HTPC Buying Guide: Graphics Cards
Buying a graphics card for video playback only
Buying anything below the midrange line of the current AMD/ATI and NVIDIA GPUs is asking for trouble and certainly shutting you out of the best handling of high definition, as the low-end GPUs are underpowered for handling high quality 1080i deinterlacing and decoding HD DVD or Blu-ray content. This means you want to look at the NVIDIA GeForce 8600GT or GTS and the AMD/ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro or XT, both companies have vendors that offer passively or quietly cooled models. These cards range from $90 to $150. Vendors that offer passive models include MSI, Gigabyte, and ASUS.
Buying a graphics card for gaming and video playback
Just a few short months ago, buying a gaming card meant you missed out on all the video features the mid-ranged cards offered. Two launches in the last month have changed this playing field dramatically.
First out of the gate was Nvidia's launch of the 8800GT. This is a new GPU with the 3D Horespower of the GeForce 8800 series for HD resolution gaming and has the new VP2 video processir silicon the GeFroce 8600 series first introduced. The price point for the 8800GT was meant to be below $250 but due to demand, you can expect to pay $275 plus until the supply catches up. The VP2 hardware decodes h.264 and accelerates VC-1.
Secondly, AMD recently released the 3850 and 3870 which offers very similar 3D horesepower at a competitive price point to the 8800GT. The 3850 has a MSRP of $179 and the 3870 has a MSRP of $219. Both models have ATI's UVD and as such hardware decodes H.264 and VC-1. Once again, demand has outstripped supply and we are getting gouged. Though the 3850's are much closer to MSRP and more frequently in stock.
The theme you may be sensing here is passive, and yes here too passive tends to be desirable. Video cards can get hot, and with the motherboard also being passive, you may want to consider one of the large slow moving heatsink and fan options which exhaust out the back in a double-wide slot configuration, these can be found on some specialty models from vendors such as ASUS and HiS.
An issue for NVIDIA cards to keep in mind is that currently only acceleration of the HD formats is enabled in Windows XP, any form of advanced post-processing such as proper 1080i deinterlacing and noise reduction are not working as of this writing in the Windows XP display drivers. Windows Vista users won’t have any problems, and really if you’re building a new High Definition ready HTPC, Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate should be your OS of choice anyway. AMD/ATI Radeon cards don’t have any such limitations in Windows XP.