A graphics card allows you to see things on your computer monitor. It takes binary data from your CPU and converts it to the millions of pixels displayed by your monitor.
Integrated Versus Discrete
Graphics cards are usually considered to be integrated or discrete. There is a big difference in both performance and cost.
Integrated graphics work using a secondary processor built into the CPU. Not all processors have that capability and those that don’t must have a separate (discrete) graphics card. This is different from a few years ago when motherboards often housed the integrated graphics unit.
Integrated graphics work fine for basic applications. You find them in inexpensive computers. If all you are doing is working with documents and occasional web surfing it may be all you need.
Discrete graphics cards are a separate expansion card that plug into an expansion slot on your computer. Graphics cards can render complex graphics much faster than integrated graphics. This is really important for higher end games, graphics design work and video editing.
Games have traditionally driven the graphics card market. Newer cards are released regularly and newer games push the envelope of what is possible. A new high end game running on a high end card is a sight to behold!
All this graphics power does not come cheap. Newer and faster cards have always been expensive. This has been especially true in recent years due to shortages caused by the pandemic.
It is not at all unusual for avid gamers to spend more on their graphics card than all of the other computer parts combined. The newest and most powerful cards can run into the thousands of dollars.
Major Graphics Card Components
The GPU or “Graphics Processing Unit” is the discrete processor that sits on the card’s printed circuit board. It makes the necessary complex calculations needed to quickly and accurately display images.
Video Card RAM
Graphics cards house their own memory which is used to store and process image data. This can be in amounts of 2 Gig, 4, Gig, 8 Gig, and even more. More is usually more expensive.
Nvidia and AMD
Nvidia and AMD produce most of the graphics cards in the market. They are in tight competition and are always adding new ways to increase performance. At any one time they will offer a variety of cards from lower end to current state of the art.
Graphics cards have various output ports. Below are some of the most common.
This stands for “Video Graphics Array” and is your traditional three rows of pins that have been around for decades.
This stands for “Digital Visual Interface” and was the successor to VGA.
This stands for “High Definition Multimedia Interface.” This is a modern interface and is used in many devices, including most TVs. Most modern graphics cards have at least one HDMI port.
This is the newest interface and was developed to eventually replace VGA and DVI.
Many higher end cards have multiple ports that allow you to run multiple monitors from one card.
I’ve been building computers for over 25 years and graphics power has always been a consideration. My first question is always “What do you mostly do with your computer?” My next question is “How long do you usually keep your computers? Answers to these questions will usually drive the choice in graphics power.
As I said before, real basic users are fine with integrated graphics. Truly avid gamers who must have the best need the newer high performance cards. These are expensive, but if gaming is your thing, and you can afford it, why not?
Often I recommend the “sweet spot.” At most times there is an in between card, less expensive than the latest and greatest, but still powerful enough for most games. Game designers have to allow for these cards otherwise their pool of prospective buyers would be very small!
Before adding a discrete card you want to make sure your computer has the proper expansion slot to hole the card. The graphics card specs will tell you what expansion slot you need.
While writing this article I found the following sites useful:
Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash