The graphics card is the most likely of all modern PC components to start a heated debate. Why? Because anybody who has bought one of the latest and most likely expensive pixel-pushers will be keen to justify their purchase. However, when all the passions have been spent and the dust has settled, there is little separating the latest offerings from AMD and Nvidia.
As ever, though, the devil is in the detail. A fundamental shift has taken place between AMD and Nvidia's graphics cards recently, and it's to do with how the companies are approaching the highest end of the 3D market.
Nvidia has largely maintained the stance that it can keep improving and tweaking its cores to produce faster and faster GPUs, and to some extent it has succeeded. AMD, on the other hand, has concluded that multiple GPUs are the answer for high end products, and so it has been focusing more on the mainstream market, with high-end solutions made up of combinations of the mainstream chips. And again, the company has been successful to a degree.
What this means to us as upgraders is that there is a wide range of graphics cards available that can transform your gaming experience. Specifically because of the refocusing, an incredible amount of GPU power can be had at the more mainstream end of the scale, with cards costing between £100 and £150 now more than capable of driving a 20in or 22in screen at the native resolution with all the effects turned on.
You'll need a bigger screen in order to get the most from cards that cost close to £200, with the likes of the GeForce GTX 275 capable of running a 24in screen at the highest settings at a smooth 60fps. Indeed, it's only when you connect a machine to a 30in screen that you really push the current generation of cores, and it's then that you either have to select a single-card multi-GPU solution or go for an SLI or CrossFire card to drive the screen properly.
At this point you can easily spend a small fortune on a graphics subsystem (and the accompanying power requirements) for your system, but with good reason: the end results are usually extremely impressive.
An alternative way of using SLI and CrossFire is as an upgrade path in itself. Buy a card now, and then buy a second card later for a moderate performance boost. It's not a bad theory, but in practice finding a card a couple of years out of date is tricky, and stockists tend to charge roughly the same for older cards as they do for a more modern card.
The second-hand market can help you track down that second card, but there will be no reassurances that the card will work, so it can be risky. You're looking at roughly a 60 to 70 per cent performance improvement from the addition of that second card, so it may not transform your gaming the way that you were looking for anyway. And while driver support for such solutions has improved, it's still not perfect.
Essentially, we'd recommend caution when it comes to both SLI and CrossFire graphics cards, unless the card in question is so affordable that it becomes a risk worth taking. One thing you do need to be aware of when eyeing up a potential graphics card is that you'll not only need enough power to run the card, you'll also need the connectors to do so.
The more mainstream cards require just a single six-pin connector, but faster cards will require either a pair of these, or one six- and one eight-pin. You need to make sure that there's ample cooling in your machine too, as some of the cards (particularly dual-GPU solutions) can reach close to 100°C under full load.
Once you've decided what sort of price you can afford and selected the GPU you want driving your graphics card, things come down to the clockspeed of the GPU and RAM and the amount of RAM on each card. There's an economy of scale here, too – big manufacturers can afford to produce graphics cards that little bit cheaper. Keep an eye on recommendations in PC Plus for the latest and greatest cards that you should be considering for your rig.
Ultimate upgrade: If you're looking to drive a large screen, the Asus GTX 295 is an incredible piece of graphics kit. Capable of running all modern games smoothly, it's a stunning one-stop card.
Price: £360 (£313 ex VAT)
Best bang for the buck: It's a close battle between AMD and Nvidia for best value, but the recent price battle makes the Sapphire HD 4870 1GB the best choice.
Price: £132 (£115 ex VAT)
Hold on for: Things should hot up once Intel enters the market with Larabee, and assuming that it's any good, we should see the price battle intensify even further. On paper it looks very interesting, so if you fancy giving it a try, hold your horses on the graphics card front for a bit.