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123. The Under-rated Video Card

By Andrew D. Wright

Why is this laptop so cheap? my friend asked. The ad listed a fair-sized hard drive, powerful processor, and lots of memory. They don't say anything about the video card, I told him. It's probably crap. The manufacturer was taking advantage of the fact that most people know jack about video cards to cut the cost of the laptop.

Of all the components in a modern home computer, the video card has had the most spectacular evolution, developing into a mini-computer of its own. A modern video card can out-perform the computer's main processor for some types of math and the better ones have memory that's faster than the computer's.

A video card handles all the mathematical heavy lifting presenting a picture to you on a monitor. Your video card and monitor should be able to handle a refresh rate of 85 - 100 Hz. With a high refresh rate, you'll have less eye strain looking at the monitor.

In Windows you can set the monitor refresh rate by going to the Control Panel then Display then Advanced. Click the Monitor tab and there will be a drop-down box with the different available refresh rates. If you have a really old monitor and your screen turns to gibberish when you try a new refresh rate just wait fifteen seconds without pressing any keys or mouse buttons and it will snap back.

If you use your computer for playing video files or gaming, a good video card is essential. Newer video card processors have a lot of image-correction power for automatically fixing up lower-quality video playback in real time.

Better video cards have their own dedicated memory, rather than sharing the slower computer main memory. The speed of the video card memory will have a very big effect on the video card's performance.

You'll see the memory with labels like DDR2, DDR3, and GDDR4. In general the bigger number means faster memory so GDDR4 memory is faster than DDR3 which is faster than DDR2. Faster is better: a video card with an older video processor and 256 MB of GDDR4 video card memory can out-perform a video card with a faster better video processor and 512 MB of DDR3 memory.

For regular home computers there are two main kinds of video card. If the computer was put together before mid-2006, it probably has an AGP video card slot. If it is more recent than that, it should have a PCI Express video card slot. PCI Express video cards are faster than AGP video cards. The two types of card are not compatible.

Users with the older AGP video card slot can still upgrade their video cards but should be careful not to spend too much money on a new AGP video card, since it won't be usable in any newer computer.

Some computer makers use video cards built-in to the motherboard as a cost-cutting measure. It is usually possible with these types of computer to disable the motherboard video card and install a better regular video card. Check your computer documentation for more info.

For gamers the ticket is to find the right combination of features at the right price. Both main video processor makers NVidia and AMD-ATI sell their latest chips and reference circuit board designs to lower budget manufacturers, who then modify those designs to make their own versions of the video cards.

It is worth shopping around for the best deals, but in general a pretty good video card can be bought in the $200 - $400 price range.

Using the latest video card drivers will also help increase performance. The drivers on the CD that came with the video card will be several months old so it is best to get the latest drivers from the video card maker's website. These are regularly updated.


AMD-ATI website:


NVidia website:


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Originally published 11 January 2008


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