Faster and faster, and even faster - the big names in the graphics industry continue to launch new products in ever-shorter cycles. In a seemingly endless spiral of events, the 3D performance of new graphics processors is constantly pushed to new heights, as they gain more features, and are packed with increasing amounts of faster RAM. This leads to an unavoidable upward spiral in price as well: at $500 or more, the fastest graphics cards currently available cost as much as an entire off-the-shelf entry-level PC.
So who really, actually, honestly needs all the great new 3D features of such sinfully expensive graphics cards? Or, conversely, does their absence in an inexpensive entry-level PC make it useless? By no means! Usually, such machines offer everything needed for working with office applications, image editing, listening to music and surfing the Internet. These tasks require neither a fast graphics card nor a super-charged CPU. Watching DVDs and videos is also no problem - even the simplest VGA card available today fulfills the necessary requirements.
The only exception when it comes to video would be when any kind of high definition (HD) content is viewed. For HD you need a very fast CPU to handle the immense amounts of video data involved; alternatively, a graphics card with the appropriate features can also help by sharing or even minimizing the burden of the decoding work. If the system has neither, playback will begin stuttering.
Another trait that can differ between graphics cards is the quality they offer during the playback of movies and films. There are distinct differences in image quality between cards when interlacing, scaling (resizing) and other video features are used. However, the importance of these criteria is a matter of personal quality standards and depends on the individual user's perception. If the task at hand is only playing back a DVD or a simple video clip downloaded from the Internet, any graphics solution available today is up to the job.
Given all this, how can anyone explain such a large range of prices in graphics cards? And what could possibly justify a graphics card costing $500 or more? The answer is simple, really: games! Virtually all modern games strive to create a gaming environment that is as realistic as possible by using highly complex and elaborate 3D engines. To this end, they require an enormous amount of computing power to be able to handle the calculations required and the large amount of data processed. Simply put, modern 3D accelerators are really highly specialized, self-contained 3D computational units, acting basically as a computer within the computer.