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You may ask yourself, do you really need a video card? Well, the answer to that is no, not really but it gives you several advantages if you do make room in your budget for one (or two if you really want to). The Video card is a must for gamers. It gives you the best 3D performance you can get and frees up a lot of RAM. A video card is still advantageous even if you do not play games. It will take the load off your RAM with dedicated video memory (depending on how much you choose) and it will take the load off your CPU and instead giving the task of video to the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). This frees up your CPU for other things and allows you to multi task.
Video Card or Not?
Both of the Intel and AMD integrated graphics concepts involve fusing the GPU and the CPU into one product instead of having a separate graphics card built into the motherboard as was previously the case. These new GPUs essentially give you the power of a low to medium end dedicated graphics card without the extra cost and is perfect for the majority of users. It can handle most tasks such as video editing, photo editing, watching HD movies, encoding videos and even some games (although not on high settings). It essentially reserves dedicated graphics cards to high-end users and those who need them for very demanding tasks. With the low cost of RAM, installing 8GB or more is no problem when building your own computer and so, the dedicated video card has now become a less essential part of the computer
Keep in mind that the type of graphics card will still change with the processor you buy. For example the Core i5-2500K and i7-2600K feature a much more powerful HD 3000 graphics while other desktop processors will only have HD 2000 graphics (this has half the number of cores as the HD 3000). This doesn't seem to be a problem with laptops where the majority come with HD 3000 graphics, a much better performer overall. For AMD processors, the onboard graphics chip on desktop processors can easily be found on their website where a higher model number of chip, indicates a faster GPU and better performance.
ATI or Nvidia
There are two different manufacturers of GPU's. These are Nvidia and ATI (now owned by AMD). They sell their GPU's to other manufacturers who make video cards with a GPU from either Nvidia or ATI.
There are several things which need to be put into consideration if you want to buy a video card. Firstly, what is your budget? If you are looking for a mid-range video card which is under $300 or even $200 then you would be looking at an ATI card. They offer very good value video cards which will give you decent performance for their price. If you are looking for a high end graphics card which can cost you upwards of $700, you should look no further than Nvidia. For more information about the best value computer parts, have a look at my blog.
Brands, Brands, Brands
What brand you choose can be your own preference, depending on the brand you might get a silent card with no fan but a large heatsink or one with a fan. Apart from this there isn't much difference between them all except for maybe the quality (e.g. the fan used to cool the GPU) but all the manufactures will use the same GPU's as other products with similar model numbers (e.g. if you see a Gigabyte 9600GT and a Palit 9600GT, they will both feature the same GPU made by Nvidia). Some brands may overclock their GPUs giving them better performance and if the card is high end, sometimes a much better cooler will be placed to give the card the best performance possible. On your computer, depending on the motherboard, you can put two identical video cards on the same board which will essentially double the performance. The high end graphics cards of both Nvidia and ATI can also be bought in a dual GPU version which features two physical GPU's on one video card. This can give you SLI/Crossfire performance in one card for about 2/3 of the price.
How much RAM?
A second factor you need to consider when buying a Video card is the RAM. This can change depending on what your needs are. If you just do a bit of browsing and occasional gaming or photo editing then around 256 or 512MB should be enough. For a high-end user, I recommend 2GB of RAM on dual GPU cards or about 1GB of RAM which should be plenty. Something in between such as Nvidia 768MB cards are ideal. Of course, for the low end user, I would recommend just buying a motherboard with integrated graphics and buy extra RAM because with integrated graphics, your computer will use your RAM in space of dedicated video RAM.
If you are using a 32 bit operating system, you need to be careful how much video RAM your graphics card has. In Vista and Windows 7, you are limited to 4GB of RAM including the RAM on your video card. This means that if you have 1GB video card and 4GB of RAM, then you will only have access to 3GB of RAM as the rest is for the video card. This is no problem if you have a 64 bit operating system, but otherwise you need to be a bit careful if you are buying something like the Nvidia GTX 295 which has 1792MB of RAM.
DirectX 11 card. DirectX 11 is not a whole new system like DirectX 10 was but rather, an evolutionary step. ATI has already released its latest 5xxx and 6xxx series for this and Nvidia has released the GT 5xx series cards which are some of the fastest GPUs on the planet. They are still available in low, medium and high end versions in order to fit every budget but they will be very fast and both medium and high end cards should be able to handle the latest games. You should also take into consideration the fact that some video cards occupy two expansion slots in your case, mainly the high end ones. Usually it's no problem as todays motherboards basically have everything you need, eliminating the need for additional expansion cards but be aware that adding a dual slot video card could take up expansion slots for things like wireless cards. Many motherboards have upto 8 USB ports, built in sound cards, ethernet and some even have wireless. Some of the best cards are incredibly long as well so it is best to search the internet to check if your chosen case will actually fit the video card in it. This is a big problem in the most expensive cars but largish cases should be able to fit the cars with ease.
These are the main things which need consideration when buying a video card. Firstly, whether you need an inbuilt one or a discrete one. Secondly, your price range and thirdly, how much RAM you need.