Graphics cards are probably the fastest moving PC component available these days. It seems that a month doesn't pass without some new 3D feature being announced that will revolutionise the gaming world.
Right now the big news is that DirectX 9 games are appearing on the shelves, with an emphasis on realism and cinematic action, instead of ever-higher frame rates that we can barely use. DirectX 9 builds on DirectX 8.1 by increasing the accuracy that can be used to define each pixel, and it also brings the higher degree of programmability offered in Vertex shaders 2.0 and Pixel shaders 2.0.
Those are hardware features that are built in to the graphics chip or GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). If your graphics card doesn't support DirectX 9 there is no way you will be able to see the full effects in the latest games, although a DirectX 8.1 card will give it a fair go with its more limited Vertex shader 1.1 and Pixel shader 1.2 support.
The GPU is the single most important part of your new graphics card, and right now the market is split between ATi and nVidia. Other contenders such as Matrox, SiS, Power VR/Kyro and VIA/S3 can only watch from the sidelines as ATi and nVidia slug it out for supremacy in the PC graphics market. While both companies want the bragging rights that come with having the fastest chip, they know full well that very few of us spend Â£300 or more on a graphics card.
Both ATi and nVidia produce a range of chips to sell to the companies who actually manufacture and market graphics cards, and the ones we're most interested in support DirectX 9. In the case of ATi itâ€™s the Radeon 9800 and Radeon 9600, while nVidia has the GeForce FX5900, GeForce FX5600 and GeForce FX5200. To make matters more complicated each chip is available in standard and Pro or Ultra variants, so there is a long list of chips competing for your money. The graphics card manufacturers need to differentiate their product from their competitors so they vary the amount and speed of graphics memory that is installed, and also add features such as Video input, or include some games in the box.
The question of price is of paramount importance. You can buy a very basic DirectX 9 graphics card for as little as Â£63, so long as you don't expect to be able to turn on high quality settings and can live with fairly low frame rates. At the other end of the scale you could spend Â£400 on the latest and greatest gaming card that you just know will be out of date when the next chip is launched before Christmas.
In this group test we've compared 19 cards from 12 manufacturers, using 11 different chips. You should be able to find exactly the card that suits your requirements, and more importantly we will guide you through one of the biggest PC buying dilemmas that you'll face this year.