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Friday, January 16, 2009

Do you make these 6 mistakes when buying a video card?

atinvidiaSince I’ve been a computer geek, I’ve heard many horror stories of people buying a slow video card, thinking that they were getting a fast model.

In general, people make the same several mistakes when they buy their video cards. Have they been with me, I’d have helped them avoid these 6 mistakes when buying a video card:

1- Buying a video card based solely on the amount of memory.

More is better, right? That’s their excuse when you have to justify your purchase to yourself or to your geek friend.

Well yes, but not if you base your purchase solely on the amount of RAM. A video card performance is based on many other factors, such as the GPU chip model, the frequency of the GPU/memory, the memory bus width, etc.

A good example of this would be someone buying a 8600GT 512MB over a 8800GT 256MB. Sure, it may have more memory, but every other factor will limit the card performance in comparison.

Also keep in mind that you won’t need the extra memory unless you play at very high resolutions, such as 1920×1080 and/or with AA/AF quality filtering. Why? Because your video card won’t need/use it.

2- Buying a lower-end new generation model over a higher-end old generation model.

It’s newer, so it must be faster!

Not so quickly. When in the majority of cases, this is true, it is not always true. So? Well, you might miss out on a really good deal, as stores tend to lower prices on older generations, to get rid of their old stock, to make space for the new stock.

Now, the mistake some of you make is to choose your card by using the generation number first. You’d think that a 4xxx card from ATI is automatically faster than a 3xxx model. If you take a Radeon 3870, it’d trash a Radeon 4350 or be faster than a Radeon 4650.

Let me quickly explain how model numbers work, using ATI’s 4850 model as an example.

4850: The first number refers to the generation of the card. A higher number there means that the video card is based on a more recent generation, which always brings in improvements over the previous generation.

4850: The second number refers to the range of that card. Same here, higher is better. In Ati’s case, for the 4xxx series, it goes mostly like this:

  • 3: Low end
  • 6: Mid range
  • 8: High performance

4850: The last two numbers refer to the place of that model, within the hierarchy of that range of video cards (See second point, for the “8″); within a generation (See first point, for the “4″). In the vast majority of cases, a higher number means higher performance, but both ATI and Nvidia tricked people in the past with crippled GS/SE models, so keep an eye open for the suffix if there’s one. No, SE does not mean special edition!!

Although ATI don’t really use suffix on their newer models, Nvidia still are. Here’s a quick reference, from slowest to fastest, when you compare two identical models otherwise:

Just keep in mind that many older generation, higher-end models are often faster than some of the newer models, so make sure to google benchmarks and to compare prices!

3- Not considering the space/power requirements.

So you’ve avoided the two first mistakes, ended up buying a Geforce GTX280, are eager to play the newest games…only to realize that it doesn’t fit in your case! Good job =P

This is especially true when you have a small format case, a HTPC or if you buy a high-end video card.

Lesson here: Measure the space available for the video card in your case (Usually from the back of the case to the hard drive cage) and double-check the length of the card, which is usually found under the specs, before buying it. Check reviews and/or contact the store if you’re unsure.

You’ve bought a great card, it fits in your case, but now you’ve one or several of the following problems? :

  • Your video card needs extra power connectors and you don’t have them.
  • Your computer won’t boot.
  • Your computer boots but crashes under games.

I’m afraid that your power supply may not up to the task of powering your new video card. Now, that’s most probably it, but it might not be it, make sure to troubleshoot before buying a new power supply.

4- Teaming a powerful video card with a slow Cpu

Yay, you’ve got that new Radeon 4870X2 and you’re ready to dominate the virtual world. Only to see that you’re framerates are no where what you expected to be, according to all those reviews.

Well, if you’re using such a powerful gpu with a slow cpu, lik an Intel E4300, it just won’t work as you want it to. Your cpu will bottleneck your video card performance, which mean that it won’t be able to keep up with it and your video card performance will be reduced as it always waits on the CPU.

Simply try to keep your cpu performance in balance with your video card. If you get a midrange video card (9800 GTX, 4850) , try to team it with a midrange CPU (E7400 and such).

If you use SLI/Crossfire or even better (or worse in this case), make sure to team up your video cards with a blazing fast quad-core CPU. Most games may not benefit from quad-core yet, but the video drivers and the cards themselves will. The new Core i7 cpus are a perfect fit here.

5- Buying an overkill video card for the games that you play.

If you play is Counter-Strike 1.6, WoW or the majority of games that are 2 years or older, you probably don’t need the lastest and fastest video card.

If you play on a 17″ or 19″ screen, you probably don’t need the lastest and fastest video card.

This is just like someone who buys a Mustang simply because they want more horsepower. Could they travel to work and do their everyday activities with a Honda Civic? Most probably.

You will waste a lot of money, both on purchase, power consumption and on upgrading the rest of your system (Cpu and power supply) if you buy a video card that is overkill for your needs.

Learn to listen to your wallet, think with your head and figure out how much power you really need for the games that you play!

Now, some of you may not agree with this, as you’ll say that it’s good to have headroom for future games. I don’t think so. Why? By the time that the new game is out, your video card will still be able to handle it, perhaps at lower settings but newer video cards that offer higher performance for the same price will most probably be out by then.

I think that it is better to upgrade at a low cost every so often than to buy some of the most expensive video cards all the time. Not to mention that higher-end cards tend to devalue faster than mid-range video cards. Just like higher-end cars.

Now, if you absolutely need the fastest and most powerful video card with every new release, just to strike your ego and brag about it, go ahead, just be prepared to pay the price!

6- Listening to the recommendations of only one person.

The last, but certainly not the least of the common mistakes done when buying a video card: Listening to the opinion of a single person. What’s wrong with that?

  • The person may be a fanboy, who would recommend an inferior product from Nvidia or from ATI simply because they prefer that company.
  • The person may not have a clue of what they’re talking about. Not everyone have vast knowledge on video cards.
  • That person’s information may be outdated. After all, new video cards are released on a regular base (every couple of months, or even less)

Always make sure to get the opinion of many trusted people, ask around on forums, contact me, read plenty of reviews and comparisons. You’re going to spend a lot of your hard earned cash on that card, so make sure it is the right one for you.

Same goes for me. Don’t just listen to me, I’m human too hehehe.


Buying a video card requires thoughtful thinking. With such a variety of cards available on the market, it may be confusing, so remember to avoid these mistakes, ask as many opinions as you can and shop around for good prices!

What has been your experience when buying video cards? Have you made any of the mistakes or were you going to? Do you have any tips to share with us or any mistake that I’ve not mentionned that you think we should know of? Let us know in the comments section just below!