Graphics Board: Pick Your Features
Graphics boards have become the high fashion of computing. As new, superfast graphics chips emerge every six months, trendy techsters don't want to get caught checking out the latest 3D game with a board that's "so last season." But you needn't spend a fortune to get good performance.
No need to buy the fastest: At the high end ATI and NVidia have been flirting with designer pricing, as loaded enthusiast parts go for upward of $500. At those prices, only the most hard-core gamers will pay to keep up with the latest styles; but even if your needs are relatively modest, you can easily find an affordable board that boosts your PC's 3D graphics speed.
Features matter: Most graphics boards today let you connect a second display to your PC. If you'd like to use your PC to record TV, a board with an integrated TV tuner (like the ATI All-In-Wonder line) is a good choice. EVGA (www.evga.com) makes a competing set of TV tuner-equipped graphics boards based on NVidia's Personal Cinema chip set.
PCI Express--the next generation: The latest graphics cards now use PCI Express, an improved version of the AGP slot on most PCs. Our tests of new PCI Express graphics cards detected no significant speed gains as a result of upgrading from AGP to PCI Express, though that will surely change as graphics chip speeds increase and as games get more complex.
Will a New Graphics Board Mean Faster Games?
An integrated graphics processor is like a suit bought at Wal-Mart: It does the job, but it doesn't look great. The PC World Test Center tested a PC with integrated graphics on a number of 3D games, and found them virtually unplayable. But when we installed a $220 Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card, the games ran much faster.
This upgrade isn't difficult. First, find out who makes the graphics chip you already use: Right-click your desktop, choose Properties, and select the Settings tab. Your graphics board will be listed under 'Display'.
All graphics cards based on chips from NVidia now use the same set of drivers, so if you're upgrading from one NVidia-based card to another, download and install the latest NVidia drivers. The same is true for ATI-based boards. If your new card switches graphics chip brands, you should uninstall the graphics drivers before you upgrade.
Shut down your PC, unplug it, and open the case. Remove the old graphics board (if any), insert the new board into its slot, and secure it with a screw. Plug your PC back in, turn it on, and follow the manufacturer's directions to set up the new graphics board.
- Power PC: ATI Radeon X800 XT ($480). ATI had the performance edge in our graphics tests when we built our system.
- Quiet PC: Gainward Silent FX PowerPack Ultra/980XP Professional ($180). This graphics board uses a large heat sink to silently cool the NVidia GeForce FX 5700 chip.
- Value PC and Upgrade: Abit Radeon 9600XT ($195). This graphics board offers strong performance for games, at a moderate price.
- Media PC: ATI All-In-Wonder 9600 XT ($190). This multipurpose card combines a fast graphics board with an integrated TV tuner.