15.2 Choosing a Video Adapter

Use the following guidelines when choosing a video adapter:

  • Remember that video is just one part of your system. If your system has only a Pentium III/500 and 64 MB of memory, you're likely to be disappointed if you install a cutting-edge $400 graphics card. Buying a $150 midrange graphics card instead and spending the other $250 on a CPU, motherboard, and memory upgrade yields much better video performance, and increases general system performance as well.

  • Unless you spend most of your computing time running resource-intensive 3D games, performance is probably the least important selection criterion. Current video adapters, and most older models, are more than fast enough to run standard 2D business applications at normal resolutions and refresh rates (e.g., 1024x768 at 85 Hz). Previous-generation 3D adapters are discounted deeply when their replacements ship, and are excellent choices for most users. These older video chipsets are often used for embedded video on integrated motherboards, and will suffice for nearly anyone. Don't forget that today's obsolescent chipset was the leading-edge barn burner not long ago. Don't get caught up in the horsepower race, and don't waste money buying performance that you'll never use.

  • Buy only an AGP adapter, except in unusual circumstances. Check the motherboard manual to determine the type of AGP interface it uses, and then refer to Table 15-1 to determine the types of AGP card that are compatible. If you may later upgrade the motherboard, choose a U1.5VAGP3.0 or a UAGP3.0 adapter for maximum future compatibility.

Some older AGP motherboards have mechanical, electrical, or chipset limitations that prevent them from working properly with some AGP cards. Conversely, some older AGP cards do not function properly in some AGP motherboards. These problems were caused both by ambiguities in the AGP standard and by some manufacturers failing to adhere closely enough to the published standard. These problems were relatively common with motherboards and video adapters designed and sold until late 2000, and in particular with motherboards that use some older VIA chipsets. No current motherboards or AGP cards that we know of suffer these incompatibilities. If you're working with old components, check the maker's web site for details about possible conflicts.

If the motherboard has no AGP slot, the best option is usually to upgrade the motherboard. PCI video adapters are becoming hard to find, and by late 2003 will probably have entirely disappeared from the market.

  • Display quality is subjective and very difficult to quantify, but a real issue nonetheless. The consensus, with which we agree, is that Matrox video adapters provide the highest 2D display quality, with ATI RADEON adapters close behind. We used to use Matrox adapters in many systems, but the 3D performance of mainstream Matrox adapters is so poor that we now use Matrox adapters only in systems that we're certain will never need to run 3D applications. For our own systems, we now use primarily ATI RADEON adapters, which combine superb 3D display quality and performance with 2D image quality that is only half a step behind Matrox. Although nVIDIA adapters provide excellent 3D performance, we have never cared for their 2D image quality, particularly at high resolution.

    The other problem is that nVIDIA makes video chipsets, not video cards. nVIDIA sells video chipsets to other manufacturers that produce video cards. Some video cards based on nVIDIA chipsets are very good indeed, but some are quite poor. In other words, the presence of the nVIDIA name is no guarantee of quality.

    ATI also sells RADEON chipsets to other manufacturers, such as SapphireTech and Crucial, differentiating ATI-branded products as "Built By ATI" and third-party RADEON adapters as "Powered By ATI." We have used RADEON video cards made by Crucial and SapphireTech and find their quality indistinguishable from ATI-branded products, although features and package contents may vary.

  • If you buy a motherboard with embedded video, make sure the motherboard includes an AGP slot, ideally a UAGP3.0 slot. In a year or two, when even inexpensive video cards are faster than the embedded video, you can upgrade the video easily and inexpensively.

  • Buy a card with enough memory. PCI video cards can use only memory that resides on the card itself. AGP video cards can also use main system memory, but for performance and other reasons it's always better to have the necessary memory on the video card itself.

  • For running business software and other 2D applications, nearly any recent video card is adequate. Look for a card with at least 16 MB of video memory, but more than 32 MB is probably overkill.

  • If you run 3D games or professional 3D applications, consider 32 MB of local video memory the absolute minimum. It is better to have 64 MB, and 128 MB or more is not excessive if you run hardware-intensive applications.

  • Make sure that the adapter you choose has drivers available for the operating system you intend to use. This is particularly important if you run Linux or another OS with limited driver support. The best vendors, such as ATI, provide frequent driver updates for a broad range of operating systems and versions. Consider the manufacturer's history of providing frequent driver updates and supporting new operating system versions, which you can determine by examining the manufacturer's web site, checking the newsgroups, and cruising the hardware enthusiast web sites.

    Video driver availability may be an important consideration for Linux users. Most recent Linux distributions have basic 2D support for most popular video adapters, but may lack support for 3D acceleration, TV, dual-head, and other features. In the past, many Linux users chose Matrox for its excellent Linux support, but now nVIDIA is generally acknowledged to have the best Linux support. Although ATI ignored Linux for years, excellent 2D and 3D drivers are now available for ATI RADEON 8500 and later adapters, as well as some earlier models. Before you choose a video adapter for a Linux system, check the maker's web site and http://www.xfree86.org/ to determine if acceptable drivers are available. You may also want to check the Linux distribution you are considering to make sure that the installer will detect and configure hardware 3D support without much hassle.

  • Make sure the video card has a good warranty. Video cards used to be among the most reliable components of a PC. This is changing, not because manufacturers are cutting corners, but because new high-performance video cards are pushing hardware technology to the limit. Having a video card die after only six months or a year is now relatively common, particularly for those who push the card past its limit by overclocking it in pursuit of the highest possible performance. We've seen video cards with 90-day warranties, which is completely unacceptable. Regard one year as an absolute minimum, and longer is better.