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Understanding Graphics Cards – a Laymen’s Guide

Have you ever shopped for a graphics card before? Maybe it was your first graphics card, maybe you didn’t buy a card and decided to stick with the integrated graphics that accompanied your fancy motherboard. Maybe you went out upgraded to the new AMD Radeon R9 295X2. Whether you are a graphics guru or new to the graphics market, this article is a good place to start. This article serves the purpose of giving you a basic understanding of the underlying components and aspects of a graphics card to be cautious of when heading onto Amazon for a graphics upgrade.

AMD Radeon R9 295X2

WHAT IS A GRAPHICS CARD? WHY DO I WANT ONE?

Really, what is wrong with just plugging in a HDMI cable into your motherboard’s input/output panel and just carrying on merrily? To be honest … nothing at all, if you’re not a fan of playing games on your PC. Most motherboards today feature integrated Intel HD graphics that can suit ‘most’ of your video needs. However, once you start playing games that require the most basic of video requirements, you will wish you had that extra piece of computer hardware that will make your gaming life so much easier. The best example we can give of this is a comparison between the two. In most games you can adjust the 3D performance of the game in order to have it suit your hardware. If you are only using a motherboard, then more than likely you’re going to have the 3D performance set to a basic level, which requires little processing power by your motherboard. However, doing so comes with a compromise on quality. You will find that the game will be more fluid, but you will lose out on all the gorgeous scenes that the graphics designers have implemented into your video game.

WoW Low Settings

Of course it is important to point out that if you have a laptop, netbook, tablet or mini PC, your options for graphics card expansion will be extremely limited, as you cannot as easily just insert a new card into your system and be away to the races. That requires more thought on your original purchase of the system. We break that down too, but the best advice we can give to you for right now without going into too much detail about graphics card components and specifications is that even if you think you have a remote chance of playing a game on your system, don’t cheap out on a basic level card. Spend the extra few bucks and down the road you won’t be left disappointed. That is also true when it comes to choosing a system that will have some longevity to it, the better the hardware you have in it off the bat, more than likely the longer the system will last.

GRAPHICS CARD BREAKDOWN

Have you already tried to purchase a card, looked online and in-stores and found it to be more confusing than astro-physics? Maybe, maybe not, but to keep everyone on the same page we are going to break down what we believe are the main components you should be aware of when you go to purchase a graphics card. This guide can be used whether you are purchasing your first expansion card ever, or if you are upgrading your current graphics card to up your system’s hardware, bring your gaming into 2014 and prepare yourself for up and coming games.

The first thing you should be aware of is the manufacturer difference, the two big names are NVIDIA and AMD (formally ATI). NVIDIA was founded in 1993, and they released their first GPU in 1999 with the NVIDIA GeForce 256. Today, NVIDIA not only manufactures GPU’s, but has also dipped into the handheld market with the NVIDIA Shield, as well as the tablet market with the Tegra Note 7.

NVIDIA Logo

AMD and it’s graphics sub-brand Radeon, originally started in 1985, where Array Technologies Inc., or ATI, began by producing integrated graphics cards. They even manufactured the integrated graphics unit that was powering the innovative Wii gaming console by Nintendo. In 2006, ATI was acquired by Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). While AMD still focuses on CPU market, now they have branched into another semiconductor market with GPU’s.

AMD Logo

The difference between the two … ultimately is personal preference. Performance between the two can be compared until you are blue in the face and the cards have blown up due to overuse. You can ask many different people what their preference is when it comes to choosing a manufacturer, but there is no significant difference.

Furthermore, there are different sub-manufacturers that will utilize either NVIDIA or AMD’s GPU in their graphics card. Again, your choice here ultimately comes down to personal preference.

WHAT IS A GPU AND HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM A CPU?

You may already know that the CPU (Central Processing Unit) is essentially the brain of your computer system. It oversees every single process that occurs while your system is running Word or playing Solitaire. To simply put how a CPU functions, the CPU handles one process at a time, as it moves through the CPU’s few cores and moves onto the next.

A GPU however is more dedicated in function. It takes that same function that a CPU was processing and completes it all at once. The specified function requested of a GPU enters the GPU’s hundred’s of cores, and processes all at a single point in time, where it handles each process parallel to the next. The GPU has become the most powerful processing unit of the system, especially since organizations are beginning to rely more on the processing power of a GPU rather than a CPU for the single fact that it can process more at a single point in time faster than a CPU. GPU’s are even being used to help scientists fold proteins and further research in medicine. If you have followed the BitCoin craze at all, you will also know that utilizing your GPU will help you mine through more blocks, and further help you acquire more BitCoins. The video below is an excellent comparison of a CPU and GPU prepared by the hilarious duo, Mythbusters. Jaime and Adam put together a simple demonstration that gives you an excellent overview of the difference. The demonstration was videotaped at a NVIDIA convention, which should explain the large amount of advertising for NVIDIA, however the same generalization can be applied to any GPU manufacturer. This video is roughly a minute and a half, but if you wish to see a little more detail in regards to the set up, and some funny bits, we encourage you to watch the ten minute presentation.

Another feature of the GPU, which is very similar to an Intel CPU, is Boost Speed. Provided the GPU is below a power and temperature threshold, similar to Turbo Boost by Intel, the GPU can essentially go into a state of a temporary over clock, which would increase the graphical processing power of the graphics card.

  • Ricky

    Helpful

  • rohan kudiya

    very helpful

  • Richard Thomas

    Good article. I used it in one of my college papers

    • That is perhaps one of the best compliments to this site; thank you.

  • Otirik

    Now I feel like a huge Geek whenever I explain this stuff to my friends… this is awesome.

  • Ryan House

    Will the next gen card be called Radeon R9 490?

    • Alex Stevens

      We wouldn’t be able to tell you even if we knew, but most likely.

      • Ryan House

        I was just going the fact the previous cards were 290 and 390 I figured the next logical choice was 490. unless Titan is the name of all cards from now on

  • Ryan House

    if other parts of the site are as good as this article then I’ll have to add this site to my Computer technology bookmark folder.

    • Care to elaborate? We are always looking for suggestions.

  • Sviat A

    Most motherboards today feature integrated Intel HD graphics that can suit ‘most’ of your video needs.

    – this is something new. Actually, processors have built-in graphics. Besides, why didn’t you mention the AMD A6/8/10 processors, that are not on par with Intels considering their CPU performance, but if we compare the graphics power, this is where Intel is still far behind even with its Intel 4000.
    Besides, look for prices: http://hardware.nl/catalogsearch/result/index/?lang=en_US&manufacturer=AMD&q=AMD+A10
    So, if you are not going to play video games, then forget about an additional power-hungry stuff. Such AMD processor will handle even some games. Other than this remark, the article is pretty good to me.

    • Valid point. APU’s are a great option if your budget doesn’t let you go all out and get a dedicated card.

      Take a look at our review of the A8 – AMD A10 7870K CPU Review – Welcoming Competition! or even the A10 – AMD A8 7650K APU Review – The Little APU That Could! … Both show that these are excellent graphics options, which don’t require integrated graphics.

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