To the uninitiated, few things in computing are as daunting as buying a new computer video card. You thought picking out a PC or HDTV was tough? With video cards, several specifications demand particular attention and consideration: shader counts, memory type, bus width, a handful of anti-aliasing technologies, and no less than three separate clock speeds — and that's just the tip of the information iceberg. It's enough to make everyday folks yearn for the simple days of Minesweeper and Solitaire.
Fortunately, most of those mind-boggling specifications only matter to hardcore computer geeks. Let's keep things simple and focus on what you actually need to look for while shopping for a video or graphics card, then identify the best buying options across several price points.
Graphics Card Brands Don't Really Matter, But the Type of Card Does
Before we dive into the nitty gritty, a quick teaching session is in order. While Nvidia and AMD provide the base designs for various graphic cards, these companies don't actually make video cards. Instead, separate manufacturers build retail cards based off of Nvidia and AMD's stock reference designs. So, when you shop for a Radeon HD 7950 card, for example, you'll run into several varieties made by manufacturers like XFX, Sapphire, MSI, and others, but none from AMD directly.
Those individual manufacturers differentiate their offerings by doing things like adding extra cooling fans, overclocking the cards to eke out slightly better PC gaming frame rates, or bundling them with cables or proprietary software. But for the most part, the base graphical performance should be fairly even across the board for any given card type. An XFX-branded Radeon HD 7950 should perform similarly to a Sapphire-branded Radeon HD 7950. Those identification numbers, on the other hand, are very important; a Radeon 7970 outperforms (and costs more) than a Radeon 7950, while a Radeon 7850 isn't as powerful as a Radeon 7950. But don't worry, it's not all as confusing as it seems.
While we recommend specific video card types (like the Radeon 7950) in this guide, feel free to shop around to find the best price or feature set available from the competing manufacturers.
A Low-End Video Card Will Suffice for Light Users
What do you plan on doing with your computer? If you're only performing ho-hum everyday tasks — surfing the Web, editing documents and spreadsheets, or watching stuff on YouTube — you probably don't need an upgraded video card at all. Most computers purchased in the last two years can even play 1080p videos without skipping a beat.
If your computer can't effectively perform such tasks, a basic video card can add high-definition video playback without breaking the bank, and you don't even need a recent generation model. The older AMD Radeon HD 6450 ($29.99 via $10 mail-in rebate with free shipping, a low by $10), for example, includes 1080p capabilities and plays nice with protected Blu-ray discs.
What to Look for in a High-End Graphics Card
So when do more expensive video cards come in handy? Their alternative name — graphics cards — provides the answer; if you're going to play 3D games or do any intensive photo or video editing, a graphics card is a must.
Thankfully, buying a graphics card isn't as complicated as it used to be. The technology behind video cards has improved to the point that even entry level cards can do things that were limited to stratospherically-priced models just a few years back, such as powering multiple monitors or 3D displays. Even cheaper models can play demanding games like Battlefield 3 these days, although users will have to dial back the detail settings and possibly their screen resolution.
As far as specifications go, here's what you'll need to take into consideration:
Series and Generation
Newer Nvidia 600-series and AMD Radeon HD 7000-series cards are slightly faster than their comparable last-gen Nvidia 500-series and AMD Radeon HD 6000-series counterparts, but their big draw lies in improved power efficiency. If that advantage isn't a concern and the loss of a few rates per second isn't an issue, buying a last-gen card is a good way to save some dough, though we'd be hesitant to buy a card that's older than that.
Video cards with overclocked GPUs offer slightly better performance than other cards of the same type running at stock clock speeds.
Without sufficient memory, the graphics card won't be able to transfer the video it processes to your monitor in a timely basis, resulting in icky effects like tearing and stuttering. If you plan on sticking to moderate graphics settings on a standard monitor, 1GB of GDDR5 RAM and a 128-bit bus/interface are decent minimums. If you have a high-resolution monitor or want all the textural bells and whistles enabled in the newest games, look for a card with at least 2GB of RAM and a 192-bit bus, though more is definitely better when it comes to the latest and greatest games.
If you have specific feature requirements — say, if you need several HDMI ports or the ability to power several displays, or want to run a dual-, tri-, or quad-card setup for increased graphics performance — read the card's specification and feature list to be certain your needs are met. Also, you'll want to get a card that supports DirectX 11, the programming language used in most modern games.
You'll also have to do some investigation to ensure your PC can handle its new card. First, check to make sure your PC's power supply has enough free PCI-e connections to support the video card you choose, as many modern products require two or more PCI-e connections.
Also check to see if your PC's power supply can handle the electric load snarfed down by your shiny new graphics card. Newegg's power calculator is a handy basic resource, while Thermaltake's wattage calculator is better for determining the power needed by beefier setups. Most setups with a single, mid-range card should be fine with a 550W power supply.
Graphics Cards at Different Price Points
Let's discuss what you can expect from various price ranges and talk about the best video card options in each class. When you're shopping, be sure to look for rebate options, which frequently drive prices even lower. (Note that we've linked to the cheapest option for each series, then have given the price low for that specific manufacturer model.)
With a sub-$100 card, current 3D gaming is pretty much a no-no. Just over $100, graphics cards can play most modern games at modest frame rates, although you'll need to top your monitor resolution around 1080p. The best value for this price range comes in the form of the pictured AMD Radeon 7770 GHz Edition ($99.99 via $15 mail-in rebate with $7 s&h, a low by $15), which can consistently be found for under $150 — sometimes significantly under — and runs even demanding titles like Battlefield 3 and Metro 2033 at playable (but not quite smooth) 30-ish fps rates. Remember that dropping a game's detail settings and resolution can raise those rates.
The $200 to $300 price range is the value sweet spot for most folks. If you game on a single 1080p or lower resolution monitor with a card from this price range, most titles should maintain a silky-smooth 60 fps rate or better, even at "High" detail. However that will dip a bit if you turn on "Very High" detail settings or full-blown anti-aliasing options. The AMD Radeon 7870 GHz Edition ($239.99 with free shipping, a low by $11) offers the best bang for your buck here, delivering solid performance for a reasonable price. If you don't mind a slight drop in frame rates, the AMD Radeon HD 7850 ($169.99 with $6.98 s&h, a low by $1) is a strong option for a bit less, while the Nvidia Geforce GTX 660 Ti ($249.99 via $30 mail-in rebate with free shipping, a low by $25) provides frame rates that are a bit better than the Radeon 7870's, but the card starts at $300 and isn't as good of a value proposition as the AMD cards.
If you refuse to accept any loss in graphics quality or frame rates whatsoever on a normal display, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 ($349.99 via $10 mail-in rebate with free shipping, a low by $17) is the best bet for your bottom dollar. More expensive options are best left to gamers who rock multiple displays or a single ultra-high resolution monitor, such a 30" 2560 x 1440p monstrosity. If that's you, the AMD Radeon 7970 GHz Edition ($419.99 via $20 mail-in rebate with $4.99 s&h, a low by $25) currently holds the high-performance crown.
Regardless of what type of card you're looking for, it's worth setting up an email alert now so you can receive notification as soon as we post a deal on the video card of your choice.