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What is a Graphics Card?
Before we go into integrated graphics vs graphics cards, we need to take you through the principles of what each really mean.
A graphics card is a separate add-on unit for a computer designed to handle complex visual processing. A graphics card then sends the information to your monitor(s) or display.
All graphics cards have outputs to connect your displays and have a Graphical Processing Unit (GPU) as part of their construction. The graphics card connects to a motherboard (typically via PCI-e) and has its own dedicated memory (VRAM).
What is the Difference Between Dedicated and Integrated Graphics Cards?
An Integrated graphics card has a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) as part of (integrated) into the Central Processing Unit (CPU). It sends the video information through the motherboard output to your display.
A dedicated graphics card has the GPU mounted on a dedicated circuit board with separate display connections in addition to your motherboard. A dedicated graphics card is also able to handle more intense graphical needs and demands than an integrated graphics card.
Integrated graphics cards (IGPUs) are part of most non-gaming computers. IGPUs are very cost effective and are able to handle most everyday user tasks like browsing the web, Youtube, email etc.
Dedicated graphics cards are used typically for gaming and video editing – both of these require many more resources from users who expect better performance.
In the past, the GPU was integrated into the motherboard, but now is part of the CPU.
AMD has their own version of integrated graphics cards (or processors), but they call it an APU. APU stands for Accelerated Processing Unit.
We will use IGPU or integrated graphics throughout this article. APU, IGPU and integrated graphics are all synonymous terms.
We have an article reviewing the the best AMD IGPUs (APU) on the market here.
Is a Graphics Card Needed?
A graphics card is absolutely needed if your CPU doesn’t have an integrated GPU (IGPU) as part of its architecture. Integrated graphics are meant to handle watching Youtube and other common user demands like web browsing, emails etc. A dedicated graphics card is needed if you want to play the latest and greatest games at a high detail setting without stuttering in the gameplay.
What Exactly is a GPU and Why Do We Need One?
Why the heck are GPUs so expensive? Basically the GPU is the heart of the build, and without it, most things that gamers enjoy become impossible.
A GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is the actual chip that is mounted to the graphics card. The GPU is what processes and renders the images you see, such as your favorite cat video or the icons on your desktop. It also handles calculations related to manipulating 3D objects – used mainly in gaming and video production or video editing.
The GPU is to a graphics card as the engine is to a car. We can have different models of the same car (colors, features, parts etc) but will have the same engine overall.
Therefore, different dedicated graphics cards can be based on the same GPU.
The two largest desktop GPU makers, AMD and NVIDIA, release a reference (stock) version of their new graphics cards (like the Radeon RX 590 or GeForce RTX 2080) and offer them out to vendors to customize. All of the different vendor versions of the RTX2080, for example, actually have the same GPU chip at their core.
Vendors (ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI etc) will take the reference design, and customize it with their own versions that may (and they usually do) enhance the cards performance.
These vendors will commonly change the cooling options (# of fans, size, heatsinks), Input/Output ports (I/O ports), and modify the card for higher performance (clock speed).
Nividia and AMD also release their own version of graphics cards to compete with the vendors mentioned above.
Nvidia calls their own design the Founders Edition. AMD calls their version the Frontier Edition.
Should You Buy A GPU or An IGPU/APU?
We should first look at what differences there are between a CPU (and it’s integrated GPU) and an independent GPU (part of a dedicated/discrete graphics card).
If you were to look at a CPU chip and a GPU chip, you could think they are the same.
First the Similarities:
- They’re fabricated with silicon.
- They’re mounted on a printed circuit board (PCB).
- They have a heat sink attached to them to keep them cool.
- They both perform math and solve problems.
So it seems like they’re largely the same then?
Now the Differences and Why They Have Separate Uses:
An analogy is best to grasp the differences.
Let’s say someone is running a website. Only one person is running it. That means they are the writer, accountant, security specialist, and artist (amongst many other things).
One person is doing it all.
That person is able to handle everything that comes their way and is pretty good at everything, too. Out of nowhere, they get a big request to prepare a very detailed painting/picture on how to build a computer.
They could probably do it…It would take a long time, and it would probably not be as good of quality as if they hired a professional artist (specialized in their craft) to create a vision.
Much is the same between a CPU and a graphics card.
The CPU in this example is very good at handling complex requirements and is also able to do many different things at the same time. But sometimes, it just can’t handle everything and slows down.
A GPU is an artist, or an entire art department designed solely to help produce images.
A CPU is very good at handling your virus scans, launching programs, web browsing, etc. It is the maestro at the symphony, handling, and coordinating everything.
A CPU is good at handling all of those commands and tasks amongst many other random requests – so you’re able to multitask without yelling at the computer in anger.
The GPU (as part of a dedicated graphics card) is the art department, as mentioned. The graphics card is only there for one purpose – to create the picture you see on your display. GPUs are able to handle a huge amount of repetitive similar calculations in a very fast time.
So a GPU is focused on pure speed in regards to repetitive problems and a CPU is designed to handle everything you can throw at it in a balanced way.
Inside GPUs are many identical blocks stacked on one another. These blocks are called either a streaming multiprocessor or compute unit.
In an overly simplified version, you could consider these blocks like little dedicated CPUs.
So a GPU is able to handle mathematical equations (like geometry) with blinding speed.
Displaying images is like displaying geometry, dealing with shapes, trajectories, and variables.
So to display a complex image (like in a video game) quickly with minimal time, the parallel blocks of a GPU are much better suited for this task.
Since the GPU architecture is so good at handling similar calculations the GPU has begun to be used for something called general-purpose computing on graphics cards (known as GPGPU, if you’re interested).
A very popular use of GPGPU is used in cryptocurrency mining (Bitcoin being the most popular).
Crypto mining is one of the big number crunching calculation fests a GPU is good for.
So GPUs are the future of computing right – so get rid of the CPU?
Not so fast.
For a GPU to perform fast, the problems have to be parallel and pretty straight forward.
You can consider that the CPU is needed to take care of other more complex commands that you would want to be done quickly.
RAM Usage With Integrated Graphics Cards
The last thing you want to consider to see if a graphics card is needed is the RAM usage.
Having an integrated GPU is kind of like sharing a living room with 14 roommates, the integrated GPU will use your dedicated RAM much like your roommates can use the living room.
If all 14 roommates decide to throw a party and use the living room, you’ll have to wait a long time before you can watch TV and chill!
If you’re going to be using your computer and integrated graphics to play games or do some video editing (the roommates), your system runs the risk of really slowing down overall since it will be using most of the CPU's resources.
If your computer is performing any other tasks like a virus scan or other background activities/programs are running – your system can really be slowed down and it will show in your gameplay or editing – likely to an unusable choppy level.
When Do You Absolutely Need to Buy a Graphics Card?
There are CPUs manufactured without a GPU as part of their architecture. If you have a CPU without an integrated GPU component (IGPU) you will need to buy a dedicated graphics card to supply & process the image information to your display.
As PCGamer.com reported Intel has long included integrated GPUs up until their 9th generation, where they have now started to produce some CPUs without IGPUs built in.
So for the most part, if you have an Intel CPU, you already have a GPU, and you can watch cute animal videos to your heart’s content.
However, any 9th generation Intel CPU with an “F” at the end of it doesn’t have integrated graphics – and you will need to buy a graphics card.
Many AMD CPUs do not have integrated graphics either.
Here’s a list of the latest CPUs that don’t have an integrated GPU and where you will need a graphics card
Intel CPUs Without Integrated Graphics
- Core i9 9900KF
- Core i7 9700KF
- Core i5 9600KF
- Core i5 9400K
- Core i3 8350KF
- Core i3 8100F
AMD CPUs Without Integrated Graphics
- Ryzen 3 1200
- Ryzen 3 1300X
- Ryzen 5 1400
- Ryzen 5 1500X
- Ryzen 5 1600
- Ryzen 5 1600X
- Ryzen 7 1700
- Ryzen 7 1700X
- Ryzen 7 1800X
- Ryzen Threadripper 1900X
- Ryzen Threadripper 1920X
- Ryzen Threadripper 1950X
You need a graphics card if you have any one of these CPUs.
Are Integrated Graphics Good For Gaming?
As a comparison, 60 fps is usually the mininum target for most gamers to deliver smooth gameplay on a computer screen (you can watch without sound to see the comparison).
Forbes and Wccftech performed tests looking at the Ryzen 5 2400G on Amazon – the best AMD integrated graphics CPU (or as AMD calls it APU) – and they found that the 2400G gets on average 30 fps (frames per second) on medium game settings.
Running the Ryzen 5 2400G through userbenchmark shows the following results:
MEDIUM SETTINGS AT 1080P
|GAME||FPS||# OF TESTS/SAMPLES|
Tech Deals ran a comparison between the RX 580 8GB graphics card being used compared to using the Ryzen5 2400G integrated graphics card. You can see the differences in this video.
A comparably priced Intel CPU to the Ryzen 5 2400G is the Intel i3 8100
Again, using userbenchmark users have seen the following results:
MEDIUM SETTINGS AT 1080P
|GAME||FPS||# OF TESTS/SAMPLES|
Lastly, How Many Monitors Do You Want To Use?
Another factor you may consider in buying a graphics card, is whether you want to have multiple monitors installed on your computer for work or entertainment purposes.
Most motherboards should be able to accommodate two monitors, but the way the monitors are connected may differ.
A new motherboard will likely have a DisplayPort and an HDMI output, while older motherboards will likely have a VGA (analog) output and a DVI.
There are other motherboards that will have three display outputs on them, as well.
If your motherboard doesn’t have enough display outputs to fit your need for monitors or if you’re not satisfied with using varied outputs to meet your goal (eg; using a combination of HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA etc), then you will likely need to have a dedicated graphics card.
It’s pretty easy to use the Windows 10 built in system to extend your displays.
So at this point, we’ve gone through all the reasons of why it makes sense to pick up either a integrated graphics card also known as an IGPU and why you might want to opt for a real GPU instead!
If you’re just browsing the web and doing some light gaming, then an APU does make some sense, but if you want to really game at a high level, then we recommend checking out our gaming PC builds. Even if you’re not a gamer, if you’re doing other demanding tasks like video editing, 3D modeling, or things of that nature, you still might want to look into getting one of our builds, as you’re going to appreciate having that extra power!
We hope we provided you with everything you need to know about dedicated GPUs vs Integrated GPUs.