PC Advisor looks at what makes a good graphics card, and tests 12 of the latest ATI and nVidia offerings.

Graphics performance has become more important as PCs have evolved from functional machines used almost entirely for business and number-crunching into gadgetry for entertainment and leisure.

A whole category of PCs is designed to meet those entertainment needs.

Alienware and Commodore Gaming specialise in exactly this area, while most mainstream manufacturers have recognised the importance of video and audio credentials for potential customers.

Unfortunately, such highly capable beasts come with high price tags. And not all of us have £2,000 to spare on a PC.

Fortunately, you don't need to earmark that sort of sum to significantly improve your onscreen experience. Trading up from integrated (or onboard) graphics to a standalone card need only cost £50 to £100 and will make a world of difference.

You'll need to know the make and model of your motherboard; some work only with ATI or nVidia graphics cards. The card will plug into a PCI Express card slot and you should also establish whether the card requires a separate fan and/or a more potent power supply. This is less likely to be an issue for graphics cards at the lower end of the price scale, but it's a serious consideration if you're looking to turn your machine into a gaming or video-editing powerhouse.

You'll also need to consider whether features such as a TV tuner are important. Many graphics cards support television playback - it's a good way to add free-to-air digital TV channels to your viewing options. You will probably also want your card to offer HD video support, including Blu-ray video decoding (sometimes referred to as unified video decoding 2).

Buy a card with as much dedicated graphics memory as possible. Go no lower than 256MB; 512MB is about right for enjoying smooth video playback and should enable you to play the latest games. If you're serious about gaming, you'll be looking for a dual-card setup based around a pair of ATI Crossfire graphics cards or an nVidia scaleable link interface (SLI) duo. If you can push the graphics memory up to 1GB, so much the better.

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  1. What makes a good GPU, and how to purchase one
  2. Graphics cards: more to consider
  3. How we tested
  4. Sub-£150 graphics cards reviews
  5. £151+ graphics cards reviews