There’s always a lot of chatter about computer graphics cards, thanks to bigger and better models every few months. It’s not always clear who actually needs one, though. Let’s take a look at what they are, and whether or not they’re a good fit for your PC.
The Difference Between Integrated and Dedicated GPUs
The headline of this article is a bit of a trick question, in a way. Every desktop and laptop computer needs a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) of some sort. Without a GPU, there would be no way to output an image to your display. The real crux of our inquiry today isn’t whether or not you need a GPU, but whether or not you need a a dedicated (or discrete) GPU, which most people refer to as a “graphics card”.
Integrated GPUs: Money for Nothing and Our Pixels for Free
Most motherboards these days come with GPUs integrated into the motherboard or even the CPU itself. For decades now, it’s been common for motherboard manufacturers to include a serviceable (albeit not particularly powerful) GPU built right into the chipset of the motherboard–no extra hardware required. Buy a motherboard, get a simple built-in GPU that can produce an image on your display. Within the last six years or so, that integrated GPU has been integrated into the CPU instead.
Integrated GPUs are great because they’re free (and hassle-free). You don’t even have to think about them–just combine a consumer class motherboard and CPU (or buy a pre-assembled computer from a retailer like Dell or Best Buy) and, boom, you’ve got somewhere to plug in your monitor.
Integrated graphics are also very power efficient, since they use very little power beyond what the CPU was already using in the first place. And, thanks to their standardization, you’ll rarely run into any issues with drivers or compatibility. On a modern Windows machine, everything will just be taken care of for you.
Of course, integrated graphics have their downsides too. First, they’re weak. They’re intended for the demands of a desktop user who reads email, browses the web, drafts documents, not users who do more demanding things like games. Throw a modern game at an integrated GPU and it might stutter through it or, worse, just outright fail to load the game.
In addition, an integrated GPU shares all the resources the CPU shares, including your pool of RAM. This means any graphics-heavy task you throw at the integrated system, like rendering video, playing a current generation 3D video game, or the like, will consume a hefty chunk of your system resources and there might not be enough to go around.
Dedicated GPUs: Premium Pixel Pushing at a Premium Price
On the opposite side of the GPU spectrum, in terms of both price and performance, you’ll find dedicated GPUs. Dedicated GPUs, as the name implies, are separate pieces of hardware devoted exclusively to handling graphic processing. When you hear someone say “I bought a new video card for my computer” or “I need a new graphics card to play Super Soldier Simulator Shoot Shoot 9000“, they’re talking about a dedicated GPU.
The biggest benefit of a dedicated GPU is performance. Not only does a dedicated graphics card have a sophisticated computer chip designed explicitly for the task of processing video, the GPU, but it also has dedicated RAM for the task (which is typically faster and better optimized for the task than your general system RAM). This increase in power benefits not only the obvious tasks (like playing video games) but also makes tasks like processing images in Photoshop smoother and faster.
In addition to radical performance increase, dedicated GPU cards also typically offer a wider and more modern variety of video ports than your motherboard. While your motherboard may only have a VGA and a DVI port, your dedicated GPU might have those ports plus an HDMI port or even duplicate ports (like two DVI ports, which allows you to easily hook up multiple monitors).
Sounds good, right? Way better performance, ports, ports, and more ports, what could be better? While all those things are awesome, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. First and foremost, there’s the matter of cost. A midrange GPU can run anywhere from $250-500, and cutting edge models can cost up to $1000 (though they’re rarely worth the price to performance ratio they offer). If all you need is something simple to run two monitors, GPUs based off older designs will run you around $50-100.
On top of that, you need a free expansion slot on your computer’s motherboard–and not just any old slot, but a PCI-Express x16 slot (seen above) for the vast majority of cards, as well as a Power Supply Unit with both enough wattage to spare (GPUs are power hungry) and the proper power connectors for your GPU (if it is beefy enough to require more power than the PCI slot can provide).
Speaking of power use, increased power draw in electronics means increased heat–there’s a reason high end GPUs have huge fans to keep them cool. Be prepared for more noise and more heat–you may even need to upgrade your case and/or case fans in order to keep things cooler. Even if you don’t need to upgrade your case for airflow you may need to upgrade your case just for space–the last GPU we purchased just barely fit in our mid-tower PC case and even a fraction of an inch extra length on the GPU heat sink would have necessitated an upgrade.
So Do You Need a Dedicated GPU?
So now you know how a dedicated GPU compares to its integrated cousin, but when should you make the jump to a dedicated graphics card?
While the process of picking a specific graphics card over any other graphics card is fairly complex and you may spend quite a bit of time comparing stats and wringing your hands hoping you’re getting the best possible deal, the process of deciding whether you need an dedicated GPU in the first place is pretty darn simple. Let’s look at the two questions that really matter in the decision process.
Can Your Current Setup Handle the Games and Graphic-Centered Apps You Use?
The first and foremost reason people get a dedicated GPU is for gaming. You don’t need a dedicated GPU for watching video (even razor sharp HD video). You don’t need a dedicated GPU for email, word processing, or any Office suite type apps. You don’t even need a GPU for playing older games, as today’s integrated graphics are far better than the dedicated video cards of decades past.
You do, however, need a dedicated GPU for playing calculation-intensive modern 3D titles in all their silky smooth glory. Want to play Skyrim with dozens of mods and add-ons while still enjoying butter smooth travel through the fantasy realm? You need a decent dedicated GPU. Want to buy any top-tier title that comes out this year and enjoy stutter-free playback on your new 4K monitor? You need a great dedicated GPU.
Graphics cards are useful for some non-gamers, too. If you do a lot of photo editing (not just cropping and fixing the white balance type stuff, but intense Photoshop work), video editing, or any kind of rendering (3D art, design, etc.), then you’ll certainly get a boost from a dedicated GPU. Tasks in Photoshop like filter application, warping/transforming, and so on, all benefit from the extra power a GPU provides.
Can Your Current Setup Support the Number of Monitors You Want?
Although most people buy a GPU for gaming, there’s also a sizable (albeit much smaller) number of people who buy a dedicated graphics card in order to expand how many monitors their computer will support.
Without a dedicated graphics card, adding extra monitors to your computer is kind of a crapshoot. Some motherboards support using multiple video ports–e.g. the motherboard has a VGA and a DVI port and you can toggle a setting in the BIOS to use both of them–but most motherboards don’t. Other motherboards will allow you to keep the integrated graphics turned on and add in a lower-end dedicated GPU so you can score an extra port, but many don’t (and even when that trick works it can be a royal pain to get two totally different GPU chipsets working in parallel).
The solution for the multi-monitor lovers is a dedicated GPU that sports enough video ports for the number of monitors they wish to use. In the case of my own desktop setup, as an example, I wanted three 1080p monitors, and I didn’t want any of those monitors connected via old analog VGA connections. To that end, I needed a dedicated GPU with three or more digital (DVI, HDMI, etc.) connections.
If you want to run two or more monitors without taxing your computer, fiddling with BIOS settings, or resorting to animal sacrifice to make your monitor dreams a reality, the easiest way to do so is to simply buy a card that supports your monitor setup right out of the box. It doesn’t need to be an expensive one–just one that has the number and type of ports you need.