Now, before we begin talking about different models and features, we’re going to make one basic distinction very early in the guide. While this guide is specifically written for dedicated video cards, it is worth mentioning that you DON’T ACTUALLY NEED A VIDEO CARD for basic video output. Most motherboards on the market today have support for what’s typically referred to as “Onboard Video”. This process is handled by CPU/Motherboard and provides video output using ports in the back of the motherboard. Typical ports offered are VGA, DVI and HDMI. In order for you to have Onboard video capability, you will need a motherboard that supports it, and a processor that supports it as well. For example, all Sandybridge CPU have support for Intel HD Graphics. If you wanted to take advantage of onboard video, you would also need an H-series or a Z series motherboard because they support onboard video.
Performance of Onboard Video
Onboard video is convenient and can save you some money purchasing a dedicated video card. Use of onboard video is appropriate when you’re building a simple computer used for everyday tasks of web browsing, light multimedia and light gaming. Higher end chips are capable of medium gaming as well, but all intense work should be left for dedicated video cards. Onboard video is not as powerful as mid-high range video cards, but if you don’t need that extra power you could save between $100-$200 on your new PC by skipping the purchase of the dedicated video card.
However, if you’re building a custom gaming PC, a workstation or something in between, you will need a proper high quality, reasonably powerful dedicated card.
Video cards are currently split into 2 categories: workstation and desktop cards. Now, these 2 categories can sometimes cross over, as the limitations of either categories aren’t exactly set in stone. However it’s important that you know these categories exist so that we can properly cover what each one does.
Desktop cards are generally referred to as gaming cards, because that is likely going to be their ultimate purpose. However not all desktop cards are meant for gaming, and some even tend to behave like workstation cards. Your current popular choice of cards is between nVidia based cards, or AMD based cards. Since both tend to make comparable models, it usually comes down to preference and cost. At the time of writing of this article, current nVidia series are 9xx series, while the current AMD series are 7xxx. Both companies have the same approach, in that the lower numbers represent smaller, budget oriented cards, while higher numbers represent high-end, fast gaming cards. It is important to note that most cards on the market are re-branded and modified by specific manufacturers. For example, nVidia will make the baseline GTX 960 video card, which will then be taken by companies such as Asus, Gigabyte, MSI and others, modified with their own specific coolers, fans and so on, and then re-sold. The original card on which the modifications take place is called reference card.
As with all the other components, budget dictates the type of card you can purchase. While getting a proper video card is essential, even having to step down a bit to fill in the budget is acceptable choice. The reason for this is that the video card is easily swappable and upgradable. If you make a poor CPU/Motherboard choice, it would be a lot more difficult to make the changes.
AMD Cards are currently listed as the Rx 300 range of cards. Entry level cards range from R5 to R7 and from 330 to 350, e.g. R5 330 and R7 350; mid range like the R7 and R9 360 and 370; high end cards are the R9 380, 390 and 390X. Their top-of-the-line cards are the R9 Nano, Fury, and Fury X. They have further differences between them, however that’s the most basic breakdown. They also cover different price ranges.
As for nVidia, their current low end cards are the 950 and 960, while the high end range is covered by GTX 970, GTX 980, GTX 980Ti and the GTX Titan Z and X. The last two both cost roughly around $1000 and unless you want to perform specific tasks related to CAD design, 3D Rendering, etc they would be an overkill for an average gaming system.
A better graphics card may not increase your performance in a specific game if your frame rate is held back by the CPU. In this case the processor is calculating the physics of the situation as fast as it can and a bigger and better graphics card isn’t necessarily going to help. This is particularly true in simulation games like Kerbal Space Program or Cities: Skylines, or MOBA games like Heroes of the Storm.
Unlike the desktop cards, Workstation cards are designed for specific purpose. Generally they’re not for gaming or basic system use. They are for CAD Designers, 3D Modelers, and so on. It is important to understand what the system you’re building will be used for. If you’re building a workstation for any of the above suggested tasks, you want to get a dedicated workstation card, as it will deliver proper performance for your media creation.
Again, the story is the same with workstation cards, as your choices are mostly between nvidia and AMD once again. NVidia currently offers 2 graphics processors: Quadro and Tesla. Quadro is a line-up of GPUs aimed at CAD designers, 3d Designers and other similar software. While there are many different submodels within the Quadro series, you ought to try and maximize your budget for a card of this caliber. Unlike low-end desktop cards, this is not a place to cheap-out. Get the best video card possible for the money. Tesla processor is meant to be used in large graphical computation. Research centers, chemistry labs and similar departments might need to use Tesla as it’s GPU computing performance is unmatched.
As for the AMD cards, FirePro is the name of the workstation line-up. Same exact rule applies here; go for the most expensive card you can afford. Also pay attention to the amount of display ports available. If this card will be connected to multitude of monitors, make sure you get the correct one.
We’ve left this topic for the end because it’s very specific. Multi-GPU setups allow you to use 2 or more identical video cards to increase overall performance output. Unfortunately, the output does not double or triple based on the amount of cards you have, but is rather incremental, typically in the 20-30% region. Also, the more cards you have, the lesser the performance output increases. Basically, if you add 2nd card you might get a 25% performance increase. 3rd card might only increase the performance by 15%, while the 4th card may only increase it by less than 10%. While the diminishing returns are present, sometimes every bit of performance counts and the end result can justify the additional costs.
Multi-GPU configurations also allow your typical desktop cards to cross into the workstation category. 2 or 3 high end gaming cards can also be capable of handling tasks that the workstation cards are designed for. While this is not the recommended solution, it certainly does work in some applications and should be considered. If you’re interested in these setups, all you really have to know is that the nvidia cards are joined together using SLI technology, while the AMD cards are joined together using Crossfire technology. Therefore if you’re shopping for this setup, make sure that the motherboard supports either one of those technologies and that it has enough slots to install the number of cards you expect to get.
This sums up some of the basic differences amongst video cards on the market today. There are many other features and properties to consider, but these are some of the basics that will get you started in the right direction. We at AVADirect will make sure that we provide plenty of information to all of our customers to make sure they get the correct video card. Even when you’ve narrowed down the exact model, there can still be a few things to consider between different manufacturers, speeds of cards and so on. This guide will give you general information about video cards, but for more specific information you’re always welcome to contact your AVADirect Sales representative.