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Choosing the best graphics card for the job

Whether you are thinking of buying a new PC or upgrading your existing one, the graphics card is a key component. It is driven by instructions from the host CPU, and its job is to convert these instructions into signals that drive the display device.

Today's cards allow you to create much more complex images than the traditional 2D - as illustrated by the huge market for high-quality 3D games such as Quake II. But the old idea, that the more features, and the more powerful, the better the card, no longer holds. The problem is now to do with standards.

When accelerated graphics cards first appeared for the 2D market, their aim was to help with such tasks as drawing lines and rectangles. But 3D desires lie more with the games industry, where standards aren't as clear cut.

As most standards work through the operating system, the best thing would seem to be to use Windows as the baseline, which is why Microsoft has developed its own standard - the Direct3D API - part of the Direct X suite. But developing this standard has taken longer than expected, so other standards have been used instead, such as Open GL; however, Microsoft is winning the war and Direct3D is now gaining ground.

Whether or not you planned to purchase a 3D card, you may have little choice; practically all the cards now on the market have 3D capabilities. In its April edition, PC Magazine reviews 14 cards, from nine companies, that are capable of 2D and 3D graphics processing, supporting 1,024 by 768 resolution in at least 24-bit colour at a minimum refresh of 75Hz. The choice of cards, AGP or PCI, was left to the manufacturer.

PC Magazine awarded its editor's choice to the ATI Xpert@Work (pounds 145, ex VAT), an all-round card that did well in the 2D as well as 3D tests. It also has TV and DVD optional add-ons.

However, for those looking for the best 3D card out there, a specific award went to Diamond Viper V330 (pounds 158, ex VAT), equipped with the Riva 128 chipset. This stormed ahead in 3D, beating its nearest rival by 11 per cent. In the 2D tests, too, it came within three places of the ATI Xpert@Work. For sheer value, Creative Labs Graphics Blaster Exxteme (pounds 84, ex VAT) is also worth a look.

PC Magazine http://www.pcmag.co.uk