Graphics Processing Unit, Audio Processing Unit, & Physics Processing Unit
NVIDIA or Bust!
Once upon a time I was a huge ATI and AMD (“rational”) fanboy. Intel was stuck in their mindless quest for higher and higher clock-speeds, while AMD offered real-world performance at a much more competitive price-point. Similarly, ATI consistently offered cards that had neater features and were often faster than their NVIDIA counter-parts at the same price point.
Sadly, the times they have a changed and AMD has fallen way behind Intel (on the desktop, which is all we’re concerned with here) and ATI just didn’t care enough to keep their GNU/Linux drivers on par with their Windows versions (they are admittedly playing catch up now, but NVIDIA drivers just work and I have no reason to roll the dice with ATI’s).
ATI also doesn’t have the awesomeness that is VDPAU (instead they have the less used VA API) for hardware video decoding. So for a no hassle, Ubuntu based, HTPC system, NVIDIA just makes the most sense, period. For a strictly Windows based system, that didn’t need CUDA or PhysX, an ATI (read: AMD) graphics card could be a real consideration, but since this computer system is going to be designed with Ubuntu compatibility always in mind, and since ATI just doesn’t offer any clear advantages (and possibly a couple of disadvantages), NVIDIA is the graphics card designer that we will be focusing on.
For brand names, I will again be looking at ASUS (as pretty much everything I’ve ever bought of theirs I have liked) and we will also look at EVGA as they have a good reputation, a good warranty and upgrade policy, and they are also based out of California (instead of Asia) and I try to buy as local as possible as often as possible. Really though, these cards are, for the most part, very similar. Find a brand you trust, one that has a good warranty, good customer service and go with that if you prefer.
Another Easy Upgrade &, Multi-Card Configurations!
Similar to RAM modules, the graphics cards are really easy to upgrade down the line. As such, I generally like to aim at a “bang for your buck,” mid-range GPU and plan to upgrade it in a year or two. Newer cards will always be faster, have more features, and cost less. So, investing in a thousand dollar, multi-graphic’s card setup just so you can play the newest games at insanely high resolutions and at the highest settings seems a bit of a waste of money (and a bit like poor planning). I’d rather spend $150 – 250 or so, and play the newest games at the highest or nearly the highest settings at 1080p resolution (the same resolution as high definition cinema and television series!) and then spend another $150-250 or so in a couple years on a card that will trounce the most expensive cards that exist today (and history shows that this is exactly what happens!).
As mentioned, I prefer the single, “bang for you buck” card, so SLI (or CrossfireX, if you still prefer ATI) on that basis alone doesn’t interest me. Further, apart from some specific usage scenarios, which we’re not focusing on here (again, 1080p, single monitor gaming is our target) SLI and Crossfire are a mixed bag at best. Despite being out for several years at this point, they are still not universally awesome. In some cases they CAN even cause slower performance, or even degraded visual quality. Admittedly, they can also do the exact opposite in the right game, with the right configuration, and drivers but we’re quickly getting into the realm of diminishing returns and we’re absolutely annihilating our $200 dollar guideline (and then some!).
For this system SLI is not worthwhile. If you have other needs and interests definitely give it a read, as like all technology and all tools it has its uses (multi-monitor 3D 5760x1080p gaming for one!).
My Suggestions below are all based on the 500 series of GeForce cards. However, the Geforce 680 cards are just becoming available, and they support PCI-E 16x 3.0 and a whole slew of amazing features. With that said, they are the top end of the upcoming 600 series and at around $500 are outside the price range we’re looking at. My recommendation here would be to absolutely wait for both Ivy Bridge and the rest of the Geforce 600 series to be released (specifically the GeForce 660′s and 670′s). Similarly though, if you’re going with a Sandy Bridge based system, even just as a rough outline for a future Ivy Bridge/Geforce 600 based system, the suggestions below should get you on the right track (next page)!