“What kind of graphics card do I need for gaming?” is a deceptively simple question. From this one question, a score of others arise like a hydra. So many questions, in fact, that you can get lost and overwhelmed in the deluge. But do not worry! I am here to cut down the clutter and give you the most important factors to consider when you are video card shopping. I like to approach the situation like completing a puzzle. Each adjoining piece should be carefully inspected and examined, so that you can find the right fitting final piece, your new graphics card.
Basic numbers: RAM and clock speed
This is the simplest shopping requirement: get as much RAM and clock speed (overall and memory clock speed) as you can afford. More RAM and higher clock speeds means more raw power.
Graphics card power needs
You may not know the wattage of your PC power supply off the top of your head. Do yourself a favour and check before you invest in a new video card. A beast of a video card like the ZOTAC GeForce GTX 1080 Ti needs a 600W power supply, which exceeds the capacity of most entry-level PCs. Make sure you have the juice to run your new card.
G-sync or V-Sync
They sound almost identical and that is for good reason. These are two different implementations of image synchronization technology that your monitor should have. In general, this monitor technology reduces the chance of your monitor showing the image at a slightly different speed than the video card is producing it. When that mismatch happens, you see the effect known as a ‘screen tear’. You’ll notice this effect when your character moves quickly and the screen display can’t quite keep up.
So, what’s the main difference between these two? G-Sync is the proprietary solution created by video card manufacturer NVIDIA. A G-Sync video card only works with a G-sync monitor, and there’s a smaller selection of those monitors out there. Because it is designed to work with a very specific monitor chipset, G-Sync is more effective. V-Sync, on the other hand is an open standard solution available to all monitor manufacturers. That’s the main V-Sync benefit: compatibility. Your trade-off is that V-Sync is slightly less powerful than its competitor.
The 4K challenge
We are all tempted by the newest, most powerful options when shopping. Gaming in 4K resolution sounds like a good idea. Beautiful images drawn with overwhelming detail, mapped out across your screen. But your beautiful pictures come with a hefty computing cost. Even a top end video card like the Zotac GeForce GTX 1070 will need every bit of its power to render a game in 4K. The chance that you’ll see a frame rate slowdown is not negligible. I’m not trying to discourage you from fulfilling your need for non-gaming 4K functionality. Having a video card that can pump out a movie in 4K is handy, and the resulting image is gorgeous. But when it comes to gaming crunch time, every bit of speed matters. Consider running your games at a lower (but still impressive) resolution to get the best performance.
Space in the case for your graphics card
Before you spend serious money on your new video card, take a peek in your PC case. You may not even have enough room on your motherboard for it. A card like the Zotac card above needs two PCI-E card slots, and it cannot work in a PC that only has one. There’s also physical space to consider. A small form factor case will have a hard time fitting your beefy new video card, no matter how gently you coax it in. And no, you absolutely cannot hack off the corner of the card to get it to fit in the case.
Outputs and connectors
I know this seems too simple to talk about, but taking it for granted that you can connect your new card to your monitor can lead to frustration. HDMI, DVI, display port, s-video and VGA are all possibilities. Think about all the devices you’ll want to connect to your new video card, and make sure the right ports are available. The primary one is, of course, the connector for your monitor. Your gaming will suffer if you stoop to using an adapter to compensate for a missing connection. For my sake, please promise me that you’re not using a VGA monitor to game on. It’s 2017. You deserve better.
Personally, I am wary of VR gaming. It seems to have a high potential for sudden nausea, and I’ve never had a pair of goggles sit comfortably over my glasses. I am not you, however. If VR gaming intrigues you, pick a card that can support it. Be prepared for a few performance trade-offs. Virtual reality takes an astounding amount of processing power to create, so either your immersive world slows down, or the image quality has to drop. And maybe lay down a drop sheet in case things get messy.
Scalable Link Interface functionality
You know what’s even better than a new graphics card? Two new video cards working together! The technology that allows multiple video cards to work together to draw an image is called scalable link interface (SLI). SLI graphics cards have a single card set as the master card, with up to three other cards acting as subordinate cards. The main card packages the rendered image together and pipes it out to your computer. This is a substantial investment up front, so think long and hard about how much you’re willing to spend. You also need to have enough room in your computer to take these cards, and enough power to run them.
When you’re buying a new graphics card for your gaming PC, the decision comes down to a few key points. Know your budget, so you don’t spend more than you can afford. Know your PC’s capacity and what it can handle in a video card (or two). And be clear about what you do and do not need the card to do.