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I want to buy a graphics card.
As there are variety of cards available, I dont know which one is better and how that one is better.

Should I be looking at its memory size? (1 GB, 512 MB etc)
Or should I check its technology and ignore its memory? (GT, XT, etc.)
The RAM? (DDR2, DDR3)
The price?

Is a more expensive graphics cards always better?

What factors (performance, graphics etc.) can I use to determine which video card is better?

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For everyone answering "check benchmarks", how would I decide between two cards if a lot of specs are the same? There must be some features that are more important than others, so just looking at benchmarks doesn't help me decide! –  Ivo Flipse Jul 20 '10 at 10:33
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@Ivo Flipse: Ignore technical data like ram etc, all what matters is real world performance: 1. filter: Set a upper limit on the price; 2. filter: Select the best cards (by benchmark of the games You would like to play). Now You have ~5 candidates. Choose the one with the richest features (e.g. HDMI output, extra cooler for silent operation, ...) –  Dave Jul 20 '10 at 14:05
    
This question seems both subjective and localized. "New games" is a qualifier that is going to be quite different a year or two from now. If you were asking, say, "What graphics card do I need do play Crysis Warhead on full settings?" then it would remain relevant and (potentially) be less subjective than a fully open question. As it is, I'm not sure it really fits here. –  FAE Jul 20 '10 at 14:30
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@FallenAngelEyes but question helped me anyway :) –  LifeH2O Jul 26 '10 at 13:17
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I believe this question is what Jeff Artwood would call a good shopping recommendation blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping I think his reasoning is sound, voting to reopen and disagreeing with deletion. –  kotekzot Dec 4 '12 at 16:16

10 Answers 10

up vote 35 down vote accepted

My approach, in light of the plethora of information contained in the spec of any graphics card, is to go by benchmarks. Specifically, Tom's hardware's benchmarks.

Of course, benchmarks should always to be taken with a grain of salt, since the benchmark rig might (and usually does) overpower your own in many aspects. However, I do believe that this is a good way to get a look at the "raw power" you can expect to get out of any specific card.

Tom's hardware also publish periodic recommendations to help you find the best card for your budget.

One final note: You should always check which DirectX technology your card supports (DirectX 10 being a requirement on some newer games, though almost any card on the market should support it).

I apologize for the link bombardment, but this is a really broad subject and there's always research to be done before buying a card.

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You want to go with the Maximum Technological Architecture you can get ahold of. Unfortunately thats going to be hard to ascertain since graphics card manufacturers put all sorts of numbers and names on theirs which dont make sense (like 6600 series then go back down to the 800 series and so forth).

You can try looking at benchmark sites but my suggestion is this:

  • Everybody designs games for nVidia, its a result of backroom deals and the seedy nature of the big business side of the technology sector. The fact they want the money in your wallet, and as a result they will punish you for getting a cheaper off brand card due to a greater liklihood of compatability issues.

  • So look up nVidia cards, dont look for the latest models since they'll be the most expensive, look for the ones that are several years old (about 8-10 entries down the list) with the lowest amount of Ram for their class as possible (1 Gb is your target).

  • If you have the option to get a Dual Card setup then do it... and then go for the lowest possible amount of vRam (512mb). You can probably get these cards for between $50-100. The two combined will make up for the vRam and overall the speed will be 2 Times as fast because you have double the number of processors chugging for you. Approaching the speed of the top dogs while likely being alot cheaper overall.

The amount of ram is inconsequential, thats an industry hook to reel in suckers... it makes money for the graphic card company. These days even 512Mb will do okay for you and there isn't much that actually requires 1Gb. Keep in mind that when they say that something is a minimum required amount the game isnt actually going to use that much, but it may want to use more than half of it so to be safe they set the minimum to be double.

On the other hand you also want your normal System Ram to be as fast as technologically possible. Alot of ram is in the 1300-1600Mhz range and if you have 16Gb or 24Gb of it you've been suckered. Because you have a whole-lot-of-slow which isnt going to be that much faster.

You want at least 2400Mhz system ram if not 2800Mhz system ram. Even faster ram would be better but keeping it cool is going to be an issue (and you only need 8 Gb ram at most, you'll be set for the next 10 years with 8 gig). You don't want the lowest Latency but you do want it to be lower latency than usual.

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Use a resource or website that compares GPU benchmarks. (I stressed benchmarks as it is a better and practical indicator of performance, compared to simply comparing specs.)

An example of a website that does this is AnandTech Bench. Just compare the benchmarks of the different graphics card you're looking at buying. (The same website also allows comparison of CPU benchmarks.)

Also, read 'logical increments' guides like the Logical Increments PC Buying Guide. This will allow you to choose a graphics card according to your budget and which other PC components are a good fit to it (to avoid or lessen bottlenecks).

Parts of this answer are shamelessly copied from my answer in this other question.

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On benchmarks, take note of:

  1. The games you play and how often you're actually purchasing new games that will push your card.
  2. The limitations that actually perturb your in-game experience (i.e. zoom/res levels, tearing).

Personally, I'm a WoW person and I look for benchmarks around that particular game; I'm planning on hanging on to my ATI 4870 (desktop) and nVidia 260m (laptop) for quite a while despite all the DirectX 11 cards coming out because it's not going to add much.

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Just in case you want to know what kind of hardware users have, you can look at Steam Hardware & Software Survey.

That survey is useful for game developers, and shouldn't be your only source of information as a hardware buyer, but it might help you anyway.

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Graphics card manufacturers make it hard to compare graphics cards just by their names. As long as you are staying inside a series (or generation) of graphics cards, usually bigger numbers mean also faster cards. But this does not hold true if you compare cards between different series or even manufacturers. Both, AMD (former ATI) and Nvidia usually change the major number in their naming scheme between generations (e.g. Radeon 5xxx to Radeon 6xxx).

The first, most important step for you is to decide on your requirements. Your display resolution is very important, the higher resolutions are more demanding on your graphics card. The most important part is what kind of games you play. Casual games can usually be played with any halfway recent graphics card. The requirements vary a lot between games, the newer the game the higher the requirements are most of the time.

The amount of RAM on the graphics card is not a good indicator for performance. You only need to pay attention to it when you're using a very high resolution display, as the used RAM depends strongly on the display resolution. If you have a 2.560 x 1.600 display you need all the RAM you can get, else you won't see a difference most of the time. The other exception are some mods for certain games that have enourmous demands for RAM.

The best way to decide which graphics card to buy is to look at a variety of benchmarks performed at the resolution you want to play at. Ideally, the benchmarks should be for the games you want to play, but if they are for games of the same age and type they should be enough to gauge the performance of the card.

Some resources for reviews are:

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Another option if best bang for your buck is what your interested in is http://www.pcpartcharts.com/filterGpus.php. This allows you to rank graphics cards by performance, by price and by cost-effectiveness for those of us with a budget.

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A final reccomendation: It's really easy to get carried away and spent lots of money on a card. Usually that's counterproductive.

I found that it's almost always better to get the cheapest card that will get the job done and upgrade relatively frequently (1 year?), rather that get a monstrously expensive card planning to keep it for 2-3 years.

With this approach you will always have a card that is up to date, and it's often cheaper too in the long run.

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+1 mid price range cards have the best performance-per-cost effectivness –  Dave Jul 20 '10 at 14:07

I'd say, the important thing to check is benchmarks and overviews. Some graphic cards with the same amount of memory can behave differently because of different technology used etc.

But generally you are looking for following stats:

  • port (AGP or PCI-express - ok, you won't probably find many AGP cards nowadays)
  • onboard memory
  • chipset (ATI vs nVidia)
  • supported DirectX version
  • power consumption
  • support (whether the card drivers are always up-to-date etc)
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Ondrej mentions "Power Consumption", which can actually be more important than you realize. Say, for example, you are running an older machine with a less powerful PSU, or a compact form factor machine (Shuttle, etc..) with a reduced size, reduced power PSU. Make sure that your PSU can handle the card and whatever else you are trying to run (audio, physics, etc...) –  dls Jul 20 '10 at 13:26
    
which one is better ATI or nVidia? –  LifeH2O Jul 26 '10 at 13:26
    
Also look at the PCI Express version on your motherboard. It's pointless to splurge for a similar Express X2 card when your motherboard only supports X1. (though PCI Express is backwards compatible so it'll still work, but slower) –  Earlz Jan 28 '11 at 20:17

You should check real-world benchmark results to see how different cards score.

Tom's Hardware Graphics Charts is a great place to start. Just choose benchmarks (games) that are interesting to you and video cards that are in your price range.

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+1 lol you were faster. –  Dave Jul 20 '10 at 10:06

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