What is a Graphics Card and Why You Need One?

by | Dec 21, 2018

Gaming and graphics as a whole are witnessing tremendous advancement in terms of visual quality.

The visuals now you see on flagship displays are closer to the reality than ever before.

Yes, the computer processors are keeping up with the trend, but graphics cards have also become such a necessity for gamers, professionals and the common people alike for enjoying the digital contents as it is.

There was a time when we used to think that graphics cards were for gamers and it’s a waste of money for everyone else.

With the advent of high definition video formats, having a powerful chip dedicated to processing millions and billions of bits of graphical information has become a necessity for normal users as well.

If you’re not a gamer or say a professional who doesn’t need insane power to edit or render videos, graphical designs, AutoCAD models etc, but would like to stream 4K content off the internet, you would have to admit the fact that a graphics card helps in better reproduction of such content on the big screen.

With the emerging necessity and importance of graphics card in the current scenario, we decided to write this short and precise explainer article about the working of graphics card in a way that isn’t too intimidating to an average reader who is not so geeky.

Sit back and enjoy reading the article and I’m sure will help you add some important insight while looking for your next gadget purchase!

History of Graphics cards

In the earlier days of modern computing, 3D graphics were not even in the wildest dreams of people researching and working in this field.

There were mostly text-based operating systems in use at that time. Games if any was in 2D. There was limited RAM and the processing power was not even close to what we have today.

By the time of the 1970s and 80s, 3D games and graphics became a thing. The first mainstream graphics card to release to the public was in 1996 from a company named Interactive FX with their Voodoo graphics cards.

These cards brought about a revolution in the 3D graphics industry and more and more companies started using 3D to enhance the immersiveness of their content.

Operating systems shifted from text-based to graphical user interfaces, games shifted from 2D to 3D, newer video codecs were introduced with better frame rates and resolutions during the reign of Voodoo graphics.

Later, with cutting-edge research and development in the field, two companies rose to the helm of graphics processing leaving others to bite the dust – which we now know as Nvidia and AMD.

What is a Graphics card?

Graphics card is a computer hardware component that helps to convert digital signals with pixel information into analogue signals which are then fed to a monitor for displaying output images.

Graphics card is just a generic term used for describing this piece of hardware. In reality, a video card that consists of a graphics chip is doing the real work of graphics processing.

The actual Graphics Processing Unit is a chip similar to the CPU processor but with different performance attributes.

Types of Graphics cards

Based on the form factor and the integration with the motherboard, there are two types of graphics cards in use, namely:

  • Integrated graphics cards
  • Dedicated/discrete graphics cards

Integrated Graphics cards

Integrated graphics cards are graphical processing units that accompany the main processor, not as a separate hardware component.

Intel has their Intel integrated HD graphics and AMD has their own multiple versions of the same dubbed as APU (Arithmetic Processing Unit). Here the CPU die has allocation for the graphical unit and the integrated VEGA graphics.

These integrated graphics cards do not have their own RAM but instead it is allocated a small part of system RAM, which usually ranges between 1 -5% of the total installed RAM on the system.

Advantages of Integrated graphics cards

  • Low power consumption
  • Cheaper
  • No problems related to overheating

Disadvantages of integrated graphics cards

  • Limited performance

Dedicated/Discrete graphics card

Dedicated graphics cards come as a separate processing unit with independent components and work just like the processor, but for graphics alone.

There are discrete mobile GPUs as well as discrete desktop GPUs, the main difference being in their clock speed and size difference.

Advantages of Dedicated graphics card

  • Excellent graphical performance

Disadvantages of Dedicated graphics card

  • Possibility of overheating
  • High power consumption
  • Expensive

How do graphics cards work?

The visual output we see on a display is made of millions of dots called pixels. These pixels light up, turn off and render the colour and shape according to the set of instructions it receives from a processor in order to display an image on the screen.

These set of instructions are calculated using complex mathematical models, which a normal processor might find difficult to solve.

It is not that the normal processor is not capable of doing the same, but with a plethora of other tasks assigned to the processor simultaneously, it won’t do as good a job as a dedicated graphics processor would perform.

The graphics processor in the video card is specialized to solve such complex mathematics, to render and visualize the images and videos on the screen, in its full glory.

Components of a Graphics card

From a hardware perspective let’s take a brief look at the graphics cards in general. There are mainly four components on a video card that aides in its faster graphics processing capabilities namely:

  • A motherboard
  • Graphics Processing Unit or GPU
  • Graphics Memory
  • RAMDAC
  • Display out

Motherboard

A dedicated graphics processor in small and portable gadgets such as a laptop will be embedded on to the motherboard for its connection to data and power.

However, when it comes to desktop computers which have a separate CPU unit, these graphics cards comes with their own motherboard having all the components soldered on to and with a data and power outlet to connect it with the main motherboard.

Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

Just as the processor is the brain of a computer, GPU is the centrepiece for graphical processing tasks.

The GPU is made of millions and billions of tiny transistors that perform lakhs and crores of mathematical calculations to control the shape, size and colour of the pixels on the screen for a perfect visual output.

Graphics Memory

The images which are created by the GPU, manipulating the pixels has to be stored somewhere before it has to be converted to an input signal understood by the monitor, This is where the Graphics Memory comes in to play.

This RAM memory acts as a temporary storage area of manipulated pixels while the signal conversion is taking place in the background. More the RAM, more the data can be stored and better will be the graphical performance.

RAM-DAC

RAM-DAC stands for Random Access Memory – Digital to Analog converter. The RAM-DAC converts the pixels stored in the RAM module, which are digital binary data into an analogue form, so that the output device, preferably a display or a desktop monitor would understand and display the content accordingly.

Display Out

This is the final piece of the puzzle which bridges the gap between the graphics processor and the display unit.

The display out port placed on the motherboard of the video card can be connected directly to the display using suitable cables, be it HDMI, display port or in the case of legacy cards, a VGA cable.

PS: These are just the basic components of a video card and should not be mistaken for an entire teardown. There are other important parts such as cooling fans and heat dissipation units which play an equally important role in the performance of a video card.

General functions of a Graphics card

  • To enhance the graphical output of the system
  • To reduce load off from the CPU for lag-free computing experience
  • Target specific processing such as in the fields of quantum mechanics and 3D rendering
  • Better gaming and video rendering capabilities

Should I buy a Graphics card?

Honestly, our answer will be a big Yes. In Order to stay ahead of the advancement curve in the computing field, you should invest in a graphics card, if you want to utilize the full potential of the ecosystem.

Let’s take the case of smaller and compact devices such as laptops.

If you are a budget conscious consumer looking for a laptop for fulfilling your casual needs such as web browsing, document editing, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to invest your money on a laptop with integrated graphics.

Since with the newer generation of processors, the integrated graphics performance has almost quadrupled, and you won’t face any issue running your daily chores on such a machine with integrated graphics.

What if you are a student looking for a laptop for your academic purpose?

We’d definitely suggest you to buy a laptop with a dedicated graphics card as it will make your life a lot easier when dealing with 3D modelling on software like AutoCAD.

As the prices of these laptops with dedicated graphics card have come as low as Rs.40,000, you don’t even need to spend a fortune for better performance.

And finally, for a power user who yearns for a portable workhorse for gaming as well as professional tasks such as video editing and graphics designing, having a discrete graphics card in your machine is an absolute must.

Now comes the desktops. Since desktop computers are highly customizable, you can add or remove components as you wish.

If you feel your machine is a bit slow in the graphics department, get yourselves a graphics card and plug it in and you’re all set to go.

Professionals and hardcore gamers are known to prefer desktops over laptops and for such people, a machine without a powerful graphics card is equivalent to a dead stick.

Conclusion

A graphics card is not a luxury anymore in computing devices. They have become an absolute must.

We hope this article would have given you a clear idea of what a graphics card is and what it does to improve the performance of a computer – be it a laptop or a desktop.

We’ve tried our level best to keep the article short and precise to the point. If you wish to see more such articles, don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

If there are any topics, you wish to see us discussing, let us know in the comments section below. Have a great day and thanks for your time!