The video adapter, also called a graphics adapter or graphics card, renders video data provided by the processor into a form that the monitor can display. Many motherboards include embedded video adapters. You can also install a standalone video adapter in a motherboard expansion slot. Keep the following in mind when you choose a video adapter:
Unless you run graphics-intensive games, 3D graphics performance is unimportant. Any recent video adapter is more than fast enough for business applications and casual gaming.
Choose embedded video unless there is good reason not to. Embedded video adds little or no cost to a motherboard, and generally suffices for anyone except hardcore gamers or those with other special video requirements. Make sure any motherboard you buy allows embedded video to be disabled and provides an AGP slot. That way, you can upgrade the video later if you need to.
If you need a 3D graphics adapter, don’t overbuy. A $400 video adapter is faster than a $100 adapter, but nowhere near four times faster. As with other PC components, the bang-for-the-buck ratio drops quickly as the price climbs. If you need better 3D graphics performance than embedded video provides but you don’t have much in the budget for a video adapter, look at “obsolescent” 3D video adapters—those a generation or two out of date. If you buy an older adapter, make sure that the level of DirectX it supports is high enough to support the games you play.
If you choose a standalone video adapter, buy only a 1.5V AGP 4X (AGP 2.0) or 0.8V AGP 4X/8X (AGP 3.0) adapter. Check the motherboard manual to verify which type or types of AGP adapter it supports, and then buy accordingly.
Display quality is subjective, but a real issue nonetheless. The three major video chipset companies are ATi and nVIDIA—both of which provide chipsets that are used both for standalone AGP adapters and for embedded video—and Intel, whose Extreme Graphics 2 is available only as embedded video.
ATi produces a wide range of video chipsets. 3D performance ranges from moderate in inexpensive models to extremely high in expensive ones. 2D video quality is excellent across the entire line and at any resolution. ATi drivers balance 3D performance and 2D image quality, favoring neither at the expense of the other.
nVIDIA produces a wide range of video chipsets. 3D performance ranges from moderate in inexpensive models to extremely high in expensive models. 2D video quality ranges from mediocre in older adapters, particularly high-performance models, to good in some recent models. We consider nVIDIA 2D image quality acceptable at low resolutions, but less so at 1280 × 1024 and higher. nVIDIA drivers tend to favor 3D performance at the expense of 2D image quality.
Intel Extreme Graphics 2 video is built into some Intel chipsets and is available only in embedded form. 3D performance is low to moderate, although it is acceptable for casual gaming. 2D display quality is very good to excellent.
Make sure that the adapter you choose has drivers available for the operating system you intend to use. This is particularly important if you run Linux or another OS with limited driver support.
Make sure the video adapter provides the interface(s) you need. Most analog CRT monitors use the familiar high-density DB15 “VGA” connector, although a few high-end models also support RGB component video. Flat-panel displays (FPDs) use a variety of connectors, including the analog DB15VGA connector (typically used by low-end FPDs), or one of three different types of Digital Visual Interface (DVI) connectors. Midrange and higher FPDs normally provide a DVI-D digital connector, and may also provide a DB-15 analog connector and/or a DVI-A analog connector. If you plan to use an FPD, whenever possible choose an FPD and a video adapter that both provide DVI-D connectors.
Video Adapter For a general-purpose system, choose embedded video based on an ATi, Intel, or nVIDIA chipset. Make sure the motherboard you select has an AGP 2.0 or higher slot so that you can upgrade the video later if necessary.
If you need a standalone video adapter, buy an ATi RADEON model that fits your needs and budget. Buy either a “Built by ATi” RADEON adapter, which is actually made by ATi, or a “Powered by ATi” RADEON adapter, which is made by a third-party company using an ATi chipset. In the latter category, we have had good experience with RADEON video adapters made by Crucial Technology. ATi and other companies produce various RADEON models in two variants. Standard models are pure graphics cards. All-In-Wonder (AIW) models include a television tuner and software for recording video.
Avoid embedded video based on anything other than an ATi, Intel, or nVIDIA chipset. Avoid generic or off-brand video adapters, even if they use an ATi or nVIDIA chipset.
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