- A graphics card is an expansion card for your PC that is responsible for rendering images to the display.
- High-end GPUs are used for gaming, ray tracing, graphics production, and even mining cryptocurrency.
- Here’s a brief overview of everything you need to know about graphics cards.
- Visit Business Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.
At the birth of the computer era, the IBM PC became the standard computer in large part due to its modular architecture with interchangeable components.
Like the original IBM, now every PC’s motherboard has slots in which any third-party manufacturer can insert the components needed to make the PC run. Among those components: the graphics card, which is responsible for displaying all the images you see on the screen.
What to know about graphics cards
A graphics card looks like a smaller version of the computer motherboard – it’s a printed circuit board that has a processor, RAM, and other components. A graphics card is sometimes commonly referred to as a graphics processing unit, or GPU, but in reality the GPU is just a component (albeit the primary, defining component) of the graphics card.
In fact, GPUs come in two major forms:
- An integrated GPU is built into the motherboard and cannot be upgraded or replaced. You’ll find this in laptops and inexpensive desktop PCs. These graphics typically have modest performance and don’t perform well for tasks like games or professional graphics production.
- A discrete GPU is mounted on a graphics card that slips into a computer’s expansion slot on the motherboard. This kind of graphics card is replaceable so it can be upgraded as newer graphics cards are developed and helps keep a PC from becoming obsolete.
Modern graphics cards are extremely sophisticated devices that in some ways behave like stand-alone computers. They perform an enormous number of calculations and are typically the most sophisticated components in a computer – particularly high-end graphics cards optimized for gaming and advanced graphics processing.
Not only are they responsible for drawing ordinary 2D graphics such as windows and documents, but the best modern graphics cards can generate realistic, high-resolution 3D graphics in real time without needing that content to be pre-rendered. They’re essential for graphics production, such as photography and video production, because they’re able to manipulate and process an enormous number of pixels in real time.
Increasingly, graphics cards are also capable of performing a technique known as ray tracing. Ray tracing is a form of 3D graphics in which scenes are rendered by tracing the path of each light beam in a scene and accurately modeling its effect on materials and textures in the image. Ray-traced graphics are incredibly realistic and previously could only be rendered in advance with copious amounts of processing power. As graphics cards with ray-tracing capabilities continue to drop in price, video games will increasingly rely on ray-traced graphics to deliver cinema-quality visuals, rendered in real time.
Types of graphics cards
Virtually all graphics cards are developed by two rival brands: Nvidia and AMD. No matter what kind of graphics card you purchase or find inside your PC, it’s almost certainly sold directly by one of these companies or by a third-party company that has licensed the technology.
That makes it easier to purchase a graphics card because, while there are a lot of companies selling graphics cards, you can always compare them directly since they are all using the same underlying architecture. In other words, an Nvidia GeForce 2070 GPU will behave more or less the same no matter if you buy it from Asus, MSI, Gigabyte, or Nvidia.
AMD is a close competitor to Nvidia and the two companies sometimes leapfrog each other in top performance. But as a general rule, the best AMD cards offer similar performance to the best Nvidia cards.
Applications for graphics cards
The sophistication and processing power of modern GPUs means that graphics cards are often the most complex and high-performance component in a computer, rivaling or exceeding the computer’s CPU (central processing unit).
High-end graphics cards do all the traditional tasks that they have always been responsible for, including rendering the ordinary graphics you use daily. They also render advanced 3D graphics in real time for computer games.
Graphics professionals rely on high-end graphics cards as well. These days, photo, video, and graphics production applications rely on the graphics card, not the computer’s CPU, to perform advanced image processing, including computational photography, which uses artificial intelligence and computer processing to achieve results that previously could only have been done “in the lens” when photos or video were taken.
The GPUs in graphics cards are also sometimes used for their raw processing power to perform non-graphics work. Cryptocurrency miners, for example, rely on computers with high-end graphics cards to perform the sophisticated mining process for coins.