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Tech InDepth: Graphics Cards & why you may (or may not) need them

A part of the modern computer that isn’t so well-known is the Graphic Card. They’re sought after by gamers, creators and in recent years, even crypto-miners, but what exactly are graphic cards? What are they used for? Does your PC have one? Does it need one? These are some of the questions we’ll be answering in today’s edition of Tech InDepth.

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A Graphic Card is a component in computers that, as the name suggests, handles the graphical processing and output of the machine. A Graphics Card will often consist of two parts – the GPU and some cooling mechanism.

When you look at a modern Graphics Card like the MSI Gaming Nvidia RTX 3060 Ti for instance, the two or three fans you see are actually part of the card’s cooling mechanism. However, all the processing and output execution is done by the chip inside (which is why these brick-like structures are still called ‘cards’).

This internal component of the Graphics Card is the GPU, or the graphics processing unit. Similar to how a CPU (central processing unit) handles all the computing operations of a computer, the GPU is a dedicated piece of hardware designated to render graphics in a parallel process alongside the CPU.

Originally designed to render 3D graphics, GPUs have over the years become much more powerful, flexible and programmable, allowing them today, to cater to a wide range of uses from video rendering to the more traditional gaming.

GPU vs. Graphics Card: What’s the Difference?

The two terms are often used interchangeably but there is a difference. A GPU is the actual processing unit (the PCB chip) that a Graphics Card is based on. Manufacturers then add their own design, cooling and sometimes even lighting to these GPUs to create what we know as a Graphics Card.

Integrated vs. Discrete Graphics

All conventional computers need a GPU to output display to a monitor, but not all of them need a Graphics Card. Entry level or mid level computers that aren’t used for very resource heavy tasks often make use of a processor with integrated graphics. These are called APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) which basically act as CPUs and GPUs on the same chip die.

AMD’s Ryzen 5 5600G or Ryzen 7 5700G are some popular AMD APUs that come with inbuilt Vega graphics. Intel also makes chips with a CPU+GPU design but they aren’t marketed as APUs (that term belongs to AMD).

Discrete or dedicated graphics refer to a separate component that houses the GPU along with its own cooling. In modern computers with discrete Graphics Cards, the component can be seen plugged into the PCIe slot of your motherboard.

Graphics Cards like the Asus Cerberus 1050 Ti (above) plug into the motherboard. (Image Source: The Indian Express/Chetan Nayak)

You will also see that while all external connections go straight to the motherboard, the VGA, HDMI, DisplayPort or USB-C port that’s coming from your monitor will go to the Graphics Card instead. If you’re upgrading your computer from integrated graphics to a dedicated Graphics Card, you will notice that the display output is now routed via the Graphics Card instead of the motherboard.

Integrated and Discrete Graphics Cards are also found on laptops, and not just desktop computers. However, the performance of discrete GPUs on laptops is usually not on par with their desktop counterparts because of power and cooling specifications.

The need for Discrete Graphics Cards

If there are processors with built-in graphics, do we really need separate Graphics Cards? Well, yes, but they may not be for everyone. Dedicated Graphics Cards are more powerful than integrated graphics and open up many use-cases.

For gaming, discrete GPUs are a must if you want to play many of the modern AAA titles, which can be too graphic intensive for your built-in GPU to render. When it comes to professional video editing, a dedicated Graphics Card can cut your rendering time down significantly.

Nvidia, Nvidia graphics card, graphics card, GPU, Graphics Card, Graphics Cards like the Nvidia GeForce series are important parts of a gaming PC for modern AAA titles. (Image Source: The Indian Express/Chetan Nayak)

That said, if your computing operations have nothing to do with gaming, video rendering or other graphically-intensive tasks, you may be better off using a processor with an integrated GPU as this will bring down your initial cost. Also your PC build will use less power compared to one with a discrete GPU.

Graphics Cards, Crypto-Mining and sky-high pricing

Unlike a few years ago, when Graphics Cards were merely PC components bought by gamers and other power users, getting your hands on a good Graphics Cards today is really difficult. Even if you do find them in stock, expect twice or thrice the pricing. But why does this scarcity exist?

Crypto-mining is believed by many to be one of the biggest culprits in the modern GPU saga. (Text link here please to earlier copy) Mining cryptocurrency is a very resource-heavy task that is best executed by discrete Graphics Cards. This is why crypto-miners have purchased Graphic Cards in large quantities in recent years, leading to the shortage in stock in most parts of the world today.

Miners use multiple Graphics Cards in large setups known as crypto-mining rigs (and even crypto-mining farms that consist of multiple such rigs). This has forced companies like Nvidia to release new less-powerful GPUs like the RTX 3050 so that gamers seeking to build their own rigs have a few more options that are not priced too high.

In India, getting your hands on an Nvidia 30-series or an equivalent AMD Radeon Graphics Card remains an expensive affair even today, with prices shooting at three-times the MRP on portals like Amazon Indian and even with offline resellers.

The situation is expected to get better soon, though. Intel will soon be entering the discrete Graphics Cards market with its new Arc GPUs that are expected to launch later this year, while Nvidia is expected to launch the RTX 40-series GPUs. These could shake up the Graphics Card market in the months to come. However, note that this is just speculation for now.

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