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Video adapter: choose, install, configure, troubleshoot

  1. What is video adapter and why to upgrade it?
  2. How to choose video adapter?
  3. How to install video adapter?
  4. How to configure Windows video?
  5. How to troubleshoot video adapter?
What is video adapter and why to upgrade it?

A video adapter, also called a graphics adapter, renders video data provided by the processor into a form that the monitor can display. Many motherboards provide an integrated video adapter. Most also provide a special video expansion slot that accepts a standalone video adapter card. A stand-alone video adapter is called a video card or graphics card. Upgrading video is fast, easy, and generally inexpensive. The following are the good reasons to do so:

1. Your current video card or integrated video has failed.
2. You've installed a larger display and require higher-resolution video than the old adapter provides.
3. You need a digital video (DVI) connector to drive a flat-panel LCD display.
4. You want to record television programs or other video sources to your hard drive.
5. You want to watch DVD-Video discs or other fast-motion video sources without jerkiness.
6. Your current video adapter is too slow for or incompatible with the games you want to play.

Every video adapter, integrated or standalone, has at least two interfaces: one interface between the PC and the video adapter and at least one interface between the video adapter and the display(s). Some video adapters provide some combination of interfaces for two or more computer displays (analog and/or digital), TV-Video RF In, TV-Video RF Out, S-Video (Y/C) In, S-Video (Y/C) Out, or others.

How to choose video adapter?

The following are some guidelines to choose video adapter:

1. Decide how much to spend.

If you don't play 3D games, 3D graphics performance doesn't matter, unless you plan to upgrade to Windows Vista. Any current video card, even a $35 model, is fast enough to run productivity software and similar 2D applications under Windows XP or Linux.

If you're a casual gamer, spending $75 to $100 buys you much faster 3D graphics performance. If you're a serious gamer, plan to spend at least $150 to $250 to be able to play recent games at reasonable frame rates. If you're a rabid gamer, well, the sky's the limit.

If you are upgrading a system to be compatible with Windows Vista, choose a card with at least midrange 3D graphics performance, something like an NVIDIA 6800GT or better with at least 128 MB of video memory.

2. Consider a motherboard replacement.

Rather than replace a failed video card or integrated video, consider spending a bit more to replace the motherboard instead. The integrated video on current motherboards is more than sufficient for anything other than gaming (or Vista), and by replacing the motherboard you also get a newer chipset, a new BIOS, new features such as SATA, and a new motherboard that has a warranty and will probably last for years. Make sure that any motherboard you buy allows embedded video to be disabled and provides an AGP or PCIe slot. That way, you can upgrade the video later if you need to.

3. Don't overbuy.

If you buy a standalone video adapter, remember that video is just one part of your system. It makes no sense to buy a fast gaming video card for an older system. You'll see some video performance benefit, certainly, but the card can't reach anything near its real potential when hampered by the relatively slow processor, memory, and other components in the older system. Other than for gaming or to add extra features, such as TV capture, we recommend spending no more than $50 on a video adapter to upgrade an older system.

If you need better 3D graphics performance than embedded video provides but you don't want to spend much, look at "obsolescent" 3D video adaptersthose a couple generations out of date. For example, in late 2005 ATI RADEON 9250-series adapters were available for $30 or so. The RADEON 9250 or a similar obsolescent NVIDIA adapter can't compare in graphics performance to a current $400 gaming cardor even to a $100 midrange adapterbut for many people, it's just the right compromise between cost and performance.

If you buy an older adapter, make sure to verify the level of DirectX it supports. The RADEON 9250, for example, supports DX8. If you plan to play a game that requires DX9, the older adapter will be of little benefit. This problem is self-limiting, though. You are unlikely to want to run 3D applications that require the most recent version of DirectX on an older card. Such applications require more graphics power than older cards can provide.

3. Buy only a Universal AGP 3.0 or PCI Express x16 video adapter.

If you decide to install a standalone video adapter, buy only a Universal AGP 3.0 or an x16 PCIe adapter. Check the motherboard manual to verify which type or types of adapter it supports, and then buy accordingly. Most recent AGP motherboards use either 0.8V AGP 3.0 cards only or 1.5V AGP 2.0 and 0.8V AGP 3.0 cards interchangeably. Fortunately, the PCI Express standard has not yet fragmented, so any PCIe adapter works with any PCIe motherboard.

4. Unless you are a gamer, give more weight to 2D display quality than to 3D performance.

Display quality is subjective and very difficult to quantify, but a real issue nonetheless. Matrox video adapters have always been the standard by which we judge 2D display quality, but Matrox adapters are no longer competitive in terms of 3D performance. The three major video chipset companies are ATI and NVIDIA, both of which provide chipsets that are used both for standalone AGP adapters and for embedded video, and Intel, whose video adapters are available only in integrated form. ATI and Intel video adapters have always provided excellent 2D display qualityjust a half-step behind Matroxso we don't hesitate to recommend either of those brands to anyone who is concerned about 2D quality. Older NVIDIA adapters, especially high-performance models, often favored 3D performance at the expense of 2D image quality. NVIDIA 6000-series and later video adapters have excellent 2D display quality.

5. If you buy a high-performance video card, make sure it has a good warranty.

Video cards used to be among the most reliable components of a PC. This is changing, not because manufacturers are cutting corners, but because new high-performance video cards are pushing hardware technology to the limit. Having a video card die after only six months or a year is now relatively common, particularly for those who push the card past its limit by overclocking it in pursuit of the highest possible performance. We've seen video cards with 90-day warranties, which is completely unacceptable. Regard one year as an absolute minimum, and longer is better.

6. Make sure that the video adapter supports the display settings you need.

Video adapters differ in the resolutions and refresh rates they support. It's important to make sure that the video adapter you buy supports resolutions and refresh rates appropriate for your display.

7. Resolution

Resolution describes the maximum number of pixels the adapter can display, horizontally and vertically. For example, an inexpensive display adapter may support resolutions of 640x480 (640 pixels horizontally by 480 pixels vertically), 800x 600, 1024x768, 1280x1024, and 1600x1200. If you have a large CRT monitor that supports 1920x1440 resolution (and you use that resolution), the maximum resolution of this video card is too low to be optimum for your monitor. Not all video adapters support all intermediate resolutions. For example, although the adapter we're discussing supports 1024x768 and 1280x1024, it may not support the intermediate 1152x864 resolution. If you have a display that is optimized for that resolution, you may want to look for a different video adapter that also supports 1152x864.

8. Refresh rate

Refresh rate is the number of times the image is renewed per second. If the refresh rate is too low, the image on a CRT monitor flickers. (Flat-panel LCD displays operate at low refresh rates without flickering.) The minimum refresh rate necessary to avoid flicker depends on many factors, including the phosphors used in the monitor, the size and resolution of the monitor, ambient lighting conditions, and your own vision. Most people consider 72 Hz the minimum acceptable refresh rate on small to midsize CRT monitors, and 85 Hz is better. On large CRT monitors, a 100 Hz or higher refresh rate may be necessary to avoid flicker. The maximum refresh rate supported by a video adapter is related to the resolution you use. For example, a particular video adapter may support a 120 Hz refresh rate at 1024x768, but only 85 Hz at 1280x1024 and 60 Hz at 1600x1200. Despite the fact that the adapter technically supports 1600x1200, most people will find the 60 Hz refresh rate unacceptable, so in practical terms that adapter is limited to 1280x1024.

9. Make sure the video adapter provides the interface(s) you need. Most analog CRT monitors use the familiar high-density DB15 VGA connector, although a few high-end models also support RGB component video. Flat-panel displays (FPDs) use a variety of connectors, including the analog VGA connector (typically used by low-end FPDs), or one of three different types of DVI connectors described earlier in this chapter. Midrange and higher FPDs normally provide a DVI-D or DVI-I digital connector, and may also provide a DB-15 analog connector. If you plan to run dual displays, make sure the video adapter you choose has dual connectors of the type(s) needed by your displays, and that those connectors can be used simultaneously.

10. Verify cable type

Before you buy a dual-DVI video adapter, verify the type of cables it uses. Some video adapters that support dual-DVI displays don't use two ordinary DVI cables. Instead, they require a special dual-DVI cable with a custom connector on the video adapter end. Purchasing dual-DVI cable will cost you lots of money.

11. Use a digital video card with a digital display

If you plan to use an FPD, whenever possible choose an FPD and a video adapter that both support digital (DVI-I or DVI-D) connectors. FPD image quality is hit-or-miss if you use an analog connection, because video data originates in digital form, is converted to analog by the video adapter, and is then converted back to digital by the FPD. These multiple AD/DA conversions can introduce various artifacts, none of which is pleasing. The inferiority of an analog video connection is particularly noticeable with 19" and larger flat-panel displays.

Also, some analog video adapters simply don't "play nice" with some FPDs, and there's enough variation from one sample to another that about the only way to know for sure is to try it. This problem seems to be worse with DB-15 analog connections than with DVI-A connections, but the only sure way to avoid it is to use a digital path end-to-end.

How to install video adapter?

Installing a video card is generally straightforward, but you should keep the following in your mind:

1. If you are installing an AGP card on a motherboard with a non-Intel chipset, you may need to install a GART driver before you physically install the video card or its drivers. Skipping this step can cause Windows to black-screen at boot. Follow the instructions supplied with the new video card to install the GART driver.

2. The presence of old video drivers may cause problems with the installation of the new card. You may need to use Safe Mode (press F8 while the system boots and choose Safe Mode from the menu) to uninstall the old video drivers before installing the new video card or, if the current video adapter is dead, as the first step after installing the new video card.

If you buy a retail-boxed video card, it will include a comprehensive manual. If you buy an OEM video card that arrives without a manual, your first step should be to download the PDF manual from the maker's web site. You may also need to download drivers if no driver disc is provided. The exact sequence of installation steps, including loading drivers, varies from card to card, so follow the instructions provided in the manual.

The following are the common mistakes to you need to avoid when installing a new video card:

1. Failing to read the manual

Most people don't bother to read the manual, which is a mistake. If you don't read the manual, you're likely to do something wrong; most commonly, people install drivers too early, too late, or the wrong way. That's best case. Worst case, you may destroy your expensive new video card instantly when you turn on the power.

2. Failing to seat the video card

Video cards, both AGP and PCIe, may require significant pressure to seat fully. You may think the card is seated. You may even have heard it snap into place. That doesn't mean it's fully seated. Always verify visually that the card is seated fully in the connector and that the retention mechanism has latched the card in place. A partially seated video card may not work at all. Worse still, it may kinda, sorta work, leaving you with a difficult troubleshooting problem.

3. Failing to connect supplemental power

Many recent video cards, particularly high-performance models, require more power than the video slot can provide. These cards have a supplemental power connector designed to accept either a special PCIe power connector or a standard Molex hard drive power connector. Failing to connect supplemental power can have several results, none of them good. At best, the video card simply won't work, but nothing will be damaged. At worst, the card may attempt to draw too much power from the video connector, damaging the card and/or the motherboard. If your card requires a PCIe power connector and your power supply doesn't provide one, there are adapter cables available with standard Molex hard drive power connectors on one end and PCIe power connectors on the other.

4. Failing to connect power to the fan

Fast video cards generate a lot of heat. Instead of depending on a passive heatsink for cooling, many recent video cards use a small fan to cool the video processor. Failing to connect power to this fan will cause the video processor to overheat, perhaps catastrophically. Running a fast video adapter without its fan for even a few seconds can literally burn the video processor to a crisp. You should try to avoid using such cards, because fans fail unpredictably, and a failed fan can have the same result. If you do purchase such a card, be sure to clean it regularly. Not only does the fan motor have to work harder to spin dusty blades, but its cooling capacity is greatly diminished.

To physically install a video card, proceed as follows:

1. Disconnect the display and other external cables and move the system to a well-lit work area. Remove the case access panel(s) to gain access to the case interior. Now, as always when you have the case open, is a good time to clean the system.

2. If you are replacing an existing video card, remove the screw that secures the video card to the chassis, release the retention mechanism, if any, and pull the video card. If you are upgrading integrated video, align the video card with the motherboard video slot to determine which slot cover you need to remove.

3. Remove the correct slot cover. You may also need to loosen the screw for the adjacent slot cover temporarily in order to free the slot cover you want to remove. Carefully slide the rear bracket of the video card into place, making sure that the external connectors on the bracket clear the edges of the slot. Carefully align the connector on the video card with the AGP or PCIe slot and use both thumbs to press the video card down until it snaps into the slot.

4. Verify visually that the card contacts have fully penetrated the video slot, and that the base of the video card is parallel to the slot and in full contact with it. Verify that the retention mechanism, visible here as two brown tabs to the lower right of the heatsink, mates to the corresponding notch on the video card, snapping into place as the card is seated. If you need to remove the adapter later, remember to press those tabs to unlock the retaining bracket before you attempt to pull the card.

5. After you are certain that the video adapter is fully seated, secure it by inserting a screw through the bracket into the chassis.

6. Replace the access panel(s), move the system back to its original location, reconnect all the external cables, and turn on the power. Follow the instructions that came with the video card to install and configure the video drivers and any other software supplied with the adapter, such as a DVD-Video player or TV capture program. If you intend to view DVDs on your PC, the DVD-Video player is essential, because Windows cannot play DVDs without it (and in fact, the player software includes a decoder that even Windows Media Player relies on to play DVDs). You should be sure to visit the decoder software vendor's web site for updates, as they may not be automatically provided through Windows update or the video card manufacturer's periodic driver updates.

How to configure Windows video?

The first step in configuring video is to install the video drivers. The exact procedure required to install video drivers varies from card to card, but is described in the manual that accompanies the card or can be downloaded from the manufacturer's web site. Follow those instructions exactly, especially with regard to the sequence required for removing the old video drivers. Although most video cards come with a driver disc, we recommend installing the updated drivers available on the manufacturer's web site. Note, however, that you may have to install the drivers from disc before you can install updated drivers. Also, the driver disc may include a DVD player and other utilities that are not available for download.

Windows video is configured from the Settings page of the Display Properties dialog and the Advanced Settings dialog. To view Display Properties, run the Display applet from Control Panel or right-click on a vacant area of the desktop and choose Properties. To view the Advanced Settings dialog, click the Advanced button in the Settings page of Display Properties. Use the Display Properties Settings page to configure hardware settings for your video adapter and monitor. And use the Advanced Settings dialog to configure specific settings for the adapter and monitor, enable or disable video acceleration settings, and choose Color Management options.

How to troubleshoot video adapter?

If you experience video problems, first check the obvious thingsthat the display has power and is connected properly to the adapter, that no one has changed settings for the adapter or display, and so on. Boot the system in Safe Mode (press F8 during boot to display the Windows boot menu) to load the vanilla Windows display drivers and verify that the adapter and display are functioning properly. If you have another display handy, try connecting it to the problem system to eliminate the display as a possible cause.

Once you eliminate those possible causes, the next consideration is whether you've made any recent changes to your video hardware, software, or configuration. If so, that is a likely cause. Sometimes, problems caused by such a change don't manifest immediately. We have, for example, seen an updated Windows video driver function perfectly until one particular program was loaded or another piece of hardware was installed, which caused the system to crash and burn horribly.

The next step is to change video drivers. If a later driver is available, download and install it. If no later driver is available, try reinstalling the current driver. If problems manifest soon after installing an updated driver, try reinstalling the older driver.

Once they are installed and running properly, video adapters seldom fail, short of something like a lightning strike or abusing the adapter by overclocking it. Over 20 years' experience with hundreds of systems, we remember only a few instances when a functioning video adapter just died. Hardware failures are more likely today, not because newer video adapters are inferior to older models, but because they're now pushed harder. High-end video adapters nowadays come with at least a heatsink for the graphics processor, and it's not unusual to see a video adapter on a gamer's system with a fan or even a Peltier cooler installed. If you install a high-performance adapter, make absolutely certain that the fan, if any, has power, and that there is free air flow to the heatsink. Many video problems on systems so equipped are due to simple overheating.

The following are some specific problems you may encounter and how to fix them:

1. No video or severe video problems occur with a newly installed card.

The usual cause is that the video card isn't seated properly. Verify that the video card is fully seated and latched. Make sure the display has power and the video cable is connected. Some systems with integrated video automatically disable the integrated video if a standalone video card is detected, but others require you to disable integrated video manually and enable the AGP or PCIe video card in BIOS Setup. Nearly all video adapters that have analog and digital outputs automatically detect the type of connected display and configure themselves properly, but a few require changing a switch or jumper to select the active output port. Similarly, if the video adapter supports dual displays or if you have two video adapters installed, you may have to specify whether your display is connected to the primary or secondary port.

2. "Out of scan range" or similar message is displayed.

The display isn't connected to the video adapter or the video adapter is providing a signal at a resolution and/or refresh rate that is not supported by the display. Verify that the display is connected. Restart the system in Safe Mode and select a supported resolution and refresh rate.

3. Text is too large or too small.

The video adapter is set for too high or too low a resolution for the monitor size, or Windows is configured to use nonstandard (Large or Very Large) fonts. Right-click on an unused area of the desktop, choose Properties, and modify the settings in the Display Properties dialog and subdialogs to correct the problem. Depending on your preferences and your visual acuity, we recommend running a 17" CRT monitor at 800x600 or 1024x768; a 19" monitor at 1280x1024 or 1600x1200; and a larger monitor at 1600x1200 or higher.

4. Text is scrambled or appears distorted or in an odd font.

The probable cause is incorrect video drivers. Download and install the most recent stable drivers for your adapter. If it occurs on a system that had been working correctly, there are several possible causes. If text entered in an application appears in a strange font, but menus and other system fonts are correct, use preferences or options within the application to choose another font. If menus are scrambled only within one application, uninstall and then reinstall that application. If the problem occurs in multiple applications and system applets, system font files may have been corrupted or replaced with older, incompatible versions. The surest cure is to reinstall Windows.

5. Video problems occur in hot weather or after the system has been running for a while.

The video card is overheating, for which there are numerous possible causes. If the video card has a fan, make sure that it has power and is spinning freely. If the video card uses a passive heatsink, make sure that the heatsink is not blocked with dust. Verify that the case air vents are not blocked by dust and that the supplemental case fans, if any, are operating properly.

6. The display shows random black, white, or partial/colored blocks.

These screen artifacts may appear only when using certain combinations of resolution and color depth, and are not affected by mouse movement or by running a different application. They may be persistent or may appear and disappear seemingly at random. This problem is a result of malfunctioning video memory. Possible causes include an improperly seated video card, overheating, and defective memory on the card. Remove the video card, clean the contacts by polishing them with a new dollar bill, and reinsert the video card. Verify that the heatsink or fan on the card is operating properly and that the interior case temperature is not too high. If none of these actions solve the problem, the video card needs to be replaced.

7. Video is usually fine but becomes jerky during DVD-Video playback.

This may result from a slow processor or video adapter, inadequate memory, or by having too many other programs running, but if it occurs on a relatively recent system there are a couple of hardware configuration issues that are more likely causes. First, verify that the DVD drive is operating in DMA mode rather than PIO mode. Second, if you are using a flat-panel display with a digital connector, this problem may be caused by a conflict with USB devices (yes, we know that sounds odd). Disconnect all USB devices, including the keyboard and mouse if you have PS/2 substitutes. Restart the system and check DVD-Video playback. If the problem disappears, try plugging USB devices in separately until you discover which USB device or port is causing the problem.

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