Almost every computer has a graphics card.
Sometimes the "card" is truly an entire circuit board. Other times it is merely a chip on the main circuit board.
Either way, the graphics card, or "graphics adapter" or "video adapter" - terms that are all used interchangeably - translates the results from the main processor and memory into the actual dots of light you see on the computer display.
To do that, the graphics adapter has its own processing circuits and its own memory.
In fact, it's like a separate "helper" computer inside your main computer.
To outfit your computer with a graphics card, you can spend anywhere from nothing (sticking with the built-in component it already has) to $300 for an upgrade to better gaming performance - to thousands of dollars for professional design tools.
Digital imaging professionals who design 3-D models for a living should read trade journals and talk to colleagues before spending those thousands of dollars.
My advice to everyone else is to consider separating those two computers, the main system and the graphics system, when it comes to gaming.
Even the cheapest graphics adapter installed in the cheapest computers today does a fine job of putting word processing, spreadsheets, money-managing, presentation-primping, database-managing, Web-surfing, image-drawing, photo-editing and 2-D gaming on screen.
That wasn't always true. Once upon a time, back in the early 1990s, there was a real need for 2-D acceleration to get all those windows and menus on screen without a noticeable delay. Today, though, it just isn't a problem.
But the 3-D games of today do need acceleration. They require special graphics processor chips and lots of graphics adapter memory equipped with a high-speed interface between the graphics card and the main computer.
You can get that buying and installing a 4X AGP graphics adapter with the latest graphics processing unit plus 64 megabytes or more DDR (double data rate)SDRAM RAM devoted to 24-bit rendering with a 32-bit Z-buffer, hopefully supported by a bug-free software driver. Let's hope you don't run into any compatibility issues with your PC or Mac.
Or you can buy a game console such as the PlayStation 2, GameCube or Xbox. Each of these can match or better the graphics ability of that graphics adapter. And they're ready to use, no worries about drivers and slots and such. Another plus is that one person can play a game while another composes e-mail or surfs the Web or does homework or whatever on the computer.
Consoles used to have a few flaws in comparison to gaming-equipped PCs: They didn't have a hard drive to save games in progress and they didn't have the CD or DVD drives required to play complex games or videos.
But now the consoles have all those things.
Better yet, game consoles are subsidized. The makers charge an artificially low price for them because they make lots of profit on the games. The entire console, complete with specialized game-play hand-controllers, built-in main memory, processor, hard drive and DVD drive, only costs as much as the graphics adapter on a PC.
That's right - $300 to $350 will get you a darn fine graphics adapter card for your PC or gets you an entire game-playing console.
What would you decide if we were talking cars instead of computers? If you had a $20,000 car and wanted to be able to race, would you install a $5,000 turbocharger in your car or do you buy that on-incredible-special-sale $5,000 racing car which, if it were sold at full price, would have cost you almost as much as the car you already own?
The only disadvantage of separating your 3-D-gaming-computer from your everything-else-computer is that you don't have as much excuse to spend megabucks on the computer.
You can't claim, at least with a straight face, that the computer is an "investment" or is primarily for "working from home" or for "homework" when you're lusting after better 3-D blow-'em-up performance.
And believe me, that's a big drawback to lots of people.
The computer industry has sold a lot of hardware with a two-faced policy of promoting the work-at-home and schoolwork-at-home abilities of computers to the serious-minded (stereotyped as the skeptical mom of the household) while promoting the expensive extra hardware for better graphics to the game-minded (stereotyped as the dad and the teen-age son).
"We need a faster computer for my homework, for my presentations, to keep up with the modern world and jobs" say the gamers. Then they spend most of their screen time hunting and blasting.
So buying a separate game console can serve a double purpose: It can both save some money and alleviate some hypocrisy.