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Displays and Graphics 101

So, you're looking to upgrade your computer and you've realized that your trusty basic beige (or trendy black) sidekick spends a lot of time drawing pictures on the screen. Presto! You've discovered one of the biggest bottlenecks in the whole computing business: the computer has to take time away from its busy schedule to tell you what it's up to. It's easier to help your PC gain speed when you understand how video cards work.

The first PCs used display cards that could display fuzzy four-color text and graphics or could display sharp text but no graphics at all. Later models, including VGA, which every current video card emulates, could display both text and graphics. Although early video cards relied on the processor on the motherboard to control the display, later models began to move more and more of this responsibility to the chips on the graphics cards themselves.

Today, most graphics cards contain chips that can be described as graphics processing units (GPUs). The GPU on the graphics card does most of the work, but how fast it works depends in part on how quickly it receives signals from the computer. Thus, the choice of the right GPU and card interface has a big impact on your system's performance.

Starting in the late 1990s, 3D accelerators became common, freeing the CPU from the need to calculate the much more intricate appearance of 3D objects, shading, lighting effects, fog effects, gunshots, and explosions found in popular games such as Quake III, Tribes, and many others. Surviving the first round of a 3D game sometimes depends on how good a 3D accelerator you're using.

Although most recent video cards offer decent 2D acceleration, 3D acceleration with high image quality has been a lot harder to achieve. Breakthroughs in on-board memory and the development of the AGP slot were also needed to work along with the latest 3D accelerated chipsets to provide the high frame rates and realistic visuals that hardcore PC gamers demand. As you learn later in this chapter, many video cards originally provided by computer manufacturers skimp on 3D performance, making an upgrade a necessity for serious gaming, even on recently purchased systems. Can we blame the system makers for this one? Probably not. After all, all those basic, bland beige boxes look pretty much alike, don't they?

A Crash Course in Video Standards and Terms

There are plenty of acronyms and other terms roaming around in video-card land. They don't bite, but they can be confusing. Here are some of the most common:

VGA—Video Graphics Array is an analog video standard developed by IBM in 1987 that is still the baseline for today's video cards and displays. Resolutions start at 640x480 and go up; the number of colors ranges from 16 to over 16 million!

SuperVGA—This is used by some to refer to 800x600 resolution, or by others to refer to any settings that exceed standard VGA (see previous entry).

UltraVGA—This is used by some to refer to 1024x768 resolution or above.

Resolution—Number of pixels in onscreen image, always listed as horizontalxvertical. The most popular setting for 17-inch CRT monitors today is 1,280x1,024. The higher the resolution, the greater the page size you can view without scrolling.

Vertical refresh rate—The rate at which the display is refreshed with new information. Faster refresh rates reduce visible flicker, but too high a refresh rate on a low-quality display produces fuzzy text.

Color depth—Refers to the maximum number of colors visible onscreen, expressed as a power of two. 8-bit color (28) equals 256 colors. 16-bit color (216) equals 65,536 colors. 24-bit color (224) equals over 16 million colors. The 32-bit color setting used on 3D cards actually displays 24-bit color while setting aside additional memory for the Z-buffer (an area of memory used to store 3D information). The maximum color depth possible varies with the video card's memory, resolution, and Z-buffer size selected.

Frame rate—One of the measurements used to indicate a high-performance 3D card. This rate indicates the number of frames per second of 3D animation a card can show under specified conditions. Cards with faster 3D accelerator chips and high-speed components can provide faster frame rates than cards with lower-speed chips and components, but display color depth, game-specific display-quality settings, and system hardware such as RAM and CPU type/speed can also affect the frame rate.

AGP—A high-speed slot especially for video, the AGP slot is from two to sixteen times faster than Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) slots. The additional performance of AGP makes it a natural choice for both high-performance 2D graphics such as photo and video editing and 3D graphics. Unfortunately, some low-cost systems don't have AGP slots.

So, how do you start improving your video card situation? I suggest you work in the following order:

  1. Find out what you already have for video. Do you have an AGP slot? What speed is it? Are you stuck with PCI slots? Is your video card removable, or are you cursed with cheapjack integrated video? You might have already discovered this if you took the "grand tour" of your system I suggested in Chapter 4, "Taking an Inspection Tour of Your System." If you skipped the tour, go back and take it. You might find out you're already in good shape video-wise, but until you get the details, you don't know the best way to fix any deficiencies in your system.

  2. Evaluate your current video card, chipset, and monitor according to the feature list provided in this chapter. I name names, so if you're a fan of a particular video card, don't get mad—or get even—if I trash your favorite or rave about a card you can't stand. I don't own stock in any of these companies, and my comments are based on a combination of personal experience and lots—and I mean lots—of reviews from various sources.

  3. Decide whether your current video is sufficient or needs to be upgraded. You're the only one who can make the call, but I promise to give you all the help I can by discussing the features you should be looking for.

  4. Remove your current video (or disable it) and install the new card. The mechanics of "out with the old and in with the new" resemble other types of card upgrades, but video driver issues can put a few wrinkles into the situation. Learn whether you need to consider a motherboard upgrade first.

  5. Learn how to evaluate your monitor and replace it if it's also not up to snuff. Although monitors all look pretty much alike on the surface, there are big differences inside—where it counts.

I wrap up the process by answering some of the most typical troubleshooting problems I've run into.

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