15.7 Our Picks
State-of-the-art for 3D video adapters changes more quickly than for any other PC technology. If you buy a $300 bleeding-edge 3D adapter that's the fastest on the market today, that adapter will have only midrange performance in six months, and entry-level performance within a year.
ATI and nVIDIA vie constantly for the title of world's fastest 3D adapter, one-upping each other frequently. In general, except when one or the other introduces an entirely new chipset, the fastest current ATI and nVIDIA 3D video adapters have performance within a few percent of each other. Which one is fastest depends on which benchmark you believe, which 3D applications and games you run, and what resolution you run them at. And the truth is that any reasonably recent ATI or nVIDIA 3D accelerator is more than fast enough for any but the most intense 3D games.
Of the two, we used to prefer nVIDIA because ATI drivers were often quite poor. In the last year or so, we've come to prefer ATI overall. ATI has greatly improved their drivers ATI 3D performance matches or beats comparable nVIDIA cards, ATI 2D graphics and text are of noticeably better quality than that of nVIDIA, and ATI video capture functions are far superior to those of nVIDIA. In short, if all you want to do with a video adapter is play 3D games, it's probably a toss-up between the latest models from ATI and nVIDIA. But if you also want to use the video adapter for web browsing, email, and other typical productivity applications, we give ATI the nod for their superior display quality.
If you're building or upgrading a general-purpose system one that will not be used for 3D games or professional graphics we suggest you not worry much about which video adapter to choose. For undemanding 2D applications like word processors and web browsers running at moderate resolution in fact for anything other than 3D graphics or other special requirements nearly any reasonably recent embedded or standalone video adapter is sufficient. If you're buying a motherboard, buy one with embedded video if that is an option. Make sure the motherboard has an AGP slot and allows the embedded video to be disabled. That way, if your needs later change, you can install whatever video card seems best. If you're upgrading a system with an existing AGP-capable motherboard, buy an inexpensive AGP video adapter. If the existing motherboard is an older model without an AGP slot, that in itself is good reason to install a motherboard that has an AGP slot and embedded video.
If you don't care about 3D gaming and want the best 2D display quality available, particularly at high resolution, buy a Matrox Millennium video adapter. Matrox adapters provide display quality that has become legendary, particularly at high resolutions, and have the best dual-monitor support available. The downside to Matrox video adapters is pathetic 3D performance, unsuited to any but the most casual 3D gaming. Matrox cards have poor retail distribution, but are available from some resellers as well as direct from the Matrox site. If you run standard Windows applications at high resolutions and don't play games, you'll probably prefer a Matrox Millennium video adapter to any other.
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