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Graphics Cards for The Worship Computer

Computers have come to play a very important part in the worship setting. A computer is the heart of a projection system, from which songs, scriptures, sermon notes, announcements and even videos are displayed. Many times, the importance of an adequate computer is overshadowed by the cost and choice of a projector. While the projector is a critical component, it is merely a conduit for computer and video display. The quality of the graphics and video content can ultimately dictate the overall quality of the system. The projection system will only be as strong as the weakest link, and it all starts with the source, which in most cases, is the computer.

When choosing a computer, the first specification that most people look at is the processor speed (e.g. Pentium III 900MHz). It may be surprising to learn that the processor is not the most crucial component. When dealing with graphic-intense applications, the system RAM and video card specifications are much more important. Specifications for desktop/tower computers are different from laptop computers, so we will discuss desktops first.

Within the past year the price of RAM has dropped dramatically. The most common type of RAM, PC133, is widely available and very inexpensive. It is highly recommended to expand a computer system’s RAM as much as possible. Three 256MB chips would add up to 768MB of RAM and cost roughly $150. This amount of RAM would give a computer plenty of “breathing room” for running programs and displaying graphics.

The other vital component is the graphics card. Graphics cards have their own RAM built in. Naturally, more video RAM is desirable. It is now common to find 32MB or more of video RAM on a graphics card, although many off-the-shelf computers may have considerably less memory. A graphics card with 64MB of video RAM may be purchased for around $100.

Modern computer motherboards have two types of expansion slots. There are several PCI slots and one AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port). The AGP slot is more efficient and designed specifically for graphics cards. The PCI slots may host other cards such as modems and sound cards, but may also use graphics cards. Therefore, there are two types of graphics cards available: AGP and PCI. An AGP card is more desirable.

Since the release of Windows 98, more than one monitor may be connected to a single computer using multiple graphics cards. A computer with one AGP graphics card and one PCI graphics card will give a user double the workspace. This configuration would allow two applications to be seen at one time, or one application may be stretched across both monitors. This is a very useful feature for day-to-day work, but there is an even greater benefit for church use.

The multiple graphics output feature has been implemented in a number of software applications designed specifically for worship. These programs include EasyWorship, SundayPlus, WorshipBuilder, and MediaShout, just to name a few. When using one of these applications, a computer monitor is connected to one graphics card while the other is connected to the video/data projector. The computer monitor acts as a control screen, allowing an operator to choose songs and elements of a song to be displayed full-screen on the projector. This gives someone a great amount of flexibility to control what is displayed without any distraction to the congregation. Using the control screen also allows for spontaneous display of songs, scriptures, graphics and more. Microsoft PowerPoint 2000 and 2002 also incorporate dual-screen features. The slide show may forced to a specific output. In the 2002 version of PowerPoint, a control interface for the presenter shows thumbnails of all of the slides and allows the operator to choose slides in a non-linear fashion.

There are several single-card solutions for dual output. These “dual-head” cards have two graphics outputs on one card. The benefit to a dual-head card is that both outputs utilize the AGP slot. The downside is that the video RAM is shared between the two outputs. Therefore, a dual-head card with 32MB of video RAM will only use 16MB per output. Many dual-head cards also have limited abilities on the second output. For instance, DVD material may not play or there may not be 3D acceleration on the second output. It is recommended to carefully review the specifications of a dual-head card before purchasing.

When implementing a two-card solution, the PCI graphics card may be used for the control monitor while all of the “hard work” is performed by the AGP graphics card. This also can equip a computer up to 4 times the amount of video RAM (e.g. two cards with 64MB each, for a total of 128MB, versus one card with 32MB).

Other Features
Many graphics cards incorporate various forms of 3D acceleration, which is desirable when using 3D applications such as Crystal Graphics Power Plugs. Power Plugs add 3D transitions and titles to PowerPoint. Some graphics cards feature DVD playback hardware. Hardware playback for DVD is more efficient than burdening the computer’s CPU. A new feature of some graphics cards is the ability to display graphics in a completely digital format. This format is called DVI and requires that the display device (e.g. projector or monitor) has a DVI input. Unfortunately, DVI signals are limited to a distance of only 25 feet and therefore it is not useful for most church applications.

Graphics for Laptops
Graphics in laptops are a very different animal. Rather than utilizing slots, the graphics in a laptop are integrated into the motherboard itself. It is therefore very important to know the graphics specifications of the laptop before purchasing. The graphics abilities may not be upgraded or replaced. Some laptops may be able to perform the dual-screen functions mentioned earlier. The laptop screen would act as the control screen while the external monitor port would be connected to the projector. If the laptop does not have this feature, a special video card may be inserted into the PCMCIA slot (or Card Bus) of the laptop. This card will add a second output. Currently the maximum amount of RAM on such a card is 4MB.

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