Desktop PCs

Graphics controller

Graphics card A stick of ram

Graphics cards are the devices that connect to and tell monitors what to display. They also take over many of the processing tasks associated with rendering and displaying 2D and 3D graphics. By taking over many display-related tasks from the CPU, the graphics card allows the CPU to focus on other tasks without affecting overall system performance. They vary considerably in price and capabilities. You can pay as little as $50 for a basic one, or over $1,000 for a top-of-the-line model that will let you play all the latest games.

Onboard graphics controllers

Not every PC you buy will have a dedicated graphics card. You will generally find that in small form factor PCs -- that is, physically smaller systems -- there is not enough space to have a dedicated graphics controller. The normal practice in such a case is to integrate the graphics on the motherboard. The end result may be a PC that will only do a portion of the graphical things a PC equipped with the top-of-the-range graphics controller can do.

However, it is also important to note that a regular ATX PC (see 'PC Cases' below) can come with this cut-down graphics component. Once again, you will most likely see this on budget PCs. The quickest way to know is to ask the retailer if it has a separate graphics controller or one integrated on the motherboard. Alternatively, on the back of the PC, if the graphics ports are located together with the USB and network ports on the motherboard, then it will have integrated graphics. If the graphics ports are located in their own slot below the motherboard's rear port cluster, then it's a separate graphics card. It's also worth noting that many motherboards with integrated graphics also have a slot for a separate graphics card to be installed at a latter date. Again, check with your reseller to make sure.

Which graphics chipset?

Although a large number of manufacturers build graphics cards for PCs, nearly all of them use components from one or both of the two major developers of graphics card chips: NVIDIA and ATI. Cards from different manufacturers based on identical graphics chips will be nearly indistinguishable in terms of performance, unless they are 'special edition' or 'overclocked' versions.

NVIDIA produces graphics controller chips with the GeForce brand. These are divided up into graphics controllers for the budget, mainstream or the higher-end/gaming enthusiasts markets. The latest range of GeForce graphics chips is the 8xxxx series, which is now available in an 8800 GTX version for enthusiasts, or in an 8600 GT version for mainstream systems. There's also a range of chips in the 8500 series for the budget-conscious.

Although the grades of graphics cards vary, it is quite normal to find features such as TV-out or S-Video on mainstream cars, without having to pay more for the high-end cards. For example, consumers can pick up a PCI Express-based GeForce 8600 GT graphics card TV-out and a DVI port for much less than $200. In comparison, a top of the range PCI Express-based 8800 GTX card will set you back around $800. The lower-end chips, however, will run slower and won't be able to render the latest games at high resolutions such as 1280x1024 or greater.

The current range of ATI graphics chips are branded under the Radeon name. Common Radeon chips include the HD 2900 XT, HD 3870 and HD 3850 for the high-end user; HD 2600 XT and HD 2600 Pro for the mid-range user; and the HD 2400 XT or HD 2400 Pro for the budget buyer. Prices may vary from under $100 for the HD 2400 Pro Radeon to between $170 and $400 for the HD 2600 XT and HD 3870. The Radeon HD 2900 XT is a bit more expensive with prices close to the $550 mark. The Radeon HD 2900 XT, even though it has slightly better specifications, won't give better performance than the Radeon HD 3870 in games like Crysis, so don't be tempted to buy it. Other reasons to go for an HD 3870 instead of a 2900 XT is that the HD 3870 consumes less power and is therefore more desirable for new PCs.

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