7 Things to Look For When Buying a Graphics Card – GPU, Memory, Connectors, Power

By | October 24, 2021

Graphics cards have become essential components for PCs and laptops, especially if you want to play games or run other applications that require 3D rendering hardware.

Unless you are building a pc for plain data entry or document work, you shall very likely need some sort of GPU.

Most desktop pc builds for office usage, usually rely on the integrated gpu present in intel cpus or the motherboard chipset sometimes.

However for most other applications a dedicated graphics card has become a must. Whether it is for watching video media, playing games or doing professional 3d modelling or CAD work, a graphics card is a necessity.

However, things are quite confusing when it comes to buying a good graphics card for your pc build. There are only 2 players in the gpu market which are nvidia and amd, and both of them offer a wide range of gpus for various needs.

Nvidia Graphics Card

In the high end expensive range, there are fewer gpu models to choose from and you should know what you are doing. Much advice is not needed then.

However if you are looking for a medium budget or low budget graphics card for decent entry level gaming experience or to run some professional applications, there is actually a huge number of graphics cards to choose from.

Here are some of the key factors to consider when buying a graphics card for your desktop PC:

  • The GPU - Nvidia/AMD, Freesync/G-Sync
  • VRAM - Size, Bandwidth
  • Power Requirements
  • Size and Case Clearance factor
  • Video Output Ports - HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA, DVI
  • Supported Resolutions and Refresh Rates
  • Multi GPU Support - Nvidia SLI / AMD CrossFire

In order to simplify things, in this article we shall highlight the key things you need to consider when buying a graphics card.

1. GPU - The Heart of Graphics Processing

The GPU is the core chip on the graphics card that does all the processing. Nvidia and AMD are the 2 companies making all the gpus and different models have names like GeForce RTX 3080, Radeon RX 6800.

Different gpu models have different levels of computing powers and in general the more expensive gpu is more powerful as well.

The selection of GPU will totally depend on what games or applications you want to run and what level of performance (like game fps) you desire. So if you want to play games with high graphics settings you need a high power gpu as well.

Games like Fortnite will need a gpu like RTX 3070 to provide 120 FPS or more with "EPIC" graphics settings on 1080p resolution. Whereas games like Counter Strike or Valorant will be able to provide 144 FPS with highest graphics settings with a RTX 3060 gpu. Similar performance can be achieved by graphics cards of previous series as well.

On the other hand if you use a GTX 1650/1650 Super/1660/1660 Ti/ 1660 Super the card will be cheaper than an RTX 3060 but won't be able to deliver high FPS at high graphics settings. Then either you would have to lower the resolution or the graphics settings

There are gpu hierarchy charts available on many sites that provide a relative comparison of all gpus in terms of their processing power. Check this link for example:

https://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/gpu-hierarchy,4388.html

For mid-level gaming performance with popular titles like Fortnite, Forza Horizon, CS:GO, Valorant, Apex Legends we recommend a minimum of RTX 3060. It would allow you to run most games with the highest graphics settings and get a decent FPS in the range of 80-150.

Besides games there are other applications that need dedicated gpus. For example CAD, 3d modeling, 3d rendering and machine learning applications. CAD applications don't need very powerful gpus, and you can run them easily with a lower end gpu like GTX 1650. CAD applications mostly involve drawing 3d structures and using basic 3d functions like rotation, translation and frame buffering.

3D modeling and rendering how-ever is more graphics intensive and would require high end gpus similar to the ones required for gaming. So you would need to consider upwards of RTX 3060/GTX 2070.

The GPUs are just the chips and other brands like MSI, Asus, Gigabyte, Zotac etc use these gpu chips to manufacture a complete graphics card which has the graphics memory, graphics output ports etc.

Traditionally Nvidia was the leader in the gpu space and most high end gpus were from Nvidia only. However in recent times AMD has started competing with Nvidia in the high end gpu market as well.

Top 10

Here are the top 10 gpus in order of their computation power score from hierarchy chart published by tomshardware.


Name Score GPU Base/Boost Memory Power
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090 100.0% GA102 1400/1695 MHz 24GB GDDR6X 350W
AMD Radeon RX 6900 XT 97.0% Navi 21 1825/2250 MHz 16GB GDDR6 300W
AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT 93.5% Navi 21 1825/2250 MHz 16GB GDDR6 300W
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 93.1% GA102 1440/1710 MHz 10GB GDDR6X 320W
AMD Radeon RX 6800 85.7% Navi 21 1700/2105 MHz 16GB GDDR6 250W
Nvidia Titan RTX 79.5% TU102 1350/1770 MHz 24GB GDDR6 280W
Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti 77.4% TU102 1350/1635 MHz 11GB GDDR6 260W
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 76.3% GA104 1500/1730 MHz 8GB GDDR6 220W
AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT 73.3 Navi 22 2321/2424 MHz 12GB GDDR6 230W
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti 69.6% GA104 1410/1665 MHz 8GB GDDR6 200W

As can be seen 4 out of 10 cards are from AMD, which clearly shows that Nvidia is now facing fierce competition.

Nvidia vs AMD

AMD gpus are cheaper than Nvidia and offer superior performance at the same price. This can be a major attraction for consumers.

Also AMD is already a giant in the cpu space well. So if you are using an AMD cpu, then using and AMD gpu can offer some advantages as amd cpus integrate better with amd gpus with the Smart Access Memory technology.

The data in the above table suggests that AMD gpus consume less power compared to nvidia gpus as the same performance levels. This may be a consideration for users but usually is not a big factor.

If you want to get the most powerful gpu for a premium gaming rig, then your best choice would probably be nvidia only since it occupies the number 1 position.

Moreover Nvidia has superior support for features like ray tracing. AMD cards don't yet have great ray tracing support even in their premium cards.

Price and Performance

In the department of higher-end graphics processing, Nvidia GPUs perform better than AMD GPUs. Nvidia’s new line of RTX cards, especially the just-released RTX 3070, RTX 3080, and RTX 3090 would outperform any AMD graphics card out there today.

But as is expected with such high-performing GPUs, they come at a higher cost. The new Nvidia RTX 3070, RTX 3080, and RTX 3090 retail at $499, $699, and $1,499 respectively and those prices are likely to be out of reach for most consumers.

In the mid-range level, you are likely to get more value out of investing in AMD graphics cards. At an average of $200, you can get a decent AMD Radeon graphic card that will run many games easily. Models like the Radeon RX 570 RS, Radeon RX 580 GTS, and the Sapphire Radeon all fall within this price range and offer reliable performance, depending on your needs.

G-Sync vs FreeSync

Ultimately, the most powerful deal-breaker that most people would have for choosing one brand over the other is monitor compatibility. Some monitors support the AMD FreeSync while some support the Nvidia G-Sync.

Whichever one your monitor is configured to support better would determine how great the refresh rates you get are. However, if your monitor is not configured to support either of them specially, then you should go ahead and go for either brand, depending on your budget.

Features of the GPU

There are other features of the GPU that you might want to consider. The RTX series has Ray-tracing and DLSS support, whereas the GTX series does not. These features enhance gaming graphics by generating highly realistic visual effects.

However not all modern games support or utilise these new features, so you might not actually get a significant benefit by spending more on the RTX cards.

However RTX 3000 series cards are slowly becoming the standard and replacing the older cards in popularity where budget is not a restriction. This is specially the case with laptops where RTX 3050/3060/3070 have become the major gpus on all popular gaming laptops.

For a budget desktop build however, you might consider a GTX 1650/1660 and get decent performance with high end games with medium graphics settings.

2. Memory - The RAM of graphics card

The memory on the graphics card holds all the data on which graphical operations are to be done by the gpu. The same memory also provides the output data to the monitor via the output ports like hdmi and displayport as well.

In general the more memory there is, the better. More memory means that the graphics card can support higher resolutions better which need more pixel data for rendering the graphics.

However the important thing to understand over here is that most gpus prescribe a certain amount of supported memory by themselves which is then implemented by the manufacturers.

So most of the time you as a buyer cannot choose between 2 graphics card which have the same gpu but different amount of memory. Most of the time the gpu model and amount of memory it carries is fixed.

If you look at the graphics card table in the previous section, there is a column for memory, which shows the amount of memory that is compatible with gpu and comes with it in most graphics cards. So if you want more graphics memory, you need to opt for gpus that are paired with higher memory.

We recommend opting for a GPU with 2 to 8 gigabytes of dedicated graphics memory.

Anything above 8 gigabytes may not be necessary and will add to the cost. It is important to note that the memory referred to here is VRAM (Video Random Access Memory), not RAM (Random Access Memory).

The exact terminology used for video graphics memory is GDDR (Graphics Double Data Rate). This differs from DDR (Double Data Rate) which is used to label regular RAM technologies. GDDR6 is the latest installment in video memory technology. The previous versions of GDDR in existence are GDDR1, GDDR2, GDDR3, GDDR4, and GDDR5.

The higher the number, the better and more recent the technology behind it. So GDDR5 is better than GDDR4, which is better than GDDR3, and so on. We recommend going for GDDR5 and above for optimum performance.

Memory Interface Width

Another technical spec of the graphics card memory is the memory interface width, which can be something like 128-bit, 192-bit or 256-bit.

This the bit-width of the memory bus and indicates the number of bits that can be transferred per memory clock cycle. So with 256-bit width 256 bits of data can be transferred per clock cycle.

Multiply this with the clock cycle and you can know how much data can be tansferred per second on the memory interface or bus.

This is a technical parameter and is usually fixed for each gpu much like the total memory and there is nothing you need or can do about it.

3. Power Requirements

Next important point is the power rating of the graphics card which indicates how much power it needs to run. More powerful graphics cards need more power.

Most graphics cards draw power from either the motherboard or via a dedicated power cable from the PSU.

Motherboards can provide upto 75W of power to the graphics card. If a graphics card needs more power it will have a power port for direct connection with psu.

The unit of measurement for GPU power consumption is Watts (W). The average power consumption demanded by the top-level graphics cards in the market today ranges from 110 watts to 300 watts.

GPUs like the RX 580 require as high as 240W of power to function effectively. Earlier models like the RX 570 require about 180W of power for a smooth operation.

Graphics card is one of the most important deciding factor for choosing a psu and deciding the total power needs of a pc build. So if you are choosing a high end graphics card, make sure that you have a powerful enough psu to power it.

The best option is to calculate the power requirements using a power calculator like these:

Newegg's Power Supply Calculator:
https://www.newegg.com/tools/power-supply-calculator/

PC Builds PSU Calculator:
https://pc-builds.com/psu/

Multi gpu systems will need even more power. A medium range multi gpu setup can need upto 850W or even more power. So you should carefully match the power needs of your graphics card with the power supply of the system.

A gpu like Nvidia 3090 would need 2 dedicated PCIe 8-pin power cables coming separately from the power supply.

4. Case Clearances

If you are going for the high end Nvidia gpus like RTX 20xx or 30xx then be aware that the cards are large in size and take up a lot of space in the pc case itself.

A lot of compact micro atx pc cases would not be able to fit in those large graphics cards. Your only option then is to get a new pc case or may be a different graphics card, that is smaller.

Larger graphics cards like nvidia 3090 would cover upto 3 expansion slots on the rear side of the case, so check the dimension of the cards in the specs carefully when finding a matching pc case.

5. Video Output Port

Video output ports are the next important thing to look out. They is no single type of video output port and a single graphics card can have many different types.

The newer technology ports are HDMI and DisplayPort and these have become standards. They are already popular today and shall replace older ports like vga, dvi etc.

Most modern high end graphics cards like the "Sapphire 11304-02-20G Nitro+ AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT" have only DisplayPort and HDMI port.

And you also need to make sure that your monitor also has one of these ports if not both. Though most newer monitors are already equipped with these new ports.

Even in the motherboard market, most newer motherboards have removed VGA (D-SUB) port and now have only HDMI and DisplayPort connectors onboard.

If you want to learn more about video connectors check our other articl here: 4 Types of Video Connector Interfaces Explained - HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, D-Sub

6. Multi-GPU Configuration

Both AMD and Nvidia have their own versions of multi-GPU configuration. AMD’s multi-GPU setup is called CrossFire, while Nvidia’s setup is called SLI. Both technologies do the same thing - they allow you to run multiple graphics cards on the same PC at the same time.

Both of these technologies work in two ways: Split Frame Rendering and Alternate Frame Rendering.

Split Frame Rendering: If you set your SLI or CrossFire multi-GPU configuration to this option, it configures your graphics cards to share the burden of processing each frame among themselves. What this means is that each of your GPUs would process one portion of the frame concurrently.

Alternate Frame Rendering: In this setting, rather than run portions of the same frame simultaneously as split frame rendering does, your GPUs run alternate frames at the same time, hence the name. For example, GPU 1 could run Frames 1,3, and 5, while GPU 2 will run frames 2,4 and 6.

There are several reasons to use or not use multi gpu setups. In some cases you can get higher frame rates in your game using multiple gpus, but this performance gain is not guaranteed across all games.

Sometimes you might be better off, buying a more expensive power graphics card instead of having 2 of them.

Multi GPU setups also have restrictions of their own. Firstly the graphics card itself must support multi gpu configuration. AMD has better support for multi gpu, where you can pair different gpu of the same series together. Whereas nvidia is more strict in this regard, as you need to use the exact same gpu for pairing.

Moreover nvidia has removed support for multi gpu in many of its newer gpus.

Also you need a compatible motherboard that can support multiple gpu configuration. Besides all this keep in mind that multi gpu setups are more power hungry, which means you need a more powerful psu and better cooling inside your pc case.

The overall cost of a multi gpu can be quite high compared to a simple setup with more powerful graphics card instead.

7. Maximum Resolutions and Refresh Rates

GPUs usually have an upper limit to the maximum resolution and refresh rate supported. For example the Nvidia 1080Ti has a limit of [email protected]

The maximum output resolution and refresh rate usually depends on the video connector used. Highest resolutions are available with DisplayPort.

DisplayPort and HDMI ports support up to 4K resolution. If you are using an HDMI 1.4 port, you can get up to 4K resolution but at a limited refresh rate of 30Hz. However, if you are using an HDMI 2.0 port, you can get up to 4K resolution but at a refresh rate of 60Hz.

DisplayPort 1.2 ports can run at 4K resolution at up to a refresh rate of 60Hz. If you bring your display settings on a DisplayPort 1.2 port down to a 1080p resolution, you can get a refresh rate of as high as 144Hz.

The newer DisplayPort 1.3 which was released in September 2014, can run as high as an 8K resolution, but at 60Hz. If you choose to bring your display settings down to a 4K resolution, you can still get a refresh rate as high as 120Hz. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980 Ti comes with just a DisplayPort 1.2, which means that gaming at a 4K resolution on this graphics card puts you at a limited refresh rate of 60Hz.

Nvidia and AMD’s latest graphics card releases come with DisplayPort 1.4 connectors. This offers players 4K gaming at a 120Hz refresh rate, and 8K gaming at a 60Hz refresh rate. An example of a graphics card that can pull this off is the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, but you will need two of these graphics cards at once, running in SLI.

It should be noted that high resolutions like 7680x4320 are available when using multiple DisplayPort connectors.

DVI ports do not support frequencies and resolutions as high as what HDMI and DisplayPort connectors do. DVI can support a maximum of 1,920 by 1,200 resolution on its single-link cable. On a double-link cable, a DVI port’s performance goes up to 2,560 by 1,600. DVI ports can also run at a refresh rate of 144Hz.

Most new graphics cards have HDMI 2.1 and DisplayPort 1.4a which gives the highest resolutions and refresh rates.

Top Brands

Finally its time to take a look at the top brands that are selling graphics cards. These include Asus, MSI, Gigabyte, Zotac, EVGA, AsRock, XFX etc.

1. Asus

Asus is very popular for its TUF and ROG series of laptops designed for gamers. But they also make graphics cards featuring both Nvidia and AMD gpus.

Their graphics card have gpus like

  • Nvidia: GTX 1650, GTX 1050 Ti, RTX 2060, RTX 3090, RTX 3060, GTX 1070, RTX 2070, RTX 2080 Ti
  • AMD: RX 5500, RX 5600 XT, RX 570, RX 6700 XT, RX 6900 XT

Popular models are:

  • ASUS GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB Phoenix Fan Edition
  • ASUS GeForce RTX 2060 Overclocked 6G GDDR6
  • ASUS ROG Strix GeForce RTX 2080TI Advanced Overclocked 11G GDDR6

Asus focuses heavily on products for gamers and this can be seen from their graphics cards range as well. They cover nearly all the top tier gpus. Overclocking is also available on models like RTX 2060 6GB cards for those who want extreme performance.

2. MSI

MSI (Micro-Star International) is a Taiwanese company that manufactures premium grade pc components and laptops for the gaming niche.
Their gaming laptop feature unique RGB metallic looks and are very popular.

MSI also makes graphics cards featuring gpus from both nvidia and amd. The gpu range consists of GTX 1650, GtX 1660, RTX 3060, Radeon 6700 XT and more.

Popular models include

  • MSI Gaming GeForce GTX 1660 192-Bit 6GB GDRR5 - VENTUS XS 6G OC
  • MSI Gaming GeForce RTX 2060 6GB GDRR6 192-bit - GAMING Z 6G
  • MSI Gaming GeForce RTX 3070 8GB GDRR6 256-Bit - Gaming X Trio

MSI graphics cards have overclocking support on many models.

3. Gigabyte

Gigabyte is yet another Taiwanese brand that manufactures computer hardware components including motherboard, laptops and graphics cards.

Their range of graphics cards is not as broad as MSI but has quite a few popular models including gpus like RTX 2070, GTX 1660, RX 550 etc.

  • Gigabyte GeForce RTX 2070 Super Gaming OC White 8G Graphics Card
  • Gigabyte Gv-N1660OC-6GD GeForce GTX 1660 OC 6G Graphics Card
  • GIGABYTE Radeon RX 5500 XT OC 8G Graphics Card
  • Gigabyte Gv-N165SWF2OC-4GD GeForce GTX 1650 Super Windforce OC 4G Graphics Card

Conclusion

That was a brief overview of graphics cards features and brands that you should know about when buying a new graphics cards. Graphics cards are one of the most expensive component of a pc build after the CPU itself.

The best way to get a quick idea of the power a gpu is by looking at performance benchmarks published by other website. Here are some of the popular ones:

Tomshardware:
https://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/gpu-hierarchy,4388.html

Userbenchmark:
https://gpu.userbenchmark.com/

Logicalincrements:
https://www.logicalincrements.com/articles/graphicscardcomparison

And you should make sure that your gpu is able to run all your graphics applications and games without any drop in frame rates or compromise in graphics quality.

If you have questions or feedback, let us know in the comment below.

About Silver Moon

A Tech Enthusiast, Blogger, Linux Fan and a Software Developer. Writes about Computer hardware, Linux and Open Source software and coding in Python, Php and Javascript. He can be reached at [email protected].

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