Monday, April 9, 2012

Video Cards–And Why You Should Have One!

This post is more directed at desktops rather than laptops; however, a graphics card can also be important in laptops.  The main difference with laptops is the fact that if you want a graphics card you are going to have buy a laptop with a graphics card in it.  Unlike desktops, you usually cannot add hardware to laptops.

So, what is a graphics card?  A graphics card is a piece of hardware that drives the display on your computer.  In other words, no graphics hardware, no display!  Imagine trying to use a computer without a display?  The most important part of a graphics card is the GPU (not CPU!) – graphical processing unit.  A GPU is similar to a CPU in the fact that is also processes data; however, a GPU is significantly different in the fact that it is a parallel processor, whereas a CPU processes data in a series.  One of the best demonstrations of a CPU versus GPU that I have seen is done by the Mythbusters:

Mythbusters Demonstrating a GPU

Basically a GPU is designed for one specific task and it has to do that task very fast!  A GPU has to drive every pixel on your computers screens and if you have a 1920x1080 pixel display that is a total of 2,073,600 pixels that the GPU has to drive (render).

All computers have graphics hardware; but, on most computers, especially cheap computers, the graphics hardware is integrated with the motherboard or CPU.  While this works, it means that the computer is stealing resources from the CPU and RAM in order to power the graphics.  For basic computing such as checking email, browsing the web, ect. you probably will never notice the difference between integrated graphics and a dedicated graphics card.  However, if you want to start playing HD video or playing games the integrated graphics are really going to struggle and you probably notice stuttering, jerkiness, and overall poor performance of the computer.  This is especially true of older computers where the integrated graphics where not very good.  Even the cheapest dedicated graphics cards can outperform integrated graphics solutions.  The motherboard is the large board inside your computer that everything plugs into.

What is a dedicated graphics card?  A dedicated graphics card is an add-on card that plugs into a slot on your computers motherboard.  One of the major advantages of a dedicated graphics card is that all the components are separate and resources are not stolen from the CPU.  Dedicated graphics card contain two main components, the GPU and the RAM.  Just like a CPU needs RAM to rapidly store and access data, so does a GPU need RAM for extremely fast access to data.  Most newer dedicated graphics cards have at least 1 GB of onboard RAM.  PCI-Express graphics cards range in price from about $15 all the way up to $1000+ dollars.  Specialty cards can cost even more.  Most dedicated graphics cards support more than one monitor, so you can have two monitors.  Two big names in a graphics hardware are NVidia and ATI (now made by AMD).

There are two main slot types that are dedicated for Graphics cards to plug into.  The first and newest slot is the PCI-Express (there is now three versions of PCI-Express all compatible with each other).  The latest greatest PCI-Express slots is PCI-Express 3.0.  PCI-Express slots have been around for about 10 years now and if your computer has a PCI-Express slot, this is the slot you should use!

The second type of slot is the AGP (accelerated graphics port) slot.  This is the older slot and I personally have not seen it on a computer newer than about 8 years.  Do to the fact that AGP is an older slot type, AGP cards tend to be slightly more expensive than PCI-Express cards, also AGP cannot support as large of cards as PCI-Express slots.

The third and final slot is a PCI slot.  The PCI slot is a standard add-on slot for multiple types of cards, such as dialup modems, audio cards, Ethernet cards, WI-FI cards, ect.  PCI slots can only handle smaller graphics cards and should only be used if you do not have one of the other slots type or you you need additional graphics cards (for more monitors).

If you have an older computer, one of the best add-ons you can buy to speed up your computer is a graphics card.  Even on newer computers a dedicated graphics card will help.

I will finish with a quick story about computer I recently fixed (computer was only about one year old).  This computer had experienced a power issue of some type (possibly lightning) and burned out both the power supply and motherboard.  So I replaced both the motherboard and power supply, the old motherboard had integrated graphics and the new board I got did not have integrated graphics (oversight on my part).  Upon hooking everything I realized the problem; luckily I had a graphics card on hand an older GeForce 8500 GT (with 1 GB of on board RAM).  Upon returning to the customer, the customer mentioned to me a couple weeks later that the computer was significantly faster, especially while watching HD movies.  The only real change was the Graphics card!  Motherboard was basically identical.

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