In this article, we’ll go over a brief introduction of what a graphics card is, and when you may need one.
Depending on the type of system you’re building, the graphics card can be one of the most important components in your PC build.
A graphics card is an expansion card which connects directly to a display device like a monitor, and provides a visual output feed for the display. The graphics card is responsible for assembling images that will be displayed.
Not all computers need a dedicated graphics card, as many CPUs and motherboards have in-built (integrated) graphics which can perform the display function. However, if you are doing image-heavy activities like video editing, image processing, or gaming, you’ll want to invest in a add-in graphics card. Dedicated graphics cards have much more processing power, dedicated video memory and a range of advanced features not typically available on integrated versions. Having a dedicated graphics card can also free up your processor for other operations, increasing speed and usability.
There are two main ways a computer may handle graphics output:
- Integrated (in-built into the computer processor and motherboard) – no separate component required, this option can be suitable for everyday applications when using a computer.
- Dedicated (add-in expansion card) – a dedicated graphics card is recommended for anyone running graphically intense workloads, such as computer games and video editing.
Two main manufacturers of graphics card processors exist for stand-alone expansion cards – AMD (formerly ATI) and nVidia. While these two companies are responsible for the development, innovation and production of the components, other brands assemble and customize the cards for consumers. A few of the larger brands are: EVGA, Gigabyte, ASUS, Saphire, Diamond, MSI (+ many more).
Most dedicated graphics cards these days fall into two categories, Gaming or Professional.
Professional graphics cards are designed for use in the workplace in graphically intense applications. The range of uses is vast including: Computer aided drafting (AutoCAD, Revit), image editing & design (Adobe Photoshop/Illustrator, Corel Draw), video editing and conversion (Adobe Premier, Avid, Blender), medical / scientific imaging or even just displaying on a wall of monitors.
These cards have feature sets designed specifically for these workplace applications. Many of these features won’t be found on gaming series cards. However, if you’re just a hobbyist who dabbles a little in these applications, you may still find better value (performance per $) in a gaming card. These professional series cards can get very expensive for the home user and are actually very limited in their gaming performance.
Gaming graphics cards are far more common. These consist mostly of nVidia GeForce GTX and AMD Radeon series cards.
As the name suggests, gaming cards are designed to give you the best possible experience and performance for gaming. However, you can also find great value in these cards in professional use cases too.
Features you will want to pay mind to when selecting a gaming graphics card include:
- Generation / production year. The newer the card, the more features it typically supports. If you’re not familiar with graphics card models, a very rough rule of thumb here is to look at the first number in the model i.e. nVidia GTX 970 or AMD R9 390x. This usually indicates the generation of the card, i.e. Nvidia GTX 900 generation or AMD R9 300 generation in this example. With this method, you can immediately tell that an Nvidia GTX 700 is an older model than the GTX900.
- Supported display resolution. Usually this is a bit of a non-issue as modern cards support fairly large resolutions. Remember though, just because a card says it supports 4k resolution and higher doesn’t mean it’s capable of running games at that resolution!
- Amount of memory. This can dictate things such as draw distance, resolution and quality of textures in your games. The nicer the textures, the more memory required (usually).
- Specifications such as core clock frequency, memory clock frequency, memory bandwidth, memory bus width and texture fill rates . These can get a bit daunting and you’ll end up comparing these figures for hours on end. Ultimately, you’ll want to check out graphics card benchmarks to see how they actually perform in game.
- Physical size of the card. Modern cards can be very large – make sure you check the dimensions of the card so you know it fits in your case.
- Output ports. How many DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA ports does it have?
- Cooling system. Many brands offer aftermarket cooling systems on their cards. If you pick the right ones you can see dramatically lower temperatures on your card, potentially leading to longer component life and less unwanted heating in your case.
- Included software – some brands include free games and overclocking tools with their cards.
- Warranty – check the warranty available with different manufacturers. You may pay $10 more for a card with 2 years extra warranty!
- Power requirements – make sure your power supply has enough power and enough connectors to support the card.
Please note that this list is not exhaustive. If you’re unsure about choosing a graphics card for your gaming machine, check out our Gaming Builds sections.