Next to the central processing unit (CPU), the graphics processing unit (GPU) has the most impact on a gaming PC’s performance. The GPU consists of an additional processor that takes data from the CPU, and translates it into images that can be rendered on your display. In other words, when you’re playing a game, the GPU is doing most of the heavy lifting. In this article we will be looking into Choosing A Graphics Card.
The more powerful the GPU (sometimes referred to as a graphics card) the more information can be calculated and displayed in a shorter time, and the better your gameplay experience will be overall.
In the early days of PCs, the CPU was responsible for translating information into images. The data was maintained in special memory spaces called “frame buffers,” and was then transferred to the display. Many general-purpose CPUs didn’t excel at performing these kinds of processes, and so “graphics accelerators” were created to handle some of that specialized work that the CPU was undertaking. This became more important as graphical user interfaces (GUIs), found in more modern operating systems such as Windows, became more popular.
Today’s GPUs are very good at processing large amounts of image information and performing parallel tasks, making them incredibly fast at not only displaying text and graphics in windowed GUIs, but also at processing the complex 3D graphics required for modern gaming experiences. GPUs can also efficiently run other processes that involve manipulating lots of data in parallel, which makes them useful for some applications outside of gaming as well.
GPUs are important, but how do you know which one to choose? There is a wide selection of GPU options available from a variety of manufacturers, and it might not be immediately clear which best fits your needs. Knowing the basics of how they operate and the differences between them can help make that decision easier.
Choosing A Graphics Card and Why does your graphics card matter?
For many people, gaming is the most hardware-intensive task that you will ask your PC to perform. It’s no surprise then, that serious gamers spend hours researching the latest GPU technology and often upgrade their GPUs on a regular basis. As GPUs get faster, games are designed to take advantage of the extra performance, and that pushes manufacturers to make even faster GPUs, continuing the cycle.
If you’re not prioritizing gaming, then you might not care as much about your GPU’s capabilities. That said, professional applications often make direct use of a GPU’s specialized processing capabilities, just in different ways. Examples include video editing, where a GPU can be used to speed up processes like video encoding, 3D rendering, and computer-aided design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM) applications like AutoCAD. All of these programs benefit from the additional processing power of a GPU, though they benefit most from GPUs designed specifically with these applications in mind.
Choosing a GPU is, therefore, an important part of building, buying, or upgrading a PC. As with every PC component, the first question to ask yourself when choosing a graphics card is: how will you be using it?
The gaming industry has been instrumental in the evolution of GPU technology. Today’s PC games are more realistic and complex than ever before, and the increasing performance of modern GPUs is both part of the reason why, and a response to gamers demanding better-looking and more complex games.
Simply put, if you’re building a PC to play games, then the GPU will be your most important purchase. Other components can also impact performance, such as the CPU, storage, and RAM, but the GPU has the most direct connection to what you see on screen when playing.
There are many different kinds of games, though, and not all of them demand the most powerful GPU on the market. That’s why it’s important to read a game’s required, recommended, and optimal specifications to make sure that you get a suitable GPU.
Buying the best GPU you can afford is a good way to future-proof your build, and keep it ready to play popular games that have yet to be released. That said, if you know exactly the kind of games you want to play, doing a bit of research on the ideal GPU to run that title is a great way to start your shopping process.
Choosing A Graphics Card: Video and professional applications
Those who use their PCs for complex tasks like 3D rendering, game development, and video editing also benefit from faster GPUs. High-end applications like AutoCAD and Adobe Premiere Pro can make use of GPUs to speed up processing, and make for faster and more efficient workflows.
That’s why there’s an entire segment of GPUs designed specifically for professionals. These workstation GPUs are optimized for these applications, and their drivers are certified to be stable and reliable when undertaking these operations. Professional class graphics cards can be immensely powerful, and are often more expensive than even high-end gaming GPUs, but because they weren’t designed specifically for gaming workloads, they probably aren’t ideal for a gaming PC. Therefore, the most expensive GPU isn’t always “better,” and it’s important to pick a GPU based on how you plan to use it, not exclusively on price.
We’re going to focus on more mainstream, gaming focused graphics cards in this guide. If you need a GPU to run professional applications, you’ll likely be looking outside of the normal consumer GPU market for the best options. Nvidia’s Quadro series, or AMD’s Radeon Pro line are great places to start.
Though professional-grade GPUs are designed for a different purpose, many of the fundamental concepts still apply.
If you aren’t gaming or running demanding professional applications that can use a GPU to speed things up, you might not need to invest as much money in your graphics card. If you’re mainly running productivity apps, browsing the web, managing email, and performing other low-resource tasks, then picking out the right RAM, CPU, and storage should be a higher priority.
The graphics capabilities embedded in your system’s CPU are probably sufficient, and you likely don’t require a separate GPU.
Choosing A Graphics Card: Integrated vs. discrete GPUs
Most modern CPUs have integrated graphics, which are essentially GPUs that are built into the CPU itself, or are otherwise closely interlinked with the CPU. These integrated graphics tend to be lower-performance options, providing enough power to drive the operating system and run web browsers, email clients, productivity apps, and other routine software, but not enough for anything more than casual (or older) games. This is quickly changing as CPUs become more powerful, but for now, if you want to play games, a separate (or discrete) GPU is likely the best solution.
Standalone GPUs range from relatively low-cost, entry-level options all the way up to incredibly powerful GPUs that can cost well over $1,000 all by themselves. You can buy discrete GPUs as part of pre-built systems, for a PC you’re building yourself, or to upgrade an older GPU.
Choosing a GPU isn’t just important when you’re building or buying a new desktop PC. Many gaming focused laptop computers utilize discrete GPUs as well. If gaming on the go is a high priority, you’ll want to ensure your laptop has a GPU that’s capable of playing the games you want, and that you aren’t relying exclusively on the lower-power integrated graphics of your CPU.
Laptop GPUs used to be significantly less powerful than their full-sized desktop cousins due to space limitations and thermal considerations. Now they are now closer to parity than ever. Many modern gaming laptops use discrete GPUs that are very close in performance to their desktop equivalents or are optimized to fit an impressive amount of power into very thin and light notebooks.
As with most PC hardware, GPU technology continues to evolve at a breakneck pace. A recent example of evolving graphics technology is “real-time ray tracing.” Ray tracing technology allows for more realistic lighting effects that more accurately simulate the way light and reflections behave in the real world.
Choosing A Graphics Card: Nvidia vs. AMD
Now then, let’s talk about the two biggest players in the gaming GPU business (at least for now): Nvidia and AMD.
When you’re shopping for a GPU, you’re choosing between graphics cards that include all the components necessary to render an image to your display. These cards include cooling solutions, necessary connections, and most importantly, the graphics processor itself. This processor is an incredibly complex chip developed with decades of research and experimentation. Because the barrier for entry to create these processors is so high, it’s likely that any GPU you buy will have come from one of two companies: Nvidia or AMD.
Historically, these two companies have battled for leadership in the GPU market, constantly forcing each other to innovate to the benefit of consumers. Both have strengths, and both offer solid options. Whichever you choose, you’ll be able to find a card targeted to your gaming needs.
When shopping for a graphics card, you’ll most often be choosing from models made by companies other than Nvidia and AMD, such as ASUS, GIGABYTE, and MSI. These companies take the chips designed by either AMD or Nvidia, and create their own graphics card using this technology.
Think of it as a car; the engine is created by AMD or Nvidia, but the rest of the car, including the body and the cooling, are designed by the company that manufacturers the card itself. In other words, if you buy an ASUS GPU, it’s still an Nvidia or AMD chip, in a body designed by ASUS. Each GPU manufacturer brings their own unique design choices and technologies to the table, which results in plenty of options to choose from.
The model of the GPU (for example, an Nvidia RTX 3080) refers to the actual processor itself, and this is what tells you where the GPU falls on the overall performance spectrum. There are other considerations too, such as cooling, clock speeds, and aesthetic design that can impact performance, but if you buy an RTX 3080, you know the fundamental capabilities of the card regardless of the manufacturer.
Hopefully you have a better sense of what to look for in a GPU. Now that you know the basics, it’s a good idea to visit Newegg’s GPU section for even more information. You can use Newegg’s comparison tool for a side-by-side list of how different graphics cards compare, which can help you determine the right card for your system.