CNET editors' desktop buying guide:
Our views on desktop video graphics
The CNET editors' guide to desktops clues you in to what you need to know, from finding the type of PC that fits your lifestyle to catching up on all of the latest trends.
Our views on video
When deciding on the graphics subsystem, you'll come to a fork in the road. One path leads to integrated graphics, which come as a chip on your computer's motherboard that shares the system's main memory. If you have at least 1GB of main memory, an integrated video chip won't siphon enough of it for video purposes to really slow things down. For basic computing tasks, such as working on e-mail, browsing the Web, and giving the occasional photo slide show, at least in Windows XP, you can get away with integrated graphics. If your video needs go beyond the basics, however, or if you have designs on Windows Vista and its Aero effects, you'll be best served by choosing a dedicated graphics card with its own graphics memory. Gamers, digital media creators, home-theater-PC fans, and anyone who wants to use more than two monitors will all benefit from adding a discrete graphics card.
Integrated graphicsIntegrated graphics chips will suffice for basic computing tasks. If you aren't a gamer or a creative professional and you are looking for a computer for e-mailing friends and family, surfing the Web, and creating the occasional Word doc, you need not pony up for a dedicated graphics card. Below are some of the current types of integrated graphics chips you'll find in lower end PCs.
Discrete graphicsFor the consumer graphics market, two companies maintain an overwhelming share of the market: ATI and Nvidia. Each company has offerings for every segment of the graphics market. You'll find plenty of older cards still available at retail, some of which might even be good deals if the price is right. Below is a list of the most recent chip releases from ATI and Nvidia.
Home theater videoA video card may benefit your PC-based, video-watching habit by improving the image quality a bit, but the real bonus of integrating your PC into your home-entertainment stack occurs when you use it as a digital video recorder and an all-around universal entertainment center. Thanks to Windows Vista's built in Media Center software (in Home Premium and Ultimate, at least), the gradual addition of HDMI output to video cards, PC compatible Blu-ray and HD DVD drives, and PC-based CableCard, your PC can now perform almost every home entertainment task as well as a tower of traditional home theater components. Just know that it's not cheap, and you sometimes have to work for it.
The biggest trouble spot right now is PC-based CableCard. CableCard-equipped PCs can decrypt a digital cable signal, which is a major step up from the old analog TV tuner cards. But because CableCard will let you only receive a signal, not transmit one, you still can't use interactive menus or select Pay-Per-View programs. We've also had difficulty getting them to work--at least in New York. We expect we'll still see analog TV tuners for a while as well, because, unlike CableCard, you can add a standard TV tuner card to any PC with an available PCI slot. CableCard requires a complicated certification process that's only available to complete PCs sold from the traditional system vendors.
The other thing to think about is HDCP compliance. In order to play protected HD content from your PC, every link in the PC video-processing chain needs to adhere to the HDCP (high-bandwidth digital content protection) standard. Usually if there's a problem it's in your display, but you should also make sure that any standalone video card you purchase is HDCP-compliant (usually written on the box). All of ATI's and Nvidia's new graphics cards (the Radeon 2000's and the GeForce 8000's, respectively) meet this requirement, so as long as you stay current, you shouldn't have a problem.
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Rich Brown, Dan Ackerman, and Matthew Elliott wrote and edited this guide. For more information on desktops in general, please visit our desktop center.