Graphic Cards – How to Choose The Right GPU

When thinking of building a PC, the first thing that comes to mind is; what parts do I need? In this article I will be going over the GPU, or ‘graphics processing unit’, and the impact it has upon the performance of a computer. Firstly, it is important to distinguish the GPU from the CPU. The Central Processing Unit, also known as CPU is the most important piece of a computer. It is often referred to as the ‘brain’ of the computer, the CPU controls all the main functions.

The CPU can sometimes contain an integrated GPU. The GPU, on the other hand, is used to process a heavy number of images and efficiently run complex 3D graphics which is required for modern gaming experiences. As mentioned, a GPU may be integrated in the CPU, but they can also come separately and are referred as graphics cards. Currently, dedicated GPUs are very important to have in your computer if you are looking to play high-end video games.

There are many factors to consider when choosing a graphics card. Big things to consider are your computer usage habits, such as how often you spend gaming or use graphics-heavy programs. If you do not do any gaming and typically spend time just browsing the web watching shows or writing documents, then an integrated GPU will be sufficient.

graphics card laying in front of box

Integrated vs Dedicated GPUs

If you are dealing with any CPU from the last 10 years, chances are it has integrated graphics. A CPU with a graphics processing unit (GPU) built within it is referred to as integrated graphics. Integrated graphics typically run a lot slower and provide lower-performance options compared to a dedicated GPU counterpart. Dedicated or discrete GPU’s on the other hand can be much more powerful and are used to run modern video games. However, when not considering video games, dedicated GPU’s can provide an advantage in a variety of software. Video editing applications, as well as programs that deal with video encoding, 3D design, and rendering all can benefit from the additional power of a discrete/dedicated GPU. If you are attempting modern gaming, a dedicated GPU is recommended.

Ray Tracing Graphics Cards

Nowadays, graphics cards have surpassed expectations for HD gaming and each year are improving and innovating upon the competitor. Even their own previous generations. A good example of this is the RTX 3080 released in 2020 vs the RTX 2080 released in 2018. Compared to the previous generation, the RTX 3080 has performed more than 100% faster than the RTX 2080, which is a huge leap for just 2 years. One of the main things which powered innovation for the RTX 2080, however, was the inclusion of Ray Tracing technology. Ray Tracing, also referred to as RTX, is a rendering technique that allows for extremely realistic lighting effects. RTX can trace the virtual path of light and realistically simulates the way that the light interacts within the in-game world. Below you can find a video from NVIDIA, which wonderfully displays the effects of RTX within a popular videogame, Battlefield V.

AMD vs NVIDIA Ray Tracing

Ray tracing was first introduced with NVIDIA’s 20 series of graphics cards; released in 2018. Recently, ray tracing technology has been adapted by AMD however still runs smoothest in the newest NVIDIA GPUs. If you are a gaming enthusiast and are looking for every edge to gain in terms of graphical performance, and RTX card would be a good way to go. Not all graphics cards have the capability for ray tracing, including most GPU released before 2018. Below you can find the list of GPUs which have since received an update that enables them to run ray tracing.

  • GeForce GTX 1080 Ti
  • GeForce GTX 1080
  • GeForce GTX 1070 Ti
  • GeForce GTX 1070
  • GeForce GTX 1060 6GB
  • GeForce GTX 1660 Ti
  • GeForce GTX 1660
  • Nvidia Titan Xp (2017)
  • Nvidia Titan X (2016)

Graphics cards aside from those listed above, if released before 2018, will most likely NOT support Ray tracing technology. Make sure you check the specifications of the graphics card beforehand if you are interested in running ray tracing.

Gaming

If you have not learned already, GPUs are very important when it comes to gaming. The quality of graphics your system can run in video games is directly dependent on what GPU you have. Therefore, if you are building a PC for gaming, it is important to choose the right graphics card. If you are looking for a graphics card on a budget, search up which games you think you may play and find benchmarks on those games for graphics cards within your budget.

When playing newer games, you are more prone to experience lag or performance issues the older your graphics card is. If looking for a high-power GPU and not much worried about price, purchasing one of NVIDIAs newest high-end graphics card would be a great option. No matter if you are buying based on budget or performance, Video card benchmark is a very helpful tool when comparing graphics cards used for gaming. You can consider the bar named “Average 3D Mark” as a measure of performance for the graphics card.

two guys playing computer games

Overclocking

Increasing the GPUs clock rate (making it run at a higher speed than it was initially created to run), is referred to as Overclocking. Overclocking also has its downsides, however, being that it increases the GPUs power draw as well as increasing the temperature of your graphics card. It’s important to monitor your GPUs temperature when overclocking because overclocking can often cause overheating issues when improperly configured. Overheating can shorten the general lifespan of the GPU. Overall, overclocking can be a great improvement for your GPU when overclocking correctly. For a guide to learn how to overclock on your own system, check out this article from AVG.

Manufacturers

There are two main manufacturers of GPUs, NVIDIA and AMD. Not to be confused with brands such as EVGA, ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, Zotac, and others. These mentioned brands use NVIDIA/AMDs chips within their cards. Currently, NVIDIA cards are viewed as being the highest-end graphics cards on the market. However, there are also options tailored to those looking to spend on a budget. On the other hand, AMD is traditionally more budget-oriented. AMD also has high-end competitive cards available that are not quite on the same level as NVIDIA. When looking to buy a graphics card, it’s important to consider your manufacturer of choice.

Personally, I always recommend NVIDIA graphics cards as they have typically better performance across a range of programs, including gaming. When you have chosen NVIDIA or AMD, the next step is to decide which edition of that card/brand you want. Graphics cards come in different brands as mentioned previously, and each one has different features compared to another. It’s mostly up to personal preference on which brand you choose but there are actual distinctive advantages between each one.

When a NVIDIA graphics card is initially released, the first edition available is typically the founder’s edition, which is branded by NVIDIA. The founders edition is the least expensive edition but it is also has a 5-10% performance decrease compared to other GPUs. Personally, I like ASUS cards as they sync well with RGB lighting as well as being aesthetically pleasing. I also like ASUS cards as they often come in an OC edition. This allows it to be overclocked slightly better than others.

Power Consumption

GPUs run the system’s graphics and supply the connection to the monitor. Most likely, GPUs will draw the most power out of any part of your computer. Newer and more powerful GPUs often draw more power than previous generations. Total wattage can vary between each power supply (PSU). Ensure that your system has more than the recommended wattage listed for your GPU. This information should be available on the GPU manufacturers website, or in the GPUs user manual. GPUs will typically have an 8-pin or possibly multiple 8-pin power connectors on the side of the graphics card for connection to the PSU. It is important to ensure your PSU has enough watts to supply each component in your PC with sufficient power.

GPU in a computer

GPU Memory (VRAM)

VRAM, or video random access memory is used for containing the amounts of data used to create the images which rapidly appear on your screen. VRAM is also important to consider when using multiple monitors. The amount of VRAM consumed is dependent on what is appearing on each display. If considering using multiple monitors; check out this article on the benefits of a dual monitor setup.

GPUs have a specified amount of VRAM, and the price of the GPU is reliant on the amount of VRAM. GDDR6X is the most efficient type of VRAM; used in new graphics cards such as the RTX 3090 and RTX 3080. This GDDR6X VRAM is very fast, but since it is new, it drives an increase in the total price of the GPU. There are also other generations of VRAM; such as GDDR5 and GDDR4. A graphics card with 4GB of GDDR5 or better will be efficient in running most games in 1080p.

The performance increases from more VRAM start to slow down once a GPU has 10GB VRAM or more as programs in 2020 do not use that much space in RAM. When considering purchasing a new GPU, look for one which has at least 4GB of GDDR5 if purchasing for budget, or 10GB+ if looking for performance.

Connections

It is important to plug your display(s) directly into your graphics card and not your motherboard. If you plug the display into the motherboard instead, it will still run but not using your graphics card and instead of your CPUs integrated GPU. If you are running a multiple monitor setup, it is important to consider that your dedicated GPU supports the ability for dual monitors. Look up your dedicated GPU to see whether it supports dual monitors before purchasing if you intend on running two displays.

Integrated GPU’s still can support dual monitor display if your motherboard has the appropriate connection ports. It is also important to ensure the CPU has support for dual monitor display. To quickly ensure your GPU has the correct/sufficient connection ports, peek at the back of your computer. On a typical graphics card, there are three connections for output. DVI, HDMI, and Display Port are the three most common connection ports as of 2020. I can’t recommend DVI for gaming in 2020 as its transfer rate is limited to a slower speed than the other connections.

Back of gpu with labelled ports

Depending on the make of the graphics card, however, there may be additional ports which were not previously mentioned. Some of these ports which were used in the past but are now not used as often include: VGA, VIVo, S-Video, DMS -59, Component video and more.

What is the right graphics card for you?