The quality of graphics in a particular video game is of high importance when it comes to today’s games. How many times did you think that the game is bad just because it looks bad? Well, I’m sure it happened a lot of times, and truly, some of us are graphics addicts. However, since we talk so much about the graphical fidelity, we need to have a component that will let us render those graphics and display them in… well, 60 frames per second at least. This component is, of course, a graphics card.
What is a Graphics Card?
So, what in the world is a graphics card? Is this a card like your credit card or something else? The first thing we should mention is that graphics cards come in various shapes, sizes and power, which we’ll talk about later. A graphics card is a processing unit (electronic circuit) with the basic function of creating and displaying the image. This is done by rapidly manipulating and altering memory thus accelerating the creation of an image in a particular frame buffer. For those who don’t understand, a graphics card is a component needed to create the image and send the output to a display device.
As we said, the purpose of a graphics card is to display an image and graphics card are used wherever you see an image on the screen. These devices are smartphones, embedded systems, PCs, game consoles, various GUIs (Graphical User Interface) and much more. Graphics cards are the staple of any device boasting some sort of GUI, but before we proceed to mention types of graphics cards, let’s get back to the roots of this life-changing components.
History of Graphics Cards
If you are an older reader, you probably remember Arcade system boards. These were the computers dedicated only to running arcade games which were pretty popular at the time. Back in the 1970s, when arcade systems were pretty new and cutting-edge technology, the first graphics chips started to emerge. These graphics cards were enough to power those gigantic, heavy and robust machines capable of playing 8-bit games. Wow, what a technology that was! However, in the 1980s, some 16-bit games were released thus increasing the need for a better technology. One of the most popular PC manufacturers, IBM, released IBM 8514 graphics system, just before the first dedicated polygonal 3D graphics boards were introduced in some arcade systems.
The 1990s were the time when the graphics cards started getting various support in the shape of application programming interfaces (API), hardware acceleration of 2D games and in mid-1990s, 3D graphics were commonly included in arcade systems. Near the end of the 1990s, Nvidia, a popular graphics card manufacturer popularized the term GPU which stands for Graphics Processing Unit. Their “world’s first GPU” called GeForce 256 revolutionized gaming forever. Since the beginning of 2000, graphics cards underwent some serious progress and renovations from both Nvidia and ATI, which are still the main GPU manufacturers.
However, the main explosion of this technology was when ATI created its first HD series and Nvidia started their GTX series of graphics cards. These cards took the Earth by storm and quickly became the staple of high-end gaming performance. The cards were using mainly 40nm microarchitecture, which slowly evolved into 28nm as the technology progressed. The lower this number, the more power efficiency we can get from a GPU and also save a lot of energy. Early GPUs were very powerful, but very, VERY power-hungry, meaning that you needed a power supply with more than 600W in order to power a single high-end card.
On the other side, if you wanted to run your games at a higher resolution than 1080p, SLI was commonly used and this induced a greater need for power. Nowadays, GPUs are very power-efficient and you usually don’t need more than 600W of power to use the most expensive and most powerful GPUs out there. Furthermore, you can now run 4K games with a single graphics card like GTX 1080Ti or Titan Volta. So, the technology used in manufacturing GPU drastically progressed in the past couple of decades.
Types of Graphics Cards
Graphics cards are not only used by gamers, but also for many other purposes. There are two main categories of graphics cards and those are:
Integrated Graphics Cards
Integrated graphics cards are integrated on your motherboard as a part of the chipset or in your CPU. It’s very important to know that not every CPU (Central Processing Unit) has this feature and some CPUs can only be used strictly as CPUs. However, if your CPU has an integrated graphics card, what can you do with it? This type of GPU is here only for the basic needs and it’s only a means to an end when it comes to gaming. The newest Intel CPUs have Intel HD graphics which can play some of the non-demanding games at lower resolutions, so you can use these graphics for this purpose. But, the general purpose of these GPUs is to allow you to basically use your PC for browsing the internet, watching videos, do some job and stuff like that.
Dedicated Graphics Cards
On the other hand, dedicated graphics cards are much more powerful and they are here for various purposes. Back in the day, graphics cards were mainly used for gaming, rendering and working in some graphically-intensive environments. However, the technology allowed us to do much more with our graphics chips and now we have graphics cards for gaming, rendering, cloud gaming, workstations, and mining. Mining is a very demanding process which uses all of your GPUs power in order to mine a cryptocurrency you want to. In fact, it’s so popular that Nvidia and AMD both produce graphics cards dedicated to miners.
For gaming, the most popular series are GeForce GTX from Nvidia and R, HD and RX series from AMD. There’s been a constant debate over which manufacturer is the best and why, but really, each of them comes with a particular goal. For example, AMD is more budget-oriented, meaning that their GPUs are generally cheaper, but lack the sheer power of Nvidia counterparts. This doesn’t mean that you can’t buy a high-end card from AMD, but their goal isn’t to compete with Nvidia in this field. On the other side, Nvidia is focused on the high-end market, offering graphics cards that can be really expensive, like Titan Volta, with the price of almost $3000.
For workstations, we have Nvidia Quadro and Titan X GPUs as well as FirePro and Pro GPUs from Radeon. These graphics cards aren’t good at gaming so you should NOT buy them for your gaming PC. Instead, they are intended for running professional CAD (Computer-Aided Design), DCC (Digital Content Creation) and CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) software. Graphics cards for workstations sometimes cost very much and although their performance is awesome for the purpose mentioned, the gaming performance is often mediocre.
There are several other types of graphics cards, like GPUs for Cloud Workstations and Cloud Gaming and these are Nvidia Tesla and AMD FireStream for the first and Nvidia Grid and Radeon Sky for the second purpose. In the next section, we’ll take a much closer look at graphics card’s construction and usage.
Construction of Graphics Cards
Graphics cards are constructed of several different parts and they come in a well-known shape with a heat sink and coolers. However, let’s take a look at the parts of a graphics card.
Graphics Processing Unit
As we said earlier, graphics processing unit is an electronic circuit with the main goal of manipulating and altering memory to accelerate the creation of the image.
BIOS, sometimes called firmware, contains a minimal amount of program used for initial control and set up of your video card. This info is usually operating speeds, voltages, memory timing and similar. This info can be changed, mainly for the purpose of overclocking or mining, but doing so will not get you far if you don’t know what you’re doing. BIOS is an essential part of every processing unit.
Video memory is one of the most important characteristics of graphics cards, albeit not THE most important. The usual capacity of modern graphics cards ranges from 2GB to 12GB, although we had 1GB graphics cards just a couple years ago. When it comes to video memory, you’ll often hear about VRAM (Volatile Random Access Memory) which is used in graphics cards. There are several types of these memories and here, we think about DDR SDRAM. Modern graphics come with GDDR5, GDDR5X, and HBM RAM, where HBM memory is fastest of them all. The effective clock of these memories ranges from 1GHz to 10GHz. Video memory is used for storing various data about the image, for coordinating 3D graphics, textures, etc. If you want to crank up your texture quality in a particular game, you’ll need MORE VRAM.
Heat Sink is a useful part of a graphics card as much as it’s there for cosmetic reasons. As GPU tends to get hotter during the workload, there needs to be something to dissipate this heat. Of course, a heat sink is here and it’s mounted directly on the GPU alongside one, two or three fans which help dissipate the additional heat. The other solution is liquid cooling which is more effective, yet much more expensive. It’s important to know that today’s GPUs must use a heat sink as they pack much more power compared to old GPUs which often came without heat sinks.
Every graphics card has its own output interface which is here for the purpose of connecting your monitor to the desired port of that interface. This part of your GPU is the part that you can see if you look at the back of your PC case. You’ll see a VGA, DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. Well, not exactly each of them, as most modern cards nowadays come without a VGA port. Instead, there is an HDMI and DVI port. The difference between VGA and HDMI is that HDMI provides a better image and can also transfer sound. Depending on the GPU, you can connect several monitors to a single graphics card, opening possibilities for content creation, multitasking, etc.
Best Graphics Cards for Gaming
Since this is a website devoted to gaming, we’ll check some of the best graphics cards for gaming. Whether you are a budget gamer or a gaming enthusiast, you can use our list to pick the card you need.
1. GTX 1080(Ti)
GTX 1080 and 1080Ti come with 8GB and 11GB of GDDR5X memory respectively. Thes are the TOP END Nvidia graphics cards best suited for 1440p and 2160p gaming. You can do 1080p gaming with these, but they’ll probably smash every game you throw at them. This is also a first gaming GPU that can easily run games in 2160p at 60+FPS. These GPUs will cost you more than $600.
2. GTX 1070(Ti)
Just under GTX 1080 comes GTX 1070 and GTX 1070Ti, which are pretty similar cards. These cards are great for both 1080p and 1440p gaming, albeit not the best for 2160p gaming. Both of these come with 8GB of GDDR5 memory with a memory bandwidth of 256GB/s. The prices are hovering around $400 at the moment.
3. GTX 1060
GTX 1060 is a fantastic card for 1080p gaming and can play most games at Ultra settings in this resolution. The card comes with 3GB and 6GB variants and both of these are very capable of doing high-quality gaming, although 6GB is slightly faster. The memory bandwidth is 192GB/s which isn’t as slow as it sounds. You can get both versions for around $200 and $249 respectively.
4. GTX 1050(Ti)
GTX 1050 and GTX 1050Ti are the entry level cards and these are also for 1080p gaming, but with some settings lowered. The first one comes with 2GB and the second one with 4GB of DDR5 memory with the memory bandwidth of 128GB/s. These are the cheapest graphics cards in GTX series and they will cost you just around $100 for the first and around $140 for the second, stronger version.
AMD Radeon Cards
1. RX Vega 64
RX Vega 64 is the most powerful AMD graphics card coming with 8GB of 2048-bit HBM2 memory. It’s even cheaper than GTX 1080 and GTX 1080Ti, but offers a similar performance to these two, although not better. You can find one for around $500.
2. RX 580(480)
RX 580 and 480 are great cards for 1080p and 1440p gaming and these are the equivalents of Nvidia’s GTX 1060. There are two variants of these cards, one coming with 4GB and the other with 8GB of GDDR5 RAM. These cards are also great for mining, so the prices can’t really be pinpointed, due to constant change.
3. RX 570(470)
RX 570 and 470 are again, great cards for gaming and mining. These two are somewhat in between GTX 1050Ti and GTX 1060 when it comes to performance. However, RX 470 is often a little more expensive than GTX 1050Ti but better at gaming.
4. RX 560(460)
RX 560 and 460 are in the same basket as GTX 1050. However, these two cards are cheaper and offer similar, sometimes better performance. They are also comparable to the older R9 270X graphics card from AMD.
5. RX 550
RX 550 is a budget solution which comes at around $80 and offers great performance for E-Sports titles like LoL, CSGO, Dota 2, etc. It’s a graphics card for gaming at 1080p, but also at slightly lower resolutions, due to its lack of sheer power.