PC Advisor looks at what makes a good graphics card, and tests 12 of the latest ATI and nVidia offerings.

Graphics performance has become more important as PCs have evolved from functional machines used almost entirely for business and number-crunching into gadgetry for entertainment and leisure.

A whole category of PCs is designed to meet those entertainment needs.

Alienware and Commodore Gaming specialise in exactly this area, while most mainstream manufacturers have recognised the importance of video and audio credentials for potential customers.

Unfortunately, such highly capable beasts come with high price tags. And not all of us have £2,000 to spare on a PC.

Fortunately, you don't need to earmark that sort of sum to significantly improve your onscreen experience. Trading up from integrated (or onboard) graphics to a standalone card need only cost £50 to £100 and will make a world of difference.

You'll need to know the make and model of your motherboard; some work only with ATI or nVidia graphics cards. The card will plug into a PCI Express card slot and you should also establish whether the card requires a separate fan and/or a more potent power supply. This is less likely to be an issue for graphics cards at the lower end of the price scale, but it's a serious consideration if you're looking to turn your machine into a gaming or video-editing powerhouse.

You'll also need to consider whether features such as a TV tuner are important. Many graphics cards support television playback - it's a good way to add free-to-air digital TV channels to your viewing options. You will probably also want your card to offer HD video support, including Blu-ray video decoding (sometimes referred to as unified video decoding 2).

Buy a card with as much dedicated graphics memory as possible. Go no lower than 256MB; 512MB is about right for enjoying smooth video playback and should enable you to play the latest games. If you're serious about gaming, you'll be looking for a dual-card setup based around a pair of ATI Crossfire graphics cards or an nVidia scaleable link interface (SLI) duo. If you can push the graphics memory up to 1GB, so much the better.

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Index

  1. What makes a good GPU, and how to purchase one
  2. Graphics cards: more to consider
  3. How we tested
  4. Sub-£150 graphics cards reviews
  5. £151+ graphics cards reviews

PC Advisor looks at what makes a good graphics card, and tests 12 of the latest ATI and nVidia offerings.

Graphics cards: more to consider

When multiple cards are used, their design becomes an issue. All cards need to fit alongside each other on the motherboard, without blocking another's fan or heatsink.

Graphics cards generate a huge amount of heat, and this needs to be effectively extracted. A side issue is that the noise generated during cooling can detract from your enjoyment of a game or a film.

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The way a card connects to the motherboard - either via a 6- or 8-pin connector - is also important. You may need to buy an adaptor if they are incompatible.

Most high-end cards are able to render realistic 3D scenes, but you only need the 3D features if you're keen to enjoy immersive gaming environments or want to work with illustration and graphics packages.

Nonetheless, many firms are pushing the benefits of 3D graphics. nVidia has designed a 3D Vision card and the glasses necessary for stereoscopic viewing, while a number of manufacturers, including Samsung, Viewsonic and LG, showed off screens able to reproduce 3D imagery at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. We expect PC monitors and graphics cards based around the nVidia 3D Vision to debut shortly.

Aside from price, compatibility and dedicated memory, the key factor in choosing a graphics card for most users will relate to the framerates that it produces, and the number of pixels it can process per second. In order to simulate motion, the onscreen image must be redrawn so quickly that the process is imperceptible to the human eye. Anything above 24fps should be sufficient to emulate motion; most consumer camcorders record video at 30fps. Ideally, you'll want your graphics card to be able to manage similar rates.

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In practice, even some of the pricier cards we've reviewed here struggled on the most demanding games. Just because a card has an impressive specification list, it doesn't mean that its performance will live up to those claims. We've stretched each card to its limits to find out just what it can deliver. For more general video playback and editing and less demanding games, all the cards we've reviewed here will be fine.

Graphics cards can be pretty demanding on other components within your machine, so pay particular attention to just how fast a (dual-core) machine you'll need to run it, as well as the minimum RAM allocation. If you're running Windows Vista, DirectX 10.0 support will be an advantage.

When choosing between graphics cards, features such as lighting and shade engines and other descriptive terms sound impressive, but are actually standard elements on any modern-day card. Likewise, anisotropic filtering and anti-aliasing will improve the overall image but, for performance purposes, a more critical issue is the number of pixel pipelines the card has. The latter has a direct correlation with the card's efficiency and ability to simultaneously redraw detail.

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Index

  1. What makes a good GPU, and how to purchase one
  2. Graphics cards: more to consider
  3. How we tested
  4. Sub-£150 graphics cards reviews
  5. £151+ graphics cards reviews

PC Advisor looks at what makes a good graphics card, and tests 12 of the latest ATI and nVidia offerings.

Graphics cards: how we tested

In order to ensure a fair comparison, we used the same test machine for all the graphics cards reviewed here.

The majority of our tests revolved around games, and involved customised timed demos and the use of the Fraps benchmarking software.

We tested each graphics card's capabilities at the resolutions 1,280x768/800, 1,680x1,050 and 1,920x1,200. These are the standard resolutions used by PC monitors.

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We tested each of the graphics cards' performance when playing six games. You'll find results for the four most representative of these - Crysis Warhead, Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead and World In Conflict - below the comparison tables for each price category.

We used ‘High Quality' settings on the main graphics card drivers and the games themselves. The same settings were used across all cards. All were tested with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering. At higher levels of anti-aliasing, many of the figures were too erratic for inclusion in our final assessment.

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The amount of noise generated by each of the graphics cards was also noted - a type of testing PC Advisor will be refining over the coming months. For the time being, we assessed the levels of sound generated by the PC when sitting idle in Windows and compared it to the maximum noise generated during our Crysis tests. A digital sound-level meter was used to conduct these tests.

As ever, price, build quality and features were weighed up, with factors such as whether a graphics card natively supported multicard configurations or required the use of an adaptor also taken into consideration.

NEXT PAGE: graphics card reviews >>

Index

  1. What makes a good GPU, and how to purchase one
  2. Graphics cards: more to consider
  3. How we tested
  4. Sub-£150 graphics cards reviews
  5. £151+ graphics cards reviews

PC Advisor looks at what makes a good graphics card, and tests 12 of the latest ATI and nVidia offerings.

SUB-£150 GRAPHICS CARDS REVIEWS

NEXT PAGE: more graphics card reviews >>

Index

  1. What makes a good GPU, and how to purchase one
  2. Graphics cards: more to consider
  3. How we tested
  4. Sub-£150 graphics cards reviews
  5. £151+ graphics cards reviews

PC Advisor looks at what makes a good graphics card, and tests 12 of the latest ATI and nVidia offerings.

£151+ GRAPHICS CARDS REVIEWS

Index

  1. What makes a good GPU, and how to purchase one
  2. Graphics cards: more to consider
  3. How we tested
  4. Sub-£150 graphics cards reviews
  5. £151+ graphics cards reviews