Understand what GPU is and what it does on your PC

Explaining the Graphic Processing Unit

Computer graphics are an essential part of any modern computer system, even lightweight laptops. But what is GPU? let's understand

When thinking about buying a gaming computer or gaming notebook, you want your machine to be able to run the best games with maximum graphics capability. You want the best games and the best resolutions and everything you could want to make the most of your game. And for that you need a good motherboard, a good processor and a good GPU. GPU stands for Graphic Processing Unit (''central processing unit'') and is the part of the PC responsible for the on-screen images you see.

In short: It's your graphics card!

If you use your computer just for the basics – surfing the web or using office software and desktop applications – there's not much more you need to know about what GPU is. It's the part of the PC that's responsible for what you see on the monitor, and that's it. A graphics card is not required for this to be projected onto the screen.

What is gpu?
Playing Minecraft like this is not for any GPU

However, for gamers or anyone who does work that can be accelerated by a GPU, such as 3D rendering, video encoding, and so on, the GPU does a lot more work. These people need to get a lot more out of their GPU. But, to better understand how it works and what it does, let's give a brushstroke on this technology that is increasingly essential for modern games and with increasingly advanced graphics.

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What is GPU?

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War (Image via Steam)

If we think of a central processing unit (CPU or Processor) as the “logic thinking of the silicon brain” section of a computer, then the graphics processing unit (GPU or Graphics Card) is its creative side, helping to transform the graphical user interfaces in visually appealing icons and designs, rather than reams of black and white lines, similar to that Matrix code.

While many CPUs come with some form of GPU built in to ensure that Windows can be displayed on a connected screen, there are a multitude of more graphics-intensive tasks like video rendering and computer-aided design (CAD) that often require a dedicated or discrete GPU, mostly in the form of a graphics card.

When it comes to the latter, Nvidia and AMD are the two main dedicated hardware manufacturers, while Intel's own Iris Plus and UHD integrated GPUs tend to limit much light work on laptops without dedicated graphics. On the mobile side, companies like Qualcomm and MediaTek provide lightweight GPUs for mobile devices, though they often come in system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs where the GPU is on the same chip as the CPU and other major mobile component chipset.

It can be easy to think of a GPU as something that only people interested in PC Gamer gaming or working with heavy video are interested in, but a GPU offers a lot more than just pretty graphics.

Components of a Graphics Card

Here are the most important components of a graphics card.

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GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)

The graphics processing unit or commonly known as GPU is the heart of the graphics card. It is the main component of the graphics card where all the graphics processing takes place. Unlike a CPU that only has 2 to 16 cores, a GPU processor is made up of hundreds or thousands of small cores or units that work in parallel to perform complex graphics operations. 

Memory

Memory is where all complex textures and other graphical information is stored. The GPU fetches textures from memory, processes them, sends them back to RAM and then sends them to RAMDAC and then to the LCD screen or monitor. RAMDAC is a digital to analog random access memory converter that converts the image to an analog signal and sends it to your monitor or LCD screen via a video cable.

Internal Interface

The internal interface is the one through which your graphics card connects to the motherboard. Older video cards use the AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) interface to connect to the motherboard, but now it has been replaced by a much faster and more efficient PCI Express 2.0 x16 interface. The motherboard must also have the PCI Express x16 slot, otherwise you won't be able to use the card. Some motherboards have two PCI Express x16 slots side by side, so you can use video cards connected in SLI or Crossfire mode to increase performance.

Heat sink and fan

Heatsink and fan form the cooling part of the video card, which is used to lower the temperature of the GPU and RAM (on some cards). The heat sink is a passive cooling device made of copper or aluminum and its main purpose is to take the heat from the GPU and dissipate it in the surroundings. A fan is an active cooling device that blows air across the heatsink to make the heatsink cool faster so that it can quickly dissipate heat from the components.

DVI / HDMI / VGA Ports

They form the graphics card's external interface. They are used ​​to connect your monitor or LCD screen to your graphics card via an appropriate cable. Low-end video cards have only VGA and DVI (Digital Video Interface) ports, while high-end video cards have DVI and HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface). Both DVI and HDMI are digital interfaces, but in HDMI the audio or sound signal can be transmitted through it.

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What does a GPU do

The easiest way to understand what a GPU is and what a GPU does is to talk about video games. In a game, we might see a computer-generated image of a person, a landscape, or an incomprehensibly detailed model of a 3D object. Whatever we're seeing, it's all thanks to the graphics processing unit.

Video games are complex devices that require a lot of mathematical calculations in parallel to display images on the screen. A GPU is designed to process graphical information, including the geometry, color, shading, and textures of an image. Its RAM memory is also specialized in handling a large amount of information reaching the GPU and video data, known as a framebuffer, going to your screen.

The GPU gets all the instructions to draw images on the CPU screen and then executes them. This process of going from instructions to the finished image is called the rendering or graphics pipeline. The basic unit to start creating 3D graphics is the polygon. More specifically, triangles. Almost everything you see in a typical video game starts out as a huge collection of triangles. There may also be other shapes used, but the vast majority are triangles.

These basic shapes, in addition to other lines and dots, are known as “primitive”. They are built to make recognizable objects such as a table, tree or wizard holding a staff. The more polygons you use for an object, the more detailed your finished images can become. See the clip above for an example of figures with few polygons.

Each object has its own set of coordinates to be defined in a scene. If a human were drawing a dining room, for example, we would use our own “judgment” about where the table and chairs should be, or how close those objects should be to the wall. Our mind, our creative part or our “GPU” defined all this and sent it to paper, or “screen”, through the processing capacity of our “hardware”, in this case, our mother and a pencil.

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A computer cannot (yet) make these “judgment” calls alone and needs the right coordinates to put the tables and chairs in the right places. Once the scene is set, the GPU starts figuring out the perspective based on where the “camera” is looking at the scene. A street battle, for example, will look very different if your character is standing on top of a parked bus, looking at chaos, rather than stealing furtive glances, while crouching behind an overturned taxi. Again, there's a lot of math going on in figuring out the viewing angles.

After a little more refinement, the images gain the textures, shadows, colors and shadows that bring everything to life. All this graphics processing is happening at ultra-fast speeds, requiring heavy calculations, which is why a separate processing unit is needed in the first place. If something in this process goes wrong in video games, for example, you suddenly see an object in the air.

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Okay it's a world with magic, but I think this mammoth shouldn't be there

The GPU is built specifically to do this graphics processing, which requires a lot of mathematical calculations that happen in parallel, taking this “obligation” from the CPU and allowing more things to happen at the same time. While the CPU is calculating many other things, doing new and different tasks on the computer, the GPU specifically takes care of the graphics part of games and processing 3D objects and video.

You could technically rely on a CPU for the graphics, but it wouldn't be efficient and the end result would never be so visually impressive. The CPU simply doesn't have the resources to handle most games on its own and is already running its operating system, other programs and processes in the background. It is also helping to run the game with physical calculations, AI operations and other tasks.

(This heavier focus on calculations and parallel operations is why Bitcoin miners have turned to platforms full of GPUs to generate the math needed to mine cryptocurrency coins. CPUs, on the other hand, are not that specialized and are of more general use.)

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Tom Petersen of nVidia explaining about (turn on subtitle)

While GPUs tend to be generally associated with realistic graphics in high-quality video games, other industries use them as well.

For example, in business applications like AutoCAD, GPUs offer the benefit of rendering 3D models. As this type of software requires constant changes in very little time, the PC on which the model is rendered must be able to support the editing process. In this example, a GPU facilitates the rendering of 3D models.

Also, another popular use of GPUs is in video editing. This is very important when working with large amounts of high resolution files such as 360° or 4K video. It can sometimes be problematic to edit these file types for most standard GPUs, which is exactly why a high-end GPU is very useful thanks to its ability to transcode video files at a reasonable speed.

Furthermore, GPUs are extremely useful when it comes to creating neural networks and processing machine learning functions. This is another task that can be overwhelming for a CPU due to the large amount of data involved in the process.

What is Ray Tracing?

Ray tracing is a rendering technique that can produce incredibly realistic lighting effects. Essentially, an algorithm can track the light's path and then simulate the way light interacts with the virtual objects it finally hits in the computer-generated world. We've seen the lighting effects in the game become more and more realistic over the years, but the benefits of ray tracing are less about the light itself and more about how it interacts with the world. 

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Ray tracking allows for dramatically more realistic shadows and reflections, along with greatly improved translucency and dispersion. The algorithm takes into account where the light hits and calculates the interaction and interaction much like the human eye would process real light, shadows and reflections, for example. How light hits objects in the world also affects the colors you see. 

With enough computing power available, it is possible to produce incredibly realistic CG images that are almost indistinguishable from real life. But that's the problem: even a well-equipped gaming PC has a limited amount of GPU to work with, let alone a modern game console.

Who are the biggest GPU companies?

Nvidia

Nvidia is a California-based US technology company, founded in 1993, that designs GPUs for gaming and professional markets, as well as system units on a chip (SoCs) for the mobile computing and automotive markets. Its primary GPU lineup is GeForce, which is a direct competitor to AMD's Radeon.

Some of their best-known GPUs include the GeForce RTX 3080, the Nvidia Titan V, and the Nvidia RTX A6000. At the moment, due to the worldwide shortage of graphics cards, thanks to the high demand for bitcoin mining cards, it can be tricky to get your hands on one of your GPUs, especially your GeForce RTX 3070 cards.

In July 2021, Nvidia activated what it claimed was the UK's fastest supercomputer, the Cambridge-1, which contained multiple NVIDIA A100 Tensor Core GPUs.

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AMD

Advanced Micro Devices, also known as AMD, was founded in 1969 and is another US technology company based in California. It develops computer processors and other products for the commercial and consumer markets. Originally, it manufactured semiconductors before breaking up that division in 2008, which was then transformed into GlobalFoundries.

AMD's core products include motherboard chipsets, microprocessors, graphics processors and integrated processors. Some of their products include the AMD Radeon graphics series and the Ryzen processor line.

In March, the company announced that it would launch the Ryzen 5000 Pro series of mobile processors for thin and light business laptops. It consists of three chips: Ryzen 7 Pro 5850U, Ryzen 5 Pro 5650U and Ryzen 3 5450U. The 5850 is the highest specification of the three, featuring an eight-core 16-thread design, 20MB cache, and base clock frequency and boost of 1,9GHz and 4,4GHz, respectively. AMD said the chip is the only high-performance eight-core processor designed for thin and light laptops.

Dedicated and integrated GPUs

what is gpu
A supportive Dedicated AMD Radeon GPU (Image via AMD)

There are two main types of GPUs you can have for a modern PC: integrated e dedicated. Video cards are typically large, bulky docking components for desktop PCs that have one, two, or sometimes three fans. These cards contain the actual graphics processor chip as well as RAM memory to handle higher graphics loads such as video games. Fans keep components cool. In short: It's like having a computer inside your computer.

Desktop graphics cards are some of the easiest components to upgrade (if you have the money to buy them whenever you want). Simply place the card in a PCIe x16 slot, connect a cable to the power supply (if necessary) and install the drivers.

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Core i7-8700 CPU includes Intel UHD 630 graphics (Image via Intel)

Notebooks can also have dedicated GPUs, but instead of a big board, the dedicated notebook GPU is just a chip soldered on the motherboard. Unlike those on a desktop, they are not so easy to update. Only more expensive gaming computers usually have the option to upgrade a video card or any other component.

Then there are integrated graphics chips, which are built into the processor. Not all CPUs have this. AMD's Ryzen desktop CPUs, for example, are famous for not having any integrated graphics. However, the company manufactures desktop processors with integrated graphics, called Accelerated Processing Units (APUs). Intel's Core desktop chips with model numbers ending in an “F” also lack graphics, as do Core X-Series CPUs with model numbers ending in an “X”. As these processors do not have a GPU, they are sold at a lower price.

A processor without graphics is just a concern for desktops. Again, notebooks are sold as a bundle, so they require either a dedicated GPU or an integrated graphics card built into the processor.

Modern processors with integrated graphics can be surprisingly powerful. Some are able to play older selected AAA titles at reasonable frame rates when graphics settings are reduced. In other words, you'll be able to play the games, but not with high or ultra graphic quality, but you'll be able to enjoy the game with peace of mind.

These models are an economical choice for those who still can't afford the graphics card of their dreams. Anyone who wants to do serious work, however, will need to know what a GPU is, and therefore a separate GPU.

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Which GPU do you need?

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(Image via Alienware)

Now you know the basics of what the GPU is, what it does and the different types that exist. So how do you know which one you need? If you're gaming on a desktop, you need a graphics card and there's a whole world of reviews to help you pick the best one. Generally, make sure you get one. proper graphics card for your monitor's resolution, such as 1080p, 1440p or 4K.

Game features are constantly evolving and require new hardware. This means that video cards tend to become obsolete more quickly than other components. Desktop owners should buy something released within the last two to three years. For gaming on a notebook, be very, very careful. Many gaming notebooks have dedicated GPUs of up to two generations and cost as much (or nearly as much) as a notebook with a newer GPU.

If you're focused on video editing for enthusiasts, a powerful CPU is more important, but a dedicated graphics card (even if it's a few generations old) is also needed. For everyone else, integrated graphics will suffice. There's no need to get a graphics card for streaming video, basic web games or even basic photo editing. Just make sure your CPU actually has an integrated GPU. Otherwise, you might get a frustrating surprise trying to boot that new desktop.

Now leave in the comments: What are the best GPUs for you? Prefer Nvidia or AMD GPUs? Do you use any on your PC? Contact us and take the opportunity to read more about tech on our website.

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Paulo Fabris is a journalist, writer, RPG player, gamer, cosplayer, nerd and fan of anime since the time of TV Manchete.