What is a graphics card?

A graphics card is a sophisticated printed circuit board that helps render graphics.

If a CPU (central processing unit) is like a computer's brain and a motherboard is its nervous system, then a GPU (graphics processing unit) is the muscle. This specialized processer takes a load off your computer’s CPU and RAM by accelerating graphics rendering. It comes in two forms — an integrated GPU is built into your motherboard, while a discrete GPU is part of a graphics card.

So, what is a graphics card? Well, a graphics card is a sophisticated printed circuit board that helps render graphics. It may have the following components that benefit its functionality, performance, and connectivity.

  • GPU: Performs geometric and mathematical calculations to render graphics. A GPU’s clock speed, core-count, and more, determine how fast it processes data.
  • Video memory: A graphics card’s video memory, also known as Video RAM (VRAM), helps render images at higher resolutions with greater visual fidelity by storing data and functioning as a framebuffer. Top graphics cards have large VRAM with high memory clock rates and bandwidth.
  • Heatsink: A graphics card can run very warm under load. The heatsink controls its temperature by dissipating heat.
  • Motherboard interface: A graphics card fits on a motherboard’s interface slot like PCI Express. More powerful graphics cards need more than one interface.
  • Display interface: Most graphics cards feature multiple display ports like HDI, VGA, and DisplayPort for connectivity with monitors and TVs.

What devices have GPUs?

It’s not just desktop computers and laptops that use GPUs. Video game consoles like PlayStations, Nintendo Switches, Xboxes, and mobile devices like phones and tablets also carry GPUs. Video game console GPUs are usually not as powerful as the latest graphics card for PCs, though. Remember, console GPUs are just a snapshot of graphics technology, while new PC graphics cards release regularly.  

What does a graphics card do?

A graphics card takes complex instructions from the CPU and software applications like video games and determines how to reproduce this data as a 2D or 3D image for the pixels on a computer screen. Depending on the job, a graphics card may have to complete this task anywhere from 30 to 60 frames per second (fps). In addition to rendering graphics for video games, a graphics card can help with video and image editing, mining cryptocurrency, and streaming videos.

Which graphics card is best for gaming?

In general, the more powerful a graphics card is, the better and smoother the image quality. Some factors in image quality include:

  • Frame rates: A graphics card’s processing power, the demands of an image, and a display’s refresh rate help determine the frequency with which images in a video sequence appear. Modern gamers prefer at least 60 fps.
  • Resolution: The higher a video game's resolution, the more pixels you see on the screen. Some gamers are happy with 1080p, though enthusiasts prefer 1440p or 2160p.
  • Anti-aliasing: This technique helps smooth out jaggies and shimmering in objects in games.  
  • Anisotropic filtering: In 3D graphics, anisotropic filtering boosts the texture image quality of surfaces.
  • Ray tracing: This sophisticated light and shadow rendering technology helps boost realism in 3D graphics.

Rivals Nvidia and AMD produce the most popular graphics cards for gaming called GeForce and Radeon, respectively. Third parties like Asus, EVGA, MSI, and Gigabyte license the GPU technologies to sell graphics cards under their brand. Usually, the same GPU from different brands produce nearly identical performance.

Both Nvidia and AMD seek to outdo each other with each flagship model release, so the answer to “what company makes the best graphics card” can change. But unless you have money to burn or desire to play at extremely high resolutions, you may not want to pay thousands of dollars for the most powerful cards. For the average gamer, the most expensive graphics cards offer diminishing returns. You may find that a mid-range card will offer only slightly lower frame rates for significantly less money than the most powerful GPU on the market.

Tip: Check graphics cards benchmarks for the games you like to play at your monitor’s resolution to determine what product to purchase.

Why are graphics cards so expensive right now?

Many gamers are struggling to buy graphics cards at retail prices due to supply chain issues, escalating demand during the pandemic, chip shortages across industries, and the skyrocketing popularity of cryptomining. Yes, cryptominers are buying your favorite graphics cards to mine for cryptocurrency. Reportedly, cryptomining teams are also using bots to purchase cards in bulk from online retailers upon listing, resulting in higher prices.

Some cryptominers are also cryptojacking your computer for cryptocurrency. But what is cryptojacking, and what does it have to do with escalating bitcoin prices? Also known as malicious cryptomining, cryptojacking malware uses a computer's resources to mine different types of cryptocurrency like ethereum, bitcoin, and litecoin. Malicious cryptomining is on the rise as cybercriminals try to cash in on the popularity of digital currencies like bitcoin.

It’s important to protect your computer from malicious cryptomining hacks to stop your electricity bills from going up and hackers from hijacking hardware like your graphics card. You can also read up on how to troubleshoot hardware problems and maintain your computer for optimal gaming performance. 

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