BEST VIDEO CARD UPGRADES FOR GAMING
After you define your personal preferenes - what you want in a video card - and identify the the limitations your system places on upgrade options (see Criteria for more information on these steps) you are ready to select the best video card upgrade that matches your gaming preferences. When looking at prospective cards, it is important to consider the details. It would be nice if there was a single scale to measure video card performance, but the complex interaction between your system, monitor, games, and video card affects the performance of the video card. It also affects the relative performance between cards, that is which one works better in your situation. The actual performance you get and the relative performance of cards is affected by:
- Your computer components, most importantly your CPU processing power and memory capacity and speed
- The resolution of the monitor you plan to use
- The particular games you play as different games interact with the video card and CPU in different ways
- The game settings you chose
- APIs (application programming interfaces) used in games, such as which version of DirectX
You can look at reviews to see and compare video card performance, but the perfomance you actually achieve may vary from the benchmarks in the review because of the characterisks listed above. Computer systems used in reviews to benchmark or measure video card performance typically have top end systems so the performance of the video cards are not limited or constrained by any other system components. This ensures a good measure of the maximum performance of a card, but may not reflect the performance you get if you have a system that is slower than the benchmark system in some way.
Using the Tools to Select the Best Video Card Upgrade
Since there is no single right upgrade for everyone, we provide tools to help you find the best graphics card upgrade that is right for you. It is suggested that you first read the entire page to see what tools are available and then pick your starting place.
Best Video Card Upgrades At Different Price Points
The THG article “Best Graphics Cards for the Money” recommends the best video card upgrades for gaming at different price points. It is updated monthly to reflect the latest graphics cards and prices. If you have some budget level in mind, the chart is a good place to start your search. The article provides a one line statement that characterizes the performance of the recommended cards, some helpful comments that are worth reading, and generally a link to the THG review of the model. You can take the recommended card for your target upgrade budget level and use other tools to see if the card meets your needs. If you are considering a video card model not on the list, you might want to compare it against the one on the list that costs about the same.
The last page of the article has a “Graphics Card Hierarchy Chart” that groups all card models into performance level groups that are ranked in tiers. It provides simplified matching of nVidia Geforce cards to ATI Radeon cards of the same approximate performance level and a general ranking of all cards in one place. If you are researching an upgrade, you can use the chart to get some idea of how far you are moving up the scale of relative performance from the card you are replacing.
GPUReview also lists their recommended graphics cards for different price points.
Video Card Upgrade Comparisons
Charts showing the comparative performance of most video card models for many select games are also available at Tom’s Hardware. The first page lists the games selected for the comparisons. It also has composite comparisons for different monitor resolutions, and comparisons on noise and temperature levels. Clicking a link takes you to a page comparing the performance of all graphics cards tested for the game or one of the other items, using a single score for each card. This makes it easy to compare cards on a favorite game, for a standard monitor resolution, or noise and temperature levels. The scoring for games is done in frames per second (fps) - see the section below for more information about using this statistic.
Once on the secong page, you can select several cards for direct comparison. When you select the cards and click compare, you go to a page that shows scores for all of the games THG tested for the cards you selected. You can also select just one upgrade candidate to get the statistics for it.
The charts are updated periodically but may not have the newest cards. Note that at the top of the lists are ratings for using two cards at one time for both nVidia Geforece video cards with Scalable Link Interface (SLI) and AMD Radeon HD video cards with Crossfire (CF). Some of the ratings are for standard reference design cards, listed as “Nvidia Geoforce [model name]” and “ATI Radeon [model name]” while others are for specific brands.
Once your search has focused on a particular model, you can use the model number to find reviews of the upgrade candidate and then move on to brand and vendor selection.
Frames per second (fps) is the statistic used to evaluate gaming performance and generally is the most important consideration in model selection. Faster cards provide more fps and hence are better cards than those with lower fps. Card performance is generally considered “playable” when it exceeds 30 fps; although some recommend a minimum 40 fps. Once play exceeds about 50 fps, the viewer will likely not notice any difference in game play. While having a card that plays a game at 100 fps might give one some bragging rights, the difference between it and a game played at 50 fps will not be noticeable nor affect game play. Of course, when purchasing an upgrade card one must consider the expected useful life and changes in gaming technology that may occur during that period which may benefit from greater power.
The performance of graphics cards, and the fps delivered for any game, is affected by:
- Monitor resolution – the greater the resolution the lower the fps for a given card.
- Quality settings – the higher the quality settings, and features such as anti-aliasing (AA) and anisotropic filtering (AF), the lower the fps.
- Average vs. minimum – ratings are usually based on average rates, but even when the average is above 30 fps, game play may intermittently decrease below that level, sometimes by a fair margin. So to keep the minimum over 30 to 40 fps, one needs a graphics card with a significantly higher average.
Better gaming card reviews provide ratings for multiple sizes of monitors, at several different quality settings, and report the average and minimum rates.
Balanced Systems – CPUs and GPUs
While a graphics processing unit (GPU) or video card offloads much of gaming processing from the CPU, the latter can still have a significant impact on game performance. A CPU that is too slow can prevent a game card from reaching its maximum performance level. Good video card reviews are done using systems that are powerful enough to permit the video card to perform at capacity. If you purchase an upgrade based on the reviews expecting to have similar results, but pair it with a weak system, you may be disappointed. Unfortunately, card makers, nor anyone else, provide comprehensive data on how well a card performs using different CPUs, not even the minimum CPU required to achieve maximum card performance.
More information on this topic can be found in a 4 part series of articles by Tom’s Hardware Guide (THG). Part 4 is linked here as it includes links to the earlier parts. Unfortunately, the articles are two years old so they don’t cover the latest cards and CPUs. However they should help explain the issue and may provide some data that is useful in interpolating to present components. For more up to date information or assistance, the best source may be forums, such as this graphics cards forum at Toms Hardware where you can view the answers to others’ questions or post your own question.