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  • Video Cards 101

A video card, also known as a graphics card or graphics-accelerator card, is an expansion card that is dedicated solely to rendering graphics. Adding a graphics card to your computer can vastly increase the performance and appearance of video games, movies, animations and other visual effects. Read on to learn more about how a video card can improve your computing and gaming experience and how to shop for a graphics card upgrade.

Integrated vs. Dedicated
Early PCs and budget computers typically have video hardware integrated into the motherboard. As such, the resources of the motherboard are shared with the video and graphics processes. A dedicated graphics card, on the other hand, has the benefit of being much more powerful than the integrated chip in the motherboard as well as alleviating the processing burden from the main CPU.

Graphics Cards Components
Like a motherboard, a video card has a number of components that work together to process graphics. The heart of a graphic card is the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). A GPU is like a CPU, except it’s optimized for accelerating graphics. GPU speeds are measured in hertz, megahertz (MHz) and gigahertz (GHz). The more GHz, the faster the graphics card.

Whereas the motherboard has RAM, the graphics card has video memory. Video memory works similarly to random access memory by providing high speed read/write access for use by the GPU. Video memory is measured in hertz as well and will appear as “memory clock rate” in the specs. Modern cards have memory clock rates between 400 MHz and 3.8 GHz.

Each video card also has a BIOS. This is the internal software on the card that manages the functions and operation of the card. This is typically not accessible or customizable by the user, though third-party BIOS may be used to “overclock” (i.e. speed up a graphics card beyond its rated performance).

The interface refers to how the graphics card connects to the motherboard. This is important when shopping for a graphics card upgrade, as some motherboards may not be compatible with certain graphic cards. Currently, the standard is PCI Express, or PCIe.

The outputs on a video card are the ports that connect your computer to the monitor or display. The most typical outputs are digital visual interface (DVI), high definition multimedia interface (HDMI) and DisplayPort. Check which connection your monitor accepts before buying a graphics card.

Do I Need a Graphics Card?
Graphics cards are not necessary for everyday computing, such as emailing, browsing the web, word processing and managing photos, videos and music. If you intend to use your computer for gaming, watching high definition movies and videos, creating 3-D animations and editing video, a graphics card will likely give you a significant performance boost. Not only will a graphics card give your computer more processing power (therefore increasing the overall speed), a graphics card can add features such as HDMI outputs and support for graphics APIs such as Direct3D and DirectSound.

In summary, most computers come shipped with integrated graphics chips, negating the need for a dedicated graphics card. For most users, the integrated graphics controller is sufficient. But for those who intend to work with video or games with 3D graphics, a video card expansion can vastly improve their experience.