Lesson 4- Video card component – explains what a video card is with definitions of features

In lesson 4 we’ll explain what a video card is with definitions of features to look for when shopping for a video card and how much you can expect to pay.


The video card is responsible for creating all that you see on your computer monitor. Up until about 8 years ago, video cards were advancing in the acceleration and quality of 2 dimensional images. Since that time, video cards have reached a point where they are all equal in their ability to show 2D images and no further acceleration is possible.

Video card development now focuses on 3 dimensional acceleration and 3D image quality, 3D games and 3D modeling software, for instance.

Direct X is the system that 3D acceleration is based on. The latest version, Direct X11 which comes with Windows 7 and Windows 8 and be installed on Windows Vista, provides the best image quality and fastest 3D graphics available.  For the best 3D performance, look for Direct X 11 support in your video card.

The amount of memory a video card has plays a big role in the speed and quality of 3D graphics. The higher the resolution you run your games at and the higher the quality settings you enable in your games, the more memory the video card will need to keep the games running fast.  Look for a card with at least 1GB of memory.


The video card will attach through a PCI Express 2.0 16x or 3.0 16x slot on the motherboard . Make sure the video card you buy supports PCI Express 2.0 16x or 3.0 16x.  PCI Express 3.0 doubles the available bandwidth for sending data between the motherboard and the card compared to the older 2.0 spec and both the 2.0 and 3.0 specs are forward and backward compatible with each other. Keep in mind that even this years highest performing video cards don’t use more bandwidth that the 2.0 spec provides.  3.0 will better support future video cards, but is not a necessity today.{reg}

Video Card Prices

If you’re not planning on using your computer for 3D images you should look for a video card in the $40 to $120 range. These video cards also have 3D acceleration, but are considered low end.

If you would like to use your computer for games and other 3D applications the prices for video cards range between $120 to $600.

A good price point for mid to high end video cards is between $120 and $300. This price range will give you good to very good performance and visual quality.

$300 and above video cards are really for avid gamers and those into 3D modeling. You will be getting the very best visual quality available and the more you spend, the faster the graphics will be. See the case and power supply component lesson on power and connection requirements for video cards.

Crossfire and SLI

There is also an option to put 2, 3 or 4 video cards in the same computer to nearly double, triple or quadruple graphics processing power. This is called SLI by Nvidia or Crossfire by ATI. Nvidia and ATI  have created their own technologies to connect their graphics cards so you can not mix ATI and Nvidia cards together.  Dual and Quad SLI or Crossfire, can be achieved using only 1 or 2 video cards.  Called X2 video cards, these cards have 2 GPU’s or Graphics processing units, on one video card.  1 X2 video card give you nearly double the graphics processing power.  By connecting 2 x2 Nvidia or ATI cards together, you can nearly quadruple your graphics processing power.

We say nearly because as you add video cards the performance increase is not linear. If you add a second card you’ll see a 50% to 100% depending on the game, the resolution and image quality settings.  Adding a third will give you a performance increase but not as large an increase as going from 1 to 2 cards.  Adding a fourth card gives you further diminishing returns.  It is better to buy 1 really good video card than 2 lower end card.  In a year or two when newer games need more processing power you can add a 2nd video card.

If you want to have SLI or Crossfire or think you might want to add additional cards in the future to boost graphics performance, make sure both the motherboard and video cards you buy support SLI or Crossfire. Also, you need to buy matched Nvidia or ATI video cards with roughly the same specifications for SLI or Crossfire to work problem free.

We will cover motherboard requirements for SLI and Crossfire in the motherboard component lesson.

The CPU is important

The video card handles the 3D quality of images and contributes greatly to the speed of the graphics. However, the computers processor plays a very important role in the speed of 3D games and 3D modeling programs. The faster the processor, the faster the graphics will be. For more on the processor, see the processor component lesson.


Other features to look for in a video card are the outputs available. The common output found on almost all video cards is called a DVI connector which connects the video card to a LCD monitor. Most video cards have two DVI outputs. These 2 outputs can be used for connecting 2 monitors to your computer.  Some video cards allow you to connect 3 or more monitors.

See the monitor component lesson for more on multi-monitor set ups.

HDMI is the next most common connection. Some LCD monitors have HDMI connections and you can also use HDMI to connect your computer to an HDTV.

Displayport is another option for connecting to a computer monitor.

If you’re going to be using an older CRT monitor with your new computer you need to make sure the video card either has 1 VGA output, also called D-sub, or that one of the DVI connections has the 4 analog pins and that it comes with a DVI to VGA adapter.

When you purchase your video card, buy in the price range your needs call for

  • $40 to $120 for 2D and low end 3D graphics
  • $120 and $300 for mid to high end 3D graphics
  • $300 and above for excellent 3D graphics
  • to nearly double, triple or quadruple graphics power now or in the future buy SLI or Crossfire capable video cards with roughly the same specs and a SLI or Crossfire capable motherboard
  • Look for a video card with the outputs you will be using on your computer.

In the installation lessons we’ll go over how to install the video card into your computer.

Video card Warranties

Video cards are generally very reliable although the cooling fans do tend to wear out.

Most manufacturers offer a 1 year warranty, though you can find cards with 3 years of coverage.

Manufacturer Links
Asus GigaByte
BFG Tech Leadtek
Diamond Matrox
EVGA Sapphire
Gainward XFX


Video card Reviews

To find more reviews do a search in your favorite search engine (Google, Yahoo) for the model number of the video card you’re interested in.

Buying a Video card

Whether you buy a low or high-end video card there is no shortage of choices. Below are several sites that will help you find the lowest price from a reputable merchant.