You know what processor you want, you have a price quote on a 5 PCI slot motherboard, and you have the most expensive SCSI hard drive you could find waiting for you on your doorstep.  Things couldn't be better, you've done your research, you've made your decisions and the credit card in your hand is melting from the heat of your palms...but wait, what video card will you be using?  All of the sudden the weeks of research and reading seem to be useless as you quickly search for reviews on video cards. 

Ok, you think, stay calm, this decision can't be that difficult. The Voodoo2 is the fastest 3D accelerator, why don't I just get that?...what about 2D?  Or is their something faster than the Voodoo2?  One board costs how much?!?  With these questions running through your head even the most calm and collect of buyers can be driven to insanity, even contemplating buying a pre-built system to avoid the hassle of dealing with all of these decisions.  The video market is a bit more delicate than the motherboard and CPU markets, a certain level of fragility is present that must be approached in the most careful manner to avoid making an expensive mistake something almost all of us can admit to making at one point in our computing lives.  

When buying a processor, there is always the self-proclaimed king among PC users, Intel.  Regardless of whether or not you wish to recognize their processors as quality, there is no doubt that the term, CPU, is often associated with the company, Intel.  For motherboards, you have a considerable increase in choices when compared to CPU's however for the most part the decision isn't too difficult.  You look for a motherboard with the features you want, and as long as it is stable, a fast performer, and supported by the manufacturer you have found your motherboard. 

Video cards, or graphics accelerators, (a title that originally surfaced during the days when 2D performance populated the pages of computing magazines) make for a much more complex decision for the end user.  There can be no "Best Overall Video Accelerator" since the word overall applies to what you desire from a video card. 

What to look for in a Graphics Accelerator

  • Acceleration Strengths - What sort of acceleration do you primarily need?   While a card may offer excellent 3D acceleration there are some out there that need more than the ability to run Quake 2 at unbelievable speeds.

  • API Support - Glide, Direct3D, and OpenGL.  Those are the three major Application Programming Interfaces (API's) you'll see present in the 3D world, while only 3Dfx cards support the least used Glide API Direct3D and OpenGL support are provided for with virtually any card/chipset.   If OpenGL is something you're looking forward to having outstanding performance under, then make sure that the card you're after has full OpenGL support now with an OpenGL Installable Client Driver (ICD) available for download. 

  • Drivers & 3DNow! - Make sure that the manufacturer of your next-generation graphics accelerator won't leave you in the dark when the time to upgrade your drivers comes around.  Keep track of all driver updates made to manufacturer websites and be sure to keep communication lines open between yourself and the manufacturer (that's what email is for).  For you K6-2 users, you may want to lean towards a graphics accelerator chipset that has either current or planned support for AMD's 3DNow! instructions in their drivers.  Among others, 3Dfx, 3DLabs, Matrox and nVidia have either announced or currently have drivers out that support the AMD 3DNow! instructions.

  • Interface & Card Length - Two very important factors in purchasing a graphics accelerator, the Bus Interface and the physical length of the card.  For PCI cards, you must make sure that you have at least one open PCI slot that can accommodate the physical length of the card.  Voodoo2 accelerators, for example, require full-length PCI slots due to their incredible length.   Unfortunately those are luxuries denied to most AT-Super7 motherboard owners, in which case an AGP accelerator becomes more attractive especially since PCI slots are quickly increasing in scarcity among upgraders.

  • Refresh Rates & Integrated RAMDAC - If you have a 14" monitor and don't have any plans on upgrading your monitor in the near future then you should probably skip this section.  For those of you that have either taken advantage of or are planning to take advantage of the rock bottom prices on 17" monitors or for those of you that simply have the budget for a 21" monitor, then you will want to pay close attention to the supported Refresh Rates and Integrated RAMDAC of any graphics accelerator you purchase.  The rule of thumb here, the higher the better, it is as simple as that.  Remember that when outputting video you must take the digital data stored in your video memory or RAM and send it down your VGA cable to your monitor.  However monitors, in spite of what you may think, do not receive information in digital bits since they are analog devices.   In order to convert the digital signal from the RAM to an analog signal the monitor can use a RAMDAC (Random Access Memory Digital-Analog Converter) is present on the video card itself.  The faster a RAMDAC the better the 2D image quality you see on your monitor will be.  Expect most RAMDAC's to fall in the 200MHz - 250MHz with 230MHz as the sweet spot for most users.

  • Resolutions & Video Memory - If you have an ideal resolution in mind, one you would like to run all of your games at as well as another you wish to keep your windows desktop at you need to make sure that the video card you're purchasing has enough memory (or a large enough frame buffer in the case of 3D accelerators) to accommodate for the resolution.  The once sought after 640 x 480 gaming resolution is now a thing of the past, you should accept no 3D accelerator that doesn't allow for 800 x 600 support, and provided that the performance is decent, support for higher 3D resolutions such as 1024 x 768 and 1280 x 1024 can be desired as well.   Just remember that your monitor must also be able to handle the resolutions you're aiming for, 800 x 600 and 1024 x 768 are pretty much supported on all monitors (even 14" monitors have 1024 x 768 support) however once you break 1024 x 768 you may want to start looking for a 17" or larger screen. 

  • TV-Output - The world of TV-Output has matured tremendously since the days when ATI's 3DXpression+ dominated the boards with its "crisp and clear" TV-Output.  Companies have already begun pushing the limits of TV-Output to previously unheard of degrees, Matrox's Mystique G200 supports a TV-Out resolution of up to 1024 x 768.  If you have a large enough TV in the area where your computer will reside, then you may want to give TV-Output another look, for the first time.

  • Finally, there's price, and without further ado let's get to the roundup...

The Cards & Chipsets
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