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The Graphics Card Guide

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huddy
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The Graphics Card Guide

Post #1 by huddy » Thu Jul 11, 2013 3:59 pm

Choosing a new graphics card can confusing at the best of times; which card is best? Buy now or wait? Nvidia or ATI? How much do I spend? What's bottlenecking??. It's a mine field to say the least and things are constantly changing. My guide below will hopefully answer some of your questions.

Part 1 - Choosing your Card

So your spanking new graphics card has arrived. Boxed in it's funky packaging, the seal reminds you are its first careful owner. Personally, there’s no other component upgrade more satisfying than updating your graphics card. It's mind blowing expensive and if you have done you homework you should see some excellent results. Installation should be a breeze providing you follow a few simple guidelines. Here's how:

Part 2 - Installing your new card

Video card problems are common. Symptoms include crashes, freezing images, screen and colour corruption, strange artifacts, blank screens etc. Sound familiar? Here's hot to check for common video card problems:

Part 3 - Troubleshooting Graphics Card Problems

Some useful links and resources..

Part 4 -Useful Links and Resources

If you have any questions or wish to discuss this subject then please join our forum - all are welcome



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huddy
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Part 1 - Choosing your card

Post #2 by huddy » Tue Feb 18, 2014 4:31 pm

Choosing a new graphics card can confusing at the best of times; which card is best? Buy now or wait? Nvidia or ATI? How much do I spend? What's bottlenecking??. It's a mine field. My guide below will hopefully answer some of your questions.. Read on :

Introduction
Before you start
Understanding the card
Where do I start?
Check the slot type
Case Study
Power requirements and connectors
DirectX
Screen resolutions
Video RAM
Bottlenecking
Dual Graphics
Connections
Budget
Choice of manufacturers
The generation game
Side Stepping
The future (heterogeneous computing)
Summary

Introduction

When ground breaking games such as Doom arrived on the PC during the early nineties, no one then could have imagined how games would have advanced the way they have over the years and there’s still not slowdown. Today, thanks to evolving technologies we can enjoy stunning life-like gaming experiences with dynamic landscapes and true life facial expressions, such as Far Cry 3, Dishonored, Battlefield 4, to name a few. Some will remember how the original Crysis broke nearly every top end system going. Games and game developers are constantly pushing boundaries to provide the gamer with truly amazing visuals. It's hard at times to believe that these are just computer rendered images, and at the heart, is your graphics card.

These improvements come at a cost though. As games have become more complicated and demanding, then so too has the hardware that runs them and since the graphics card is mostly responsible producing these visuals then it has become the pinnacle of any gaming PC. An aging or under performing card will result in loss of visual features such as shading, textures, distance drawing, anti-aliasing and so on (we’ll explain these later). The absence of which will make any game look rather dull looking, unrealistic or even unplayable. When you have reached this critical point then it may be necessary to start thinking of upgrading your graphics card. All of a sudden, the graphics card you bought last year which was once bleeding edge technology becomes as useful as an empty baked bean tin. The hard hitting reality of graphics cards and the whole business of PC gaming as a hobby hits home.

Choosing a new or replacement graphics card is a minefield to say the least. Buying the wrong card could prove to be disappointing purchase let alone an expensive. It's important to remember that not everyone has the same system configuration so what may work for one person, may not work for you. The card manufactures don't help either. Their complicated branding and model numbering is confusing and often misleading. Some people will go out and throw lots of cash at the problem but buying the biggest and most expensive but this isn't always the right solution. It’s no wonder the graphics card is arguably the most talked about subject in the PC gaming community.

I can’t tell you which card you should or shouldn't buy because things move on too quickly and everyone’s requirements are different, such as usage, other hardware limitations, budget etc. Instead I'll try and point ot the things you should be considering before parting with your hard earned cash.

Before you start

Firstly, if you have never bought a graphics card before then let me tell you one thing about graphics cards that you should be prepared for. The price of graphics cards drop and depreciate quicker than any other product you are going to spend on your PC. The fast turnaround of newer and faster cards dictates both current prices and the prices of older cards too. A card you paid £300 for last year might only be worth £80 next. It sounds harsh but unfortunately very true. Keep this in mind when you re-visit an e-tailer six month later to find the card you bought is so much cheaper.

If you have bought a graphics card before then you may already know that there are good and bad times to buy graphics cards. The market is largely dictated by the leading card manufacturers who are always competing for biggest slice of the market and are always pushing the boundaries of new technology. It’s not uncommon to see a new range of cards being released every couple of months but generally, new generations of cards come to surface at least once a year. Ironically, the best time to buy new graphics card is when a new launch is expected as suppliers attempt to shift stock. As prices plummet you may land a bargain. Be fully aware though, that such cards are quickly superseded so make sure whatever card you buy will play the games you want now and for the foreseeable future otherwise your purchase could be false economy if six months later you are looking for new one.

The problem faced by most buyers is the "buy now" (for a bargain) or "wait" (newer cards) conundrum. There's always going to be something better round the corner or bargains to be had but you could just end up waiting and waiting. I always advise people to buy what you feel is right for you but make sure you are getting the best value for money long term. There's no point spending £500 on a card that's never used or isn't used to its full potential. Likewise, there's not point spending £100 on a budget card that's becomes useless inside 3 months. Getting the balance right is key here. Cost aside, I say, something is only worth the money if you enjoy and get good use out of it otherwise it’s a waste.

Understanding the card

By understanding the basic workings of your graphics card may give you some better idea as to what card is best for you. I’m only going to cover the very basics because the graphics card is quite a complicated beast. Technology is constantly evolving, especially as we moving towards integrated and hydrogenous systems. Understanding what your card does will influence your decision making.

Let’s start right at the beginning. Every PC or laptop has the ability of displaying graphics; text, images and even some basic video footage etc. At the very least, your PC will have some kind of Video Graphics Adaptor (VGA) to send signals from the system to a monitor. The most basic VGA has very little if at all graphics processing power. They will be enough to show predefined images and basic video clips. Try playing 3D game and the problems start. 3D games require processes to render and display images as they are being played. Textures, shadowing, lighting etc require a lot more graphics grunt which can only be done through a graphics accelerator, which is usually provided by a discreet graphics card.

The graphics card is simply an expansion card that fits into one of your systems expansion slot. Its purpose is to produce high quality images by receiving instructions from the CPU. It can produce these images using its own resources such as having its own processor (Graphics Processing Unit) and memory discreetly from the CPU. This in turn frees CPU resources enabling the system to work faster at producing images.

When playing games, the graphics card will produce a set of rendered images called frames which when shown is sequence produces a moving image, a bit like a flip-book. In order for you to see these frames seamlessly without any flicker, the system has to generate and display 24 successive frames per second (fps). If a card fails to produce this rate of fps, then you will see flicker or stuttering. You may have to fine tune the level of detail of your game (shadows, Anti-Aliasing etc) or lower the resolution (the number of pixels displayed) of the screen. Even then it may not be enough which is a good sign that you may need an upgrade.
Each frame is generated by a series of polygons which are dynamically rendered as the sequence is played. The graphics processor unit (GPU) will calculate and alter the geometry of these polygons to make a new frame giving the appearance the image is moving. The greater the number of polygons then the tighter they are together will produce better and smoother image production. But this is just the start. Textures, shading, lighting, colour etc all have to be added give the image a realistic look.

This is a complicated process and the more work the graphics card has to do then the greater the strain on performance. If a card fails to produce the required rate of frames per second, then you will have to start lowering the level of detail in the game or lower the resolution of the screen or both. Even then it may not be enough which is a good sign that you may need an upgrade.

The attraction to gaming enthusiasts is to play the latest games at the highest settings that their system will allow in order to achieve the highest frame rate. However, not everyone has the latest technology nor do they have bottomless pockets to suite.

Where do I start?

The best place to start is by looking at the components you have already or the components you intend to buy with the card because this will in all intense and purposes dictate the card you should be buying. You will need to check for its compatibility, decide what the card will be used for, whether or not the card will be used to its full potential and finally, you need to set yourself a budget.

Failure to do your research before you buy could be costly mistake but can be avoided with a few simple checks:

Check the slot type

Your graphics card will need to be inserted in to a slot on the motherboard so you will need to check that card is compatible. Although it’s physically impossible to insert the wrong card into the machine, it’s best not to buy the wrong card in the first place. Most system now use PCIe so this check is all but a redundant but it's best to check first, particularly if it's an older system.

As of writing there are 3 types of slots that can be used to host a graphics card:

PCI – Peripheral Component Interconnect. This replaced both the ISA and VESA local bus but it too has been superseded. Unless you have a very low end PC and video requirements then any PCI video card is best avoided.

AGP - Accelerated Graphics Port was introduced in 2004 and provided the first dedicated high speed video interface for faster 3d acceleration. With clock speeds of 133 MHz with 32 bits memory interface, AGP produces bandwidths ranging between 266 Mb/s and 2,133 MB/s. However, faster PCI Express provides greater bandwidth and has superseded AGP. That said you may find plenty of PCs still using this port and changing or upgrading to PCI express isn’t possible without changing the motherboard.

Versions of AGP:

Type per cycle Max Bandwidth
AGP x 1 1 266 MB/s
AGP x 2 2 533 MB/s
AGP x 4 4 1,066 MB/s
AGP x 8 8 2,133 MB/s

PCIe or PCI-E - Peripheral Component Interconnect Express known as PCIe or PCI-E (same thing) replaces the old PCI and AGP standard for expansion slot interfaces (above). This technology uses point-to-point serial links to communicate with the motherboard rather than shared parallel link thus providing a significant increase in data traffic (bandwidth) over lanes.

These lanes transport data in 8 bit byte formats in both directions and a PCIe slot may contain one to 32 lanes in powers of two; 1, 2 4 8 16 and 32. Typically, graphics cards today will use 8/16 lanes for data transfer.

To confuse things a bit more, there are different version of PCI-e which characterises their signalling mode and bandwidth. However, all are backward compatible with previous version.

Versions of PCIe:

Type Clock Speed Bits per cycle Max Bandwidth
PCIe 1.0 x 1 2.5 GHz 1 1 250 MB/s
PCIe 1.0 x 4 2.5 GHz 4 1 1,000 MB/s
PCIe 1.0 x 8 2.5 GHz 8 1 2,000 MB/s
PCIe 1.0.x 16 2.5 GHz 16 1 4,000 MB/s
PCIe 2.0 x 1 5 GHz 1 1 500 MB/s
PCIe 2.0 x 4 5 GHz 4 1 2,000 MB/s
PCIe 2.0 x 8 5 GHz 8 1 4,000 MB/s
PCIe 2.0 x 16 5 GHz 16 1 8,000 MB/s
PCIe 3.0 x 1 8 GHz 1 1 1,000 MB/s
PCIe 3.0 x 4 8 GHz 4 1 4,000 MB/s
PCIe 3.0 x 8 8 GHz 8 1 8,000 MB/s
PCIe 3.0 x 16 8 GHz 16 1 16,000 MB/s

Be warned by the physical appearance of the PCIe slots which can be deceptive. Do not assume that all slots provide the same number of lanes. Although they may look identical, the second or even the third slot may have less lanes than the primary slot (normally nearest the CPU).In some cases these secondary slots may be less than the required 8 lanes required for a video card. Check your motherboard manually to ensure you insert your card in to the correct PCIe slot or when adding a second card otherwise it may not work.

Image
The size differences between PCI-e (Left) and AGP (Right) are quite apparent

Older legacy cards and slots exists such as ISA, MCA EISA and PCI do exist but I don't think you'll likely to bump into these.

Case study

In some cases (no pun intended) you may need to check your case to make sure there is enough room to host a new card. The problem with some smaller cases combined with the fact that card are getting longer, means the space between card and the case drive bays has been reduced meaning you may not have enough room.

Before you buy, take a moment to measure the distance between the slot cover of the PCI-e and the drive bays behind then check the dimensions of your potential purchase.

Make sure you have enough room for power connections and cable connections too. If things are a little cramped, you may have to reconsider your purchase and/or buy a new case.

Image
The above image shows the three very different cards with very different lengths

Power Requirements and Power Cabling

As modern graphics cards have evolved then so too have the power their power requirements, cables and connectors. Be sure you make all necessary checks before you buy.

Check the Graphics card manufacturer’s website for the power requirement of the card you intend to purchase. Check if this is much different to what you have already and the PSU can cope with the demands with all the other components too.

If you have an old or low wattage PSU, the chances are that it might not provide the power it needs. If you don’t know the power of your PSU, you may have to open your case side and have a look. All PSUs will have a sticker detailing the power specifications including total wattage and ampere. If not, then check the PSU manufacturer’s website. Make sure these meet or exceed your systems requirements.

Check also the PSU is supplying the correct ampere too. This is often overlooked and can present stability problems of their own. Again, check the minimum requirements for the card and cross check this with the PSU specification as you did with the wattage.
For example; you have a Corsair HX520 and wish to add an ATI 5770, for example.

ATI recommend a power supply to have (in total accumulated) at least 40 Amps available on the +12 volts rails. In which case, the PSU is fine.
However, if you add another 5770 in Crossfire ATI recommends a power supply needs to have (in total accumulated) at least 55 Amps available on the +12 volts rails. The PSU therefore is not adequate for the job.

Most modern graphics cards are PCI-e cards and will most likely require one or two PCI-e 6/8 pins power connectors depending on how powerful the card is. These cards will take 75w through the PCI-e slot and a further 75w/150w through each 6 or 8 pin auxiliary power connections respectively. So a single PCI-e card with two 6pin connectors will consume 225w.

If you don’t have a designated PCI-e connectors then don’t panic, you can purchase Molex to PCI-e power adaptors separately from any good electronics retail but in my opinion this is something I’d personally avoid.

Image
Molex to 6/8pin conversions are available but check you PSU is capable of running your card first.

Bear in mind though, even a high end PSU with weak 12v supplies (or rails) is almost certainly going to give you problems before you even start so make sure your PSU is of good health. You can follow my simple guide here. My advice is never skimp on the quality or the output on a PSU. Aim for an efficient PSU that’s at least 20% over your total system power requirements.

If you have any doubts, us a PSU calculator to give you some idea as to your power requirements.
http://www.extreme.outervision.com/psucalculator.jsp

Direct X

Direct X is a series of Microsoft Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow the programmer of an application to use the built in functions to handle graphical tasks in Windows.

Historically, each new Microsoft release has come with its own new version of Direct X. This is important factor because not all graphics cards will be directly compatible with the current version of Direct X. Something to bear in mind if you are upgrading your Microsoft Operating System too.

Windows 7 for example, is shipped with Direct X version 11 which means you will need a direct X 11 compatible video card (such as the ATI 5* series) to take advantage of its features. However, Direct X and the card are backward compatible meaning that older cards will work with newer version of Direct X and newer cards will work with older Direct X versions albeit with some functions degraded.

If you don’t think you’ll be upgrading your Windows Operating System for a few years, say from Vista (direct X 10) to Windows 7 (direct X 11) then you may grab a bargain with older cards but in my opinion, buy a card with that is compatible with the current Operating System and Direct X for some future proofing.

Screen Resolution

You will need to determine what resolution you’ll be playing games at. i.e. the size of the viewable area of your screen. This is a very important phase of the selection process and is often overlooked as it will determine what card you should be looking at and the amount of Video RAM needed (we’ll discuss video RAM next).

The screen size, or resolution is fixed by the maximum number of pixels (px) the monitor can present to give you an image. A HD 1080p TV for example, has the maximum of 1920px by 1080px. However, unlike a TV which is sent a pre-defined signal from its source, the graphics card will be responsible for producing detailed and refined images which will fit on to the set resolution. However, the combination of these complications means your card will have to work harder to produce the desired image.

The greater these demands the greater the power required which will mean bigger bucks. But this doesn't mean you should go out and buy the biggest and meanest graphics card or sell your mother to fund it. Although that maybe the case if you do have bigger screens. You’ll need to choose a graphics card that best suits your monitor and your gaming requirements. Unless of course you are thinking of changing your screen at the same time. Either which, be sure to select a card that pairs up sensibly with your screen.

The reason I choose the word sensibly is important because if you have a monitor with resolutions of 1920px by 1200px or more then you may need to spend more buying a high end card that supports that resolution i.e. larger video RAM and high frequencies etc. A low end card will struggle (if at all) to produce playable images at these higher resolution.

Conversely, if you are happy playing games at lower resolutions because you don’t want to change your monitor, then you have no reason to buy a high end card. Unless you change your monitor then it will never be used to its full potential and is a complete waste of money. Low to mid-range cards will perform just as well on the lower end resolutions at a fraction of the cost.

Video RAM

The GPU access data directly from the Video RAM rather than having to access system RAM which would be slower. That’s not to say that buying a card with large video RAM will work any faster than those with less. Larger amounts of Video RAM only come into their own when you play games at higher resolutions (as discussed above). If your monitor doesn't support resolutions of 1920px by 1200px or greater, for example, then there is little point in buying a 1GB video card so you can save some money here.

Bear in mind too, that Video RAM is often mapped to main memory so if you are running a system with 4GB of main memory, then a video card with say 1GB of video RAM will use its equivalent amount of main memory leaving you with just 3GB.

What is important is the speed at which the RAM runs at. This isn't a compatibility factor but the greater the speed of Video RAM then the better the card will perform and some manufactures will have variants of RAM speeds.

Bottlenecking

If you research hard enough, it won’t be too long before you hear the term CPU bottlenecking. Basically, a video card is sent instructions from the CPU. If the CPU isn’t quick enough, then the video card will underperform because the CPU will be restricting the data flow to the card and thus causing a bottleneck.
I said at the very beginning that it’s important to understand the system in which the card will be used in. Just adding a new card isn’t always the end of the story. If you introduce a shiny new £400 graphics card to an aging or low-end CPU, then although the card may work, it will be seriously underachieving and overkill. You might have been better off buying a budget card which will result in similar performance at half the cost. This is what I meant by buying the most expensive card won’t always produce the best results. If you really must have the greatest and best, you should look at a new system with a faster CPU.

Dual Graphics

It won’t be too long before you hear two phases: Sli (Scaleable Linked Interface) and Crossfire. Basically they are both the ability to run two graphics card in parallel providing even more willy waving grunt. Both SLi (Nvidia) and Crossfire (AMD>ATI) both use distinct PCI-e slots so are motherboard dependant. Until recently, motherboards would only run or the other but this limitation has now been discarded in recent chipsets.

The advantage of running two graphics cards is the extra performance it provides especially when running games at high resolutions say at 2560 x 2048 (QSXGA) with a dual monitor configuration. Don’t be fooled by the theory that having two cards is twice the performance. This is not always the case. SLi and Crossfire support in games varies between 0%, 30% and near 100% performance scaling depending on latest driver profiles and game support.

The disadvantage is of course the cost. Buying two cards is no cheap outlay and doubles the impact of depreciation I mentioned earlier. It may also mean a new motherboard and a decent PSU with no less than 850w total output. There is of course driver and game support which over the years have improved but there are still the odd problems.

I’m not going to cover SLi or crossfire any further in this guide but I just wanted to give you some insight because it’s something you’re bound to come across.

Connections

As video card and monitors have evolved then it’s no surprise that the connection have too and there are many types to consider. Again, this decision goes back to what type of monitor you are using and it connectivity to your PC.

VGA – Video Graphics Array

The D-Sub or D-submininture connector is used for transferring analogue signals to a range of external devices. The D comes from the shape of the metal shield that provides the orientation of the connector and the number afterwards denotes the number of pins.
The VGA (Video Graphics Array) uses a 15 pin version known as the DA15, HD15 (High Density) and DB15 which has three rows of pins capable of displaying low to mid-range resolutions. Although these have been superseded, they are still pretty common with CRTs or budget TFTs.

DVI – Digital Visual Interface

DVI (Digital Video Interface) carries digital and/or analogue signals to a display device depending on the pin orientation.
In digital mode, the interface transmits uncompressed high quality digital signals to an LCD display in native format. Since digital signals avoid the degradation caused by electrical noise, DVI in digital mode produces a far superior image quality of that of analogue.

In analogue mode, DVI will transmit analogue signals only. However, additional pin orientation will allow two sets of the same data can be sent in digital and an analogue form (DVI-I). This allows easy adaption when connecting VGA monitors to DVI, hence DVI –VGA connectors can be used in most cases.

There are four types of DVI connectors that although look the same, they have different pin combinations:

DVI-D Supports uncompressed digital video signals only. These digital signals avoid the degradation of due to electrical noise and therefore produce a far superior image quality of that of analogue (single and dual link)

DVI-I Supports both digital and analogue signals (single and dual link)

DVI-A Supports analogue signals only

DVI M1-DA Supports both digital and analogue signal in dual link with additional USB support

The terms single and dual link determine the amount of data that gets pushed through. A single link has a bandwidth of 3.96Gbit/s and supports resolutions of up to 1915px x 1436px on a 4:3 ratio at 60Hz. A dual link interface will an addition six pins which provide greater throughput of data with a bandwidth of 7.92Gbits/s, thus capable of displaying much higher resolutions.

HDMI – High Definition Media Interface

High-Definition Media Interface transmits uncompressed HDCP (High- Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) compliant digital video and audio data to a compatible display.

The current version of HDMI (version 1.4) transmits data at 10.2G/bps through 8 channels and supports resolutions of up to 4096x2160 at 24 Hz. Older 1.3 versions supported 2560x1600px at 75 Hz and the original 1.0 and 1.2a supported 1920x1200px at 60 Hz.

Although this interface has been around for a while now, it’s only been recently that that have been appearing on monitors and video cards. The reason for this is its most likely that PCs have separate audio interfaces and therefore don’t actually require the extra data throughput. Unless you are connecting your PC to a HD 42’ TV, then stick to a DVI connection.

You can read more about HDMI > http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/hdmi.htm/printable

DisplayPort

This is VESA standard digital interface and carries both clock and optional sound signals. It provides a 5.184, 8.64 or 17.2Gbps channel for high resolutions with a single cable. It also supports 128-bit AES DisplayPort Content Protection (DPCP) as well as 40-bit High bandwidth Content Protection (HDCP). More importantly, it’s completely royalty free meaning reduced cost for graphics card manufactures. Certainly one to keep an eye on but don’t threat over it. The presence of the above is too high at the moment.

Budget

Like most things at the end of the day it all comes down to money. How much you are prepared to spend of course depends on your disposable income but bear in mind the things we've already discussed, such buying budget cards and cards that are simply“overkill”. Remember too that your new card will depreciate at some point in the near future and buying the most expensive doesn't mean it’s the best card or the best card for you. Conversely, spending too little may result in significant performance loss, particularly if you have a larger screen.

If you intend just playing older or simple games you may not need to spend that much at all as they are less graphically demanding than today's resource hungry games. A new low-end or bargain second hand card may suit you and your pocket.

When deciding you budget, bear in mind that you may need to upgrade other components too. The cost can add up so make sure the upgrade is worth the extra money being spent.

Choices of cards and manufacturers
There are various manufacturers of GPUs and graphics cards including AMD (who bought out ATI), Nvidia, and more recently Intel but it’s the two aforementioned that dominate the market.

Choosing which is really irrelevant unless you are considering running dual graphics cards (covered earlier). The competition between the two has been rife for years and both are constantly battling for top dog in the market. Who said competition is a bad thing? Of course, there are those that favour one particular manufacturer over the other and will stick to them no matter what the competition has to offer. There may be genuine reasons as to why this is. It might be that they had a bad experience with a new card that was DOA (Dead on Arrival), driver issues or simply stick to their comfort zone i.e. familiar territory is a wonderful ally. However, don’t let these “fan-boys” or anyone influence your decision unless there is a good reason for doing so. It's good to keep an open mind and it's your money after all.

Don’t read too much into the specification differences between Nvidia and ATI. Clock, memory and shader speeds along with the number of stream processors etc between the two manufacturers are incomparable because of differences in the architecture and design. It's this difference that causes so much debate within the community as comparisons can only be made by real time benchmarking, which of course is limited to other factors like the CPU and chipsets etc..

The generation game

I mentioned earlier, that the leading video card manufacturers typically release a new generation of graphics cards every year and interim revisions between. Typically, new generation of graphics card normally introduce ground breaking GPU architecture, improved manufacturing process and possible new features such as DirectX. In turn, this means they should be far superior to their predecessors. This generates are frenzy of excitement on the technical forums.

With each generation comes a range have a family of budget, mid-range and high products to suit every pocket and requirement. Not everyone is a gamer and not everyone has £400 to spend on such luxury. To make things even more complicated, you’ll find lots of revisions and variants which are normally the same GPU but with higher clock speeds etc.

Both ATI and NVIDIA have a naming convention to help identify which cards are what but this isn’t always clear cut as it would first appear.

AMD/ATI Naming

AMD (which acquird ATI in 2008 has always branded its desktop graphics card as RADEON followed by their model mnemonic: ATI Radeon Series-family-model
The series is the generation of the card. The family denotes whether the card is budget, mid-range or high end and each will have their own GPU and chipset. The model is the variant within the family and is normally the same GPU within the family but may have different clock, memory and shader speeds etc. This ensures a rich array of cards with different capabilities and of course price.

History of AMD
http://www.amd.com/uk/aboutamd/corporat ... eline.aspx

AMD Graphics Card
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_AM ... sing_units

NVidia naming

NVIDIA follow a similar naming pattern to that of ATI but has revised its naming convention changed after the 9 series. Again just like ATI, NVIDIA has always branded its desktop graphics card as GeForce followed by their model mnemonic:

Nvidia Geforce Series-family-model

Nvidia Geforce model-series- family (After 9 series and to date)

Regardless of which, both conventions use the same mnemonics and have the same meaning. The series is the generation of the card. The family denotes whether the card is budget, mid-range or high end and each will have their own GPU and chipset. The model is the variant within the family and is normally the same card within the family but may have different clock, memory and shader speeds etc. This ensures a rich array of cards with different capabilities and of course price.
For example, the Nvidia Geforce 9800GTX - From this information I know this is a high end product of the Geforce 9 series card (DX9 compatible) with higher clock speeds of other members in the same group. A GT will have lower clock speeds..

The second example is the Nvidia Geforce GTX 260 - This information tells me that this is the mid-range series 2 product.
Some manufacturers, such as Asus and HIS, will change the reference cooler with a non-reference design to improve cooling and thereby increasing their ability to clock higher than the standard specifications. In which case, you may find further modifiers and the end of the reference.

Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 5870 Vapor-X indicates the card is using a non-reference “Vapour-X” cooling system profited.

History of Nvidia
http://www.nvidia.co.uk/object/corporat ... ne-uk.html

Nvida Graphics cards
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nv ... sing_units

Side stepping

Not all new generation cards will outperform older generations. An ATI Radeon HD4870 will perform on par with the newer ATI Radeon HD5770 and this is known as a side step. Basically, it’s a newer card with all the new features it brings but with the same performance. Conversely, an ATI Radeon HD4890 will outperform the newer ATI Radeon HD5770 out right.

Many people have fallen victim of this expecting their upgrade to yield higher performance gains but have been disappointed. So be careful, bigger numbers don’t always mean better performance.

Summary

For those that like skipping to the end, here is a summary of what you should be looking for when choosing and buying a new card.
Be prepared that your card will depreciate quickly and maybe half the value a year later.

Bear in mind there’s never a good time to buy. Cards are superseded within months of their release contributing to their quick deprecation. However, you may pick up a bargain in the process. Buy a card that suits your needs and pocket today otherwise you’ll be playing the waiting game and never upgrade.

Stick to budget cards only if you play old games or internet games. For modern titles, you should be looking the mid to higher end of the market, depending on your current system, COPU and monitor for example will play an important part in the decision making process.

Check if the card you are buying is compatible with the motherboard graphics slot type. If you have an AGP slot you will most likely have to upgrade your motherboard and CPU too.

High end cards are quite long and may take up two slot covers on the back. Make sure your case is big enough.

Check your PSU will provide enough power for your new cards. Cross check both the PSU and graphics cards manufactures website for wattage and ampere specifications. Check also you have the correct power cables.

Check that your CPU and system won’t bottleneck your new card. Search the internet for other users with similar system for any known issues.

Be careful of buying a card that end up being overkill. i.e. a card that will never fore fill its maximum potential. If you already have a monitor, then check its maximum resolution. There’s no point in buying a high end card with loads of video RAM if the monitor can’t support high resolutions, say 1920x1200 and above.

Regardless of which GPU manufacturer you choose, make sure your new card isn't just a side step upgrade or worse backwards. Bigger numbers don’t always means better performance.

Lastly, choose your budget wisely. As I said above buying the most expensive doesn't mean it’s the best card or the best card for you. On the other hand, spending too little may result in significant performance loss, particularly if you have a larger screen.

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Part 2 - Installing your new card

Post #3 by huddy » Tue Feb 18, 2014 4:49 pm

Introduction

So your spanking new graphics card has arrived in its shinny themed cellophane wrapped box reminding you of its virginity that you are its first careful owner. Personally, there’s no other component that’s more exciting upgrade and if you have done your homework you should see some excellent results. Installation should be a breeze providing you follow a few simple guidelines.

RTFM!!

As tempting as it might be to dive straight into your case with a screwdriver, it’s always good practice to read the manufacturer’s instructions first. This applies to from beginners to those more advanced that would like to think that they could do this with eye’s shut. More often enough something goes a miss and your card may not work. Don’t waste your time skimping on basic practices and precautions.

Get to know your card

Take time to examine the card, familiarising yourself with the power connectors, slot requirements etc. One would hope you have followed my advice and looked into the pre-requisites before you made your purchase so hopefully they’ll be no surprises at this stage.
Do not take your card out of the Anti-Static bag until absolutely necessary, which should be its fitting.

Get the most recent drivers

Most cards come shipped with a driver CD or DVD. These should be cast aside as there validity mostly depends on how long the card has been sitting in a warehouse. So before you do anything, my advice is always to head to the GPU manufacturers website (not the card manufactures website) and download the latest drivers ready for when you need them, say to a USB stick if you’re doing a full system build.

Please see resources below for driver locations.

Pre installation benchmarks

Before you do anything with your current system, it’s a good idea to run a few benchmarks so that you have comparable results to see if you purchase has been worthwhile. Although synthetic benchmarks such as Futuremark are a good indication of your graphics performance, they are no substitute for real world gaming, which of course where it counts.

Use FRAPS http://www.fraps.com/ to log the Frames Per Second (FPS) on a section of a favourite game, preferably one that your current card struggles on. Repeat this a few times on the same section of the game and record the average. Keep this information handy until after you’ve upgraded.

Alternatively, there are game demos available which have built in benchmarks which are just as good. Crysis, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat are some good examples. Please see useful links and resources below for list of benchmarks and downloads.

Removing old card and drivers

If you are upgrading your graphics card as part of a system upgrade then you’ll most likely be re-installing windows from scratch so you can skip the this section and head to "Fitting you New card".

However, if this is just a graphics card upgrade then there’s some preparation work you need to do before removing the old card. Here's how to uninstall your old drivers and remove your old card:

1. Download and install DriverSweeper http://phyxion.net/ but don’t run yet. This utility will clear remnants of older drivers and is imperative when changing from ATI to NVIDIA or visa versa.

2. Reboot your PC and boot into Safe mode. As the PC restarts press F8 before windows launches. Safe mode is windows without non-essential drivers loaded and VGA mode will be initiated. These means that there are no locks on the video card drivers you have currently installed.

3. Remove the old drivers.

Use the windows uninstaller to remove your graphics old drivers:

Windows XP - Click "Start" button, then click on "Control Panel", then click on “Add or Remove Programs”.
Vista and Windows 7 - Click "Start" button, then click on "Control Panel", click on "Programs" then click on "Programs and Features"

Look for the video drivers you wish to uninstall such as “ATI” or “NVIDIA”, for example, and single click on item to select. This will show an option the Change/Remove the driver. Click on uninstall button and follow the instructions. If you have other drivers installed from the same manufactures say chipset drivers, you may see a selection box asking which drivers you want to remove. Be sure to select Display drivers only.

You may get a message box asking if you wish to continue with the removal. Click on Yes and the ATI/NVIDIA uninstaller will run.

A reboot will be required

4. Boot into safe mode again as you did above and launch DriverSweeper you installed earlier.

Select the outgoing drivers such as ATI or NVIDIA and press clean.

Image
Use DriverSweeper to remove the left overs from your last drivers.

5. When done shut the system down, disconnect all power to the PC, grab a screw driver and remove the side cover from your PC.
Before handling any components, make sure you take anti-static precautions. See my guide on how to handle components safely.

6. Unplug any power cables fitted to the existing card making sure they are clear from the area.

7. Unscrew the slot cover screw(s) holding the existing card in place making sure not to drop the screws inside the case. TIP – I normally use just a small piece of Blu-Tak on top of the screw for such a job.

8. Locate the retention bracket, normally located towards the back end of the case. Depending on the motherboard, some of these are pull to release and some are slide to release. Be careful here because some can be located in quite awkwardly under the card making it difficult to release by hand. If you have to use a screwdriver, then be careful not to let the screw driver slip on to surrounding components. I have damaged a motherboard doing this and I’ve broken countless brackets too. Some systems won’t boot if the retention clip is missing or not in place because it thinks the card hasn’t been installed correctly. Again, Blu-Tak is useful here. Put the stuff around the bracket for protection.

Image
Care should be taken when unclipping the retention bracket

9. Ok so the retention clip is released the card can be removed from the slot although this may take a little persuasion. Don’t be scared to give the card a firm tug in a vertical direction being careful not to send the card flying across the room.

10. Place the old card into an anti-static bag for safe storage. Don’t leave your old card laying around.

11. With the old card removed,, use this opportunity to give the PC a quick vacuum using a plastic attachment and a light paintbrush. Make sure the slot, fans are free from dust otherwise your new card will just suck dust in from the power-on.

Fitting the new card

1. If you are installing a card with a dual slot design then you may have to remove two slot covers this being the slot over the card rear and the cover to the inside left.

2. Before you handle your card, take anti-static precautions. Although some people will say this is a daft are you really going to put your £300 card to chance.

3. Remove your new card carefully from its anti-static bag and handle by the sides only. Do not touch the circuitry and certainly do not lay the card down on top of the anti-static bag you’ve just removed it from as the outside of the bag contains static particles it was being protected from.

4. Carefully align the card over the correct slot and press down firmly. In most cases, a click will indicate the retention bracket has locked automatically. If not, you’ll have to make sure the bracket is secure yourself.

5. Attach the power connectors, if applicable. These will differ card to card i.e. 6 pin, 8 pin etc. Make sure you have the correct orientation and they are firmly in place. If you do not have the correct connectors then you can use cable convertors.

6. Make sure you haven’t accidently knocked something out of place. The most common culprit is the SATA connectors from the HDD where you’re later welcomed with “No boot device found”. Check all connections are firmly in place.

7. Replace the side cover, reconnect the power and switch on.

Installing the drivers

1. Reboot into Windows normally. Windows will recognise that new hardware has been installed and will attempt to install drivers. Try and cancel these if you can.

2. Locate the downloaded drivers you found earlier and launch by right clicking on .exe file.

3. Both ATI and NVIDIA installs use a wizard to walk you through the driver installation. I've included NVIDIAfor this guide but AMD isn't to dissimilar. Click next on all screens accepting any Terms and Conditions. When done, you should be presented a screen showing that the driver installation is complete and will ask for a reboot. Select Yes to reboot now.

Image
Nvidia drivers successfully installed

4. Once back into windows, change your video settings as you prefer.

5. Download and run GPU-Z from techpowerup http://www.techpowerup.com/gpuz/. This will show everything you need to know about your current card; specification, BIOS information, drivers, sensors i.e temperatures etc etc.

Post installation benchmarks

Now re-run your preferred benchmarks you performed before and compare the difference to see if the upgrade yields a significant performance boost. It might be a good idea to post your results on a hardware forum to compare with other users.

Congratulations. You have successfully chosen, purchased and upgraded your graphics card. Now go enjoy.

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Part 3- Troubleshooting Graphics Card Problems

Post #4 by huddy » Tue Feb 18, 2014 5:01 pm

Video card problems are common. Symptoms include crashes, freezing images, screen and colour corruption, strange artifacts and even just a blank screen.

If you have just installed a new video card, then narrowing down the problem is going to be a lot easier than a full system upgrade because other failed components and different problems can produce the same unexpected results. Whatever the symptoms or circumstances, the key is not to panic. The solution may be the simplest thing. So let’s have a go trying to diagnose your problem.

1. Have you done a full upgrade?


No? - Then go to step 2.

If you have done a full upgrade, then you might want to check the validity of other components thereby eliminating them.

Memory – You can use my “How to check if your memory is working” guide

PSU - You can use my “How to check if your PSU is working” guide

Check out the PC troubleshooting guide for other components such as hard drives etc.

Make sure all connections to the motherboard are connected and are secure. Make sure you have connected both the 20/24 ATX connection and the supplement 4/8 pin connector.

Are there any POST messages or beeps? You can cross reference these withwww.bioscentral.com with the make of your BIOS (not motherboard) to determines exactly what the problem is.

2. Have you upgraded the Video Card?

No? – Then go to step 3

Assuming that other components are working, make sure that card is secured and is in the correct slot. Some motherboard require the card to be in the primary PCI-e slot so check your motherboard manual that you have installed the card in the correct slot.

Check the video card power connections. Most modern cards require one or more 6/8pin PCi-e power connections so make sure the graphics card has all power connectors connected. If it has sockets for two power connectors, they BOTH need plugging in.

3. Drivers

If you are replacing a graphics card, then make sure you have uninstalled the old ones first and removed any remnants using driver sweeper. See section on installing Drivers. Make sure you are using the latest drivers from the manufacturer’s website at all times. Do not use the drivers on supplied media.

If the problem you are experiencing only happens in a certain game, then it might be worth checking for Driver updates and game patches. Again, make sure you use the latest drivers. If they don’t work, both Nvidia and AMD have archived drivers so try any older driver to see if it makes any difference.

If problem only started since you changed the drivers, then it might be a good idea to either roll back the driver or re-install back the previous known working ones.

It’s also worth updating your chipset and sound drivers too. Check for any updates.

Note - As a rule, unless you have a problem, avoid updating drivers on release. Keep an eye on the feedback for known problems before installing and refrain from using beta drivers.

4. Further trouble shooting

Let’s assume that all your components are ok and you have tried various drivers and still you have a problem, let’s look at a few other things.

> Check your monitor and monitor cable

If you can, check your system on another monitor and check the monitor cable too. It sounds obvious but it’s amazing how often this gets overlooked.
If your monitor displays only a few colours, it could be that the pins on the cable are bent and are not making contact. Swap the cable for a known working one to eliminate the any connection problems.

> Known working card

This isn't always possible but if you can swap the card back to the older card to see if this still works or swap for another known working one. If the problem is illuminated, then it looks certain to be a problem with the video card. If the problem persists, then it maybe RMA time.

> Video card BIOS Flashing or Firmware update

In some cases, flashing the video card BIOS can resolve a lot of issues but be warned, flashing a BIOS on a Video card may render it useless if not done correctly and/or it could void any warranty so check with the manufacturer before attempting to update.

Firstly, check your current GPU BIOS version (if you can of course) using GPU-Z.
http://www.techpowerup.com/downloads/SysInfo/GPU-Z/

Then download the latest BIOS using the following selection table:
http://www.techpowerup.com/vgabios/

To update your Card BIOS, you’ll need a flash or firmware update utility such as nVFlash for Nvidia and ATIFlash for ATI cards:
http://www.techpowerup.com/downloads/Ut ... shing/ATI/
http://www.techpowerup.com/downloads/Ut ... ng/NVIDIA/

5. Examples of Corrupted screens

Data is sent to the Video RAM for processing by the GPU. One or Many of the RAM modules fails then this can result in particles of the image being lost:

Image

Image

Image

above images kindly provided by ocuk forum members.

All the examples above illustrate bad Video RAM. Often spikes can appear across the screen indicating buffer problems which are normally associated to system RAM problems or artifacts where the card is running too hot. The latter is most common in Overclocking video cards.

If you see any strange or corrupted screens, then make sure the card is receiving adequate air flow within the case and the video card fan is still working. If you are felling brave, you could try replacing the video cooler for a third party alternative which can offload more heat better than any reference design.
If you are overclocking then you may have to lower your clock speeds. In fact, run the card at stock settings to ensure that overclocking is indeed the cause of your problems.

6. Tearing

If you notice a split between the top half and bottom half, where the top shows the current frame and the bottom shows the previous frame with an occasional flicker this is known as tearing. The good news is your card is not faulty as you only need to make a few adjustments.

If your graphics card produces more frames per second than the monitor can refresh, then the monitor can’t keep up. It loses synchronisation with the graphics card and tearing occurs. For example, if your monitor is set to refresh 60 frames per second then it will only show 60 frames per second.

So increasing your monitors refresh rate will always give you the best results but you are tied to the maximum refresh rate set by your monitor which can’t be changed any higher than what it will allow.

If tearing still occurs after increasing the refresh rate then the game is producing a ridiculous waste of frames. You can run FRAPS to check the number of frames being produced. However, it’s not going to help. Try adjusting the games settings to high detail and/or increase the Anti-Aliasing or anisotropic filtering at the same time. This will give you better visuals and at the same time reduce the number of frames per second, because the card has more work to do. Don’t go to mad, most of these settings may drag the performance down to an unplayable level, so experiment.

Lastly, you can enable V-Sync. Most games come with a V-Sync option in the games video settings. What this does is force the graphics card to wait until the monitor grabs the frame buffer and refreshes the screen. Therefore, the buffer isn’t updated until the monitor has finished with it. However, there’s a catch. If your frame rate drops below the motors refresh rate, then you may get performance problems because then the graphics card starts to lag behind. The complete opposite. You can’t win!

You can enable triple buffering to help with this, but my preferred option is to try increasing the level of detail of the game forcing the card to slow down. As I said, this makes the game look better whilst reducing the risk of tearing.

7. RMA or new card time

If you have illuminated every other part of your system, including memory, monitor, hard drive and PSU and you have checked both recent and old drivers then it may be time for a new card or RMA the one you have just bought.

If you have bought the card fairly recently, then contact the vendor who you purchased it from and check where you stand. You will need to raise an RMA (Return Material Authorisation) number and they will in return give you an RMA number. It’s important to return this card as soon as possible before the RMA expires.

They will perform a series of tests to verify that the card is faulty. If you have done everything above then there is no reason why they shouldn't replace it. Be warned though, some retailers will charge you if the card is found to be okay. However, sometimes this may be worth paying if you have access to another system in which to test. If faulty, you should have another card on the way. The retailer is also obliged to refund any postage costs to you too.

If you have had the card some time then you’ll need to check if it’s still in warranty. Visit the support section on the manufacturer’s website (see links and resources below) and again, raise an RMA ticket. They will normally email shipping instructions. Again, make sure you return the card as quickly as possible.

The shipping instructions are normally quite strict so be careful to follow the instruction to the letter. This is one reason why I always keep the boxes. The process can take a number of weeks depending the manufacturer so be prepared for a wait. Hopefully, within time, you’ll receive a new or reconditioned card.
If you card is out of warranty then there is little you can do and the card may need replacing. This maybe an ideal opportunity to upgrade if it’s within your means. Alternatively, some bargains can be had on the second market and you may get like-for-like.

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Part 4 : Useful links and Resources

Post #5 by huddy » Tue Feb 18, 2014 5:09 pm

Below are some popular weblinks and resources to drivers, utilities, benchmarks etc. All of which you may find very useful if you're upgrading your graphics card.

** In the Green corner **


Nvidia Home - www.nvidia.com
GPU comparison table - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compari...:_desktop_GPUs
Drivers - http://www.nvidia.co.uk/Download/index.aspx?lang=en-uk
Alternative third party NVIDIA drivers by omega - ideal for legacy cards - http://www.omegadrivers.net/index.ph...id=2&Itemid=55

** In the Red corner **

ATI Home - http://www.amd.com/de/Pages/AMDHomePage.aspx
GPU comparison table - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ati_gra...e:desktop_GPUs
Official Drivers - http://support.amd.com/us/gpudownload/Pages/index.aspx
Alternative third party drivers by Omega - ideal for legacy cards - http://www.omegadrivers.net/index.ph...id=1&Itemid=54

** Other **

3DFX drivers from 3dfxzone - http://www.3dfxzone.it/dir/3dfx/sfft/
3dfx drivers from Omega - http://www.omegadrivers.net/index.ph...id=4&Itemid=56
SIS Drivers - http://www.sis.com/download/agreemen...url=/download/

** Benchmarks **

Futuremark - for 3dmark 11, vantage, firestrike etc - http://www.futuremark.com/
Unigine Benchmarks - Heaven, Valley, Sancurary etc - http://unigine.com/products/benchmarks/
FRAPS - for realtime video capture and benchmarking - http://www.fraps.com/
CineBENCH by maxon - http://www.maxon.net/index.php?id=162&L=0
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat benchmark - http://cop.stalker-game.com/?page=benchmark
Crysis benchmark - http://www.crymod.com/filebase.php?fileid=280
Far Cry benchmark - http://www.farcry2-hq.com/news,483,f...s-overview.htm
PassMark benchmark - http://www.passmark.com/products/pt.htm

** Popular tools and utilities **

Driver sweeper - remove driver leftovers from your system - http://phyxion.net/
GPU-Z - Lightweight utility t o provide video card and GPU information - http://www.techpowerup.com/gpuz/

** Overclocking tools **

MSI After burner - http://event.msi.com/vga/afterburner/
EVGA Precision - http://www.evga.com/PRecision/
Rivatuner - (ATI/Nvidia) - http://www.guru3d.com/index.php?page=rivatuner
Powerstrip (ATI/NVidia) - http://entechtaiwan.com/util/ps.shtm
ATITool - http://www.techpowerup.com/downloads/Tweaking/ATITool/

** Manufacturers **

Asus Graphics - www.asus.com
EVGA - http://www.evga.com/products/prodlist.asp
Gigabyte Graphics - http://www.giga-byte.co.uk/Products/VGA/Default.aspx
MSI Graphics - http://uk.msi.com/product/vga/
Powercolor - http://www.powercolor.com/Global/index.asp
Gainward - http://www.gainward.com/main/vgapc.php?lang=en
Palit - http://www.palit.biz/main/index.php?lang=en
Point of View - http://www.pointofview-online.com/default2.php
PNY - http://www.pny-europe.com/
Sapphire - http://www.sapphiretech.com/presenta...d=1&psn=000101
Club3d - http://www.club3d.nl/products/product_graphics_1.cfm
HIS - http://www.hisdigital.com/gb/
Sparkle - http://www.sparkle.com.tw/
VTX - http://www.vtx3d.com/products.asp

Reference

www.guru3d.com
Video card benchmarks and their ranking - http://www.videocardbenchmark.net/gpu_list.php


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