The Four Most Important Things to Know about Graphics Cards
Every time you upgrade one piece of hardware in your beast of a desktop PC, you always have to consider whether or not the rest of the hardware can handle it. A motherboard without PCI Express 3.0 is not going to support a current generation graphics card and a current generation graphics card is not going to accept anything less than a 400-watt power supply.
Knowing that the most important aspect of a high-end graphics card is whether or not it will support the maximum settings on the most recent games, the fact still remains that you cannot take advantage of such a card if you don’t have the power to run it.
Thus, the first thing you need to know about your new graphics card is whether or not you have the wattage to get so much as the fans up and running. Does it require a 750-watt power supply? Can you even fit a 750-watt power supply, which is going to be twice the dimensions of a 250-watt supply, in your current case? If not, chances are your motherboard is too small, you may not have enough dynamic random-access memory (DRAM), and your processor may be behind the times.
In the event you already have enough power to run your card of choice, there are three other things worth taking into consideration: video RAM (VRAM), memory interface width, and clock speed.
The more VRAM your card has, the higher the resolution at which your card can render graphics in real-time. The greater the memory interface width, the quicker your card can render those graphics. The higher the clock speed, the faster your graphics card can process the data stored by the VRAM.
Thus, these three things can be prioritized in order: the more data you store, the more data you have to work with, and the more data you have to work with, the more inclined you are to maintain the highest possible speed.
Understanding the Law of Diminishing Returns
While shopping around for a new graphics card, we often come across the term diminishing returns–a term that applies, in our case, to both the prices of graphics cards and the number of polygons used in computer graphics during the video game development process.
Diminishing returns due to increases in the number of polygons used directly affect the diminishing returns we experience as the prices of graphics cards begin to exceed a community agreed-upon amount; about $325 as of last year; about $400 today.
As computer-generated imagery (CGI) artists double the number of polygons they use while generating a particular image, from 2,000 polygons to 4,000 to 8,000 and so on, the difference in quality between subsequent generations becomes less and less noticeable to the untrained eye. Thus, the difference between the original Xbox and the Xbox 360 is much more drastic than the difference between the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One, despite the fact the first and second consoles were released three years apart while the second and third were released eight years apart.
By comparison, more recent advancements in computer graphics technology have resulted in marginally better graphics than prior advancements made between, say, the original 16-bit Nintendo and the 32-bit Super Nintendo. As a result, what we end up with are price-based diminishing returns that help us to determine where to draw the line on cost while shopping around for graphics cards that best suit our needs.
On the one hand, a graphics card capable of displaying 4,000 polygons is going to be drastically better than a card only capable of displaying 2,000 polygons, but the price will be marginally different. On the other hand, a graphics card capable of displaying 2,000,000 polygons is going to be drastically more expensive than a card only capable of displaying 1,000,000 polygons, but the image quality will only be marginally different, and may even be unnoticeable to customers that don’t fancy themselves videophiles.
When Graphics Cards Are Too Big for Their Britches
One of the main issues with purchasing a current graphics card, an issue consumers never seemed to have in the past, is the ever-increasing size of the cards. Due to overclocking and the need for upwards of three large fans, thin cards that once fit snugly in PCI slots at right angles perfect enough to balance marbles on, are now fat cards that sag at obtuse angles to the point their immense weight has been known to tear PCI slots straight out of the motherboard if not given additional support; support not supplied by the manufacturers of either the over-sized graphics cards or the computer cases that houses them.
What consumers end up with is the need to use household items that would otherwise never be seen inside a computer case performing feats of great strength that motherboards themselves are not designed to adequately perform. Bundles of twigs wrapped in duct tape should not be considered obligatory while building a high-end gaming PC.
Alas, computer hardware manufacturers have never been ones to cooperate. An NVidia graphics card manufactured by EVGA should be paired with a motherboard manufactured by EVGA, otherwise you run the risk, however so slight, that the drivers for each will start bickering just as you’re about to beat the final boss of Dark Souls III or finish rendering an animation for your latest youTube video.
In the end, it’s up to you. Can your current motherboard support the weight of your new graphics card? Do you have the engineering skills to prop it up with sticks or toys? Will the new card fit inside your current case?
Perhaps on top of recommending one brand over the other, the gurus of the PC master race should recommend carrying a ruler and a spring scale whenever it comes time to do some shopping.