A graphics card is what your computer uses to convert data in your machine to useful images on your monitor. Graphics cards—also known as video cards—come in a wide variety of models, with many different options available. For the casual user, looking at graphics cards and trying to choose between the different options available can be intimidating and confusing. While there are many graphics cards to choose from, all graphics cards come in four basic types. Anyone looking to upgrade their existing computer, buy a new machine altogether, or just learn a little bit about how their computer works, should be aware of what different kinds exist. What follows is a simple overview of the four main types of graphics cards.
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If you have a computer but did not assemble it yourself or upgrade it in any way, chances are that it uses an integrated graphics card to display images on your screen. When a graphics card is described as integrated, it refers to the card's relationship with the computer's motherboard. Integrated graphics cards, sometimes known as onboard graphics cards, are the default option that comes with standard motherboards. An integrated graphics card can be upgraded, but it requires plugging a new graphics card into your computer's motherboard and having the computer ignore the old card.
Integrated graphics cards are the least powerful variety overall, at least compared to the technology that exists simultaneously. If you have an integrated graphics card and want to play the latest video games, you will need to upgrade.
PCI graphics cards are cards that use the PCI slots on your motherboard to connect to your computer. PCI graphics cards are usually a little bit out of date, if not extremely so. However, many older motherboards have PCI slots and lack newer varieties of connections. For this reason, there is still a reason to buy a PCI graphics card, but only if you are trying to upgrade an older system.
AGP graphics cards are named for the same thing PCI cards are—the slot they connect to on a motherboard. AGP cards can have four speeds, the fastest being 8x. However, if your motherboard only supports a lower speed, such as 1x, 2x, or 4x, your graphics card will behave as if it is of a slower speed, rather than its real speed. AGP connections are not quite as fast as PCI-E slots due to technological limits, and as a result, will not be developed to run at higher speeds. However, like PCI cards, they are more widely compatible than the most cutting-edge cards.
PCI-E cards are the most advanced, connecting to the motherboard's PCI-E slot. PCI-E graphics cards can be accelerated to 16x. In addition, a motherboard with more than one PCI-E slot can have more than one PCI-E graphics card connected to it and combine their power. However, this is a rare scenario. This can also cause compatibility problems if not planned out correctly; certain motherboards work better with specific brands of a PCI-E video card.
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