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Video Cards for Your Homebuilt Computer


Video cardIn a nutshell, a video card converts signals from your computer into a standardized output that can be displayed on your computer's monitor.

Higher-end video cards can also send video signals to a television, video recorder, or video editing equipment.

There are dozens of companies who manufacture video cards and/or integrated video processors for motherboards; but two companies, ATI and NVidia (the latter of whom also owns 3dfx, manufacturer of the once-popular Voodoo line of video cards), hold the lion's share of the market for add-on video cards. But there are others, as well as a large group of third-party manufacturers who build cards around chipsets provided by nVidia, ATI, and Intel.


Which Video Card is Best?

As with so many other computer components, loyalty runs deep among PC enthusiasts as to what is the "best" brand of video card. I've had superb experiences with cards manufactured by both ATI and nVidia. I've found both companies to be robust, dependable, well-supported, high-performing cards. I've also had excellent results with the Intel integrated video on their higher-end chips. But there are others wouldn't think of installing anything other than their favorite brand of video card in their computers.

The truth of the matter is that some cards perform better for some purposes or even with some particular programs. The main area in which these differences can be seen is in high-pressure games. Some games just work better with one brand of card than another.

If you are a gamer, then we recommend that you consult PC gaming magazines, newsgroups, and Web sites to learn what your fellow gamers think about particular cards.

Similarly, if you use high-end video-editing, architectural, drafting, CAD/CAM, or other video-intensive software, you should check with the software vendor to make sure that the card you are considering is supported.

On a personal note, I've used a lot of nVidia cards over the years because I've built a lot of Linux computers, and I've always found nVidia cards to have excellent Linux support. But nowadays, most video card makers are making Linux drivers available for their cards, so that's become less of an issue.

For most folks, however, choosing a video card for a homebuilt computer is a matter of finding a card that meets the following criteria:

  • It is powerful enough to handle the video demands you will place on it.

  • It has the correct interfaces both to the motherboard you are using and to the devices you wish to connect to it.

  • It as the features you need for the type of computing work (or play) that you do.

  • It is in within your budget.


Integrated Video

Some motherboards come with integrated (built-in) audio and/or video cards. Depending on the quality and price range of the board, on-board video processors can range from absolutely horrible to quite good.

For word processing and checking email (or for use on a file server), almost any decent integrated video chip probably will do. But for most other users who are considering a board with integrated video, it should be evaluated according to the same factors you would use when deciding upon an add-on video card. You also should inquire as to whether the on-board video processor has its own dedicated RAM or shares a portion of the system RAM. (Dedicated video RAM is definitely a plus in terms of performance and stability.)

Finally, even if the motherboard you are considering has integrated video, make sure it also has expansion slots in case the on-board video fails, or in case you later decide to disable the on-board video and upgrade to an aftermarket video card.

On the next page, we will look at some of the design factors that affect the performance and usefulness of video cards.


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