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We have a look at the graphics card sector

Pick a card

ALONGSIDE the CPU and the motherboard, one of the most important components in a decent gaming PC is the graphics card. The speed and power of it will dictate how well games look and play, and as such many users are prepared to shell out big to get the best product going. However, performance is often affected by external factors like coding, compatibility and operating system.

Despite a major push at its launch, Windows Vista was criticised by many gamers for being heavy on resources with little actual benefit over XP.

“DirectX 10 was the last main industry-wide development, but with the poor uptake of Windows Vista many gamers haven’t really experienced the benefits of it,” comments CCI category manager Cliff Cheetham. “Steam’s July 2009 Hardware Survey showed that less than 30 per cent of gamers were using DirectX 10.”

Conversely, many of the compliments directed at its successor Windows 7 have been around its more efficient use of resources. Part of this is down to the next generation of DirectX, dubbed Compute.

“We’re about to see the launch of Windows 7, which will introduce the world to DirectX Compute,” says Realtime Distribution’s sales director Richard Marsden. “This is a huge development in the graphics market as we will begin to see mainstream applications starting to harness the power of the graphics card as well as the CPU.”

“DirectX 11 will be huge for graphics,” adds VIP product manager Matt Parrish. “It’s included in Windows 7 and having a compatible graphics card will soon be essential for gamers. Expect to see new DirectX 11 ready graphics cards released over the Christmas period.” However, Zotac Northern Europe sales director Darren Roberts warns that it is important to manage customers’ expectations of what this new technology will mean for gaming. “Like in the past, the new graphics features will take some time to be implemented by game developers.”

Another of the major developments that DirectX Compute will bring in is greater capacity for sharing workloads between the CPU and the GPU. “GPU Computing – using applications that take advantage of the massive amount of computation power in a graphics chip – is revolutionising the industry,” says Nvidia’s Northern European sales manager Louis Belcuore. “Video can be encoded on to your portable player many times faster that it could ever be done on a CPU.”

Such practices were initially met with confusion from some quarters. Long before the announcement of DirectX Compute, Nvidia began toying with the idea of distributing processing between the CPU with the GPU. The result was CUDA. “People thought Nvidia was crazy when it first started extolling the potential benefits of a system like CUDA and using the GPU for parallel processing but it’s now been proven right,” says Parrish. “Even Windows 7 will take advantage of the power of a graphics card with DirectX Compute.”

However, unlike DirectX 11, gamers will not have to wait long to see the benefits of Compute. “Since Nvidia has done a lot of base work with developers on CUDA, hundreds of applications already exist using the GPU for Compute applications,” explains Roberts. “These can utilize DirectX Compute immediately.”

Anybody who has been in the position of building a PC on a limited budget will have come across the decision of whether to go for a balanced system, or to skew the power in favour of the CPU or graphics card. Opinions were mixed among the experts we spoke to.

“Graphics is by far the most important component of a gaming PC,” argues Marsden. “If you were to spend an extra £100-£200 to increase gaming performance, you’d be far better spending that on the graphics card over any other component.”

His comments were echoed by many of his contemporaries. “Graphics cardsaren’t just important, they are probably the key component in a gaming system,” says Parrish. “There has been a perception ingrained into users over the years that as long as you had an expensive CPU then the rest of the parts did not matter, but this idea is outdated. The CPU is still very important, but for a gamer it’s nothing without a good GPU too.”

“Graphics cards are the determining factor for performance in a gaming PC,” adds Roberts. “The best performing CPU platform can be easily killed with a low performing or lowfeatured graphics cards.”

However, not everyone believes that a top-end graphics solution is absolutely necessary. “High end cards are still hugely important. However we are finding that the need for the absolute highest products isn’t always necessary,” says Entatech product manager Richard Dolman. “Examples of this being Nvidia’s GTX 260 – while a hugely fast card, it has been available at sub £200 for some time now.”

“It all depends on what you play,” adds Cheetham. “For FPS and RTS games that handle the ever-complex 3D graphics and real world physics, you will need faster and more powerful ,graphics cards, while the MMO market generally requires lesser power.

Generally speaking, graphics cards and lots of RAM are more important than high end CPU’s at this time.” However, AMD’s senior manager for EMEA marketing Sasa Marinkovic feels that it is important not to view the graphics card as a standalone device, but one that works in harmony with the rest of the PC: “We strongly advocate a balanced PC. The performance of a gaming PC isn’t just down to the graphics card. To, get the best possible gaming experience requires a balanced system comprising CPU and graphics cards – as they work complementary to each other.”

It’s often assumed that PC gamers only purchase expensive, high-end components in their quest for ever smoother gaming, while maxing out the graphics options. However, not everyone in the channel agrees with that viewpoint.

“PC gaming would be a tiny proportion of what it is currently if gamers were only found at the top end of the market,” states Target Components product manager Glen Rhodes. “The majority of gamers are well enough informed that they can see a significant cost saving for an insignificant performance drop by considering what the mid end graphics card market has to offer.”

“Gaming is a massive growth market, but we’re not just talking about the high-end of the market. Adding a lower end card priced around £30-£50 will still make a big difference to the gaming experience,” notes Marsden, adding that some of the top titles don’t require high end cards.

However, some feel that the perception of gamers only splashing out hundreds for their latest graphics cards is a misconception. “Gamers certainly do have a hugely influential part to play in the development of new and faster graphics cards,” comments Sapphire’s Northern European sales manager Neil Spicer. Regardless of the past prestige of gamers, Spicer says that the games consoles from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have had a major impact on the landscape of the games industry. “What we are learning quickly is that the stereotypical image of a gamer has changed. Gameplay is now reaching out to a variety of people thanks to consoles, which in turn is developing the PC gaming side.”

However, he adds, “There is a hardcore level of enthusiast gamer that can have a genuine influence on the development of technology.”

SRP: £114.99
Based on Nvidia’s popular 9800GT series, the GTS 250 chipset is a mid-range solution that gives gamers a lot of kick for the their money. Palit’s version of the card also goes beyond the standard 512MB and 1GB set-ups, boosting the on-board memory to 2GB.

Distributor: VIP Computers

SRP: £199.99
Coming packed with 896MB of GDDR3 memory and support for CUDA, PhysX, SLI and 3D Stereo, the latest card from Palit is certainly a powerful solution for anyone looking to upgrade their graphics card.

Distributor: VIP Computers

SRP: £199.99
Coming packed with 896MB of GDDR3 memory and support for CUDA, PhysX, SLI and 3D Stereo, the latest card from Palit is certainly a powerful solution for anyone looking to upgrade their graphics card.

Distributor: VIP Computers

SRP: £39.99
Perfect for the budget gaming system, Sparkle’s 9400GT 1GB low profile VGA card packs enough of a punch to power the latest in gaming, but is quiet at the same time so it won’t overpower the action.

Target Components

SRP: £54.99
Pitched as the ideal discrete graphics card for those upgrading from integrated graphics, the Sweex 8400GS is based upon Nvidia’s chipset of the same name. It packs plenty of power for some of the most played games, including World of Warcraft and The Sims 3.

Distributor: CCI Distribution

SRP: £149.99
German vendor Galaxy is looking to shake up the UK market with its range of Nvidia-based GPUs. Aimed at the over-clocking market, its cards benefit from Nvidia technology, but also come with specialist software designed to help users get the most from their gaming systems.

Distributor: Target Components

SRP: £174.99
Based on Nvidia’s new ION technology, the Zotac ION has enough power to allow netbooks to play some of the industry’s most popular games competently, including The Sims and World of Warcraft. It also has the potential to revolutionise new, smaller PCs that could compete directly with consoles.

Distributor: Realtime Distribution

SRP: £229.99
With 1798MB of video memory and an ultra-wide 448-bit interface, the Zotac GeForce GTX 275 has been designed with gamers in mind. It intended for those who want power, without breaking the bank. Zotac is also bundling a full copy of Codemaster’s Race Driver: GRID with each card.

Distributor: Realtime Distribution

SRP: £329.99
This BFG graphics card is based on Nvidia technology and has been designed for those who want a water-cooled system, but don’t have the confidence to install a professional-grade system themselves.

Distributor: Realtime Distribution

SRP: £119.99
Based around the quiet, but powerful, vapour cooling technology – originally developed for blade servers – the HD 4850 Vapor X offers huge overclocking potential and enough power for the latest in gaming.

Distributor: Realtime Distribution

XFX HD 4870 X2
SRP: £369.99
Based on AMD’s most powerful solution, the XFX HD 4870 X2 is a CrossFire enabled board that is at its base, two HD 4870 1GB cards strapped together to give a huge boost to performance. Featuring a large heatsink, the card has been designed to provide huge graphical performance, without any risk of overheating to your PC.

Distributor: EntaTech

HIS HD 4890
SRP: £199.99
Designed for gaming, HIS’ latest card comes packed with the latest technology to make games run fast and smoothly. With 1GB of GDDR5 memory and a double slot cooling, this is the ideal card for the latest gaming systems.

Distributor: M2M Direct

SRP: £274.99
With 2GB of GDDR5 memory, this is a serious card, packing 2.4 teraFLOPS of GPU power thanks to its dual processor design. Add to that dual mode CrossFireX and this card can give much more expensive competitors a run for their money.

Distributor: Realtime Distribution


CCI Distribution: 01423 704700
Entatech: 0333 101 8888
M2M Direct: 0208 676 3030
Target Components: 01977 739300
Realtime Distribution: 01480 435881
VIP Computers: 0871 622 7500

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