$30 video cards can display what you need for those resolutions on two monitors. You don't need a $200~$300 `gaming' videocard for this, unless you plan to play demanding 3d games. AOE3 is hardly the intensive benchmark type game that needs latest gen 3d tech.
And you certainly don't need 1 gig of VRAM for this. 512 is more than enough.
It comes down to what game(s) you will play other than AOE3. Because frankly, it doesn't take much at all to run Vista and Linux at those resolutions. Built in junk can do that just fine. The 3d side of Aero and 3d games are the only things that take a wee bit of muscle.
How about consider what is your budget, and share it. That will be easier to determine what kind of card is best for you.
I feel that Linux supports NVIDIA better than ATI. Has this changed? But then, maybe I'll just virtualize Linux in Windows.
Nvidia has binary only drivers for Linux, which in 50% of the cases do not perform well, that why Linux community calles them Binary Blob from Nvidia. AMD creates proprietary drivers and supports open source by providing assistance to DRI. I am buying a HD 2400 or 2600 PRO for my ASUS MOBO, it has both 2D and 3D Open Source drivers supports, the only one problem is the Hardware Acceleration support for Open Source drivers had come just recently, so you need to check with the DRI List.
I myself don't get much time to play games, I am just buying a HD 2400/2600 PRO because my MOBO does not handle HD videos very well.
Are the 260, 4870, 4850 x2 overkill if I only play AoE III a few times a year? Or are they just enough because of these monitors? I'm moving up from a 19".
You seriously don't need more than that unless you plan to play other games, far more 3d intensive and advanced games. You don't need $200+ worth of 3d rendering power to display two monitors at high resolution.
Hell, if this is all you need, you can even go with a Matrox solution for even better multimonitor support (in windows at least).
There's no reason whatsoever that should be stuttering. The only reason I could see is if VLC was not using the graphics cards hardware decoding capability.
Right. In Linux, you have add some varibales to /etc/X11/xorg.conf so that it can use Graphics Card (using Mesa drivers for 3D). you can have an idea by looking at 2 different configurations for Gentoo and Arch .
An nVidia 9800 GT should suffix for all eye candy and 1280 x 1024 if you must really insist on playing at such a low resolution. This card should be fine for you as long as to stay away from first person shooters and stick with strategy games. Personally I like Galactic Civilization II.
At full res, a 4670 should pull it off, and a 48xx (any 48xx series) would definitely do it easily. The 4870 1GB would pull of quite a few more games than just that, but if AoE is all you're playing, a 4850 would be more than sufficient.
Best card for those resolutions for the money is hands down the 9800GX2. You can find them still from $210-250. I run 2560 x 1600 and have and 9800GX2 for it and then have a second 9800GX2 pushing blu-ray to my 46" DLP TV.