How To Build A PC: From Component Selection To Installation

Step 3: Select Your Graphics

General purpose applications, gaming, high-definition (HD) content, and professional 3D modeling all pose unique requirements for the graphics subsystem. Typically, power users spring for discrete cards, which you drop into an open expansion slot on your motherboard. Both Intel and AMD are adding increasingly capable graphics engines to their host processors though, so you might not even need to buy a card if your needs are basic enough.

If that's the case, the information and resources linked on the previous page are good enough to get you armed with a capable CPU. But if you're interested in playing the latest games using high-quality detail settings, mining cryptocurrencies, accelerating video rendering workloads, or building a workstation designed for heavy lifting, add-in graphics plays a big role in your system's performance.

Extreme gaming hardware is specifically designed to drive the most realistic detail settings at very high resolutions. We’ve even seen game demonstrations using three 4K displays configured in panoramic view, a technology that AMD calls Eyefinity and Nvidia dubs Surround.

Our benchmarking experience suggests that you’ll probably want two high-end graphics processors to enjoy smooth frame rates at the highest detail settings in the latest games using just one monitor at 3840x2160. A Full HD display with a native resolution of 1920x1080 only has one-fourth as many pixels to drive, so you'd get similar performance from a more mainstream graphics card.

Frankly, Don does a stellar job keeping our Best Graphics Cards for the Money column up to date each month. If you want specific guidance on the right card to buy at any given budget point, that's the resource to bookmark. Of course, you can always check out our 2014 Graphics Card Charts for more specific performance data on the GPUs you're trying to choose between. Specific performance differences between specialized card models, along with analysis of new technologies and alternative cooling methods, can be found in our graphics reviews.

As you move away from traditional desktop use cases and toward professional workstations cranking on business-class software, AMD's FirePro and Nvidia's Quadro graphics cards become more apropos, mostly because their drivers are optimized for OpenGL performance and validated extensively with the most notable ISVs. OpenGL is a multi-platform application programming interface that software developers use to render graphics, and it's particularly prevalent in the workstation space. Expect to pay a lot more for correspondingly-tuned cards, even though the GPUs under their heat sinks are exactly the same as what you get from the consumer equivalents. 

It's tempting, then, to save a few grand and tap a Radeon or GeForce card for those heavy lifting tasks. But even if you disregard potential accuracy/image quality differences, remember that the desktop boards lack those driver optimizations, and consequently aren't always as fast. If you're using your PC to make money, the smart move is to go with hardware designed for the job. We recently published Workstation Graphics: 19 Cards Tested In SPECviewperf 12, which should help put the potential of professional and gaming graphics products into perspective.