It’s tempting to focus on the GPU power of a new graphics card and ignore how much VRAM it has, especially if you’re not playing at 4K. However, modern game engines and technologies like ray tracing are changing this fast.
What Is VRAM and Why Does It Matter?
Video Random Access Memory (VRAM) is a type of memory used in graphics processing units (GPUs) to store and process the data needed to render images and graphics on a computer or other device. VRAM is specifically designed to handle high-bandwidth and high-performance graphics processing requirements. It’s typically faster and more efficient than other types of memory, such as system RAM.
The more VRAM a GPU has, the more data it can access and process at once, leading to faster rendering times and better overall performance. This is particularly important for gaming and other graphics-intensive tasks, which can significantly strain a GPU.
Additionally, VRAM is important for high-resolution displays, as it allows the GPU to store and process the larger amounts of data needed to render images at higher resolutions. This is why having a GPU with a lot of VRAM can be especially important for users who want to run games or other graphics-intensive applications on a high-resolution display, such as a 4K monitor.
Ray Tracing Is a VRAM Hog
Ray tracing is becoming more common as an option in current games, and you can expect to see it in many games in the coming years. Ray tracing is a rendering technique used to create highly realistic graphics by simulating how light interacts with objects and surfaces in a virtual environment. It involves tracing the path of light rays as they bounce off of objects and calculating how they are absorbed, reflected, and refracted by the materials in the scene.
Ray tracing requires a lot of VRAM since it generates a lot of data that needs to be processed, as each ray of light requires its own calculation. This data must be stored in VRAM so that the GPU can access it quickly and efficiently.
Texture and Asset Quality Is Increasing Rapidly
Texture and asset quality can significantly impact VRAM requirements, as they affect the amount of data that must be stored and processed by the GPU.
Higher quality textures and assets generally require more VRAM to store and process, as they contain more detailed information and larger file sizes. For example, a high-resolution texture used to render a character’s skin might be made up of thousands of pixels. In contrast, a lower-resolution texture might only contain a few hundred pixels. The larger the texture, the more VRAM it will take to store and process.
In addition to the size of the textures and assets, their complexity can also affect VRAM requirements. Complex assets with many intricate details and shading will require more VRAM to render than simpler assets with fewer details.
Modern games are rapidly requiring much more VRAM than you might expect. For example, 1440p is a popular resolution among PC gamers, and common wisdom has held that 8GB of VRAM is more than sufficient for game rendered at this resolution. Yet, the latest releases easily hit that limit at the highest texture quality settings and in combination with ray tracing, or when used with high-end VR applications, that VRAM amount is insufficient.
Consoles Have a Smart Memory Advantage
One of the reasons PC gamers may need more VRAM than expected is because consoles like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X use a “unified” memory design. In other words, instead of the CPU and GPU each having their own dedicated pools of RAM, both have one central pool.
This lets the console pull off several tricks that let it do more with its total memory allocation than a PC with the same amount of memory. For one thing, data that both the CPU and GPU need now only take up the space a single copy requires. In a PC, such data would have to be copied to VRAM and RAM and accessed separately.
Secondly, the console can dynamically allocate memory for graphics and non-graphics needs. So it can use 12GB of a 16GB total RAM for texture memory and the other 4GB for the operating system or other game functions. A PC with 8GB of RAM and 8GB of VRAM has a hard limit on VRAM that the console does not even though the total amount of memory is technically the same.
So it stands to reason that if you want to play PC ports of consoles games, you should have as much VRAM as the console can realistically allocate. For the current generation of consoles, 12GB seems reasonable, but if you had a GPU with 16GB of VRAM you’d be completely covered for console game ports.
VRAM Matters Beyond Gaming
While the main reason most people buy a powerful GPU with lots of VRAM is for gaming, having GPU memory to spare has utility for non-gaming and professional software as well. If you want to dabble in machine learning, video editing, 3D modeling, and other similar software, you need a decent chunk of VRAM. With 4K video slowly becoming the norm, even those looking for a GPU purely to help with video editing and rendering will want at minimum 6GB of VRAM, and if you’re going to start layering in effects and complex transitions, that number will grow.
A more recent application that’s a surprising VRAM hog is AI image generation. For example, Stable Diffusion requires at least 8GB of VRAM to generate a 256×256 pixel image. So if you want to get serious about local image generation, you’ll have to aim for a GPU with 12GB or even 16GB of VRAM.
Overestimate Your VRAM Needs
VRAM has rarely been a major concern for PC gamers over the years, since it’s largely been seen as a worry for those who want to game at 4K, which is a small minority of PC players (at least for now). However, modern rendering techniques, asset systems, and game engines are becoming VRAM-hungry for reasons that aren’t directly connected to output or even rendering resolution.
While it’s always hard to recommend a specific VRAM amount for your next GPU purpose, we do have some practical advice. Look at the recommended VRAM requirements for modern games that you’d like to play and consider buying a GPU with 50-100% more VRAM than that figure. If a game recommends 8GB of VRAM at the resolutions you play, make your next card a model with 12-16GB of VRAM.
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