As graphics cards evolved, many different methods of actually displaying graphics were invented, and manufacturers desperately needed to standardize their architecture to ensure their graphics cards worked with as wide a range of hardware and software as possible. Much like today's standards struggle with rewriteable DVD formats, manufacturers needed to standardize display modes. To enable this, the VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) was formed.
The most common standard that VESA defined was VGA, short for Video Graphics Adapter. Manufacturers began designing their cards to follow the VGA standard, whilst including many other additional features (called extensions). This was an important stage in the development of video cards, as it finally meant that operating systems could provide a standard VGA driver that was guaranteed to work with any VGA compliant card, ensuring that regardless of the make or model the user would always be able to see graphic output on their monitor. A classic example of this is Microsoft Windows, which comes with a default VGA adapter driver. If a VGA compliant video card that Windows does not have a plug and play driver for is installed into your machine, the standard VGA driver will be loaded automatically. This is exceptionally important in Windows, where the entire operating system is graphical user interface based - if there was no VGA standard Windows would not have a standard VGA adapter driver, and without a standard VGA driver it would not be able to display any output on your monitor. Moreover, without being able to see what you were doing, you would need some incredible luck (or an exceptional memory) to be able to install the correct driver for the card!
Because VGA attempts to be the lowest common denominator, its main issue is that it only supports 16 colors at 640*480, or 256 colors at 320 * 240. Whilst that is fine for getting a machine up and running with the right drivers, it is less than ideal for normal use.
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