In the past, buying programs for your computer was very simple. If your computer was fairly new, it would probably run any new game or program you chose to throw at it. Hardware was simpler, and video games were written in a more straightforward manner.

Fast forward to today: Shopping for games is like purchasing food for your latest diet kick... you have to go through a long list of unintelligible specifications and numbers before you know if it's even going to work. And if you succeed in deciphering the gigahertz and gobbabytes and bogon generators, you still have to upgrade your computer on a regular basis to even hope to play the newest games. And don't expect that to be simple, either. Purchasing 3D accelerators reminds one of a fireworks shop.

To fully understand what this is all about, we need to go back a bit in history.

Why a 3D accelerator?

Welcome to 1981. I don't exist, but we can ignore that. Personal computers are slow, simple, generally fairly stable, but not quite as much fun as hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. You press a key, and the appropriate letter pops up on the screen... not much for your computer to think about. A monochrome text display at 80x25 uses four entire kilobytes of video memory, which is seen as way too much. Of course, there are some video games... I hope you like Zork.

Jump ahead to 1983-86. Personal computers have advanced at an incredible rate, adding 16-bit hardware and software, color graphics, and an occasional mouse pointer. Now, if you want to draw a circle on your screen, you type an appropriate command or series of commands, and simple formulas create the pixel images and place them on your screen. Detail is low - you could never show a realistic photograph on your screen - but computers are now good for play as well as work. Video games such a Janitor Joe debut, distributed on floppy disks.

1993 is here, and the dawn of entertainment computing is upon us. A small child can use a Windows-based PC to do homework or paint a picture on the screen, in glorious VGA resolution. You can buy a complete multimedia kit with a CD-ROM drive, a sound card, and a simple pair of speakers for less than a good keyboard cost just a few years ago. Modern 32-bit processing powerhouses, such as the i386, bring video gaming to a whole new dimension - the third dimension.

This amazing revolution in graphics quality is primarily due to improvements in video cards.

A video card is a small fiberglass board with various chips soldered onto it, which plugs into a specially designed slot inside the tower part of your computer. It is used to convert the data inside your computer into a picture you can see on your monitor. In fact, the connector you plug your screen into on the back of your PC is usually attached directly to the video card. The hardware on that card is the main factor concerning the graphics capability of your system.

With the advent of Microsoft Windows, 3D gaming, and the internet, the main processor of the PC was no longer capable of performing all the calculations necessary for displaying new, more complex images on the screen while providing smooth desktop performance. You can demonstrate this deficiency by booting your computer in Standard VGA Mode or 16 Color Mode and scrolling a website or word processor document... the display draws very slowly, and the entire system is much less responsive.

To solve this problem, computer designers began putting small, optimized processors on the video cards themselves, dedicated to drawing objects onscreen. Early models, such as the Tseng Labs ET6000, the S3 ViRGE, and the ATI Mach series were know as graphics accelerators. Their benefits were twofold: They improved computer performance, and especially graphics performance, and they allowed much higher detail on the display. For example, a standard VGA graphics system displayed 640x480 pixels onscreen, with a palette of 16 colors to choose from... not bad for computer work, but not sufficient for photographic images or immersive video games. With a graphics accelerator, the display resolution could be as much as doubled, and color quality was usually perfect - far more colors than the human eye can differentiate.

It's 2004, and we've come a long way, baby. Little children now use their computers to play with their friends in immersive, nearly realistic digital worlds, or chat with buddies across the globe. Extra intelligent individuals can, say, contribute to collaborative databases of knowledge and Everything else, with the assistance of experienced writers and researchers. Video games no longer require a leap of imagination to enjoy... they place you in a realistic world of electronic space.

Hardware technology is beyond space age. A single gaming-grade GPU (graphics processing unit, that's what we call them now) is hundreds of times more powerful than the computers that ran the Apollo 13 mission. The graphics hardware is used for wireframing, texturing, antialiasing, anisotropic filtering, mipmapping, and communicating with extraterrestrial life. Gone are the bleeps and tones that added life to action games just a few years ago. Now, above-CD-quality surround sound creates an immersive experience for the ears as well as the eyes.

Nothing is simple any more

Cutting through the marketspeak

After you boil down all the computer lingo, funny green naked butterfly women, and "vodeo supercard for INTENSE HAPPY FISH", you are left with two purchasing criteria:

  • Is it powerful enough for the games I want to play?
  • Will it work with my computer?

Let's consider those separately.

How much horsepower do you need?
The wide range of video cards available at a given time is a confusing product of competition, market research, platform tuning, and a little bit of artificial inflation. Let's look at a theoretical product lineup (units intentionally vague):

Make Model                Speed Price
Vega Lightstar 16         37    49
Vega Powerstar 1000       65    79
Xeno Mantissa Z5          60    75
Xeno Tornado 2700         136   89
Vega Powerstar 1400       140   99
Xeno Tornado 2750KS       142   99
Xeno Tornado 3000         180   110
Vega Powerstar 1500       158   129
Vega Powerstar 1500XT     170   149
Vega Powerstar 2000       200   210
Xeno Tornado2 4000        220   213
Vega Powerstar 2000XT     220   249
Xeno Tornado2 4100        230   249
Xeno Tornado3 5000        300   499
Vega Powerstar 3000 Ultra 310   499

You immediately notice a few things about this list. First, that some products are simply not worth the money for the extra performance they buy over the next lower product. Second, only two major vendors really matter.

At the low end, we have the very inexpensive Vega Lightstar. This card is probably the top end of a discontinued product line, being marketed as a general-purpose product. Xeno has a similar offering in the Mantissa, which competes with the PowerStar 1000 in performance. At the 75-100 price point, we have a good selection of low-end 3D accelerators that will probably run the majority of games out there, but not at the very highest quality settings. These cards will probably be choppy when playing the very newest games available (2004 - the $79 Radeon 9000 is really not fast enough to play DooM3, but most every thing else works on it).

The middle of the chart, 100-250 price range, is populated by parts that can be expected to work for anything you want to play, provided you turn down the quality a bit. Their horsepower is considerable - many older games will be extremely fast and smooth. As of September 2004, this market segment is populated by the ATI Radeon 9600 series and the nVidia Geforce FX5x00 products. Most users buy in this price range - the performance versus cost index is the highest.

At the far end of the lineup, we have two products, one from each major company, that stand out as being the fastest, most expensive video cards you can buy. The top notch is highly contested, with frequent product releases reclaiming the spot. You really don't need one of these, but they are made available because many computer gamers buy them just for the bragging rights. The one saving grace of these is that they are going to be far more future-proof than mainstream video cards, because they are usually the cutting edge of a new generation of graphics technology. For example, the Geforce 6800 and the Radeon X800 are radically different from the next product down, the Geforce FX 5900 Ultra and the Radeon 9800XT, respectively. It's not just a performance boost; it's a completely new architecture.

Will it work with my computer?

Selecting a video card to fit your computer comes down to only one factor. You need to make sure your motherboard has the slot the video card uses. This can be accomplished a few different ways. First, if your computer came from a major manufacturer, such as Dell, you can usually look up the manufacturer's website to determine what type of slots you computer has. If your system is from a small company, you can usually call them and ask them for the information, but be prepared to look up motherboard models online or something similar.

Failing this, you can always open your tower and look inside. On one side, laying flat, you will see a relatively large circuit board that has many cables and smaller circuit boards attached to it - that's your motherboard. Notice a series of long, rectangular receptacles that the other, smaller boards plug into - those are your slots. Usually, a computer will have between two and six white PCI slots, and one, slightly offset AGP slot, which is almost always a different color, often brown.

If your system offers an AGP slot, you will probably want to use it; that slot will always be faster than PCI for gaming graphics. It is only used for video cards, so if it already has a card in it, it's going to be your existing video hardware plugged into it. If you are stuck using the white, PCI slots, expect to pay more and get rather less performance. Keep you eyes open for the new PCI Express slots; they're going to be faster and better than AGP when they become available.

Don't let yourself get hyped into buying the fastest card out there - it almost never pays. If you shop at a dedicated computer store, or at least an electronics store, you can at least hope for a competent salesman to help you out.

Good luck, and happy gaming!

Some useful links:

Hardware reviews

September 2004 video card lineup


This writeup was written in August of 2004. Please do not /msg me with flames about how this guide does not fit your noble paradigm.

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