory placed on the card. In short, low-end card = memory is not an issue.
On higher end card, the larger memory size is often helpful (just a bit) when used with high resolution like 1680×1050 and above.
If you’re on a really old computer system, like say the older dual cores like Intel Core 2 Duo E4400 or perhaps those AMD Athlon X2 3600+, upgrading to a new generation graphic card may not be a good idea. Refer to my article on bottleneck (old article but still applies today, haven’t the time to go for a V3), it happens when the processor couldn’t keep up with the graphic card. Even the AMD Athlon II X3 425 that I had couldn’t keep up with the GTX 470 until I overclocked it.
Another factor to consider is the power supply, you may refer to my Power Supply Wattage Recommendation based on Graphic Card as a guide. Your power supply must be able to handle the power consumption of the entire system, including the graphic card.
If there’s insufficient power, the system just wouldn’t power up. In some cases, the system manages to power up but faces shutdown when the card starts to push beyond the limit of the power supply. In worse case scenarios, a severely stressed power supply could end up breaking down and may bring down other precious component of your system along as well.
Concluding the Article
Buying a graphic card isn’t as difficult as it is. Just do a little research based on your budget, your intended games and your intended gaming resolution and you’ll figure it out easily.
Keep in mind that the price of graphic card varies, normally overclocked version, those with custom coolers and those with game bundles will cost more. For me, I’ll just to buy the cheapest available. 🙂 All brands come with at least 1 year warranty anyway.