The Gamers Guide to Graphics Cards

When it comes to gaming, the graphics card is the single most important piece of the puzzle. You can get 8 gigs of the slowest DDR4 (2144) memory, a $70 Pentium G4560 and a $50 motherboard and still achieve excellent 1080p gaming experience with a powerful GPU, such as RX 570 or GTX 1060. On the other side, if you have a powerful i7 or Ryzen 7 CPU, 32 gigs of memory and the most expensive motherboard with a weak GPU part of the configuration, like having a GTX 1050Ti or RX 560, the first rig will triumph, at least in gaming.

So yes, when getting a new gaming machine graphics card should be your main focus. You can get an affordable CPU and a minimum (8GB) amount of memory and upgrade them later, but the GPU has to be relatively powerful. It all depends on what you need. Some people can play games at 30fps [Peasants, all of them! — Ed] without problems, other won’t touch a game if it isn’t running at 60fps [That’s the stuff I do like! — Ed]. And there’s also the question of resolution you play games in.

But, before diving into different quality presets, frames per second, and resolutions, let’s talk about graphics cards themselves. Let’s explain what exactly they do, main parts of every GPU, and GPU-related terminology.

The role of the graphics card in video games

If you don’t play video games, any integrated GPU solution found in most Intel and some AMD processors are capable of fulfilling all your needs. Some of those can also be used for playing eSports titles and many 2D indie games as well as older (10 years or more) titles. This is because all of them feature undemanding graphics in order to work on the majority of PC configurations (eSports titles), or because the team just doesn’t have the money for ultra-realistic art style (indie games), or because they were made in times when PC components were way less powerful than today.

Once you start playing a relatively modern 3D title, you’ll want a powerful GPU by your side.

The GPU is responsible for rendering images you see on your screen when playing games. While the CPU is used for under-the-hood operations like telling GPU the position of different objects in the scene. The GPU renders character models and objects, is responsible for drawing textures, and rendering different effects like explosions and lightning. In other words, the work done by the GPU is way more important for games. Also, it is more demanding with GPUs being noticeably more powerful than CPUs.

The difference between a processor and a graphics chip

An Nvidia graphics chip
An Nvidia graphics chip

While a processor is made out of a small number of powerful cores, a graphics chip is made out of a huge number of relatively weak cores. But, when these cores work together they are much more powerful than CPU cores. In other words, a GPU can process more information in a single point of time compared to a CPU. This is the reason why graphics cards are used more and more for work previously reserved for CPUs. For instance, scientists are using GPUs for making complex equations in microbiology, for calculating various simulations in climate research, and in many different types of AI research.

Around January 2018 you probably noticed that the price of graphics cards have skyrocketed in the previous last six months or so. This is because GPUs are way better than CPUs for performing complex calculations used for cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency miners are buying graphics cards in huge numbers, creating a state of constant scarcity where prices can go just further up.

Before we dive into explaining what all of those words you hear when someone talks about graphics card specs mean, we’ll talk a bit about main components every graphics card has.

First and most important is the GPU. Graphics processing unit is a chip containing all compute cores (called Stream Processor on AMD cards and CUDA cores on Nvidia cards), ROPs, and texture units. The GPU is placed on the PCB, which also hosts video memory chips, video outputs such as DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort, as well as power connectors. On the card’s bottom, you see the PCI-express port that is used for connecting the card to the motherboard and communicating with other components. And finally, we have the cooling solution, made out of fans and a heatsink.

Video memory is needed on every graphics card. Some integrated solutions and GPUs found on AMD’s APUs can use system memory, but this isn’t the case with most GPUs because RAM is just too slow. Video memory is used mainly for the drawing of textures, storing an image while it is rendered, and storing in-game objects. The rise of 2K and 4K resolutions along with the appearance of high definition textures are the main reasons why today you need at least 4 GB of video memory in order to max out graphic details. With the rise of 4K resolution developers introduced 4K textures which need lots of video memory in order to properly display and stream those textures. 4K is 4 times the size of 1080p, so obviously in order to make things look good, you need bigger and higher resolution textures.

Open-world games use lots of memory because they have a huge number of different objects shown at once as well as lots of different textures along with the terrain that is constantly loaded while you move your character around. When you combine an open world game that features a huge view distance and offers high definition textures (like the recent Ghost Recon Wildlands or Assassin’s Creed Origins) you get the need for at least 6 GB of video memory in order to have a steady and high framerate on the highest settings.

Now, let us explain different terms related to graphics cards. ROPs (Render Output Units or Raster Operation Pipeline) are responsible for drawing and arranging pixels on the monitor screen. Processor units (CUDA cores and Stream Processors) handle rendering of geometry, calculate locations of different in-game objects, render lighting and shadows and are basically used for creating all graphical elements in a game. And, as we already said, the GPU is the processor of the graphics card in the form of a silicon chip.

Core clock represents the frequency at which GPU is running, while the memory clock represents the frequency at which video memory is running. The currently used GDDR5 memory works on frequencies between 5000MHz and 8000MHz, while the GDDR5X used on top models can work up to 11000MHz.

Memory interface stands for the video memory bus width (like 192-bit, 384-bit, etc.), and the wider it is, the more data can pass through video memory in one unit of time. The fascination with the new HBM (High Bandwidth Memory) is the fact that it supports up to 4096-bit memory bus allowing for a huge memory bandwidth majorly increasing the performance of video memory.

An Nvidia SLI configuration
An Nvidia SLI configuration

PCI Express is the interface used by the graphics card (and some other components like PCIe SSDs) to communicate with other PC components. SLI and Crossfire are Nvidia’s and AMD’s multi-card solutions, respectively. Cards working in SLI or Crossfire cannot give their maximum computational power because each motherboard offers a limited number of PCI express lanes so cards cannot use all 16 lanes per card, lowering data transfer bandwidth. While you need two (or three) identical cards for SLI setup, AMD’s Crossfire setup doesn’t require identical card models. SLI and Crossfire aren’t as popular because one flagship card (like the GTX 1080) is more powerful than two GTX 1070’s in an SLI. The only reason for running SLI or Crossfire is if you want maximum graphical power by connecting multiple high-end cards like the GTX 1080 Ti’s, GTX Titans, or Vega 64’s.

Architecture stands for the technology a GPU is built upon. The current architecture used by Nvidia cards is called Pascal and is known for its incredible computational power along with amazing power optimization. AMD’s current architecture is called Vega, and its main feature is the HBM2 memory support. On the other hand, Vega cards have pretty high power consumption. TDP stands for Thermal Design Power, and it represents how much heat a GPU generates in watts. The higher it is, the more heat will be generated, and the card will use more electrical power, asking for a stronger power supply unit.

Which graphics card is for you

This question cannot be answered quickly. There are many things to take into account:

  • What kind of games you play.
  • The resolution you play at.
  • The average frames per second you expect to achieve.
  • Your budget.

Which games you play

Ghost Recon: Wildlands
Ghost Recon: Wildlands

If your PC is filled mostly with indie titles that feature undemanding graphics you could probably get away with integrated graphics or some low end or older graphics card.

This is also important because if you mostly play multiplayer titles like Dota 2, LoL, Fortnite, Rocket League, CS: GO, and similar games you can get away with a mid-range card in many cases.

On the other hand, if you play the latest AAA titles and want them to look amazing, then you’ll need to pick a powerful graphics card, something like the GTX 1060 or above.

Now, a modern graphics card should have at least 4gb or video memory in case you want to play games in high settings and with high-resolution textures. The GTX 1060 with 3gb of video memory is also a good choice. If you play indie titles and esports games than even 2gb of video memory should be enough. Since most modern mid-range cards have at least 6gb of video memory, you should easily find one with enough memory for high-resolution textures.

Resolution and FPS

A visual guide to different resolutions
A visual guide to different resolutions

According to the Steam Hardware, ~71% of gamers still use 1080p resolution. While monitor and graphics card manufacturers are all about 2K and 4K resolutions that provide “ultimate experience and never-seen-before graphics,” full HD resolution is more than enough for most of us. In case you are one of those gamers who doesn’t go above 1080p, you shouldn’t pick a card that’s stronger than the Nvidia GTX 1060 or Radeon RX 580. Both of them should provide a steady 60 frames per second experience with most details set to the max.

Both Nvidia and Radeon cards can be placed in four distinct groups. We have cards made for gamers on a budget and those who mostly play esports and indie titles – GTX 1050/Ti and Radeon RX 550/RX 560. These cards offer enough power for games that don’t feature AAA graphics presentation and should also play demanding games in 1080p resolution on medium (the two AMD cards)/high settings (GTX 1050 Ti) at around 30 frames per second.

Next, we have cards made for 1080p resolution and highest settings. These are The GTX 1060 (6gb), and Radeon RX 570 and RX580. By getting one of those you should achieve 60 frames per second with most details pushed to the max in 1080p resolution. The GTX 1060 with 3 gigs of video memory should also offer steady 60 frames per second, but you will probably have to lower texture setting in newest games such as Assassin’s Creed Origins, Rise of The Tomb Raider, Dishonored II, or Ghost Recon Wildlands.

If you own a 2K monitor (1440p), you should go for the GTX 1070/Ti or Radeon Vega 56 and Radeon Vega 64. These two should achieve more than 30 frames per second (they should offer stable 60 frames per second in most titles) on highest settings at 1440p resolution.

Finally, we have cards made for 4K (2160p) gaming. GTX 1080/Ti and the GTX Titan Xp are beasts that can offer stable 30fps or more with the resolution set to 2160p on highest settings in all modern games. Most titles should reach 60fps. Now, the Radeon Vega 64 is a tough recommendation because its power dramatically varies from title to title. Some games work as with the GTX 1080, some work as with GTX 1070, and some work worse than with the GTX 1070. On top of all that the Vega 64 isn’t really power optimized. In fact, it has a TDP of 295W while the GTX 1080 Ti, which is noticeably more powerful, has a TDP of just 250W.

Next, there’s the question how many frames per second is enough for you? If you are satisfied with a stable 30fps with all details switched to the max then you could pick the GTX 1060 or the RX 570 even if you play in 1440p resolution. But you should know that anything lower than those two won’t achieve stable 30fps at 1080p with all settings pushed to the max in many modern titles. So, if you want to play at max details, no matter whether you want to achieve 30 or 60 frames per second, pick at least the GTX 1060 or the RX 570.

A Couple of Additional Things Worth Considering

By now you should get a general idea which card you want. But, there are a couple more things to clear before finalizing your quest for a new graphics card.

AMD or Nvidia

While this usually is a matter of taste, Nvidia makes better cards for the past couple of generations. We can’t recommend the Vega 56 and 64 because they don’t offer enough power for the price and are huge power hogs. They spend just too much power while the Nvidia cards of the latest generation (Pascal) are very powerful while being excellently optimized when it comes to power consumption. For instance, the GTX 1060 has a TDP of just 120w, which is very low, and the card can run most games in 60fps on 1080p resolution and with all details pushed to the max.

On the other hand, we can recommend the RX 570 and the RX 580 for gamers who play games in 1080p resolution. They are solid cards that can offer enough power, but the problem is that they are now more expensive than ever due to the cryptocurrency craze.

Power requirements

Corsair power supply
Corsair power supply

Back in the day, each new GPU generation meant cards with higher demands for power. TPD grew steadily, but in recent years Nvidia managed to lower the average power consumption while raising the average computational power. In general, unless you are going for the GTX 1080 Ti or higher, or the AMD RX 56 and 64, any quality 500W or 550W power supply should be enough. Also, you should have at least one 8-pin power connector available, and if you have two 8-pin power connectors that’s even better.

If you want (for some reason) to get the RX Vega 56 or 64, or the GTX 1080 Ti or higher, you should have a power supply of at least 650w, and it needs to be of high quality.

The size of the card

Before you buy a specific card, check if it can fit into your PC. There are cards that are longer than usual, and they cannot fit into all cases. There are also cards featuring massive cooling systems that can take two or three slots so if you have some component fitted directly below the PCI-e graphics card slot you should also be careful.

The best way to be certain that your new card will fit into your case is to just take a tape measure and see how much space you have inside your case and then compare measuring results with the card’s dimensions which should be listed on the selling page.

Mini version of the GTX 1060
Mini version of the GTX 1060

There are also mini versions of new models (like the GTX 1050 Ti and the GTX 1060) that are super small and compatible with mini ITX cases but feature the same level of power as normal versions. You should look for those if you have a small case.

And finally, if you don’t want for your card to generate any noise you don’t have much choice. The only relatively powerful graphics card that comes with a passive cooler is the Palit GTX 1050 Ti. It should work with most games in medium/high setting at 30fps or more in 1080p resolution.

Where to buy

While monitor should be tried out in a brick-and-mortar store before deciding to buy it, you should buy a graphics card online. The choice is way better, there are discounts every couple of weeks, and there are useful sites that list all current discounts for a selected product.

Installation

Once you finally get your new and shiny graphics card you should do a couple of things. First, you should blow out the PCI-e port with some compressed air to be sure there aren’t any dust particles inside it.

Next, make sure to uninstall display driver before installing the new card, especially if you’re switching from the AMD card to the Nvidia one or vice versa. Both AMD and Nvidia feature their driver uninstallers but they will leave lots of files on your PC, which will prevent you from using the new card in case you switched manufacturers. We recommend Display Driver Uninstaller from Guru3D. We used it a couple of times (once when switching from Nvidia to AMD), and the program worked flawlessly. It will clean all of the files and prepare your PC for the new graphics card.

Then it is time to place the card into the PCI-e slot, hook up power connectors and turn on the PC. And that should be it.

As they say, may your frame-rates be high and your temperatures low. Until next time.

A psychologist turned freelance writer and reviewer, Goran is a hardcore gamer with more than twenty years of experience, and interested in all kinds of technology. He also likes Sci Fi novels and basketball.
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