Choosing the right graphics card doesn't have to be a nightmare, but for many the experience fills them with dread. The buyer either risks overspending on a monstrous card featuring ten times as much power as they'll ever want or need (or that their PC can handle), or they'll spend good money on a card that lets them down when they decide to push it a little.
Either scenario is far from ideal.
Let's take a look at a few typical scenarios and choose a few graphics cards that would be ideal for those users.
Basic home user
There's so much power available in even the most basic of GPUs that the basic home user who surfs the web, plays a DVD, or does a little casual gaming along the lines of FarmVille or Happy Aquarium doesn't need anything beyond the basics. In fact, if your PC has any graphics card made in the past couple of years then chances are that it's good enough.
That's not to say that a basic home user might not want to invest in an upgrade. Video, especially HD, places quite a hefty demand on the PC in general, and a better graphics card might take some of the load off the processor and help things move along a little smoother.
At this end of the spectrum the user can get away with a very cheap graphics card - something along the lines of a GeForce 8400 GS or a Radeon HD 4350, both of which retail now for around $40. These cards will certainly both outperform any GPU built onto the motherboard of a basic PC, and offer greater flexibility (for example, be used to fit two monitors onto a single PC - a massive productivity booster).
The Blu-ray buff
High-Definition video places a hefty demand on PCs, so the more of the workload that you can offset onto the GPU, the better.
For someone who likes to watch HD Blu-ray they need a graphics card that can handle the workload with ease, but not something that's likely to run too hot or be overly noisy. These users also typically want an HDMI output to be able to hook up the PC to a flatscreen TV.
One of my favorite cards for Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) is Radeon HD 5450. This card retails for around $50 and does everything you'll need it to do - decent performance (even for gaming, although I'd rule it out as a DirectX 11 card, even though it does support it on paper), HDMI support, passively cooled (no fan, so it's quiet), and it even features audio bitstreaming.
The frugal gamer
Not all gamers can throw down $500 for the latest and best GPU. In fact, thanks to the triple-whammy effect of the global slowdown, jaded gamers and gaming consoles, the market for high-end cards has collapsed spectacularly over the past few years.
Enter the frugal gamer. This is someone who wants to be able to play the latest games on his or her PC but doesn't want to have to be a bank robber to do it. They will have a middle or the road PC, aren't concerned with frames per second or having all the detail in the game turned up to 11. They just want to play games.
When the game Crysis was releases, there was a feeling in the gaming community that things had gone too far. Here was a game (a good game I might add) that pushed the envelope of technology way too far, so far in fact that at the time that the game was released there wasn't a graphics card yet in existence that did the game justice. I know people who spent a lot of money on hardware to get this game running decently.
But since Crysis things have calmed down a bit. Not only have game developers realized that in order to make money from games, people would like them to run on existing hardware (modest hardware if possible), but GPUs have come along a lot too.
The frugal gamer can equip their PC with a $100 graphics card and should be able to throw any game at the card and get an acceptable result. Good cards to choose might be from the Radeon HD 5670 range or GeForce GT 240.
Professional HD video editors
I'm talking here about the guys and gals that do high-end work using software such as Adobe Premiere Pro and so on (not Premiere Elements).
Professional video editors need a lot of power, and ideally good OpenGL support since pro video editing software usually make use of this standard. While you can get away with a high-end gaming card, but gaming cards are aimed at gamers. If you've invested in a video editing rig (quad-core CPU, large hard drives, bags of RAM, a 64-bit OS, and the right software), then spending money on the wrong graphics card is going to be a let down.
I suggest that all pro video editors look at the entry level and mid-range NVIDIA Quadro lines. An entry level Quadro FX 380 will cost under $150, while a mid-range Quadro FX 1800 retails for around $450.
This is for all you high-end gamers out there. Here are some cards for you to drool over:
- SAPPHIRE 100280-4GBB Radeon HD 5970 4GB - $1,000
- XFX HD-597A-CNB9 Radeon HD 5970 Black Edition 2GB - $720
- GIGABYTE GV-R597D5-2GD-B Radeon HD 5970 2GB - $700
- EVGA 015-P3-1485-AR GeForce GTX 480 SuperClocked+ 1536MB - $550
- PNY XLR8 VCGGTX480XPB GeForce GTX 480 1536MB - $500
Note: Prices are approximate at date of writing. As always, shop around for the best deals.