Every pixel on your monitor is powered by a graphics card, from the icons on your desktop to the bullets flying past you in Call of Duty.
If you only use your computer for basic tasks like web browsing, you can get away with the built-in integrated graphics card inside any PC. But if you’re an avid gamer, a 3D animator or a keen crypto miner, you’re going to need a powerful, discrete graphics card.
Discrete graphics cards are inserted into your PC’s motherboard. They combine a number of important components like in-bult RAM and cooling systems, but the core of each card is the graphics processing unit, commonly referred to as a GPU (confusingly, GPU is also colloquially used as a stand-in term for the entire graphics card).
A PC’s central processing unit (CPU) is the brain that handles the raw data, but the GPU takes that information and converts it into images that can be displayed on a monitor. GPU’s can’t do much else, but they’re finely tuned to handle this taxing task efficiently.
Having a more powerful GPU allows you to play games at higher resolutions, higher frame rates, and with the in-game visual settings maxed out. Upgrading your graphics card can often have the single biggest impact on improving your PC’s performance – the catch is that they can also be the single most expensive component inside a PC.
AMD vs Nvidia?
The graphics card market is an effective duopoly dominated by AMD and Nvidia.
Other graphics card manufacturers exist, but only these two companies actually produce the GPUs powering them. Whether you pick up a card branded as ASUS, Zotak, Gigabyte, MSI or any number of other third-party manufacturers, the GPUs will always be from either Nvidia or AMD.
Because these third-party branded graphics cards are all based on the same reference designs from AMD or Nvidia, they don’t typically stray too far from the original specifications. The differences between them are generally minor and focused on slight improvements to efficiency such as: overclocked GPUs, more efficient cooling systems, quieter fans, smaller form factors, extra display ports and aesthetic trimmings like RGB lighting.
Historically, Nvidia has held the edge over AMD, but that gap has narrowed significantly in recent years. Nvidia’s most premium graphics cards are still the most powerful on the market, but AMD presents great alternatives at every other tier, and they’re generally cheaper, too.
This is the most important part of any graphics card. When considering GPU, check both the minimum and recommended specs on the latest video games. These tell you the least powerful graphics card that you can get away with and the ideal card for playing a game at its ideal settings.
Nvidia has two common GPU lines, GeForce GTX on the lower end and GeForce RTX on the premium end. The higher the number that follows, the more powerful, for example, RTX 2080 is more powerful than the RTX 2060. RTX cards are newer and capable of utilising ray tracing, a light rendering technique that looks gorgeous in action, but isn’t yet ubiquitous across the games industry. AMD cards are branded as Radeon. Like with Nvidia, the higher the numbers that follow, the better. AMD Radeon cards aren’t capable of utilising ray tracing, but they’re cheaper for the power they provide.
G-Sync and FreeSync
G-Sync and FreeSync are competing technologies built into certain monitors that automatically align the screen’s refresh rate with the frame rate that the graphics card is pumping out. This helps mitigate screen tearing and ugly visual artefacts.
G-Sync is compatible with Nvidia cards, while FreeSync works with AMD cards (though, confusingly, some of the newest Nvidia cards now work with FreeSync, too). If you own either a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor, it’s a good idea to pair them with a graphics card that can take advantage of the technology, because you will notice the difference they make. Take advantage of it if you can.
Graphics cards contain onboard random access memory (RAM) where they store the data that the GPU needs to process. Generally speaking, the more RAM the better. For example, a card with 4GB of RAM won’t perform as well as one with 8GB. We’d advise aiming for more than 4GBs of RAM, unless you’re only going to be playing older games in 1080p.
But that’s not the only factor to consider. The type of RAM is important as well. For example, GDDR6 RAM is faster than the previous generation of GDDR5 RAM. Here, newer is always better.
What resolution will you play at?
This is related to the monitor you own. If you intend to play on a native 1080p monitor you’ll be able to get away with a far cheaper graphics card because most lower-end cards will have no trouble providing you with top-notch full HD performance. But if you’re shooting for 1440p or 4K (or higher), you’ll need to be more discerning. Only higher-end graphics cards can manage these resolutions while maintaining good performance. The more pixels to power, the more power you’ll need.
Physical space inside your PC
How much space do you actually have inside your PC? Graphics cards come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, with some so big they take up two or more slots on a motherboard. This is common with “turbo” edition graphics cards, as they often feature additional fans and bulky cooling components. It’s critical, then, that you measure the available space inside your case to ensure you don’t buy a card too big for your PC’s britches.
What size power supply do you have? The graphics card is typically the most power-hungry component of a PC, so it’s important that your power supply has enough juice to sustain it. Most cards will recommend a minimum wattage for smooth operation, and it’s a good idea to heed these recommendations to avoid compatibility issues and performance problems.
Four things to consider
Heat mitigation. GPUs run extremely hot. As such, graphics cards come packed with heat mitigation tools to keep them from burning out. These range from passive systems like heat sinks and cooling gels, to active systems like fans – some of which become quite noisy at full speed. You’ll want to make sure your PC case isn’t too jam packed as well. Allowing adequate breathing room inside will help these systems do their job properly.
GPU lifespan. No matter how much you spend on a graphics card today, it will eventually fall behind in the power arms race and will need replacing. Obviously, the more you spend now, the longer you’ll be able to put off upgrading. As a general rule, if you buy a top-end GPU, you should be able to get great performance out of it for at least three years, longer if you don’t need to stay at the absolute bleeding edge.
Saving money. The most reliable way to save money and still get good performance out of a graphics card is to play at 1080p resolution (or, at the higher end, QHD instead of 4K), while aiming for high frame rates and in-game graphics settings. Sure, your monitor will need to be smaller in order to maintain respectable dots per inch (DPI), but we’ve always found faster frame rates have a bigger impact on the gaming experience than higher resolutions. AMD cards are generally the cheaper option too.
What display port does your monitor use? Most graphics cards include at least one HDMI and one Display Port for connecting to a monitor, but depending on your set-up, you might need more ports for connecting two or more monitors. Since the types and number of ports can vary significantly between graphics card variants, you’ll want to make sure it has all the ports you need.
David Milner is an award-winning games journalist, former editor of Game Informer magazine, and regular contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Embarrassingly, he only completed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the first time in 2019. Bloodborne is his favourite game ever.
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