If you are considering a video card upgrade, look at your monitor first

GPUs get faster and faster with each generation. Now they are at the point where they no longer give a benefit to certain monitors.

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Image credit: flickr/Martin

While CPU performance seems to be leveling off, GPU performance continues to rise at a considerable pace, with each generation leaving the last generation in the dust. That may be great for gamers and graphics professionals, but depending on the monitor you use, there might be no point in upgrading any more.

Desktop monitors (I'm not talking laptops except for the high-end laptops) tend to vary in size from 20 to 24 inches for mainstream/standard monitors, and 27 to 30 inches for the high end. One thing all of the sub-24" and many 27"+ monitors have in common is the resolution. They have pretty much standardized on 1920x1080. That's because 1920x1080 is the resolution for HDTV, and it fits 20 to 24-inch monitors well. Virtually all 2560x1440 monitors are 27-inches and larger.

Here's the thing: at that resolution, these new GPUs are so powerful you get no major, appreciable gain over the older generation. Unless you are using the next step in monitors, 2560x1440, upgrading to the new AMD R290 or Nvidia GTX790 is a waste of $500+. Yes, those cards really cost that much.

The more pixels on your screen, the faster the GPU needs to be. With most everyone locked at 1920x1080, current GPUs are simply fast enough. When you jump from 1920 to 2560, that means millions more pixels to animate, and that's where the new, high-end GPUs see a notable jump in performance.

"The current high-end of GPUs gives you as much as you'd need for an enjoyable experience," said Chris Angelini, editorial director for Tom's Hardware Guide. "Beyond that and it's not like you will get nothing, it's just that you will notice less benefit."

Frame rates may get faster with a R290 or GTX 780, but your eye can't detect it. There is considerable debate over what is the limit of the human eye when it comes to frame rate; some say 24, others say 30, while others say it's higher. But one thing is certain: a game with a frame rate of 90 is not really different from a frame rate of 80.

Angelini places the sweet spot on performance at 1920x1080 as AMD's Radeon R280x, a $300 card, and the Nvidia GTX 770, which has recently seen a price cut and is now around $400. As for integrated GPUs that come with Intel and AMD CPUs, there's plenty of room to grow.

"Integrated GPUs are still too slow for 1080p games. They max out at 720p. We're still a couple of generations from them maxing out 1920 monitors," he said.

For graphics professionals, things are different. Apps like Photoshop and AutoCAD come with filters and renderers that utilize the GPU and they can always do better, since this is background computation. The frame rate article is moot anyway since if you are a graphics professional, chances are very good you already have a 2560x1440 monitor on your desk.

Angelini said 2560 is the next big barrier to cross, and the prices are coming down. The Nexus 10 tablet is $399 and it features a 2560x1600 screen. Most 2560 monitors sold at NewEgg.com are at least $500, but there is one vendor, Auria, that has a $399 monitor.

I recently bought a new 24" LED monitor for $180 because my six year old LCD monitor was experiencing color bleed. It's beautiful and functions perfectly. If I get six years out of this one, I fully expect my next display will be a 2560x1440, and for roughly the same price.

On a side note, my new monitor is an Asus, while the old one was Viewsonic. I stood at the wall of monitors in my local Fry's for several minutes and walked the PC aisles and didn't see a single Viewsonic. It was all Asus, LG and Samsung. The rep I spoke to actually had a clue (rare for Fry's) and said he couldn't remember the last time they sold a Viewsonic monitor. How the mighty have fallen.

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