What is a graphics card and what does it do?
A graphics card is a gamer’s best friend and a crucial part of a quality gaming experience. If you’re not clued up on what exactly graphics cards do then don’t worry, they’re not the complicated. As you probably guessed, a graphics card is the component in your PC which is responsible for the graphics.
There are various different types and generations of graphics card, each with different specifications and specialities. Finding the right one to suit you can be quite a task. So to break it down, we’re going to be look at graphics cards in more depth.
Let’s first look at why they’re important…
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A graphics card, and a good one at that, is essential to game and play the latest gaming titles. With newer games being bigger and more advanced in terms of the graphics capabilities, they require a graphics card which can keep up. Most games today will have a minimum and recommended requirement for graphics cards.
This means that if you’re trying to play a demanding game but don’t have a good enough graphics card, you won’t be able to play it. Also, when it comes to these ground-breaking games, there are recommended requirements as well as minimum. The recommended requirements aren’t essential, but they will provide you with the best experience when playing the game.
You may think that recommended requirements can just be disregarded due to them not being essential – but if you’re serious about your gaming you’ll realise that these requirements are there for a reason, and have the ability to dramatically improve your experience.
With these requirements come some key features which gamers could have only dreamed about a few years ago. Features such as ray tracing…
Although not essential for modern day gaming, ray tracing is absolutely unrivalled and no doubt represents the future of gaming. If you didn’t know, ray tracing is a technology which is able to replicate the real-life behaviour of light rays in-game, so creating an almost flawless realistic effect.
This feature not only provides a far superior experience for gamers, it allows game developers to create better and more immersive games. With such technology already available, there’s no telling how far it could go.
This feature is offered by NVIDEA’s RTX graphics cards, a market leading series of GPUs which boast tons of other features. By using different features, including ray tracing, these modern graphics cards are able to continually push the boundaries of what is expected from cutting-edge graphics.
There are virtual experiences which appear almost identical to real life. However these experiences are much less intensive, which is what makes it possible. Trying to apply these uber-realistic settings to an experience with the intensity of multiplayer games would prove difficult, but not impossible given the rate at which graphics technology has advanced.
More than gaming
Although graphics cards are primarily marketed as (and in some cases designed) for gaming, their capabilities extend much further. Those who use their PCs for complex tasks such as 3D rendering, game development, and video editing will understand the benefit provided by faster GPUs. Demanding editing software such as Adobe Premiere Pro use the GPU to speed up processing, which makes for faster and more efficient workflows.
Specifically designed workstation GPUs are optimised for these applications, and their drivers are created to be stable and reliable when executing tasks. Professional grade graphics cards can be immensely powerful, although they are often more expensive than even high-end gaming GPUs, they weren’t designed specifically for gaming workloads, meaning they shouldn’t be your first choice for a gaming PC. This brings more prominence to fact that 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.
If you’re looking for a graphics card to run professional applications, you’ll likely be looking outside of the standard consumer-level range for the best options. Though professional-grade GPUs are designed for a different purpose, many of the same concepts still apply.
If you’re not gaming or running demanding applications which can use a GPU to speed things up, you won’t need to break the bank to bag a 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.
You’ve probably have never heard of the various different types of graphics cards as the differences are not often that relevant. However, it’s important to know what they are if you are to get as clued up as you possibly can on what a graphics card is.
The different types we’re going to cover here are ‘integrated’ and ‘discrete’.
An integrated graphics card is built into the motherboard and doesn’t require one to be added. You’ll find these built into most ‘standard’ laptops and computers, they are a cost-effective model but cannot easily be upgraded.
This is arguably the main drawback when choosing a laptop – the inability to upgrade any of the components – and this is most relevant with the graphics card. As we mentioned above, graphics cards are being improved at an exceptional rate, meaning you need to be extra mindful when choosing your laptop as the GPU may soon become outdated.
The other type is a discrete graphics card which is added to the motherboard as an extra component. This is ideal for those who want to modify their system by upgrading the graphics cards. These are the most common type you’ll see. These are the types of cards the likes of NVIDIA and AMD are known for, with their RTX GeForce and Radeon series.
If you’re using a modern computer for standard tasks like surfing the internet, creating documents or watching movies you will be fine using an integrated graphics card.
If you’re branching out into gaming or video editing, a discrete graphics card is usually needed to speed up the image processing time. Without this, you may find your game lagging or jittering at crucial points or you may find that you are completely unable to play the game at all due to your graphics not meeting the minimum requirements of the game.
It’s possible to expand your PC internally by adding new cards. Over the years graphics expansion slots have changed significantly from PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect), AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) to the PCI-E ports, which have been improved to offer the best bandwidth.
Some motherboards have expansion slots which allow users to add more than one graphics card, this is called SLI (NVIDIA) or CrossfireX (AMD) allowing users to get improved performance from their system. Users will need an SLI-ready or Crossfire-ready motherboard to use these technologies, and you are able to link two graphics cards together using these.
SLI also known as Scalable Link Interface was developed by NVIDIA for linking multiple cards in a single system. SLI works by increasing the available processing power for graphics usage.
Graphics cards can be connected to a monitor using a number of different output options, but you will need to buy a video card which matches a port on your monitor. Most GPUs will have at least two or three ports with some even supporting up to four or more.
VGA (Video Graphics Array) 15pin analogue connection – This is the earliest connector and so is the least efficient. VGA ports work well enough but other ports provide a better video quality.
DVI (Digital Visual Interface) – DVI tends to be found on most flat panel monitors, so is a useful link between card and screen.
HDMI – HDMI is one of the more popular connections due to its speed and versatility. HDMI will carry both video and audio signal.
DisplayPort –This connection is becoming much more popular and is found in an increasing amount of modern monitors.
One thing we haven’t touched upon yet is the actual build of a graphics card. What do they look like? Why are the designed the way that they are? These are questions which have answers that lie in the science behind the operation of the cards.
For example, the question of why they may look the way they do (ie. with built-in fans) is due to the need for the GPU to be cooled. Graphics cards can run at extremely high intensities which in turn creates an incredible amount of heat which will need to be dissipated before it causes damage.
Unlike the CPU which is often the target for additional cooling solutions such as liquid cooling systems, the GPU isn’t cooled by any external hardware. This has led most modern GPUs to be designed with fans built-in so that the card can be self-cooling. In some cases a single card may feature up to four fans for maximum cooling ability.
As for the rest of the design, the card will be designed to fit comfortably into a PC case, provide ample space for port connection and look the part too. In the case of the new RTX 30 series from NVIDIA, the cards are much larger than most gamers expected and feature an ultra-modern casing which enhances the card’s performance.
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Graphics cards at Ebuyer
Now that you know more about what a graphics card actually is, why don’t you grab one and upgrade your PC? After all, who doesn’t want to enjoy cutting edge graphics when playing the latest games?
We’ve got a broad selection of graphics cards available at Ebuyer from reputable brands such as NVIDIA and AMD, and each has their own market leading models… Head over to our website to see for yourself. We also stock many other gaming peripherals.
Best Graphics Cards in 2023
Today’s graphics cards will allow you to play games at their maximum settings and perform resource-intensive tasks like storing high-resolution photo and video editing with as little lag as possible. Upgrading this component can cut the time it takes to get tasks done by a significant margin, which is especially important if you’re working on tight deadlines.
The price of graphics cards jumped significantly during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic due to increased demand from people building computers as part of their work from home setup, and crypto miners looking to increase their profits. Thankfully, this price hike has ended, and you can get graphics cards at their original prices. If you were holding out until the market cooled down to upgrade your current PC, or have decided to build a new one, now’s the time to check out the best graphics cards.
— Best Overall: EVGA GeForce RTX 3090 Ti
— Best Budget: Sapphire Pulse AMD Radeon RX 6600
— Best External: Sonnet eGPU Breakaway Puck
— Best for VR: MSI Gaming Radeon RX 5700
How We Picked the Best Graphics Cards
Our graphics card recommendations are based on in-depth research. Below are the factors we considered most highly when deciding which graphics cards to include in this buyer's guide.
Memory: Every graphics card has a memory chip, which is exclusively for tasks like playing games, rendering photos and videos, and displaying your operating system’s GUI (graphical user interface). Computers without a dedicated graphics card rely on the computer’s main pool of memory, called RAM (random access memory), which limits the amount that can be allocated for other system processes.
Ideally, you’ll get a graphics card with the highest amount of memory possible, as it’ll be able to run games at the highest level of fidelity, and render high-resolution media more quickly. When a graphics card runs out of memory, it needs to start dumping old data off to process new data. If you need to retrieve that old data (replaying and rendering an old video clip, for example), it’ll have to be entirely re-loaded by the graphics card, wasting time.
Clock Speed: The clock speed of the graphics card is also important, as it’ll dictate how quickly the component can process the instructions being sent from your computer to the monitor. If a graphics card’s clock speed is too slow, it won’t be able to process data in real time, which will lead to lag in video games, and higher render and export times for videos and photos.
Size: Graphics cards come in an assortment of sizes, which are designed to fit in different computer cases. Larger cards contain more memory, bigger cooling systems, and more ports. Be sure to check that your computer has enough space for your graphics card before picking one up. Be aware that some graphics cards are so large that they’ll prevent you from installing another component in the PCI-E slot next to it. This can be an issue if you’ve stuffed your computer with different cards.
Ports: A graphics card’s ports are what allow you to connect your computer to a monitor or television. The ones we’re recommending are equipped with HDMI and DisplayPorts, so they can be hooked up to any screen without an adapter.
Best Graphics Cards: Reviews and Recommendations
Best Overall: EVGA GeForce RTX 3090 Ti
The Whole Package. EVGA
Why It Made The Cut: EVGA’s GeForce RTX 3090 Ti is a graphical powerhouse capable of outputting 8K video with HDR.
— Memory: 24 GB
— Clock Speed: 1920 MHz
— Ports: Three DisplayPorts, one HDMI port
— Large amounts of memory
— Dedicated multi-core processor
— Support for technologies like ray tracing and DLSS
— Large size
EVGA’s GeForce RTX 3090 Ti is hands-down the best graphics card available for both gamers and media professionals, and it’s the one you should get If your budget and PC’s case are large enough. The card has a whopping 24 GB of memory, which is enough for you to play high-end 4K PC games or render and edit 4K or 8K video without any lost frames. If you do notice any lag when doing graphically intensive work, the problem isn’t going to be your video card, and you should consider upgrading other components in your system.
If you prefer to work on multiple high-resolution monitors simultaneously, you’ll be happy to learn that the RTX 3090 Ti has three DisplayPort outputs and one HDMI port. All of the ports are capable of outputting 4K video at 120Hz with HDR (high dynamic range) enabled. Very few games and applications support those features, but the number is growing. This graphics card can even output 8K video at up to 60 Hz with HDR enabled. If you’ve been eyeing an 8K TV, and want to future-proof your PC for the next few years, this spec will come in handy.
A big part of what sets the RTX 3090 Ti apart from other graphics cards is its support of features like Ray Tracing and DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling), which make video game graphics look incredibly realistic while being as efficient as possible. The difference you’ll see if you’re upgrading from a card without these features will be stark and immediate.
All of these features are made possible because of the RTX 3090 Ti’s ultra-fast 3rd Generation Tensor Core Processors. Yes, this graphics card has its own multi-core processor to compute graphical tasks without straining your computer’s CPU. The processor can even take advantage of a custom-designed encoder designed to make livestreaming games (or anything else, frankly) as smooth as possible.
There’s no denying the fact that EVGA’s GeForce RTX 3090 Ti is an incredible piece of technology, but all that power comes at a cost. This graphics card takes up three and a half PCI-E slots, which basically means you’ve got to have a big PC case and motherboard to accommodate it. The card needs to be big because a three-fan cooling system is required to keep it cool enough to sustain high levels of performance over long periods of time.
There’s also no getting around the fact that it costs nearly $1,400, which is actually about $700 less than its MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price). This graphics card is a big investment, but one well worth making if you work with images and videos professionally, or like playing the newest games the day they come out.
Best Budget: Sapphire Pulse AMD Radeon RX 6600
High Definition. Sapphire
Why It Made The Cut: The Sapphire Pulse AMD Radeon RX 6600 is limited to playing games in 1080p, but is still a solid graphics card for budget-conscious gamers and creative professionals.
Slug: High Definition
— Memory: 8 GB
— Clock Speed: 2491 MHz
— Ports: Three DisplayPorts, one HDMI port
— High frame rate gaming
— Port selection
— Recommended for use at 1080p
If your graphics needs are a little more modest, the AMD Radeon RX 6600 is an excellent graphics card that will set you back less than $300.
Let’s get its big limitation out of the way first: This graphics card is not designed to handle gaming or graphics intensive work in 4K. This won’t matter if you plan on using your computer with an HD monitor or TV, but will make a difference if your computer is hooked up to a more high-resolution display. The Radeon RX 6600 is capable of outputting video at 4K, but the experience will be diminished enough that AMD recommends limiting yourself to 1080p for the best experience.
The upside is that it’s still a very good video card, especially if you play games. According to AMD’s site, the Radeon RX 6600 can play titles like “Resident Evil Village,” “Hitman 3,” and “Battlefield 5” at over 100 frames per second. Even “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War” runs at 95 frames per second, which is a higher level of fidelity than you’d get on a home console. This is possible because of this graphics card’s ample amount of memory and very high clock speed.
AMD decided to favor video and game fidelity over resolution, which is a pretty safe bet to make for a graphics card in this price range. The card also benefits from AMD’s “FidelityFX Super Resolution” software, which optimizes its performance while playing games. This graphics card may not have all the bells and whistles you’d find on the GeForce RTX 3090 Ti, but it’s roughly one-fifth the price.
This is also a thinner graphics card, which takes up just two slots worth of space inside your computer’s case. Despite the size difference, the AMD Radeon RX 6600 has the same port selection as the RTX 3090Ti, so you can connect your computer to multiple screens at the same time with relative ease. If you’re okay limiting your gaming and video workflows to an HD resolution, the AMD Radeon RX 6600 is well worth its modest price.
Best External: Sonnet eGPU Breakaway Puck
A Sustainable Graphics Card. Sonnet
Why It Made The Cut: Sonnet’s eGPU Breakaway Box can help extend the life of your laptop or Mac, so you don’t have to replace your whole machine.
Slug: A Sustainable Graphics Card
— Memory: 4 GB
— Clock Speed: 1607 MHz
— Ports: One HDMI port, one DisplayPort, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-A ports, one 4-pin DIN socket
— Works with laptops
— Works with all-in-one desktop computers
— Doubles as a USB hub
— Limited Windows support
— No M1 Mac support
Laptop owners looking to upgrade their graphics cards used to be out of luck, but eGPUs like Sonnet’s Breakaway Puck make it possible. Instead of putting a graphics card inside your computer, you connect it to this gadget using the included Thunderbolt 3 cable. Your computer will automatically recognize the graphics card built inside the Breakaway Puck — in this case an AMD Radeon RX 5500 TT — and switch over to it from the graphics chip built inside your machine. The Breakaway Puck has a Thunderbolt 3, HDMI, and DisplayPort output, so you can connect your machine to any monitor.
We love the concept of an external graphics card because it can help prevent you from ditching an entirely functioning machine because one of its components isn’t up to snuff. This is especially true if you opted for a weaker dedicated graphics card at your time of purchase because your work at the time didn’t necessitate a more powerful one. You can actually build your own eGPU (we have an entire how-to guide later in this story), but Sonnet’s eGPU Breakaway Puck appealed to us for three reasons.
The first reason is that it’s pre-assembled, so all you have to do is plug it into your machine. Second, it’s extremely compact, so it’ll fit on any desk. Finally, it has a bunch of additional ports on it, so you may be able to replace your existing USB hub with the Breakaway Box to further reduce its footprint on your desk. As for the graphics card inside this device, it’s a good mid-tier card with enough memory and a high enough clock speed for editing high resolution photos and playing mid-tier games in HD with good results.
The Radeon RX 5500 is the weakest graphics card in our guide, but the fact that it can work with machines that otherwise wouldn’t be able to be upgraded was enough to include it. If you’re interested in prolonging the inevitable replacement of your computer, it’s basically your only option. Sonnet says it designed this peripheral specifically to work with Mac laptops and desktops running on an Intel processor and equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 port — basically any machine released between 2016 and 2020 — but it’s compatible with some PCs as well. This device won’t work with machines that use Apple’s M1 or M2 processors.
If your laptop’s graphics are lagging, and you’d like to perform a computer upgrade instead of a replacement, deeply consider getting Sonnet’s eGPU Breakaway Puck.
Best for VR: MSI Gaming Radeon RX 5700
Next-Level Gaming. MSI
Why It Made The Cut: MSI’s Gaming Radeon RX 5700 is powerful enough that you’ll be able to play VR games on the latest headsets with no problems.
Slug: Next-Level Gaming
— Memory: 8 GB
— Clock Speed: 1750 MHz
— Ports: Three DisplayPort, one HDMI port
— Powerful enough for VR gaming
— Port selection
— Support for overclocking
If you’re currently building a PC with the intention of playing games in VR, or upgrading your current rig to be VR-ready, you’ll want MSI’s Gaming Radeon RX 5700. We’re basing this recommendation in part on the HTC Vive Pro 2’s recommended system requirements. The Vive Pro 2 is a premium VR headset, and we wanted to make sure we were recommending a graphics card that would be compatible with that hardware. The Radeon RX 5700 is powerful enough that you could smoothly run games on other VR headsets.
The graphics card has 8 GB of video memory and runs at a clock speed of 1465 MHz, but MSI says you can overclock it (change its settings) to make it run up to 1725 MHz. Overclocking your graphics card makes it run hotter, which is why we’d typically recommend you avoid doing it, but MSI designed the Radeon RX 5700 with this feature in mind. It developed its own utility that allows you to change the graphics card’s clock speed from your mobile device, and used capacitors that run at lower temperatures. Overclocking a graphics card is never completely safe, but the RX 5700 should be able to handle the extra load.
MSI says the Radeon RX 5700’s processor offers a large leap in performance and was specifically designed to handle gaming effects like volumetric lighting and blur effects without getting bogged down. You can play games at 4K, but AMD recommends setting your resolution at 1440p (between HD and 4K) for the best results. The Radeon RX 5700’s hardware is complemented by AMD-developed technologies that make gameplay more immersive by automatically sharpening a game’s graphics and making its lighting look more life-like.
If you’re making the leap to VR gaming, and can fit the Radeon RX 5700’s $1,000 price tag into your PC’s budget, you’ll be ready for a taste of the future.
How To Build an eGPU
If your main computer is a laptop, Intel-based Mac, or a small desktop, you may want to consider building your own external graphics card setup. This will give you more flexibility than a pre-built option like the Sonnet eGPU Breakaway Puck, and allow you to upgrade your machine’s graphics card multiple times without having to open its case. This may sound a little scary, but the process is remarkably straightforward.
The first thing you need to do is make sure the computer you’re on has a Thunderbolt 3 port. This is required because it’s the only port capable of transmitting data between your computer, the graphics card, and a monitor without any latency. Thunderbolt 3 ports are found on all Intel-based MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops from 2016 to 2020, and all Intel-based iMac and Mac Mini desktops between 2017 and 2020. Thunderbolt 3 ports are also found on an assortment of Windows PCs — especially gaming machines — but check your system’s tech specs before proceeding.
If your computer has a Thunderbolt 3 port, you’ll only need three components: An eGPU enclosure to house the graphics card, the graphics card itself, and a Thunderbolt 3 cable. The Razer Core X Chroma is our eGPU recommendation because it’s compatible with dozens of graphics cards from NVIDIA and AMD (here’s a list), and can work with both Windows machines and Intel-based Macs. It also has four USB-A ports and a Gigabit Ethernet port on it, so you can use it to connect your machine to peripherals and your WiFi router or cable modem directly. If you’re connecting the Core X Chroma to a laptop, it can charge the computer at a rate of up to 100 watts.
The Core X Chroma can handle full-sized graphics cards that are wide enough to take up the space of three PCI-E slots inside a desktop PC’s motherboard. If space is tight inside your PC’s case, creating an eGPU on your own may be the best option. We highly recommend looking at all of the graphics cards that are compatible with both the Core X Chroma and your operating system and comparing them against the card that’s already inside your machine to make sure it’s worth the upgrade.
Once you’ve selected a graphics card, you can install it inside the Razer Core X Chroma by following the instructions that come with the eGPU. The entire process should only take you about 10 minutes, and doesn’t require any specialized tools. Once you install the graphics card, you need to connect the Core X Chroma to your computer’s Thunderbolt 3 port with a Thunderbolt 3 cable, and connect the eGPU to your monitor or TV using an HDMI or DisplayPort cable.
If you’re on a machine running MacOS, the operating system will automatically recognize the graphics card, and you can continue operating your computer normally. If you’re on a Windows machine, you may need to install drivers (specialized pieces of software) found on the graphics card manufacturer’s website. Creating your own external graphics card solution may seem daunting, but it’s no harder than popping over your computer’s case and installing one internally.
Using an external graphics card may be the only way you’ll be able to upgrade your computer’s graphics capabilities, and extending the life of your current computer may even save you money in the long run. Plus, you’ll be able to use the same enclosure with newer graphics cards, which makes it well worth the investment.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Graphics Card
Your Computer’s Age: We’re big advocates of upgrading your gadgets instead of replacing them whenever possible, but it’s important to consider the age of your system when deciding to get a new graphics card. Be sure that other limitations, like your current processor, SSD, or system memory won’t be a bottleneck that reduces the performance of your new graphics card.
If your computer’s motherboard is still relatively new, and you see an upgrade path for other parts in your system, getting a new graphics card is a safe bet. If that’s not the case, it may be wise to keep your current gear, or get a less expensive graphics card now while saving up for an entirely new machine in a year or two.
Energy Consumption: Graphics cards take up an enormous amount of energy — enough that getting a new one can actually make an appreciable difference in your utility bill if your system is on 24/7. Make sure your computer’s power supply is capable of handling the increased electrical load before you get a new graphics card, or you risk shorting out your entire system.
Your Computer’s Cooling System: Most of the graphics cards we’re recommending have fans attached to them in order to keep them from overheating, but high-powered ones will still make the inside of your PC a lot hotter than before. Be sure to monitor your computer’s current CPU (processor) temperature (many free utilities are available for Macs and PCs) to double check that it’s not overheating. The general rule is that you’ll be fine as long as your processor doesn’t hit 167 degrees Fahrenheit.
Q: How much do graphics cards cost?
You can get graphics cards for as little as $150, or spend well over $1,000 depending on your needs. The graphics cards we’re recommending have a range of $279.99 to $6,000.
Q: How do I add more RAM to my graphics card?
No. You cannot upgrade any component on your graphics card.
Q: Do I need more RAM or a better graphics card?
That depends on how much system memory your computer has, and the types of applications you have to run. Our advice is to check out the recommended system requirements for the software you want to run, and base your computer upgrade path based on that. As a general rule, we suggest having at least 32 GB of RAM in your system if you plan on running graphically intensive software.
Q: Is it better to have a faster processor or a better graphics card?
Both components are necessary for your computer to run graphically intensive apps smoothly, and we suggest looking at the system requirements of the apps you want to run.
Q: What's the difference between a graphics card and a video card?
There is no difference between a graphics card and a video card.
Q: Do all graphics cards fit in any motherboard?
No. Graphics cards come in an assortment of sizes, and you should make sure the one you’re interested in will fit into your computer’s case.
Q: Can I upgrade my laptop’s graphics card?
You cannot upgrade the internal graphics card in your laptop, but you may be able to connect it to an eGPU to improve its graphics performance.
Final Thoughts on Graphics Cards
A graphics card is an integral PC component, and is becoming even more important as premium software from companies like Adobe become more reliant on faster graphics to work smoothly. Any creative professional should make sure their computer’s graphics card is up to date, and upgraded every few years to have the best-possible experience. This is true for all of a PC’s components, though.
If you’re a gamer who primarily plays titles on a PC, it’s imperative to get the best-possible graphics card you can afford if you want to play the latest games at high resolutions and frame rates. This is especially true if your gaming genres of choice require pinpoint precision — especially first-person shooters. Your graphics needs will be even higher if you plan on streaming gameplay to a service like Twitch as you’re playing.
Casual computer users will never have to futz with PC parts, but if you’re a tinkerer who has power-hungry needs, always use a graphics card that’s relatively new.
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GPU Buying Guide: How To Choose the Right Graphics Card
An underpowered GPU will impact performance and lead to a lackluster visual experience for gaming, photo and video editing, and other visual tasks. If you don’t know where to start, our graphics card buying guide will help you make the right decisions when it comes to choosing your next graphics card and taking control of the graphics performance on your PC.
Along with a computer's central processing unit (CPU), the graphics processing unit (GPU) has the most significant effect on your computer’s performance. This is because the GPU processes data from the CPU and renders it visually on your display. However, it can be confusing to know all the details that come with knowing when to upgrade your GPU, and selecting the right graphics card for your needs.
Why you should upgrade your graphics card
More than any other component in a PC, the GPU is responsible for the quality of the graphics, or visual elements, that appear on your display. In the early days, CPUs were responsible both for processing and rendering graphics, but these days, virtually every PC on the market includes a graphics card of some kind.
As graphics cards age, they become less capable of keeping up with the latest games, streaming, and software. While they don't actually degrade, a 5-year-old graphics card may not be able to handle the latest video editing software or stream 4K video without stuttering. It may also struggle to showcase a brand-new video game in the way you want.
When you set out to upgrade your graphics card, you should really think about how you use your PC. For example, if you mostly use your PC for gaming, and newer games fail to run at a consistent 60 frames per second (fps), then this is a good sign that you’re due for an upgrade.
Make sure that your GPU is not bottlenecking your CPU. This occurs when your CPU is cranking out more fps than your GPU can handle, which can lead to stuttering on your display. If this scenario impacts the performance of your PC, then you most likely need to upgrade your graphics card.
What to look for in a graphics card
When looking for graphics cards, there are two main brands you'll choose from; AMD and NVIDIA . Both manufacturers offer high-powered, quality graphics cards.
First, you need to decide on the amount of memory you want in your graphics card
Also consider factors such as the form factor of your PC (desktop vs laptop),
Do you want a discrete GPU or graphics card integrated into the CPU
Take into consideration what power connectors your card uses
Take note of its thermal design power (TDP)
All of these will determine whether the graphics card will fit directly in your PC and if it can receive adequate power and cooling. For an overview of the best budget GPUs, check out our HP Tech Takes article here.
1. Integrated vs. discrete graphics
Integrated graphics are more common in smaller form factor systems such as laptops, but you’ll find them in desktop PCs as well for those who don’t need to run high powered visual software.
Integrated graphics may not have independent RAM, but they also don't generate as much heat or use as much power and battery life as their discrete counterparts. Integrated graphics are generally not preferred for graphic-intense gaming, but they are more budget-friendly. They’re also fine for more basic visual tasks, like streaming movies and TV.
If you’re interested in using your PC for graphic-intensive tasks such as gaming at high settings, video editing, photo editing, and 3D rendering, then you need to invest in a discrete graphics card.
These cards do have their own RAM, unlike their integrated cousins. However, a discrete graphics card needs a good CPU to match, as well as a cooling setup to keep your PC from overheating. It will also eat up more power, so you’ll need a bigger (and more expensive) power supply in your desktop PC to run both processors.
It also means that if you have a discrete card in your laptop, you’ll be faced with a shorter battery life compared to less-powerful options.
2. Desktop vs. laptop graphics cards
Both desktop and laptop graphics cards have separate considerations. Because of the types of devices these graphics cards are built for, there are differences between the form factor, performance, and price of desktop vs laptop graphics cards.
Desktop PC graphics card
Form factor: The ability to fit larger, more powerful components are one benefit of using a PC tower. The PC tower provides the space and cooling necessary to accommodate the heat and power draw of robust GPUs.
The ability to fit larger, more powerful components are one benefit of using a PC tower. The PC tower provides the space and cooling necessary to accommodate the heat and power draw of robust GPUs. Performance: You’ll enjoy higher specs compared to laptop graphics cards. This includes more memory bandwidth, higher pixel rate, and increased texture mapping than laptop graphics cards.
You’ll enjoy higher specs compared to laptop graphics cards. This includes more memory bandwidth, higher pixel rate, and increased texture mapping than laptop graphics cards. Price: Desktop PC cards are more affordable because the hardware is less compact and therefore less costly to manufacture.
Laptop graphics card
Form factor: Smaller components are necessary because your GPU needs to fit inside the thin chassis of a laptop. As a result, they are optimized for power usage and benefit from advanced thermal and electrical technology. They are also designed to run as quietly as possible.
Smaller components are necessary because your GPU needs to fit inside the thin chassis of a laptop. As a result, they are optimized for power usage and benefit from advanced thermal and electrical technology. They are also designed to run as quietly as possible. Performance: Manufacturers are getting closer to parity between desktop and laptop GPUs, but as we pointed out earlier, laptop cards do tend to underperform in certain areas.
Manufacturers are getting closer to parity between desktop and laptop GPUs, but as we pointed out earlier, laptop cards do tend to underperform in certain areas. Price: You’ll pay a premium for laptop graphics cards. This is because the components to make a graphics card that is portable and power-efficient are more expensive to produce. There are bigger and higher-performing laptop graphics cards available, but they also add to the device’s overall weight, can make your laptop run hot, and may hinder portability.
Ray-tracing is one of the exciting recent technologies found in newer graphics cards. Generally used in gaming, ray-tracing is a rendering technique that produces extremely realistic lighting effects. This is done through an algorithm, which traces a path of light and then attempts to simulate the way that light interacts with objects in the real world.
Games like Cyberpunk 2077 , Watch Dogs Legion, and Control make extensive use of ray-tracing, which mimics the way that the human eye processes light reflection and shadows. Ray-tracing represents one of the biggest leaps in graphics in years, and it’s something both NVIDIA and AMD are improving upon in their newer GPUs.
Ray-tracing technology has not yet reached its full potential, but game developers are embracing it wholeheartedly. While the technology has been used by film studios for years, especially in big-budget action films, it’s more difficult to render this in real-time in your PC game. In the past, game companies have used a process called rasterization, which translates 3D polygonal models into a 2D image and pre-renders light effects.
With the beginnings of ray-tracing, you can still expect some impressive performance from modern graphics cards. That goes for everything from huge explosions in a firefight, down to the sun’s rays peeking through a window in a dimly lit room.
4. Graphics card memory: how much is enough?
When rendering graphics, your GPU performs a huge number of calculations per second. This happens whenever the image changes on your screen, even in something as simple as moving your mouse. Because the GPU is responsible for rendering these outputs, it needs video RAM (vRAM) to do so.
When using an integrated graphics card, this memory is shared with the CPU, so a percentage of the total available memory is used when performing graphic tasks. However, a discrete graphics card has its own memory, which the card uses to render details.
In general, the more memory a GPU has, the more detail it can process, but this does not directly impact its performance. For general use, a GPU with 2GB is more than adequate, but gamers and creative pros should aim for at least 4GB of GPU RAM.
The amount of memory you need in a graphics card ultimately depends on what resolution you want to run games, as well as the games themselves. More modern games, such as Cyberpunk 2077 and Control, require at least 6GB of RAM to run at 1080p resolution, and may require more than 8GB of memory to run at 4K resolution with high texture detail and full ray-tracing features.
Creative pros who render 4K video or run visually intensive programs will benefit from the same GPUs as gamers. Read about some of the best GPUs for gaming in our HP Tech Takes article here
5. What the model numbers mean
AMD and NVIDIA are currently the two major manufacturers of GPUs on the market. In fact, NVIDIA actually popularized the term GPU in 1999, though it had been in use for at least a decade prior. Both companies have made huge strides in GPU technology.
The newest series of AMD processors use the RX branding.
RX Vega: Higher-tier GPU
RX: Entry-level and mid-tier GPU
You can tell which GPU is more recently released by looking at the RX number. If it’s higher, the model is newer. We’ll call your attention to that again: For AMD GPUs, a higher number does not equate to more power. Rather, it indicates how recently it was released.
After the number, some models will have additional letter(s).
XT Graphics: Slightly improved version of an existing, similarly named GPU.
HD: Older series currently being phased out.
R: Also an older series in the process of being phased out.
NVIDIA uses a different categorization system to identify its products. You’ll start with the letter designation. An NVIDIA GT graphics card is built for standard use, while a GTX graphics card is built for high-end gaming.
RTX: Highest-level gaming GPU
GTX: Gaming-specific, from entry-level to higher-end
GT: Basic, entry-level discrete GPUs
Numbered series: This indicates how new the GPU is. For example, the 30 series is newer than the 20 series. Just like AMD graphics cards, a higher series number indicates how new the graphics cards are in comparison to lower numbered GPUs in the series.
However, a GTX card always supersedes a GT regardless of the model number. NVIDIA also upped the performance ante even further with the RTX branding. Keep in mind, though, some of these are very expensive and in limited supply at publication time, particularly the 30-series cards.
The ending letter designation indicates special functionality.
Ti: Indicates it will perform better than a similarly named GPU. For example, the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti outperforms the GeForce RTX 1660.
Super: Slightly improved version of an existing GPU (similar to Ti designation).
M: No longer in use, but previously indicated a “mobile” or laptop GPU.
Both AMD and NVIDIA make graphics cards for both desktop and laptop use. Laptop graphics cards used to be labeled with an 'M' to indicate that it is a mobile GPU. Most modern graphics cards from both companies have dropped the mobile branding, especially as they work to bridge the gap between laptop GPUs and desktop GPUs.
6. Pricing and recommendations to keep in mind
Both AMD and NVIDIA manufacture great graphics cards both for general use and gaming. The power of the GPU tends to be reflected in the price, so it is not necessary to buy a graphics card geared toward gaming if you are not interested in running games at the highest settings and want to get the best performance per dollar possible.
While there are more powerful graphics cards on the market, these should give you sufficient visual power for running games at the recommended settings, even with full ray-tracing in some cases.
7. HP PCs and laptops to consider
At HP®, we have a number of desktop PCs and laptops outfitted with the best GPUs available on the market. If you find that you need to upgrade other components when you designate your GPU, you could do it all at once with our customizable shopping options.
Desktop PC recommendations:
Gaming: Customize your ultimate gaming machine with the Customize your ultimate gaming machine with the HP OMEN selection , which includes the jaw-dropping 20 and 30 series NVIDIA cards. For gamers on a budget, consider the HP Pavilion gaming desktop and pick from your choice of AMD or NVIDIA graphics card.
Design: You can customize the You can customize the HP Z4 G4 workstation to include your choice of AMD or NVIDIA graphics card, along with plenty of RAM and processing power.
Gaming: Take your pick from the Take your pick from the HP OMEN gaming laptop lineup . It has some of the latest GPU upgrades available today, as well as the RAM and processing power you need to play the biggest and best games. For a more mid-tier option, the HP ENVY 15t is definitely worth a look and includes the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1650 Ti.
Design: The The HP ENVY 15 is a powerful laptop that boasts the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060. The HP ZBook workstation series is full of great options as well, and you can find your choice of AMD or NVIDIA card.
Choosing a graphics card is one of the most difficult parts of buying a new PC, primarily because it’s one of the most important components, so you want to get it right. Plus, there’s a lot of terminology to unpack if you’re new to GPUs.
In general, you should upgrade your graphics card every 4 to 5 years, though an extremely high-end GPU could last you a bit longer. While price is a major consideration in your decision, also consider the performance and memory you need. And keep your computer’s CPU in mind, because it may need an upgrade, too. After all, the best GPU is only as effective as its accompanying CPU.
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