Which graphics card to choose for gaming?

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Most people have difficulty in sorting through the hype when choosing a new graphics card for gaming
and are often lead astray, mostly by the amount of on-board RAM, which actually has little bearing on the overall performance of a card.

Take these two cards as an example (prices are from my local retailer)

1) Nvidia Geforce 8500GT with 1024 MB ( yes 1 GB) of RAM - on offer at £56

2) Nvidia Geforce 8600GTS with 256 MB of RAM - on offer at £91

Your average punter would probably be wowed by 1 GB of RAM and be frantically searching for his/her credit card to buy this beast of a graphics card. Probably more so when they see it's actually cheaper than the other card, and the final icing on the cake - this baby uses 'passive cooling' i.e no fan, just a heatsink

On the face of it, a bargain indeed with it's 1 GB of RAM, passive cooling (so it's quieter) and it's tempting price.  But obviously that's not the full story, and the 8600 GTS is a far superior card despite it having 'only' 256 MB of RAM.

Lets deal with RAM first, it's not size that matters and in the same type of card - two 8500 GT's for example, but one with 512 MB and another with our 1 GB, the difference in performance is minimal or non existent.
In fact several benchmarks have shown a higher RAM amount on the same model card actually runs a little slower on some cards

So what does matter? Well the speed of the RAM for a start, and the speed of the interface
On the 8500GT, it uses DDR2 RAM on a 128 bit memory interface
The 8600 GTS uses DDR3 RAM on a 256 bit memory interface
And that's why a lot of the budget cards are poor btw, they often use a 64 bit memory interface

Next up, is the core clock speed of the card itself
The 8500 has a core clock speed of 450 MgHz
The 8600 has a core clock speed of 675 MgHz

It might not seem a huge difference, but coupled with the faster interface and faster RAM, that is a HUGE difference in terms of performance.  There are other factors to take into account too, but for the purpose of this review that's all the info you need to know to spot a good card from an average one.

Price is always a guide to how good a (new) card is, but not to how much better unfortunately
A £25 budget card is basically a joke for gaming, and the 8500 is roughly twice that price, but streets ahead in performance. It would be usable for most games - but with the quality settings set to very low to compensate for it's lack of power. The 8600 GTS is similarly streets ahead of the 8500 and should have no trouble with modern games, although on some of the hungrier games, you might have to tweak it a bit.

Of course if money is no object, the top of the range cards like the 8800 are even better - but at a price.
Most people want a 'best bang per buck' solution though,  sacrificing some power  to stay in budget  and  the 8600 GTS looks like a good buy to me as a semi-serious gamer, but with a budget to stick to

Of course ATI/AMD do a good range of cards too, but I usually stick to Nvidia because it's better supported in Linux - that's another very different story though


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