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Graphics cards for beginners

Everything you need to know before buying

If you're confused by the wealth of choice when it comes to graphics cards, then fear not. We've looked at the common issues, and our guide should help you decide which card is right for you.

SLI and Crossfire

These are terms for nVidia (SLI) and ATI (Crossfire) technologies to use more than one GPU at a time for higher performance. Should you get it? Generally speaking, this is one of those ‘if you have to ask, the answer is no' sort of technologies.

You can expect a second GPU to add maybe 50 to 80 percent performance over the first, and from there the performance gains are minimal. The third GPU only gets you maybe 30 percent more, and the fourth (yes, you can do a four-GPU system!) barely improves things over the third at all.

Enthusiast gamers with very big, high-resolution monitors are the target market for multi-GPU solutions. If this is you, you might want to consider SLI or Crossfire.

You'll need a motherboard with two graphics slots that supports SLI/Crossfire, but these are not uncommon. Odds are, most of you reading this article probably aren't the target market for this.

Discrete or integrated?

Okay, it's time to make a buying decision. Do you go with a discrete graphics card (in either a desktop or laptop) or integrated graphics? If you want to play games, even just a bit, you'll have a far better experience with discrete graphics.

If all you want to do is browse the web and do some light word processing or email, integrated is probably enough. Intel's integrated graphics isn't as good as nVidia's or ATI's, and if you care about the quality of the video (watching DVDs or downloaded video on your PC), you want an nVidia or ATI graphics chip.

If battery life is your top concern, avoid discrete graphics and go with integrated.

How much should I spend?

You should probably not spend less than £80 or so on a graphics card. Cards in the £80 to £150 range are good value and can run almost all modern games very well. Once you start spending less than that, the performance drops rapidly and you'll just need to upgrade sooner.

If you or someone who uses the computer is a more serious gamer, look for cards in the £150- £250) price range. You really don't need to spend more than that if you're reading this article.

How much memory do I need?

You'll see a lot of cheap graphics cards with 1GB of memory on them. This is mostly a waste of money. In the £80 range, there isn't much benefit to having more than 512MB of memory. A faster GPU chip on the card is worth more than a bigger amount of memory.

Once you get to the £150-and-up range, you want a card with 1GB of RAM. If it's integrated graphics, it'll use your main system memory and you don't need to worry about it (this memory sharing is one of the reasons integrated graphics are so slow).

My recommended picks

Low-cost option: Radeon HD 4850

Enthusiasts: Radeon HD 4890

Expensive: GeForce GTX 285 or Radeon HD 4870 X2

See also: Group test: top 12 ATI & nVidia graphics cards

Laptop buying advice

See all laptop reviews

  1. The issues you need to consider when purchasing
  2. What happens when you're not on Windows
  3. CUDA and ATI Stream
  4. SLI and Crossfire

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