How to Build a PC - Graphics Card Selection

 

In the last "How to build a PC" article we discussed how to select the right memory for your build, this time we are going to focus on the graphics card.

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Graphics cards are the backbone of any gaming system, and will be the largest contributing factor to the overall performance you will get within the games you play. In this guide we will discuss the considerations you should be aware of when selecting the graphics card for your system.

AMD and Nvidia are the two biggest GPU (graphics processing unit) developers who design the bulk of graphics cards which are available to PC gamers and enthusiasts. The development and manufacture of graphics cards is very similar to motherboards, in that, AMD and Nvidia develop and create the reference design for each of their cards, while third party manufacturers will use these designs to create their own versions of the cards, often with features that add value and help to distinguish their cards from other manufacturers. Some of the ways in which third party developers improve upon the reference design include; improving the cooling, reduced fan noise, overclocking, and altering the aesthetics of the cards. When you go shopping for a graphics card you are going to come across a lot of different types of cards from various manufacturers, but luckily the hierarchy of AMD and Nvidia graphics cards is pretty well defined based on their model numbers, so there are only a few things to worry about when deciding on your ideal graphics card.

For the most part, the more expensive a graphics card is, the better performance it will have, but there are some other things to consider than just purchasing the most expensive card you can afford.

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AMD versus Nvidia

The battle for GPU superiority is far from over and throughout every new GPU generation, the two manufacturers continue to jockey for position. With every new generation of GPU released from each manufacturer, enthusiasts will need to research the offereings from each manufacturer in order to see which one has the features which are most desirable to you, not to mention making sure the cards will be compatible with the rest of your system. Other than comparing pure synthetic benchmark scores, you will want to look at some other things as well, which we will cover below.

Performance and Benchmark Scores

Synthetic benchmarks like 3DMark are a good way to see how powerful a graphics card is compared to others. However, you will want to be sure you are comparing scores that were generated from identical hardware configurations, since having different hardware or system settings can also effect scores. Tom's Hardware is one reliable review site that stays up to date with testing the latest video cards showing how they compare to the rest. Below is a snapshot of a chart from Tom’s Hardware which illustrates the “Best Graphics Cards For The Money: May 2015”

Click HERE to be taken to the article at Tom’s Hardware which includes this chart.

There are lots of technical specs for graphics cards, but unless you are really interested in understanding the ins and outs of GPU performance, it's going to be both easier and more accurate to look at the performance test data. If you’re concerned with your graphics card being able to keep up with a particular game, then you will want to take a look at the games recommended hardware specifications, which can almost always be found online a few weeks before the game launches. Below is an example of "The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt."

Minimum requirements are what you can get away with if you don’t mind lowering your graphics settings in order to make the game playable. The recommended settings typically let you know what you will need in order to run the game at high settings.

Length of the card

Graphics cards come in all sizes, so before deciding on the perfect graphics card, you will need to first determine how much space you have in your case for graphics cards. At the time of writing this article, the longest current graphics card measures in at 12 inches (AMD R9 295X). Most modern mid and full tower cases will accommodate this length of a card, but it's a good idea to make sure. If you plan on building a smaller form factor system with a mATX or mini-ITX case, then this becomes a much more important factor in your decision. Below you can see the Nvidia GTX 980TI which is 10.5 inches in length (top), the AMD 290X which is 11 Inches in length (middle), and the dual GPU watercooled AMD 295X which is 12 inches in length (bottom).

 

Video output ports

Graphics cards will have different configurations of video output ports. Before deciding on your graphics card, you will need to determine what type of displays you will be using and what type of connectors they support. The most common modern types of connectors are, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort. DVI is probably the most common and will be found on just about any type of computer monitor. HDMI will be found on almost every modern television. DisplayPort are typically found on large, high resolution monitors, since DisplayPorts can handle the most bandwidth of all the current connector types. Below you can see an example of the ports available on an Nvidia GTX 980TI (from left to right, DisplayPort, HDMI, 2x DisplayPort, and a DVI on top)

   

Power Requirements

Graphics cards are some of the most power hungry components in a modern system. Mid to high end graphics cards will usually require one or two separate PCI-E connectors from your PSU in addition to the power it receives directly from the PCI-E socket. PCI-E connectors come in both 6-pin and 8-pin varieties and you will need to plug in the correct type of connector(s) that your card requires. Graphics card manufacturers will list the type of connectors their cards require in their specifications so that you can be sure that your PSU will support them. If your PSU does not have the correct amount or configuration of PCI-E connectors for your card, then you may not have enough power to properly operate the card. If you try to boot up your system without the correct PCI-E connectors connected, the system will not boot. Below you can see an example of a modern PCI-E connector cable from a Corsair PSU. These connectors can be used as either 6-pin or 8-pin since they break apart to be universally compatible.

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SLI and Crossfire

AMD and Nvidia both have their own technologies for linking multiple GPUs together in order to increase your overall performance. AMD calls this Crossfire, while Nvidia calls it SLI (Scalable Link Interface). Where this type of configuration starts to make sense and become useful is when you are running games on a very large, high resolution display, or if you are running multiple displays. If you intend to use multiple graphics cards, you will first need to make sure that your case and motherboard can physically support the configuration. Most modern mid to high end graphics cards will take up 2 PCI-E slots, with some cards taking up 3 PCI-E slots (like the example below). Once you are sure that they will physically fit, you will need to verify that your PSU is capable of powering them. Keep in mind that when using multiple graphics cards together, you will likely need to use identical makes and models of graphics cards, however there are some exceptions for which you will need to do your own research with AMD and Nvidia respectively.

Below you can see a three way SLI configuration being powered by Corsair’s AX1200i PSU.

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Next Steps

Now you should have an idea of what to look for when choosing your graphics card. In our next article we will be discussing how to pick out the perfect case. Stay tuned!

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