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PCI and Graphics Cards

What is a Graphics Card?

A Graphics Card is an add-on board that provides advanced graphics (-e.g. 3D rendering) capabilities to a standard PC. They are very common (well, essential) in high end gaming PCs. They comprise a dedicated processor and memory and take over graphical tasks, freeing up the main CPU for other tasks. They come as a small daughterboard that fits into a dedicated slot on the motherboard, which is usually one of two main types:

  • PCI Express (PCIe): this has been the current standard (-for at least the last five years). However, the situation (as always) is not that simple, as there are several types of PCIe slots. The current standard is PCI Express 2.0 x16 (PCIex16 2.x)

  • Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP): basically AGP is an extension of the high speed system bus, it is only seen on quite old PCs these days

[Graphics Cards] comprise a dedicated processor and memory and take over graphical tasks, freeing up the main CPU for other tasks

The picture below left shows a PCIex16 graphics card - the gold contacts are visible on the right hand side in this picture, whilst the output ports which poke through the PC rear panel can be seen at the bottom edge. The large black area is the heatsink covering the graphics processor itself, which tends to run rather hot:

The picture below right shows a motherboard with a single PCIe (Graphics) card installed (-hint: it has a large, black heat sink on it) and, directly beneath it, four standard PCI cards:

An example of a PCIe x16 graphics card An example of installed PCI and PCIe cards


What is a PCI Expansion Card?

A PCI Card (aka Expansion Card) is an add-on daughterboard that provides some sort of extra functionality to a standard PC. They fit into one of the standard PCI slots on the motherboard, which are basically on an extension of the system bus. They are similar to a graphics card, only graphics hardware required very high data transfer rates, so specialised ports emerged to support them like AGP and PCI Express. Like PCIe, there are several versions of PCI slot.

A PCI Card .. is an add-on daughterboard that provides some sort of extra functionality to a standard PC

Some examples of PCI cards available are:

  • Audio Cards: for example, hi-fi quality output, digital radio receivers
  • Network Cards: for example, ethernet, token ring, wireless cards
  • SATA/IDE/SCSI Cards: these allow you to add more drives to the PC
  • RAID Cards: these give your PC hardware RAID capability

The picture below shows an empty PCI slot on a motherboard:

An example of am empty PCI slot


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