Just how much better is a top-of-the-line video card than a regular card when it comes to gaming?
Before I delve into the answer, let me adjust my neck brace, required for injuries sustained when I plugged in an Nvidia GeForce 2 Ultra video card into my home test system and launched Quake III.
This neck-snapping performance does not come cheap. Is it worth it?
First some background.
Time was, the graphics card field was crowded, with names like Diamond, Paradise, 3Dfx, STB, ATI, Number Nine, S3 and more. (In fact, I can remember when the venerable "Paradise VGA" card with a whopping 256K of memory cost me a mere $800.)
Today, the landscape has changed. Once high-flying 3Dfx is in the dumper along with S3, Number Nine, STB and many more. The bulk of the cards on the market today use chips from either nVidia or ATI.
The most powerful of these is nVidia's latest offering, which is used in cards from Creative Labs, Elsa and Hercules, among others. At $450 plus is it quite an investment. Worth it?
Let's talk specs: 64MB of double data rate video memory with 460-MHz effective speed rate, a chip set with a 250-MHz core clock speed and fill rates of a billion pixels per second.
In Quake III, we're talking 92 frames per second at 1024x768 at 32 million colors. (Just think what an improvement that would be if I was any good!) The difference, really, is stunning.
Unreal Tournament, another top shooter, uses an older graphics engine that is optimized for the older 3Dfx chips so the improvement was not as impressive until I used some tweaks found on the Web. After those improvements and using some beta drivers, my frame-rate in Unreal doubled from my standard card, an ATI Rage 128 (with 16 megs of RAM).
For gamers, there's little doubt that upgrading the video card ranks right up there in the best upgrades for performance. If you can't quite pony up five hundred clams, nVidia makes two lesser chips that are worth your look; head to PCWorld Magazine's Web site (www.pcworld.com) for monthly ratings of the best in video cards.
It's also a pretty easy upgrade. In general, to change cards all you need to do in Windows is right-click on a blank part of the desktop and hit PROPERTIES. Select SETTINGS and change your card to "Standard VGA" and reboot. Then turn off your PC and take out the old card and put the new one in the same slot (firmly but carefully) and secure with the same screw. Once you start your PC, the new card will be recognized. Insert the CD of drivers and away you go.
But, make sure you visit the card's Web site for the latest drivers and install them, too.
WEEKLY WEB WONDER: If you want honest reviews, also head to Tom's Hardware Guide (www.tomshardware.com)