Next to the central processing unit (CPU), the graphics processing unit (GPU) has the biggest impact on your PC's performance. The graphics card translates the information your PC is working on into images and outputs them to a screen. The more powerful the GPU, the faster information can be displayed and the better your overall viewing experience will be.

In the early days of PCs, the CPU was responsible for translating information into images held in special memory spaces called "frame buffers" and then painting those images onto screens. General purpose CPUs aren't very fast for this kind of processing, so "graphics accelerators" were created to speed things up. This became more important as graphical user interfaces (GUIs), 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 not only for displaying text and graphics in windowed GUIs, but also for rendering the 3D graphics of video games. advanced today. GPUs can also efficiently run other processes that involve manipulating a lot of data in parallel.

Read our guide below to learn more about choosing the right graphics card for you, and then head over to the PC Gaming CR GPU page to start shopping.

 

Why does your graphics card matter?
For most people, gaming is the most graphically intensive task you'll ask your PC to do. It's not surprising, then, that serious gamers spend hours researching the latest GPU technology and often update their GPUs regularly. As GPUs get faster, games are written to take advantage of the extra speed, and that pushes manufacturers to make even faster GPUs.

If you're not a gamer, you may not care as much about your GPU's capabilities unless you're running other types of applications that can make direct use of a GPU's special processing capabilities. Examples include video editing, where a GPU can be used to speed up processes like video encoding, and computer-aided design/manufacturing (CAD/CAM) applications like AutoCAD, which can also use the GPU for performance significantly. better.

Choosing a GPU is therefore an important part of building, buying, or upgrading a PC. As with all PC components, the first question to ask when choosing a graphics card is: how will you use it?

Gaming

The gaming industry has pushed GPU technology faster and further than any other group. Today's PC games are more realistic and complex than ever, and the ever-increasing performance of modern GPUs is part of the reason and a response to gamers demanding more engaging games.

Simply put, if you're building a gaming PC, then the GPU is going to be your most important purchase. Other components can affect performance, such as the CPU and RAM, but getting a GPU that's too weak for your chosen games is guaranteed to disappoint.

However, there are different types of games, and not all of them demand the most powerful GPU on the market. That's why it's important to read the required, recommended, and optimal specs for a game to make sure you're getting 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 haven't been released yet.

 

Video and professional applications

another demanding group of users are those who perform complex tasks like 3D rendering and video editing. High-end applications like AutoCAD and Adobe Premiere Pro can use GPUs to speed up rendering for faster, more efficient workflows.

In fact, there is a class of GPUs specifically targeted at these users. These workstation GPUs are optimized for these applications, and their drivers are certified to be stable and reliable. These GPUs are not always the best for powering games, although they can be much more expensive than consumer GPUs.

In this guide we will focus on more mainstream graphics cards. If you need a GPU to run professional applications, you'll probably be looking for the best options outside of the regular consumer GPU market.

Everyone else
If you're not going to be gaming or running creative apps that can use a GPU to speed things up, you may not need to spend as much money on your graphics card. If you primarily run productivity apps, browse the web, manage email, and do other common low-end PC tasks, then you'll want to spend more time selecting the right RAM, CPU, and storage.

Integrated vs. Discrete GPUs
Some CPUs have integrated graphics, which are GPUs that are built into the same component as the CPU itself, or are otherwise closely related to the CPU. These integrated graphics tend to be low-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 gaming.

What we are talking about in this guide are discrete graphics cards. Standalone GPUs range from relatively low entry-level options to incredibly powerful GPUs that can cost upwards of $1,000 on their own. You can buy discrete GPUs as part of pre-built systems, for a PC you're building yourself, to upgrade from an older GPU, or even in a laptop.

 

Mobile vs. desktop

Choosing a GPU isn't just important when you're building or buying a new desktop PC. Laptops also use GPUs, and if you want to be able to game on the go, then you need to pay attention to whether a laptop is equipped with just the integrated GPU that is built into its CPU or has a discrete GPU of some kind.

There was a time when mobile GPUs were very different things than their desktop counterparts. The big news for mobile gamers is that today's gaming laptops use discrete GPUs that either perform very close to their desktop equivalents or are optimized to fit an impressive amount of power into very thin and light laptops. .

Ray-tracing: the latest advancement in realistic graphics

 

 

Since we originally developed this guide, new technology has hit the streets and promises to drastically improve the quality of gaming graphics. Called "ray tracing," the technology allows for more realistic lighting effects using techniques that essentially simulate how light behaves. As Nvidia says:

“Ray tracing calculates the color of pixels by tracing the path that light would take if it traveled from the viewer's eye through the virtual 3D scene. As it passes through the scene, light can reflect from one object to another (causing reflections), be blocked by objects (causing shadows), or pass through transparent or semi-transparent objects (causing refractions). All of these interactions combine to produce the final color of a pixel which is then displayed on the screen."

 

Ray tracing has been a goal of the computer industry for years, and only recently have hardware and software caught up with the vision. Finally, consumer-grade GPUs have the power to perform effective ray tracing in games, and while the number of games adopting the technology remains low, it is the future of gaming.

GPUs that can efficiently implement ray tracing are more expensive, so that's the main consideration when buying a new GPU today. Costs are likely to come down over time, so while we'd recommend buying a ray tracing GPU if you can afford it, there's still a year or two before the number of games that support the technology makes buying a GPU worthwhile. essential.

The GPU: Nvidia vs. amd
When you buy a GPU, you're choosing from graphics cards that come with all the components needed to power a PC's display. These graphics cards include the GPU itself, which is a single chip that will almost always come from one of two companies: Nvidia and AMD.

Historically, these two companies have battled for leadership in the GPU market, with Nvidia holding the lead until recent years. Nvidia still holds a strong position in the market, but AMD's newer graphics cards have put it in a much more competitive position.

When shopping for a graphics card, you'll often choose models made by companies like ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI, which put their own special spins on core hardware developed by NVIDIA and AMD. Of all the various specs you'll come across when learning about GPUs, the GPU model itself is the most important. This is what tells you where the GPU falls in terms of overall performance, although specific graphics cards within a GPU model can vary in performance depending on a variety of factors.

Nvidia

 

 

Nvidia's latest GPUs are based on their Turing architecture, and their most popular and powerful GPUs are their 20-series. Nvidia has a wide range of GPUs that cover the low end to the high end of the consumer GPU market. In general, the number of processing cores, called "CUDA cores" or "RTX cores", offered by an Nvidia GPU determines how powerful it is.


















 

 

AMD

 

AMD has two consumer GPU architectures that are particularly relevant today. The first is the Radeon RX 500 series, which is their most affordable lineup, and the Radeon Vega series, which represents AMD's next-generation architecture.

The Radeon VII, built on a 7mm process, is the second generation of Vega GPUs. The company also has a new architecture, Navi, coming soon that will likely bring more powerful options to the company's mainline.

Note that AMD's term for their GPU cores is "Stream Processors", and again, the more the better.

 

specs

As you can see from the charts above, there are a few specs you need to consider when shopping for a GPU. Please note that the information in the charts represents the design specifications for each GPU, and graphics card manufacturers (such as ASUS, MSI, and Gigabyte) have modified the basic designs to create their own performance parameters. That's why it's so important to do your research, including checking benchmarks on sites like PassMark Software's Video Card Benchmarks Roundup that compares GPU performance.

The following provides a brief discussion of some of the specifications you will encounter during your research.

Thermal Design Power (TDP)

The discrete GPU may be the most power consuming component in a modern PC. If you're building or upgrading a PC, you'll need to be careful that the power supply is sufficient to account for the GPU you want to install. GPUs also generate a lot of heat and require enough cooling to run reliably and at peak performance. Most graphics cards will include a recommended power supply size (in watts), and you'll also need to consider how much power the other components in your PC draw.

The combination of how much power a GPU draws and how much heat it generates is known as "Thermal Design Power (TDP)," stated in watts, and that's the measurement you'll see in a graphics card's specs. The higher the TDP, the more power is required and the more heat the GPU produces. This can be important on both desktops and laptops, where the latter places the most restrictions on available GPUs.

Keep in mind that while designing your PC or choosing a GPU upgrade, you'll also want to investigate how hot a given graphics card runs at full power. This will help you choose the right cooling system for both your GPU and PC.

Finally, it is also important to know what type of power connections a graphics card requires. Usually this is a combination of six and eight pin connectors, which the power supply will need to provide in sufficient quantity.

 

Memory

 


Discrete GPUs have their own memory where they store the data needed to display information on a screen. When considering discrete GPUs, therefore, you'll want to consider the amount of memory a graphics card has and the bandwidth it provides.

The amount of random access memory (RAM) in your GPU is important for high-performance games that use large amounts of data to render images on the screen. Also, if you're running multiple 4K displays, then you'll want more graphics RAM. Generally speaking though, you'll get more graphics RAM as you buy faster graphics cards, and as long as you buy a GPU that's fast enough for your desired games, then you should have enough RAM to go with it, built-in.

RAM bandwidth is another important metric to watch. The faster the RAM, the faster the GPU can access information and display it on the screen. The GPU model generally determines the type of RAM installed in a graphics card, and once again, choosing the right GPU for your needs will give you the right RAM.

 

 

connections

Of course, a GPU alone isn't worth much. It needs to connect to one screen, or multiple screens, to be useful. Today's displays use a few different connections, including DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. VGA is an older connection that might still be available on some modern displays.

We will not delve into the differences between these connection types. Suffice it to say though, you'll need to make sure your chosen graphics card supports enough connections for all the monitors you want to connect to your PC. Note that in many cases you can purchase adapters to convert a graphics card connection to one that a display can accept.

For example, let's say you have three monitors, two of which have HDMI ports and one that only has a DVI port. You need a graphics card with at least three ports in some combination of DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. You can connect directly to each display or use adapters to convert as needed.

Speaking of multiple monitors, not all graphics cards support the same number of displays. You'll need to double check the specs to make sure a given graphics card can support as many monitors as you want to connect.

More than one GPU
Finally, some graphics cards can be connected to run in parallel with additional cards, which can provide significant performance gains for highly demanding games. This is called Scalable Link Interface (SLI) for Nvidia and Crossfire for AMD. If you want to run multiple graphics cards on your PC, you will need to select the correct cards and the correct motherboards.

 

Buy the right GPU for you

 

This guide has covered the basics of the graphics card world, but you can visit the PC Gaming CR GPU section for even more information. Additionally, you can use PC Gaming CR's comparison tool to get a side-by-side list of how different graphics cards compare.

Another resource to help you choose a GPU and graphics card is the games and applications you want to run. Most will list the required, recommended, and optimal specs, which will often include the CPU, GPU, RAM, and storage. Browse the games and applications that interest you the most and make sure you select a graphics card that meets at least the recommended specifications.