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Computer Graphics Cards - All About Graphics Cards

the basics motherboard interfaces outputs

Simply put, a graphics card is a component dedicated to generating images from your computer and sending them to a display of some sort. It is responsible for turning the ones and zeros of the computer’s “thoughts” into something that humans can actually comprehend, so it’s a pretty important part. The power of computer graphics cards is measured primarily by the amount of video memory available on the card.

Computer graphics cards, also known as video cards, have certainly come a long way in a short time. The first PC graphics card was released in 1981; it had a whopping 4 KB of video RAM. Today, cards are available with 4 GB or more, and it can be difficult to even find a card with less than 256 MB in an electronics store.

Your computer’s graphics card is important, of course, possibly more important than the screen itself. However, many computer users have little to no need for a top-of-the-line card. The most common reason for a person to buy a powerful graphics card is for PC games; this is one of the most taxing video tasks that a personal computer can be given.

Computer Graphics Cards vs Graphics Controllers

Some computers don’t even have a dedicated graphics card. Instead, they have what is called integrated or on-board graphics. This is more common in older machines and especially in laptops, where there is not much room inside of the case. The motherboard includes a graphics chipset that shares the system’s main RAM – efficient, but not powerful. Obviously, this is an undesirable setup for users who need to run 3D applications.

Major Components of Computer Graphics Cards

Video BIOS – This contains the basic programming to run the card and allows it to work with your computer and software.

RAMDAC or Random Access Memory Digital-to-Analog Converter – This does just what its name suggests. It converts a digital signal to analog for certain displays, like a CRT monitor.

Cooling System – This is usually just a heat sink or fan, but some users cool their computer graphics cards with water or other liquids.

GPU or Graphics Processing Unit – The GPU is a processor that has been optimized for graphics acceleration.

Of course, all computer video cards will also have some sort of input and an array of outputs.

Motherboard Interfaces

Usually located along one edge of the card, this is where a computer graphics card connects to the rest of the machine. This is the spec you should look at first, before you start thinking about memory, price, outputs or other features. The standard for modern computers is PCI Express, abbreviated as PCIe. Older motherboards might require an AGP interface or the even older PCI.


There are many different outputs that might be included on a computer graphics card, but a few of them are much more common than others.

DVI or Digital Visual Interface – If you have a flatscreen, you’ll probably use this output. It’s a standard design intended for flat panel displays like LCDs, plasma screens and HDTVs. It can easily be converted to a VGA signal if the card doesn’t have a VGA output; many video card manufacturers include an adapter for just this purpose.

VGA or Video Graphics Array – This is your basic monitor cable, designed for use with CRT monitors. It carries an analog signal, so noise and distortion are common issues. As CRT monitors seem to be on the way out, expect to see this format less and less; however, it is still found on many graphics cards.

HDMI or High-Definition Multimedia Interface – HDMI is becoming more and more common in home theater setups. It’s used to connect gaming consoles and DVD players to an HD display. While it has yet to replace DVI in the computer world, many monitors and computer graphics cards use it.

VIVO or Video In, Video Out – This is the round output that you might find on a graphics card. The most common form is a 9-pin connector that allows Composite, Component or S-video connections. It’s mostly used to connect the computer to televisions and DVD players.

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