A graphics card, also known as a video card, is the vessel which hosts the Graphic Processing Unit (GPU). As you may know, a computer already has a primary processor called the CPU, which processes all data and executes commands. The GPU, on the other hand, is a separate processor responsible for rendering high quality graphics onto your monitor.
Many times, a CPU will already have a GPU integrated within itself. These kinds of integrated systems can render basic graphics such as your windows home screen, and they are commonly found in non-gaming laptops. When it comes to the more complex graphics, an integrated GPU will nearly always falter. Tasks such as gaming, video rendering and computer-aided design (CAD) require a separate, high powered GPU in the form of a graphics card.
How does GPU work?
When you look at your screen, you are essentially looking at millions of pixels, a.k.a tiny dots of colour, which are arranged together to create an image. Everything that you see on your screen starts off as binary computer code (1s and 0s). The computer needs the graphic card to act as a translator – it takes binary data from the CPU and arranges it into pixels on the screen. It works in the following steps:
- Software applications send information to the CPU about pixels.
- The CPU then sends this information to the graphics card, and the GPU decides how to use the pixels on the screen to create an image.
- After it decides this, it sends the information to the monitor where the image is formed.
- For 3D images, the graphics card has to work extra hard. It first creates a wire frame, which is like a rough draft of the image. It then has to rasterize the image, i.e., it fills in the remaining pixels and adds texture, lighting, and color.
- The GPU may have to perform this up to 60 times per second, which is a huge workload. A normal CPU with an integrated graphics card can never handle such high loads. Fast paced games would resemble a PowerPoint presentation with low end processors.
The GPU connects with the motherboard and the CPU through one of these three ports:
- Peripheral component interconnect (PCI):
- Advanced graphics port (AGP)
- PCI Express (PCIe)
PCI express is generally considered the newest and fastest of these ports, and it can support two graphic cards in the same computer.
Types Of GPU
There are two main types of GPUs:
- Integrated GPU: As mentioned above, sometimes a CPU has graphic processing capabilities already embedded in the motherboard. This is known as an integrated system as it does not require a separate graphic card.
Benefits: integrated systems are lightweight and can be installed into laptops, which are easy to carry around and ideal for users who like to travel. Integrated units are also more affordable as you do not have to pay for a separate graphic card. They do not generate as much heat or use up a lot of power, which allows for longer battery life.
Drawbacks: integrated systems cannot keep up with extremely high quality graphic processing. They are not suitable for gaming, 3D modelling, or video editing. They have no separate memory for graphics and can end up taking up a huge chunk of your RAM, which will slow your computer down.
- Discrete GPU: This is the system that uses separate graphics cards. The graphics card is bought separately and installed into the PC. It is connected to the CPU motherboard and the power supply.
Benefits: These kinds of systems are ideal for gaming, graphic design, rendering etc. They have their own memory and do not consume your computer’s RAM. They can process video data incredibly fast, making for a seamless graphic experience. You can buy a GPU of your choice according to your own needs, and install it onto the computer.
Drawbacks: a discrete GPU is going to take up a sizable chunk of your PC budget. Discrete GPUs can sometimes be hundreds of dollars more expensive than their integrated counterparts. For example, the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti is a popular high end graphics card which retails for a whopping $1,368. If you’re trying to build a PC for under $1000, you’ll have to go for lower end options.
Discrete GPUs also tend to warm up quickly, and will need their own cooling system. If you have a laptop, then the battery life will drain really fast with a discrete GPU.
GPU Performance Indicators
There are a lot of GPUs on the market, and it can be difficult to figure out which one to buy. There are a few technical terms that you should understand about GPUs which will make the shopping experience easier:
- Frames Per Second (FPS): one of the best measures of a high-quality graphic card is the FPS. This is the number of times in a second that a graphic card can render an image on the screen. The higher the FPS, the smoother gaming experience. Lower FPS, e.g., 1 FPS, will be like viewing a PowerPoint presentation. Most fast actions games require at least 60 FPS.
- Clock Speed (MHz): This measures the number of clock cycles that a CPU can perform, i.e., the amount of information it can process in a minute. It is measured in Megahertz (MHz) or Gigahertz (GHz). One Megahertz (MHz) equals one million clock cycles per second, whereas one Gigahertz (GHz) equals one billion clock cycles per second. MHz and GHz are an indication of core performance, so look for higher numbers. 3.5 GHz to 4.0 GHz is considered a good speed for gaming.
- VRAM: The VRAM is like the short-term memory of the GPU. It’s where the GPU holds data while it is being converted and arranged into pixels. A graphic card could have a high clock speed but if the VRAM is low then the gaming experience will not be up to par, as the GPU will take too long to communicate with the rest of the system.
What Are GPUs Used For?
Many different types of users can benefit from a GPU. Some of its uses include:
- Gaming: This form of video requires computer generated graphics, which cannot be handled by an ordinary CPU. Each frame needs to be separately rendered by the computer which is why it needs the extra horsepower of the GPU.
- 3D modelling: Software like AutoCAD is used in business to create realistic 3D images and simulations. The PC needs to quickly render changes which requires an immense amount of power.
- Video editing: A basic CPU can handle low level video editing, but if you’re going to be working frequently with high resolution videos then a GPU is needed otherwise the speed will be too slow.
- machine learning (ML): this is when machines are taught to make predictions after viewing a data set. Given the GPUs ability to process large amounts of visual data quickly, it can be used to create neural networks in machine learning.
Which GPU should You Buy?
When considering GPUs to buy, keep in mind the following tips:
- Your GPU needs to be compatible with the rest of your PCs parts. For example, most mainstream graphic cards are suitable for 1080p gaming, but you will need a more high-end card if you intend to get a 4K gaming monitor. Your PC case also needs to be big enough to fit the graphics card, and your power supply should have enough watts to spare. (read more about this in our “How to set up a gaming PC” guide.)
- Choose a GPU that suits your needs. Not everyone is going to need a high-powered GPU for amateur gaming. But if you want a more professional set-up, or if you’re into 3d modelling, a more high-end video card is a must.
- Remember to save money for your CPU. It’s easy to blow all your gaming PC budget in the graphics card, but keep in mind that the CPU is equally important for the PC to function. Try to allocate 20-30% of your budget for the GPU.
- Consider the laptop vs. desktop debate carefully. Laptops with powerful GPUs tend to have a shorter battery life, which pretty much makes the portability factor redundant unless you can find a good power supply everywhere you go. Laptops with powerful processors also tend to be more expensive than their desktop counterparts. For example, Dell’s Latitude 5501 Business Laptop and Inspiron Desktop Computer both have similar specs. The laptop is $1200, whereas the desktop is just $440. Sure, you’d have to buy an extra monitor, mouse, and keyboard alongside the desktop, but the overall cost will still be cheaper.
AMD vs. NVIDIA
If you’ve ventured anywhere near the world of GPUs, you may have heard of the AMD vs. NVIDIA debate. These two are currently the top manufacturers of graphic cards, and it can be confusing to decide who to give your money too.
- AMD is generally considered the more affordable option, and they deliver quality performance in the lower-end range. Their Radeon RX 5500 XT is valued at $199, and it offers a higher VRAM then the affordable NVIDIA equivalent, which means its going to perform better in most games.
- Amongst mid-range cards, AMD and NVIDIA offer virtually the same prices. The Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Super at $399 beats its competitors by offering additional features such as ray tracing and DLSS.
- Up until recently, NVIDIA led the market for powerful high end gaming video cards. If you wanted to game in 4K at 60 FPS, NVIDIA is still a solid route to take. In 2020, however, AMD is set to make 4K gaming more affordable with their newly announced RTX 6000 series graphics cards.
Modern GPU Technology
Modern GPUs use different technology to improve the appearance and speed of graphics on your screen. Some of these include:
- Full scene anti-aliasing (FSAA): This helps smoothest the edges of 3-D objects.
- Anisotropic filtering (AF): This makes images look crisper.
- Crossfire: this is a feature used by GPU manufacturing giant AMD. It allows you to install up to two GPUs in your PC in order to boost the overall graphics power.
- Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR): This technology renders games at high resolutions and then shrinks them to a smaller size, allowing you to enjoy 4K gaming without spending extra. It is currently used by GPU manufacturer NVIDIA.
- Eyefinity: Another AMD invention which allows you to enjoy gaming across as many as 6 different monitors for that ultimate immersive experience.
- Freesync: AMD processors contain this feature; it resolves the communication issues between the processor and the monitor for more seamless gaming.
- SLI: Whereas AMD has crossfire to install two graphic cards, NVIDIA has created SLI which allows up to three graphic cards in one computer.
- G-Sync: another NVIDIA feature which allows for smoother, tear-free gaming.
Getting a graphic card can be confusing and intimidating. After reading this article, we hope that you have enough information about graphic card technology to venture into the market with confidence. There has never been a better time to upgrade your graphics card for your PC; competitive prices are at an all-time low with both AMD and NVIDIA fighting for market share. The technology is faster and more innovative than ever, and it will give you a truly immersive gaming experience. We’ve already covered graphic card uses, types, technology, and mechanism in this article. If you want more information on setting up your first gaming computer, check out “How to set up a gaming PC” and “Computer Basics”.