Jun 2, 2023
Along with the central processing unit, or CPU, the graphics card serves at the heart of a PC. This peripheral combines a graphical processing unit (GPU) and various other componentry to display on-screen whatever output the PC is producing. Without the right graphics card, your PC won’t perform the way you need it to do.
Introduction to Graphics Cards for Gaming
This is doubly true for gaming PCs. While the CPU can be important in a game’s performance, most of the speed and graphical quality is determined by the graphics card. For our purposes, we’re going to talk about the graphics cards that are purchased and installed in desktop PCs. These are sometimes referred to as discrete graphics cards.
We’re not talking about the graphics integrated in some CPUs, nor about the discrete graphics in some laptops. Many of the same principles apply to discrete laptops graphics, but this is a guide for choosing and purchasing a graphics card, something that you can’t do separately with laptops.
How a graphics card works
The PCs CPU processes a variety of different kinds of information in carrying out the tasks you assign it. That can be calculating data in a spreadsheet, inserting words into a document, browsing web pages, displaying media – the list is virtually endless. Gaming is just one function that a PC can perform, and the CPU has a role to play in running a game.
But all that processing is worthless if it’s never displayed to you, the user. No matter what kind of application you’re running, eventually you need to see something on-screen to make use of it. And that’s exactly what the graphics card does.
It takes the information that’s meant for human consumption and translates it into a format that can be display on display’s pixels. The graphics card must determine exactly how those pixels light up to display the information correctly. That includes the numbers in a spreadsheet, the words in a document, the text and images on a website, and the video frames that make up a TV show or movie.
But most demanding of all is processing the information necessary to translate what’s happening in a fast-paced game to the screen. The process is quite complex, involving millions of calculations to translate the information the CPU provides into an image, which includes rasterizing (drawing) the image and filling in the appropriate lighting, texture, and colors.
In a game, this process happens many times per second, which is referred to as the frame rate. Each frame is a single image of what’s occurring during the game, and – everything else remaining equal – how many frames a graphics card can produce in a second determines how realistic the game will appear.
The base frames per second (fps) that a graphics card should be able to produce is 60 fps, but the higher the number, the better. Some graphics cards can push 120 fps and more, even when taxed by the most demanding titles. Throw in more advanced features like ray tracing and high dynamic range (HDR) content, and it’s no surprise that todays’ graphics cards are more powerful than ever.
All this graphical processing is done in the GPU using data that’s passed from the CPU into video RAM (VRAM). Then, the resulting images are passed through cables, HDMI and DisplayPort on modern PCS, to the display (or displays in multi-monitor setups).
Ray Tracing and DLSS lead the race to improved realism
Ray tracing and its impact on visual fidelity
Older gaming technology uses rasterization to display objects on screen. Without going into too much technical detail, with rasterization every object is depicted computationally by using polygons, or virtual triangles, in a mesh arrangement that results in a collection of 3D models. The GPU then calculates how these 3D models should be depicted on a 2D display, with things like shading determining how light affects the pixels and textures giving an object its final appearance.
The GPU must calculate every pixel for every scene, which with a 1080p display is 2,073,600 pixels and with a 4K display is 8,294,000 pixels. Some information is held in a buffer for upcoming frames, and the GPU uses a “z-buffer” to hold data on which objects are in front and therefore visible on-screen and which should remain “hidden.”
Rasterization can provide amazing levels of detail and realism, but there’s a newer method that provides even more realistic images by vastly improving how lighting is depicted in a scene. Ray tracing basically recreates the way that light travels through the real world and strikes various objects, using complex algorithms to determine how a gaming scene should look to the human eye including depicting realistic reflections and shadows.
Ray tracing is even more computationally intense than rasterization, and so it requires even more powerful GPUs. Nvidia’s RTX line, specifically the GeForce RTX 2080, introduced Ray Tracing (RT) cores to perform the ray tracing calculations, and the process is now in its third generation with the RTX 4000 lineup. AMD introduced ray tracing in its Radeon RX 6000 line and has improved it in its RX 7000 GPUs.
DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) and its effect on performance
Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) is an Nvidia technology that aims to improve overall performance by performing the underlying rendering calculations at lower resolutions than will eventually be displayed and then upscaling each frame so that it looks more realistic when display on the screen. The “deep learning” part of the name refers to AI that’s used to perform the scaling process, and Tensor Cores on Nvidia GPUs are used to speed up the process.
DLSS 3.0 is the latest version and it uses an Optical Flow Accelerator to speed up the process in the RTX 4000 line. DLSS doesn’t provide the same level of sharpness as without it, but it can increase performance tremendously.
AMD has a simpler, non-AI solution called FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) that was introduced in the RX 6000 GPUs. FSR performs the same basic function as DLSS without using AI. FSR is a technology that doesn’t require any specialized hardware, meaning it can theoretically be used by any graphics card, including older AMD and even Nvidia graphics cards.
Other advanced features specific to certain graphics card models
Both Nvidia and AMD have a wealth of other features based on specific generations and graphics cards. For example, Nvidia G-Sync and AMD FreeSync can link up a graphics card and a monitor to ensure consistent frame rates, which avoids tearing and ghosting in images. Some monitors support both technologies, and so you’ll want to make sure you choose carefully.
VRAM, clock speed, and processors have an oversized impact on performance
VRAM (Video RAM)
VRAM is used to store the information needed to render an image on the screen. This includes the textures that define the individual elements in a game, lighting information, shadows, and more. VRAM is a very fast version of the RAM used by the CPU, and it comes in two versions.
The most common is GDDR, or Graphics Double Data RAM (DDR), where DDR is the memory used by the CPU. GDDR6 and GDDR6X are the most recent standards, and they’re faster and more efficient than previous generations. The other kind of VRAM used is much less common, and it’s called High Bandwidth Memory or HBM. It uses a memory type that’s stacked and requires less space on the graphics card motherboard. Gaming graphics cards typically use GDDR where graphics cards meant for commercial applications like high-end creative and engineering work us HBM.
The faster the VRAM, which translates to increased bandwidth, the faster a graphics card can access and process the information needed to push the image to the display. And, the amount of VRAM matters as well, which is determined by factors such as the resolution, with higher resolutions requiring more VRAM, features like anti-aliasing that smooths out edges, and the overall complexity of the game being played.
There’s no hard and fast rule about how much VRAM you need on a graphics card. It’s best to read the requirements for the games you want to play and get the RAM that’s recommended. You’ll likely want a minimum of 6GB of RAM to play at 1080p, and then the requirements move up from there as you add in more features and higher resolutions.
How does GPU clock speed affect gaming performance?
The GPU’s clock speed is an indication of how quickly it can process the graphics information before sending it to the monitor. It’s one of the specifications of a graphics card that increases with price. Lower-end GPUs have slower clock speeds while higher-end GPUs have higher clock speeds.
Just like with CPUs, the faster the GPU clock speed, the better the graphics performance.
Stream processors & cores and gaming performance
In addition to the specialized processors used for features like ray tracing and DLSS, GPUs have basic processors that perform the grunt work of a graphics card. AMD calls its version stream processors, and they’re of simpler and smaller designs while running at lower frequencies. Nvidia has its CUDA cores, which are larger, more complicated, and run faster.
For that reason, don’t judge between AMD and Nvidia based on the number of stream processors or CUDA cores, since the comparison isn’t apples to apples. But you can judge between GPUs within the same series, which the higher number of processors and cores equating to faster performance. Also, each manufacturer has improved the performance of its versions with each new iteration, meaning that you need to look at the number of processors and cores within each series to determine which is faster.
Current Generation GPUs: Nvidia RTX 3000 and 4000 and AMD RX 6000 and 7000
The two primary makers of the GPUs around which graphics cards are produced are Nvidia and AMD. These two companies have gone back and forth over the years in terms of providing the best performance and value, and today both have excellent options. In 2023, Intel joined the discrete video card space with the Intel Arc offering.
Nvidia and AMD build the GPUs as well as create reference graphics card designs. Several companies base products of these designs with their own products, differing mainly in cooling solutions, software options, and overclockability – which means running a graphics card at a faster speed than its basic design specifies.
NVIDIA 3000 series and 4000 series
Nvidia’s most popular graphics cards are based around their RTX 3000 and RTX 4000 series GPUs. While the RTX 4000 is the most recent series, you can still buy RTX 3000-based graphics cards for reasonable prices that provide excellent performance.
The RTX 3000 series uses Nvidia’s Ampere architecture, while the RTX 4000 uses the Ada Lovelace architecture. The latter incorporates new streaming multiprocessors that provide up to twice the performance, along with 4th-gen Tensor Cores for better DLSS performance and 3rd-gen RT Cores for improved ray tracing.
NVIDIA RTX GPU comparison
AMD 6000 series and 7000 series
AMD’s RX 6000 series uses its RDNA 2 architecture while the RX 7000 series upgrades to RDNA 3. The upgrade brings with it a fundamental change in the GPU’s architecture, splitting off various functions into “chiplets” that change how each type of computing core access cache memory. It’s all very technically detailed and beyond the scope of this piece, but suffice it to say that RDNA 3 aims to be a more efficient architecture while packing in improved performance.
AMD RX GPU Comparison
Intel has also recently begun making discrete graphics cards to go with the integrated graphics in its CPUs, although the cards so far have had little impact in the market. In addition, Intel has only targeted the low-end and midrange performance segments of the market.
Intel GPUs have some of the same technologies that you’ll find in Nvidia and AMD products. For example, Intel Arc GPUs have ray tracing capabilities, and Intel has its own version of DLSS and FSR for upscaling and improved performance, called Xe Super Sampling. Like Nvidia’s DLSS 3, Xe Super Sampling uses AI to make the upscaling process faster and more realistic.
So far, Intel’s highest-end GPUs compete against the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 and AMD Radeon RX 6650 XT. Intel has continued to improve its drivers since introducing the cards, increasing performance across the board and particularly in DirectX 12 games.
Intel Arc GPU Comparison
Factors to Consider Before Buying a Graphics Card for Gaming
Whether you’re building a new PC or adding a new graphics card to an existing PC, there are a variety of factors you’ll need to consider ensure there’s a good fit.
Power supply requirements and available connectors
The more powerful the graphics card, the more power it requires. That’s in addition to all the other components in your PC such as the CPU, RAM, and storage. You’ll want to make sure your power supply provides enough power for your desired graphics card.
There’s a wide range of power recommendations, and they vary by not only the GPU used in a graphics card but also the general design of the graphics card including its thermal components such as fans. But as examples, the AMD recommends a 350 watt power supply for the lowly Radeon RX 6400 compared to an 800 watt power supply for the high-end RX 7900 XTX. Similarly, Nvidia recommends 550 watts for the RTX 4060 and 850 watts for the RTX 4090.
You’ll also need the proper PCI slot for the graphics card, which today is typically either a PCIe 4.0 x8 or x16 slot. Also, some newer graphics cards require two slots worth of width or three slots. Again, that varies based on the graphics card, but you’ll want to make sure your case and motherboard have the right slots and enough width to accommodate your chosen graphics card.
Physical dimensions and space constraints
Graphics cards also come in a variety of lengths, and that’s another thing to consider when making your choice. You’ll need to ensure that your case is large enough to fit the graphics card, including making sure it clears any obstacles such as cabling, storage bays, and the cooling system.
Cooling solutions and noise levels
The more powerful the graphics card, the more heat it generates and the more complex its thermal design. Some graphics cards rely solely on fans, which depending on their size and speed can create quite a bit of noise when the graphics are ramped up. The quietest solution is liquid cooling, which is more complex and expensive but can make for a considerably quieter graphics card. This is yet another specification to check when choosing your graphics card, as each manufacturer uses different design philosophies.
Know what your games need for optimal performance
One of the first steps you’ll want to take in deciding on the right graphics card is to identify your most important games. Different types of games have very different requirements, with first-person multiplayer shooters having some of the highest demands and real-time strategy games having some of the lowest. Then there are games, like flight simulators, that can stress both the GPU and the CPU.
Decide which games are important to you and then visit each developer’s site and read the required, recommended, and maximum specifications. If you know you want to play a game with every feature turned on and at the highest possible graphical settings, then buy a graphics card that meets the maximum specifications. If you’re okay with running a game at its minimal settings, then the required specifications are acceptable.
Just understand that every game can turn graphics up and down to maximize and minimize how realistic they appear. Also, some newer games support technologies like DLSS, ray tracing, and HDR, meaning that if you want to use those features then you’ll want a graphics card that specifically supports them.
Read customer and professional reviews first
Another important step is to search for user feedback on graphics card performance in various games. You can visit a variety of forums and centralized locations like Reddit to get a wealth of opinions on which graphics cards are best for which games. Of course, you’ll find tons of conflicting information as well, and so it’s important to pay close attention to each review.
Professional reviews and benchmarks are also vital resources. Chances are, you’ll find plenty of reviews as you narrow down your choice of graphics cards. The benchmarks provided by professional reviewers are also key to understanding how a given level of graphic card will handle the games that you want to play. Aim for at least 60 framerates per second (fps) for the best minimal experience, with higher fps equating to a more realistic experience. Make sure your monitor will support the fps provided by your chosen graphics card, or the extra money you spend will be wasted.
Determining Your Budget
A couple of years ago, it was impossible thanks to the popularity of cryptocurrency to purchase a graphics card at a reasonable price. That’s changes in the last year or so, to where today you can purchase graphics cards at or close to their list price. Right now, that seems to range from $300 to well over $1,000 for a graphics card capable of running today’s games at a baseline of 1080p resolution and with graphics settings turned up to a reasonable level.
Gaming in 1080p
This is the least that you’ll want to aim for. You can spend reasonable amounts of money if you’re willing to limit your gaming to 1080p, and that will translate as well to a lower-cost display. Most gamers will likely to be happy with 1080p gaming, with only the most hardcore and demanding gamers wanting more.
Any of the graphics cards covered in this piece can run modern titles at 1080p, depending on how high you want to turn up the graphics. Two good entry-level 1080p options include the $230 MSI Gaming GeForce RTX 3050 and the $200 ASRock Radeon RX 6600.
For playing AAA titles in 1080p, another great bang-for-buck option are Nvidia RTX 4060 graphics cards.
Gaming in 1440p
Gaming at 1440p is a solid compromise between the relatively low resolution of 1080p and the most demanding and impressive 4K resolution. You’ll need a strong graphics card to run at 1440p with graphics turned up, but nothing like you’ll need it you step it up another notch.
You’ll want a slightly faster graphics card to run today’s games at 1440p, starting with the Nvidia GeForce RTX 4070 and the AMD RX 6700. Two good options include the $600 Asus Deal GeForce RTX 4070 and the $320 MSI Mech Radeon RX 6700 XT. Note that cards at this level are also good choices if you want to run at 1080p but use advanced features like ray tracing and HDR.
Gaming in 4K
Gaming at 4K, which would be 2160p if expressed in the same way as the other categories, is the most demanding resolution of all. A 4K display works with four times as many pixels as a 1080p display, meaning a graphics card must manipulate four times as much data at once. That puts a real strain on a card, meaning only the most powerful and expensive models can handle 4K gaming.
If you want to game at 4K, you’ll want to also utilize all the features and graphical quality that a game can provide. That means you’ll want to consider the RTX 4080 and RX 6950 XT as baselines. The $1,300 Gigabyte Gaming GeForce RTX 4080 and $1,077 Asus AMD Radeon RX 6950 XT are two good options.
Walk the tightrope between price and performance
Balancing the amount of money you spend on a graphics card with your desired gaming experience is like walking a tightrope. You don’t want to spend more money than you need, but you also don’t want to save a few bucks and find yourself turning off features and turning down graphical quality to achieve the right combination of framerates and realism.
Also, make sure you keep future games in mind. You might want to consider spending a little more now, knowing that your graphics card will keep up with future games that you might want to play. How often you replace your graphics card depends entirely on your budget, and keep in mind that many games can be CPU-limited, meaning that adding a faster graphics card won’t necessarily let you play a newer game the way you’d like. At some point, you might need to replace your entire gaming PC to achieve your desired gaming experience.
Small Running Title
Mark Coppock is a Los Angeles-based writer who explores how technology makes us more productive in our professional and personal lives.