March 04, 2012, 7:40 AM —
Graphics processing units aren't just about performance. A good GPU will speed up many of your image and video tasks, whether you're touching up casual vacation photos or compressing movie footage. The right graphics card will also allow you to connect multiple monitors to your PC. And, of course, it will make all the difference on new games--will they be visual feasts, or merely interactive slideshows?
AMD Radeon HD 6850 ($140)Adding a discrete graphics card to your machine is a simple way to enhance its performance. Graphics cards aren't merely about power, however--you might discover that a card's flexibility and features are more important to you. If you're building a budget system, I recommend the AMD Radeon HD 6850. This card doesn't break records, but the price is fair, and the performance is strong: In our tests using the rally racer Dirt 2, it pumped out an average of 40 frames per second when we ran it at 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution, at maximum settings.
The HD 6850 has treats in store for nongamers, too. AMD's Eyefinity Display technology lets you drive up to three displays on one card. The board has two mini-DisplayPort connectors, two DVI ports, and an HDMI connector, which leaves you plenty of options when you're shopping for a monitor. And the card supports AMD's HD3D, for fully hardware-accelerated 3D playback, including 3D Blu-ray.