Why Start With the Graphics Card?
PC usage can be generally broken down into two categories: general office administration and graphics intensive applications, such as video editing, computer-aided design and gaming.
The intended use for the computer will greatly determine the type and number of graphics cards needed, and this in turn influences the choice of other components, such as the processor, motherboard, display, and power supply size (wattage), so it’s important to consider the specifications of this component during the early stages of the design process.
Choosing an unsuitable graphics card could result in underperformance (for example, if you try to render video on a low-end card) or overpayment (for example, if you purchase a gaming-grade card for a general office PC).
What is a Graphics Card?
You use a graphics card to render (generate) the display image. In a few cases, the card must meet a minimum specification to work with specific software.
At the heart of every graphics card is a chip called the graphics processing unit (GPU); it’s a type of microprocessor designed for image processing. The most common GPUs are made by one of three companies: NVIDIA, AMD, and Intel, with Intel mostly producing integrated (on-motherboard and in-laptop) GPUs.
Top-end GPUs can quickly display data and do clever things such as generate shadows behind objects, create foggy scenes, and render complex shapes. These features are not helpful in Microsoft Word, but they may be essential to a graphic artist or gamer. These high-end GPUs come at a cost, so it’s best to consider your priorities and only pay for advanced features if they’re needed - applications with specific needs should list their minimum GPU/graphics card requirements.
What’s the opposite of overspending on unnecessary features? What could happen if I choose an under-specified graphics card/GPU?
GPU performed display-rendering is known as hardware rendering. If the graphics card is under-specified, it may use the computer’s main central processing unit (CPU) to assist, called software rendering. Software rendering slows down both the main computer and the speed at which the display can draw objects, causing performance issues with video editing and games.
The thermal and power values influence what other parts you choose, such as the computer power supply unit (PSU) and case size (for airflow). The graphics card’s power consumption should be listed in its specification, possibly as thermal design power (TDP). Strictly speaking, it measures the heat generated, but you can use it to guide power supply requirements.
Below are pictures of a low-end graphics card and a more powerful one. Note the size difference.
GPUs can be used for some general computing tasks because they can simultaneously process complex calculations on multiple pieces of data.
GPUs are often used for tasks such as:
Weather patterns and forecasting.
Artificial intelligence (AI) .
Cryptocurrency mining, such as Bitcoin.
How to Choose a Suitable Graphics Card
Although AMD, NVIDIA, and Intel produce the GPU chips, other companies use them to build complete graphics cards, so you will see manufacturers such as ASRock, Asus, EVGA, GeForce, GIGABYTE, MSI, PALIT, PNY, S3, SAPPHIRE, ZOTAC, and others.
Some graphics card features may be a must-have for your needs, while others might be unnecessary and increase the cost of the computer for no gain. The main features to consider are:
Compatibility With All Your Software
Do you have any software that requires particular GPU support (for example, the CUDA platform)?
If your PC is for general office work (word processing, spreadsheets, email, etc.), you might not even need a separate graphics card.
How fine does the display image need to be? A standard resolution for basic office displays is 1920 x 1080 (also known as 1080p). A high-end display for professional image editing might have a 3840 x 2160 resolution.
A graphics card’s spec will include the maximum resolution it supports.
For the GPU to render, the graphics card needs memory to hold the work in progress and the completed image(s). A basic graphics card might include 1-2GB video memory, whereas a top-end card may have 24GB or more.
Over time, manufacturers have established connector (ports) and cabling (PC to display) standards. You’re going to have a problem if your PC has a port type x, but your display only supports type y!
The common connector standards currently in use (in 2021) are:
VGA (Video Graphics Array): A nearly obsolete analog video standard, but still very common. It supports image resolutions up to around 2048×1536, but the setup may struggle with high resolution pictures.
DVI (Digital Visual Interface).
HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface).
USB-C: Mostly used by laptops at the moment. Compatible displays can be relatively expensive. Not all USB-C displays have speakers.
The best setup ensures that the PC and displays have identical port types. Some standards will directly interconnect with the right cable - for example:
You can connect a DVI output to an HDMI input with a simple adaptor, but with no sound.
If the graphics card supports the DVI-A or DVI-I standard and uses the compatible cable, you can connect DVI to VGA. Look for a group of four separate pins on the DVI port and cable. It means that it supports the VGA standard.
Other standards will interconnect using electronic adaptors, but you may lose picture quality.
Some graphics cards have a single output, and some have multiple; however, they may not all work simultaneously.
Here’s a checklist of the key decisions for choosing a suitable graphics card:
Is there a minimum specification? Do you have any software that requires a particular GPU function or states a recommended specification for the GPU or GPU memory?
Would an integrated GPU suffice? Could your application(s) run on a motherboard-based GPU?
Resolution? Are there any specific display screen resolution requirements?
Number of connections? Can the card support the required number and correct type(s) of display connectors?
🎯 Time to hop onto the internet and go virtual shopping for a graphics card.
Remember, your initial task is to assemble a PC for general office use (word processing, web browsing, email, etc.).
⚙️ Identify two graphics cards: one that would be suitable for your needs and a second that would be less suitable.
For both cases, note the relevant card details that determine which card is suitable and not.
Your PC needs something to render images - that’s the graphics card/GPU.
If your graphics needs are simple (an office computer), then choosing one is straightforward. However, if the computer is for gaming, image/video processing, or another graphics-intensive application (i.e., computer-aided design), check the software’s requirements.
The selected card may influence the choice of other parts - notably the motherboard, power supply, and case size.
If the graphics card is under-specified, the display may be sluggish. If the card is over-specified, you might be wasting money.
Make sure everything can connect!
Now that you’ve run through the fundamentals of how a graphics card works and how to choose one, you’re ready to consider what else you need to assemble a working computer. Next up is the processor.