How to Choose a Graphics Card (GPU)
Learn how to choose a graphics card (GPU) for your PC build. We'll cover important graphics card specifications, types of graphics cards, and more.
There are few PC components as critical to performance as the graphics card, also known as a GPU. When it comes to gaming, the GPU is king. Your graphics card will have a direct effect on what games you can play and what type of experience you can expect to have playing them. Picking a graphics card can be incredibly daunting due to its high price and hundreds of variations. Do not worry, though—after reading this guide, you will know precisely how to choose a graphics card to meet your needs.
Find the best graphics cards for your machine at CDW today!
What is a Graphics Card?
The purpose of a graphics cards is to render graphics. Without a graphics card, your computer can not display any information, let alone function how you need it. To simplify it, the GPU takes data from the processor and works with software to determine where the graphics card places pixels on the screen.
Types of Graphics Cards
Different computers have vastly different needs. For that reason, there are many types of graphics cards. Here’s what you need to know about integrated, dedicated, and workstation graphics cards:
Integrated Graphics Cards
For machines that only need to run basic tasks like word processing or web surfing, some processors feature integrated graphics cards. When using integrated graphics, the monitor will plug directly into the motherboard. Integrated GPUs have a fraction of the power of their dedicated counterparts. However, they can save you a significant amount of money.
Dedicated Graphics Cards
Dedicated graphics cards are the massive multiple-fan containing beasts that you see featured in gaming and workstation PCs. Dedicated cards house powerful components that are designed to get the absolute top performance out of your machine. Modern PC gaming has moved past the viability of integrated cards. These days, a dedicated GPU is a must for gaming.
Workstation Graphics Cards
Using graphic intensive programs like video and photo editors or 3D rendering software can require even more performance than gaming. For that reason, workstation graphics cards exist. Workstation GPUs are dedicated graphics cards that are designed internally with software rather than gaming in mind.
Many different specifications are used to describe graphics cards. Some information is more important than others, but you should consider all specifications as you learn how to choose a graphics card. Here are some of the most common terms you will hear and what they mean in regards to choosing a graphics card and your machine's performance.
- Memory. This is the amount of RAM (Random Access Memory) that your GPU features. Modern games require cards with at least 4GB of memory, with 6GB or more being ideal for 1080p gaming on high settings. Generally, the more memory, the better the card can perform. However, there are other factors, such as memory speed, that also affect PC performance.
- Memory Speed. Bandwidth or memory speed tells you how fast the RAM in your graphics card can function. This is important because cards can often have the same amount of memory but at different speeds, which can result in significantly different performance.
- Power Connection. Almost all dedicated graphics cards require more power than the typical 75 Watts a PCIe slot provides. This need for more power is solved by connecting the PC's power supply directly to the GPU via a 6- or 8-pin power connector. Make sure when purchasing a graphics card that your power supply can properly connect to it.
- TDP. Speaking of power, the TDP or Thermal Design Power is a specification used to measure how much power a GPU draws and how much heat that will generate. Essentially, the higher the TDP, the more power that your graphics card will require. Luckily, most modern GPUs will give you a recommended power supply size in wattage on their box. The TDP can also help you determine proper cooling solutions for your system as well.
- Size. Sometimes referred to as the form factor, your graphics card's size is important for many reasons. The primary reason being that the GPU needs to fit in your case. Graphics cards come in multiple sizes that are measured by GPU length and the number of PCIe slots the card takes up in the computer's case.
GPU Tasks to Consider
Once you understand all of a graphics card’s specifications, you can determine exactly which card is best for you. Tasks such as gaming can utilize a wide variety of cards, so it is worth determining what types of games you want to play on your PC. Less expensive cards can still play many games—and if high-end or 4k gaming is not your goal, they can save you money for other places in your build. Suppose you plan on using high refresh rate monitors or resolutions greater than 1080p. In that case, you will need a GPU with significant power.
Workstation graphics cards are designed explicitly with tasks like editing and rendering in mind. If you need a strong GPU for work, these large and more expensive dedicated cards are perfect for you. Workstation cards still work for gaming, but they operate optimally when running the software they were designed for. These cards are at the highest end of GPUs and can be considerably more expensive than any of their counterparts. Make sure to meticulously check all specifications and determine your needs before pursuing a workstation style GPU.
New Releases are Common
Like all technology, graphics cards are constantly being updated, with new versions released frequently. New series of cards can take massive leaps in performance increases. For that reason, it is crucial to stay up to date with the latest GPU releases. Nothing is worse than spending a ton of money on a graphics card only for a more powerful and cheaper version to be announced next week. Older cards may still be ideal for your needs and frequently drop in price because of the new technology announcement.
Tips to Remember
Knowing specifications and what they mean is paramount for understanding differences in graphics cards. Unfortunately, not all major aspects of a GPU can be quantified with a regulated specification. Here are some additional tips and tricks to consider alongside specifications as you choose your GPU:
- Match your display and GPU. The resolution of your monitor has a direct relation to the maximum performance of your graphics card. This means that you can have the most powerful GPU on the planet, but if your display is only 1080P, then you will never utilize the full power of your graphics card. This also means that you can save money without sacrificing performance if your GPU only needs to output 1080p.
- Refresh rates are like resolutions. Just like the resolution of your monitor, the maximum refresh rate will have a significant effect on GPU performance. Refresh rates in the triple digits require high-end graphics cards. If your display is capped at 60Hz refresh rate, however, mid-range graphics cards can still handle most games on the highest settings without issue.
- MSRP is important. Always check the going market price or the launch price of the GPU you intend to purchase. As new cards are announced often and there is a scarcity of certain models, graphics card prices can fluctuate wildly. Knowing the intended price of a GPU can save you from unnecessary spending.
- Save money for the rest of the build. Graphics cards are usually the most expensive component of any build. But that does not mean they are the only expensive component. Be careful not to overspend when choosing a GPU. Spending too much money on a powerful graphics card could create bottlenecks in other areas of your system. If your processor cannot match your GPU's performance, for instance, then there is no point in having that powerful of a graphics card. The worst-case scenario is that you spend too much on a GPU, and the only power supply you can afford fails to provide enough power for all your PC's components. In that scenario, not only is the GPU not being used properly, but the whole system is at fault.
- Nothing is final. Like with all parts in your PC, the graphics card is not a permanent fixture. Buying a specific card now does not prevent you from changing to another GPU at a later time. You can upgrade your components over time as your needs change.
Find the Best Graphics Cards at CDW
Picking any part for your PC can be stressful, double that when you choose a GPU, which will likely be the most expensive component of your build. There are tons of different graphics cards out there and knowing the specifications of each is key to ensuring you get the best GPU. Knowing what type of games or software you will need to run on the PC will also help determine which card you need. Avoid overspending on cards that are more powerful than your current monitor's resolution, or conversely, save money on a cheaper GPU that is ideal for the games you like to play.
Find the best graphics cards for your machine at CDW today!