What specs are important in a PCI video card for a livingroom media computer?
January 22, 2009 4:02 PM   Subscribe

My livingroom media computer onboard video can only reach 1024x768, and the mobo has ONLY has PCI slots. So I need a PCI video card. It will be used mainly for playing / streaming video to a 1920x1200 HDTV, and perhaps occasionally for stuff like Nintendo64 emulation. What specs will be the most important to ensure no choppiness or other problems when playing videos full screen? Is DirectX 10 or above important? Keeping in mind this must be PCI, am I doomed to choppy videos no matter how fast the card processor or how much memory it has?
posted by brenton to Computers & Internet (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is without checking at all but weren't there PCI NVidia GeForce 3s? They could do video reasonably well for large monitors way back in 2001/02. But if you're using a motherboard that only has PCI slots, the odds are that the video card won't be your bottleneck and it would probably be a better value to purchase a new computer than a pci video card.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 4:16 PM on January 22, 2009

CLARIFICATION: it's not an old computer, its one of those Dell Dimensions built for businesses, thus they don't expect gamers to be using them. :) The specs are all pretty good other than the video, and the computer is only a year or two old.

It can do better than 1024x768 on a normal monitor it's just confused by our TV.
posted by brenton at 4:21 PM on January 22, 2009

datapoint: I'm using a PCI Geforce 6200 to run dual monitors. Videos at 1440x800 look choppy.

1900x1200 is still a lot. Doomed to choppiness I fear.
posted by katrielalex at 4:23 PM on January 22, 2009

My guess is that your computer is old enough that smooth HD playback will be out of the question regardless. AGP has been around since at least 1997... let's not even talk about PCI-E. Start thinking about a new build.
posted by selfnoise at 4:26 PM on January 22, 2009

I think you're out of luck. Are you SURE it only has PCI slots? That's bizarre.

What's the CPU? Is the case standard ATX? Maybe you could swap out the mobo on the cheap, then put in a modern card.

Sorry for the duplicates above, something strange was happening in MF land.
posted by selfnoise at 4:27 PM on January 22, 2009

New Egg has 51 PCI video cards listed, many of which are shown having DirectX10 at least (like this, for instance, which looks to pack more oomph than katrielalex's 6200(?)).

I didn't do much more than peruse the listing, but I bet the reviews of the cards may have some details as to how well they handle video - Good luck.
posted by jalexei at 4:28 PM on January 22, 2009

@jalexei: is directx10 important?
posted by brenton at 4:31 PM on January 22, 2009

No way. PCI bandwidth is 133 megabytes per second.

1920*1200*30fps 24-bit color is 207 megabytes per second.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:35 PM on January 22, 2009

DX10 Shouldn't be important for anything you listed that you're going to do with your computer. DX10 is pretty much only used in some of the more high end games (Bioshock and Crysis are the first two to come to mind). You won't see any improvement with DX10 support.
posted by Chan at 4:35 PM on January 22, 2009

For my old HD MythTV box, I used a PCI-E Geforce 7600 GS. With the drivers and everything tweaked as much as I could possibly tweak, it could deliver upconverted 1920x1200 with a brief bit of visible tearing once every couple of minutes. As such, I'd consider it the minimum acceptable video card for this kind of purpose.

I'm assuming that when you say PCI, you mean old PCI -- not PCI-E. PCI-E is easy -- lots of things out there as powerful or more than the 7600 GS I mention above.

But believe it or not, even if you have plain old PCI, some companies are addressing this market. Sparkle makes a low-profile PCI card (compatible with plain old PCI) with decent oomph -- a Geforce 9400 GT. The quality likely isn't that bad, the specs look decent. Perhaps someone here has one and can say for sure. But it looks like it was specifically designed for machines like yours.
posted by eschatfische at 4:39 PM on January 22, 2009

Here is the list of specs that newegg uses and my attempt to rank them in the order of importance.

1. Max Resolution (at least 1920x1200)
2. DirectX (at least 10?)
3. Core Clock (300mhz or more?)
4. Memory Size (256 or more?)
5. Memory Clock (at least as much as the core clock?)
6. Memory Type (at least DDR?)

I don't really know what these are I assume they're not important:
Memory Interface
posted by brenton at 4:39 PM on January 22, 2009

I really don't think any of those are important. As CP pointed out, the old PCI bus is just not fast enough for what you want to do.
posted by selfnoise at 4:40 PM on January 22, 2009

is directx10 important?

As Chan said, really only for gaming - I think Mr/Miss/Mrs Pickle may have identified your main issue to contend with - That said, eschatfische linked to the same card I did (and I see it specifcally mentions an HDTV connection). It might be your starting point, in terms of research and checking with the manufacturer, etc..
posted by jalexei at 4:43 PM on January 22, 2009

Keeping in mind this must be PCI, am I doomed to choppy videos no matter how fast the card processor or how much memory it has?

Yes. You are doomed to choppiness because PCI is not fast enough.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:48 PM on January 22, 2009

Chocolate, the poster could potentially run in 1080p HD resolution in 16-bit color, or in 720p resolution in 24-bit color to avoid the PCI bandwidth limit. I suspect the latter with the card I linked to would work just fine; the former, dunno.
posted by eschatfische at 4:49 PM on January 22, 2009

So if my system needs 207MB/s and PCI has a limitation of 133MB/s, how will that affect video? Will it mean distortions or choppiness? Or will I be unable to run it at full resolution? I guess it would be ok to size down the resolution a little (especially since most video I watch is streamed off the net, so much, much lower resolution).

If my main limitation is the PCI slot itself, does it matter what card I buy? What makes the Geforce 9400 GT (mentioned above) better than this? Will the extra memory even matter for my system?
posted by brenton at 4:50 PM on January 22, 2009

eschatfische, in practice it isn't possible for the graphics card to hog the entire bus bandwidth. Mass storage devices will also be using it, for one thing, and so will input devices. 133 MB/s is the rated speed but I don't think it's possible to saturate that.

1080p is 1920*1080*30fps. 16 bit color (2 bytes per pixel) is going to look like crap for any kind of serious video gaming or for video playback. And the bandwidth is still 119 megabytes per second. I don't believe that could be sustained indefinitely. It's still going to be choppy as hell as other things compete for the bus.

Also, 30fps for video gaming sucks. But anything faster is going to overwhelm the PCI bus.

720p is 1280*720*30fps 24 bit color is 79 MB/s, which is closer to being realistic. It'll still be a little choppy (whenever the HD gets used) but probably not very often.

PCI is three or more generations out of date; it was designed in the early 1990's for use by 50 MHz CPUs. Doing modern video with it is like trying to power a race car with a lawn mower engine.

There's no satisfactory answer here that doesn't involve replacing the mobo -- and if you're going to do that, you may as well start from scratch and build an entirely new computer.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:06 PM on January 22, 2009

brenton, could you post the model number of your Dell Dimension? It could be that you do have a PCIe or AGP slot.
posted by jedicus at 5:31 PM on January 22, 2009

Since you say you have decent specs maybe you can find a mobo that can use your CPU and Memory that has AGP or PCIe.

Mobos are pretty cheap.
posted by Bonzai at 5:36 PM on January 22, 2009

Here's an extremely annoying potential problem you may run into. In case what you actually have is a system with modern PCIe slots instead of the old PCI slots, let me tell you my story:

I, too, had an old Dell server PC with crappy on-motherboard video and decided to buy a new video card for it. Now there are different sorts of PCIe / PCI-E slots each with a different bandwidth which hence are a different size / have a different number of pins. There are PCIe x1, x4, x8, and x16 slots.

Most video cards seem to be built for x16 slots. My Dell box only had x4 and x8 slots but after an immense amount of research I was fairly confident that the x16 board I was looking at could be installed in an x8 slot and still work, it would just automatically utilize only half the bandwidth it normally would.

So I ordered the board but when I got it I was extremely aggravated to discover that the stupid bastards at Dell had intentionally used an x8 slot with a special little plastic piece to prevent you from installing an x16 board. After further research it turned out that I needed to saw through this plastic piece with a Dremel tool.

That's what I did, and it worked in the end, but I was not exactly happy about needing to perform that sort of open heart surgery with a power tool cramped inside the server, so it produced lots of frustration and tense moments during which I decided that I will never buy from Dell again.
posted by XMLicious at 5:46 PM on January 22, 2009

If my main limitation is the PCI slot itself, does it matter what card I buy? What makes the Geforce 9400 GT (mentioned above) better than this? Will the extra memory even matter for my system?

I'm inclined to agree with the consensus that a new mobo at least is going to be required to make this work well - that said, to answer the above, the extra memory won't hurt, but the much higher speed at which that memory is accessed, along with the higher speed of the processor on the card, could make a pretty big difference*

*potentially - the throughput bottleneck on the slot itself may render this all moot; I think it's more a case of "if there's any way this might work, you'll probably want the most powerful card you can afford".
posted by jalexei at 6:18 PM on January 22, 2009

If you really only have PCI, it's just not possible. You're going to immediately saturate the PCI bus, and you'll get VERY choppy playback at best.

So, because of this, it doesn't matter what video card you buy. None of them will work.

But, I bet that your computer actually has a PCIe slot. In which case, it doesn't matter, because just about any of them will work.

As for video memory... it's my understanding (and I've worked as a graphics programmer) that the VRAM isn't really used outside of the 3D graphics pipeline--aside from framebuffers and such, that is. Basically, that RAM is there to store textures and display lists for 3D games. While a clever video playback program might make use of 3D acceleration to improve playback, it's still likely to be doing decode on the CPU and transferring the frame for immediate playback.

In fact, unless you're using the MPEG acceleration component of your card, the graphics card's processor isn't even really used to display video. In most configurations, video decode is done on the CPU which then sends RGB frames to the video card for display.

(Mind you, this doesn't take into account a 3D accelerated desktop, or an especially clever video player.)
posted by Netzapper at 7:00 PM on January 22, 2009

DX10 is just for 3D acceleration.

Look, what you should do is throw away that motherboard. Most likely that case is a standard ATX case. My brother got one of those agp-free Dell business computers a few years back and the stupidest thing we did was keep the mobo and buy a PCI (nvidia 5200) video card. He couldnt really play any 3D games and he certainly isnt decoding and outputting 1080p.

If you have the same model as my brother then you probably only have a 2-2-2.8ghz P4. Thats not enough for blu-ray and Im skeptical that it can even decode mpeg4 1080p in realtime without some choppiness.

Ditch the board. It will only lead to headaches.

Also note that if you plan to do blu-ray then you need an HDCP compliant system. That means a newer mobo and a newer card. Even if you jerry-rigged some kind of solution with your existing system you most certainly wont be HDCP compliant and can never play blu-ray onto an exterior monitor in full resolution.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:25 PM on January 22, 2009

Hi everyone. Thanks so much for your expert advice so far. Someone asked for the specs. It's a Dell Dimension 1100. The processor is (don't laugh) Celeron D 2.53ghz 533fsb 256k l2. I have some random PCI card plugged in that I found in the trash somewhere, no idea what the specs are but it's outputting a max of 1280x1024. (BTW it triple boots XP, Windows 7 and Ubuntu.) Not the most amazing specs, but I figured it would be good enough for hulu.

All my computers are scrappers from the trash that I piece back together, and this is one of the nicer ones I have... I didn't know that PCI was so slow! Getting a new motherboard sounds like too much of a hassle,

For the life of me I can't figure out how you guys are calculating the MB/s... what resolution would I have to set it to in order to avoid choppiness? (like 1280x720?) I've had it at full resolution mostly so that it fills the whole screen, but I might be able to get it to stretch at lower resolutions with DVI or S-Video.

Thanks again, this place rocks.
posted by brenton at 11:30 PM on January 22, 2009

--Oh, and this computer isn't for blu-ray or even DVDs, we have a PS3 hooked up for that. This is just for downloaded or streamed internet stuff.
posted by brenton at 11:35 PM on January 22, 2009

Some people have recommended upgrading the mobo, but unless Dell has changed their case designs recently to something more standard, it's generally impossible to replace the mobo in Dell computers. They use proprietary boards with the screw holes in the wrong places. It's generally impossible to upgrade Dell computers at all beyond the most basic stuff (add RAM, replace the optical drive, etc.) and as you've found, there's often absurd limitations such as only having PCI slots. You found Dells in the trash for a good reason, because they are trash.

As for playing HD video, sorry, but it's impossible. Your videos may fill the screen, but they're still just DVD (720x480) resolution or below videos being stretched to the dimensions of the desktop. In order to play anything encoded at 720p or above you will need a new computer, and in order to play 1080p x264 it will need at least a good Core Duo and a PCIe x16 video card.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:48 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with DecemberBoy.
The Dell just wont cut it at 720p, let alone 1080p, and there is no upgrade path that will remedy that.
You are going to need a new system. Core Duo, PCIe, decent ram, psu etc. $500-600 should get you there.
Use it to stream av to your PS3>TV via ps3mediaserver.
You won't know what hit you.
posted by Duke999R at 5:04 AM on January 23, 2009

The processor is (don't laugh) Celeron D 2.53ghz 533fsb 256k l2

Ha! I knew it. Its a P4 celeron.

Yeah, this thing can probably be a nice SD box, but its not going to be a HD box for you.

what resolution would I have to set it to in order to avoid choppiness? (like 1280x720?)

Even if you picked a low resolution its not going to help much. The file you are decoding will be a 1080p or 720p source file that your CPU cant handle, let alone decode in realtime and scale it down to whatever resolution you've picked.

On the bright side, a lot of stuff labeled HD on the internet like vimeo, hulu, etc arent really HD. You box might be able to play some of these sources, but, no, its not playing real HD formats.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:20 AM on January 23, 2009

DirectX 10 is only available on Vista/7, If you have XP, the latest DirectX version you can load on it is 9. If you get a DX10 card, it'll run 9 just fine. You'd just be getting it for future software upgrade to 7 (because it will have DX10, I wouldn't recommend Vista).

Dells are notorious for being highly proprietary. They use stupid, non-standard power supplies that need to be mated to stupid, non-standard motherboards. Attempting to swap the motherboard to a standard ATX mobo will be a major headache. These powerful video cards also require additional power from a power supply, which I doubt a off-the-rack manufactured computer would provide very well.

I'd say save up and check out the system guides online (such as Tom's Hardware and other ones that have been linked from related Ask.mefi threads in the past).
Also look at the video card roundups from those hardware sites that will say "for this price point, this is the card you should get, and this is what it can handle"

I have a PCIe GeForce that puts out to a 1080P set. I attempted to cut the resolution in half (what it was on my 720p set, 1366x768) on Team Fortress 2 and found the exact same FPS, and even a bit worse than before. I think you should get a card that can run comfortably in your display's native resolution. I also found that I could not play HD video or play games at full resolution until I upgraded to a dual-core processor, so that is a must for HD playback.

You can, however use a program such as TVersity to stream your media over the network to the PS3 and just display videos/play music that way.
posted by ijoyner at 9:26 AM on January 23, 2009

For the life of me I can't figure out how you guys are calculating the MB/s...

Take for instance 1280*720*30fps 24 bit color.

The screen resolution is 1280*720, which is 921,600 pixels. 24-bit color means three bytes per pixel, so that's 2,764,800 bytes.

That's how much data has to be transferred to fill the screen one time. If you're animating at 30 frames per second (which is the standard rate for NTSC) then in one second you'd have to transfer 30 frames, each of which required 2,764,800 bytes. So that's 82,944,000 bytes per second.

A "megabyte" is 2^20 bytes, i.e. 1,048,576 bytes. So that means you need to transfer 79.101 megabytes per second to sustain that frame rate at that resolution.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:06 PM on January 23, 2009

Thanks... I feel like an expert now!

So I found this webpage (it's data taken from here) with some info on the quality of various internet video sites.

It seems that HD on these sites will all out-pace a PCI slot card.

I was a little confused by the "2mbit/s H264 - full framerate" stuff in the middle, but I just assumed 24 bit color and 30fps as "full framerate."

However, looking at the Hulu faq, it says "Some of our videos now come in a 1,000 Kbps, H.264, 480p stream" and "the 720p clips in our HD Gallery.... are encoded at 2,500Kbps, and we recommend a downstream bandwidth of over 3,500Kbps." If I understand that correctly, that means that I *would* be able to view most of the videos on Hulu, since the "high quality" ones are 480p.

I will have to think about it more, but I think I will decide to buy a cheap PCI video card for now, and get an entirely new computer in a few years when all internet video is streaming at 720p or above.

Thanks for all your help everyone. (More comments are welcome, of course!)
posted by brenton at 3:32 PM on January 23, 2009

"2mbit/s H264 - full framerate" refers to the compressed video stream that comes to you across the internet.

When it's received and played, your CPU decompresses it and and has to shove the resulting full-bore video data across your bus to the graphics card. H264 isn't decoded directly by the graphics card. No graphics card can do that.

You know how audio gets compressed into MP3 for storage and transmission, and how you can trade off quality to get a smaller file? When you play it, the MP3 has to be uncompressed again to produce full-rate raw digitized audio that is fed to the sound card in your computer.

H264 is one of the better modern video compression standards (and is often distributed as FLV or MKV), and it's the same kind of thing for video that MP3 does for audio. Its compression rate, however, has nothing to do with the internal data stream inside your computer when you play it, any more than the MP3 data size directly relates to the amount of data that has to be fed to your sound card.

2 megabits per second H264 means it doesn't take much of an internet connection to play it. But that has nothing to do with how much data has to be shoved onto the display by the CPU.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:05 PM on January 23, 2009

@Chocolate Pickle: Any recent Nvidia (PureVideo) or ATI (Avivo) card will handle decoding H.264. Maybe not in if it's delivered via Flash like Hulu does, though.
posted by PueExMachina at 8:22 PM on January 23, 2009

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