Graphics Card Buying Guide: A Primer
Graphics cards are critical in getting the most out of your computer and realizing the best experiences with your machine. Whether you’re playing video games, editing video, or simply want a better visual experience, a high-powered graphics card is a must-have.
But like anything else in the tech industry, there’s nuance in determining what graphics card to buy. And as nice as one may look on paper, depending on what you want to do and how you want to interact with your computer, another may be more suitable.
So before you buy your next computer or pop a new graphics card into your existing desktop, read on to learn more about graphics cards, the features that matter, and how to buy the best option for you and your unique situation.
AMD or NVIDIA?
If you’re in the market for a new graphics or you want some more insight into the chip powering your next PC, you’ll undoubtedly find plenty to dissect about AMD and NVIDIA — the two major graphics cards players in the computer industry.
Regardless of whether you buy a computer with an AMD or NVIDIA chip in it, you’ll undoubtedly find that the computer runs well. Both NVIDIA and AMD have solidified their positions as reliable and outstanding brands for those who want a basic graphical experience on up to the most demanding of users who desire ultra-powerful graphics cards.
The decision between AMD or NVIDIA chips ultimately comes down to your personal preference. Both companies offer active sync technology to ensure your graphics cards and monitors are in sync, they offer chips in any budget, and can support 1080p on up to 4K resolutions. If you ask your friends, you’ll undoubtedly find those who prefer one brand over another, but the fact remains: regardless of the brand you choose, you’ll find an outstanding option.
Know your budget
One of the best ways to narrow down the hundreds of graphics chips options in the PC market is to know (and stick to) your budget. You can get graphics cards for as little as $100 or spend thousands on a state-of-the-art option. Having your budget helps you figure out which chips are best and which graphics cards are simply too expensive for what you need.
Your graphics card’s price is ultimately dictated by the features and power it offers. The more powerful and capable the graphics card, the more you’ll pay. You may also find some computers that ship with multiple graphics cards, further pushing the price up.
Although the graphics card market is always changing and new chips are reaching store shelves every day, you can expect entry-level cards at around $100 to $200 to power basic computing activities like internet browsing. If you bump that up to mid-range cards at around $500, you should be able to enjoy 1080p gaming and virtual reality activities. Those at the higher end, which can range from $750 on up to $1,500 and more, can deliver 4K gaming, support for artificial intelligence, and other performance-focused features you may want if you’re a power user.
Know your focus
As with budget, there are some considerations to keep in mind (and stick to) based on how you plan to use your next computer.
If you’re someone who plans to only use your computer for basic computing activities like internet surfing or Excel spreadsheets, your graphics card performance won’t matter so much. In those cases, you can get away with cheaper options and perhaps dedicate more of your budget to storage or processor performance.
Those who want to play video games should consider higher-powered options that integrate with active sync technology (NVIDIA’s is called G-Sync and AMD’s is called FreeSync). Ray tracing, a feature that simulates light in a graphical world to create more realistic visuals, is another key feature in PC gaming. Having a graphics card that supports ray tracing may be desirable, but don’t be surprised if it’s costly.
Graphic designers and creatives who want to design artwork have different needs altogether. They may not care so much about active sync or ray tracing, but may want enough graphics power to support their resource-intensive apps, like Adobe After Effects, Adobe Premiere Pro, and others.
Understanding the specs
Although there is a slew of specs to consider when buying a graphics card, memory is arguably the most important. You should opt for a graphics card with at least 6GB of memory, though 8GB or more would be preferable. If you want to play video games at peak performance or plan to view 4K content, opt for even more memory to get the job done.
You should also keep in mind how many ports the graphics card has and how that affects you. You should determine what ports your monitor supports, like HDMI or DisplayPort, and ensure the graphics card you use has those ports. Having additional ports beyond those you use for your monitor can also be useful over time if you want to add more monitors or swap one out.
Clock speed is another major factor to consider when you choose your next graphics card. If you opt for a graphics card with faster clock speed, it generally offers better performance. But keep in mind that memory is still the most important consideration, so even if you go with a slower clock speed and more RAM, you should get outstanding performance.
Other quick tips
You may want to consider some other elements when buying your next graphics card. Here’s a brief rundown:
- Virtual Reality: Not all graphics cards are designed to work with virtual reality. If you want to play games or immerse yourself in VR apps, only opt for a graphics card that supports it.
- Resolution: Resolution is an important consideration when buying a graphics card. If you want to enjoy 4K resolution, get a graphics card that supports it. You can also find a 1080p or 1440p graphics card if you don’t care about 4K and want to save a few bucks.
- Design: Graphics cards aren’t all the same size. Some are designed for smaller spaces, like laptops, and others are designed for larger spaces in desktops. Some graphics cards are even designed to take up multiple slots in a computer case. If you’re upgrading your graphics card, be sure to keep size in mind before buying a new graphics card.
- Memory Speed: In addition to the amount of memory you have in your graphics card, be sure to opt for faster memory. The best way to analyze memory speed is to examine whether the graphics card is using GDDR6 or GDDR5 memory. The former is about 15% faster than the latter.
Buying a graphics card in today’s computer industry is fraught with trouble as you start to analyze a nearly endless supply of options. But if you have the right game plan, understand the key features, and know how much you want to spend, you should find an outstanding option without much trouble.
Joe is a writer with a passion for gaming, technology, and language learning. Joe has a knack for turning complex tech jargon into easy-to-understand prose. He's a lifelong gamer, having grown up playing classic console games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, and now enjoys exploring the latest virtual worlds on PC. His interests don't stop there – he's also an avid language learner, currently studying French and Portuguese in his spare time. Whether he's writing about the latest gaming trends, reviewing cutting-edge tech products, or sharing language learning tips, Joe brings a fresh perspective and infectious enthusiasm to everything he does.