The Ultimate Graphics Card Buying Guide

The Ultimate Graphics Card Buying Guide

People buy a graphics card when they want to play video games. However, not everyone knows what they should look for when searching for a good one. There are a lot of things that need to be taken into consideration.

If you want to know which cards can handle your favourite games and what’s currently available on the market, read this guide. It will also tell you about the most important specifications and how different GPU types compare against each other.

The Ultimate Graphics Card Buying Guide
The Ultimate Graphics Card Buying Guide

Your graphics card is very important because it processes all the visuals in your game before sending them back to your monitor so that you can see them. You need a fast processor if you want high framerates and photo-realistic images in 3D games – but without a good graphics card, you can forget about all that.

Different types of GPUs:

The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is the most important part of your hardware when it comes to gaming. It performs three basic functions: it processes all the visuals; determines what’s covered by shadows; and draws each frame of gameplay onto the screen. A graphics card usually has 1-3 GPUs onboard – too slow for rendering, not good enough for physics processing – but modern processors like Intel HD Graphics 4000 or AMD Radeon HD 6970M are powerful enough to handle all these tasks in one single chip.

You should know that there are two main types of GPUs available today: integrated and discrete. Integrated GPUs are built into a processor – which means that they share the system’s RAM with the CPU. If you have a fast processor or a laptop, it might be enough to run all your games smoothly – but this is not guaranteed because there are no standards when it comes to integrated GPUs’ performance and capabilities.

On the other hand, discrete GPUs come on their own card and use dedicated memory (they don’t share anything with the CPU). This makes them faster and more suitable for complex 3D tasks like gaming or high-end computation. When choosing between integrated and discrete graphics cards you need to know that:

  • Integrated graphics cards offer fewer features than discrete ones;
  • Discrete cards perform better in games;
  • A good discrete card costs around 100$ more than an integrated one.

Most laptops come with an integrated GPU, but not all of them are suited for gaming. You can find out if you have a decent one in your machine by looking up its model in this list. It should be at least on the 2nd tier to be able to play some more demanding titles like Skyrim or Battlefield 3 (medium settings with 30-60 FPS). Don’t trust the names that manufacturers give their GPUs – they might sound good (like “NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560M”) but actually perform very poorly in games. Always check benchmarks before buying anything.

You may even decide to buy a new laptop altogether if your current one is too slow for 3D games – or you can transfer your existing hard drive onto a new computer.

In this buying guide, you will find performance comparisons of the most popular GPUs on the market as well as their prices, so you can make an informed decision on which one to buy. There are charts for discrete and integrated graphics cards – just skip to the type that interests you.

The main specifications:

Device ‘flavour’ aside, there are some performance factors that all GPUs have in common: a 2D engine, a 3D engine and video RAM. A good card must have powerful engines because they determine how fast things load from your hard drive (faster = better) and how smoothly everything runs (smoother = better). You also need enough RAM to store what’s happening on your screen right now – a certain amount of video memory is needed to store the data from the last few frames of gameplay so that they can be sent back to your monitor as soon as you need them.

There are many other technical specs that distinguish different cards, but not all of them affect performance. For example, some GPUs use more power than others or have higher clock speeds (measured in MHz). You might want to check out this guide for an explanation of what exactly each spec means and how it affects your card – especially if you’re buying a laptop and its battery life is important for you.

Performance benchmarks: discrete GPUs

The following charts provide detailed information about graphics cards’ performance across various games and resolutions. You will find high-end models like NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680 and AMD Radeon HD 7970 as well as mid-range cards like Radeon HD 7850 and GeForce GTX 660. All data comes from notebooksreview.com – make sure to check out their comprehensive graphics card section (and its helpful charts) if you want to know more about any mobile GPU model.

The first chart is sorted by price: the most expensive GPUs are at the top, less powerful ones – towards the bottom. You can click on each column heading to sort the whole table by that parameter; for example, clicking “Clock speed” will arrange all rows with such a column in alphabetic order according to their clock speeds.

All games were tested at medium settings upscaled to 1080p resolution (1920×1080) and all benchmarks were performed three times for accuracy. If you want to see the exact procedure, watch this video on YouTube.

The following table shows how different models of the same GPU family perform against each other: for example, Radeon HD 7770 is almost as fast as the 7850 but costs less – so it’s a better deal. However, its specs are also very similar to those of the Radeon HD 7750 – which performs worse because it has fewer shaders (a component of a processor that does some calculations). So always compare cards’ specs if their performance seems too far apart.

Performance benchmarks: integrated GPUs

The following charts provide detailed information about graphics card’s performance for common daily tasks like web browsing or watching movies. Sorting the chart by price shows that cheaper CPUs have weaker integrated graphics than their more expensive counterparts. Some CPUs can even switch between integrated and discrete GPUs when needed – check out the following section for more details on this technology.

The following table shows how different mobile processors’ integrated GPUs perform against each other: you will see that all models of Radeon HD 6630M are very slow, so don’t buy one if you need to run 3D programs or play games. The only exception is Radeon HD 8550G which has a powerful processor in addition to a decent GPU with enough video memory to make it suitable for running heavy applications without a dedicated card. On the opposite side of the table, you will find Intel’s Sandy Bridge generation iGPUs – even the slowest one (HD Graphics 3000) is fast enough to run some games.

You can also check how well different CPUs play 1080p videos. For example, the Intel i3-330M processor is capable of smooth playback of H.264 video encoded with x264 codec at 10Mbps bitrate while Celeron 1007U does not have enough power for the same task no matter what settings are used.

Performance benchmarks: laptop GPUs vs desktop GPUs

This section provides information about performance differences between mobile and desktop graphics cards in order to help you find out which card will suit your needs better. The data comes from notebooksreview.com, so make sure to check out their comprehensive graphics card section if you want to know more about any particular GPU.

The charts show that discrete GPUs are faster than their integrated counterparts; however, you should also consider how much power they need and how hot they get – otherwise, high-end models might be not as portable as mid or low-end ones. Also, note that the situation may change for future mobile processors: even though NVIDIA has already released its first Kepler-based graphics card (GeForce GTX 680M), we don’t know to what extent laptops’ cooling systems can handle it without making too much noise.

A well-known fact: laptop graphics cards cannot compete with their desktop equivalents in terms of performance and power efficiency. They don’t use the same hardware components and technologies – different fabrication process is used, so it’s hardly surprising. While the difference becomes negligible for low-end cards (integrated GPUs), high-end ones are still miles away from desktop models – even though they use the same technologies like DirectX 11 or OpenGL 4 support (you can read up on these specs here ).

The problem of mobile graphics chips’ performance compared to their desktop counterparts is also discussed in this article by AnandTech, which explains why mobile and desktop GPUs cannot be simply replaced with each other. What I want to add is that some new processors (like GeForce GTX 680M) were designed not only for laptops but also for desktops. Hardware developers will soon start producing small form factor PCs with such processors, so it’s possible that we’ll see powerful graphics cards in smaller devices soon.

This is an image from Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 680 presentation, which shows how desktop and laptop GPUs will look like in the future:

Clock speeds and shader units

You don’t need to know every single detail about GPUs; however, it would be nice to know what do clock speeds and the number of shaders (or CUDA cores) mean. This information can help you compare our results with other charts on notebookcheck.net, for example. I’ll also show you how many shaders are required to play some games at full HD resolution. First, let’s take a look at GPU clock speed:

The table below lists common resolutions and their corresponding framerates if FPS is – this means that faster GPUs will be able to handle higher resolutions more easily. You can also see that even the slowest discrete graphics solutions are still miles away from Intel’s GPUs in terms of performance, so it won’t be an issue if you want to play some mainstream games without a dedicated card.

I’ve created this chart after I had read the article posted on Maximum PC – it shows how much FPS is required if you want to play your favourite game at different resolutions and settings:

As you can see, only high-end GPUs will be able to offer playable framerates for 1920×1080 resolution with full details and FSAA enabled; however many gamers prefer at least 1600×900 or even 1366×768 because larger displays consume lots of power and are harder to cool. You can see the conclusion of this article here – it explains why more expensive GPUs are capable of running new games even at high resolutions, while cheaper ones fail miserably.

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