When you're buying or upgrading a PC, it's natural to concentrate on essentials--microprocessor speeds, memory capacity, disk size, and so forth. But it's also worth your while to pay special attention to the technology that paints your computer screen with millions of pixels of light. If you're going to spend hours on end staring at that screen--and if you hope to see new tricks such as full-motion graphics--consider spending extra money on graphics technology.
At the very heart of a PC's display system is the graphics chip, a specialized microprocessor. Like the high-octane chips that run the computer--Intel Corp.'s Pentium or Motorola Inc.'s PowerPC--these have gotten a significant horsepower boost lately. All new PCs and Power Macs feature 64-bit chips, which handle twice the amount of visual data as last year's graphics chips.
FULL WEB VIEW. To get even better performance, consider graphics-accelerator cards, which incorporate additional processor chips and memory. They ease the load on the pc's main processor by performing the calculations needed to draw and move geometric shapes on the screen. And in a world ruled by graphical software such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac operating system, these cards speed up everyday performance, too. Diamond Multimedia Systems' Stealth 64 Video 3200, Matrox' MGA Millennium, and ATi Technologies' Graphics Xpression--all for PCs using Intel's PCI bus--did well on tests by NSTL, a unit of McGraw-Hill, publisher of BUSINESS WEEK.
All the 64-bit graphics cards found in the new PCs and Power Macs performed speedily and flawlessly in the test of 800-by-600 pixel resolution--the so-called SVGA mode. The key differentiating factor is the amount of memory installed on the card. Look for at least 1 megabyte of VRAM--video-memory chips that are faster than chips in the main computer memory. The more VRAM, the less time the graphics processor will wait for data to arrive from main memory.
All the glitzy images coming off that graphics card won't do you much good if you don't have a decent screen. This year, many PC makers are including larger monitors--15 inches, measured diagonally, instead of 14 inches. For true power users, however, a 17-inch monitor is the minimum, and you can go as high as 20 or 21 inches. These put more information on the screen by allowing the graphics card to use a higher resolution. With a large screen, you see an entire page from the World Wide Web rather than half or three-quarters, for example. Some top models: Nanao's FlexScan F2-17, NEC Technologies' MultiSync XV17, and Sony's Multiscan 17sf.
Bear in mind that most of these 17-inch units take up a lot of desk space, weigh about 50 pounds, and may cost more than $1,000. Also, when shopping, remember to view several monitors under lighting conditions that are similar to what you have at home.
CAPTURE BOARD. Slowly but inexorably, the line between PCs and TVs is blurring. If you want to cross it today, consider a digital video card conforming to the so-called MPEG-1 standard. These cards decompress video movies that have been stored in the MPEG format and display full-motion digital movies that fill the whole screen--a big improvement over the jerky little snippets of video you can view on conventional PCs. MPEG cards made by Sigma Design, Boffin, and Real Motion cost around $200. However, these boards vary widely when it comes to image quality and ease of installation. What's more, there aren't many compelling programs or CD-ROMs that use MPEG yet. But next year, analysts say, there will be plenty. In the meantime, Compaq Computer Corp.'s new Presario 5500 and 9500 home PCs have built-in MPEG capability.
If you want to get your own video images into your PC, you will need a so-called video-capture board. These are pretty pricey--around $500--and limited in their capabilities. For example, they might be able to capture moving video, but it won't be anywhere near full-screen, and playback will be choppy. Still, it wasn't that long ago that many PCs couldn't even reproduce high-fidelity sound. So digital video is something buyers will want to keep their eyes on.
FROM PLAIN PC TO A VIDEO STAR
What you'll need:
Graphics Accelerator Board - Your 64-bit graphics board should have at least 1 megabyte of video memory (VRAM). More megabytes of VRAM is better. $170 to $450.
Monitor - The current rage is 17-inch (measured diagonally) or larger displays. They're a big commitment in space and money. $600 to $1,500.
Video Decompression Board - MPEG cards allow PCs to play full-motion, full-screen digital video. Quality and ease-of-installation vary. $200 to $300.