Basics of Graphics Cards and the Best Current Models

Computing

 

“GeForce RTX 2060”… “Radeon RX 5700 XT”… “ROG Strix RTX 2080”… Though they sound like spaceship models, these are actually models of graphics cards. If you’ve been hearing about graphics cards, or you’re interested in gaming, video editing and rendering, using computer-aided design tools, photo editing, animation, etc., then this article is for you. We will be shedding light (with Real Time Ray Tracing) on what graphics cards are, how to evaluate them, and which ones are the current heavyweights.

What is a graphics card and why is it important?

ASUS DirectCUII

 A graphics card (a.k.a. video card) is a computer component that receives information about images from the CPU (central processing unit, the brains of your computer) and converts that input into a visual output. It is connected to the monitor and decides how the individual pixels of the monitor will be used to display the image. 

Intel Galileo graphics card

 Most–if not all–computer motherboards have what is called an Integrated Graphics Card, a built-in component that does that job. But as the images being rendered increase in quality or quantity (such as UHD video or 60 frames per second for many high-end games), that card’s capacity will not be able to handle it. This is when it’s time to bring out the big guns: dedicated graphics cards. 

Radeon graphics card


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What makes a card good?

As a computer user (and therefore buyer), you need to understand the specs of different components of your machine, so that you can make informed decisions about what to buy and use. Graphics cards are no different. In order to appreciate which graphics cards are the best, we’ll first need to understand their different components and how we measure the performance of each.

Components of a graphics card

Processor (GPU)

The most important part of the graphics card is the Graphics Processing Unit or GPU. This–like the CPU–is the brains of the card and where complex operations and mathematical formulae are parsed at lightning speeds to convert the binary information from the CPU to images and manage the representation of the image on monitor pixels.

GPU Graphics Processing Unit

Motherboard connection

In order to receive data from the CPU, the graphics card must be connected to the motherboard. This connection is made up of a port in which cards are inserted and the bus, which is the path that connects the port to other components. Simplifying through all the technicalities, the oldest type is called PCI, and is probably no longer found in graphics cards, though you might still find it in other components, like sound cards. The next morph was called AGP, which was used exclusively for graphics cards and is the current industry standard. The newest kid on the block is the PCIe, which allows for the fastest data transfer. Both the motherboard and the card must have the same connection to work together (though PCIe can work with the older PCI).

PCI port

Memory

Since it is handling large amounts of information, the graphics card has its own random access memory (RAM; also called video RAM or VRAM), which it uses to temporarily store data about the pixels and rendered images for faster retrieval.

Digital-to-Analog Converter

Graphics cards handle digital information, whereas monitors render the image in analog form. For this relationship to work, the graphics card must convert the digital info to analog before sending it to the monitor. This occurs in a part of its RAM called the Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC or RAMDAC)

Monitor connection

The output of the graphics card is sent to the monitor via a cable.


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Performance metrics

So how exactly can we tell which graphics cards are better than others? It boils down to the numbers. Following are the metrics used to assess graphics card performance.

GPU clock speed (MHz)

This represents the number of cycles the card’s processor performs per second.

Size of memory bus (bits)

As mentioned earlier, the bus is the pathway connecting components. A wider bus means more data can be simultaneously transferred to and from the memory.

Memory Capacity (MB)

Images stored in the card’s RAM are retrieved faster than those that need to be rendered from scratch. Larger RAM capacity, means more images can be stored, faster retrieval, and less resources spent on rendering.

Memory clock speed (Gbps or MHz)

Apart from the capacity of the memory, it is also limited by a speed of data encoding and retrieval. As this speed grows it allows faster access to the memory.

Memory Bandwidth (GB/sec)

This represents the rate at which data transfers between the memory and GPU. It is a function of the memory clock speed and the memory bus size and, as can be imagined, the higher the better.

RAMDAC Speed (MHz)

The final stage before sending to the monitor, this can greatly bottleneck a powerful processor with large and fast RAM.

Features

Some features of graphics cards that you often hear: Anti-Aliasing: This is a smoothing of the jagged edges of objects that are rendered as 3D graphics using algorithms. It requires a lot of computational power and, therefore, the more powerful card provides a smoother image. 

antialiasing

Anisotropic filtering (AF): When textured objects are rendered at an oblique angle to the viewing “camera”, they tend to gut blurry in the distance. Anisotropic filtering removes this blurriness and makes these images crisper and more detailed. 

Real-time Ray Tracing (RTX): This allows the GPU to simulate actual rays of light and their paths in the scene, bouncing off objects, penetrating them, and scattering underneath their surfaces. It requires much processing, but adds buckets of realism to the scene.

Scene with RTX off

Scene with RTX off

Same scene with RTX on

NVIDIA card capable of RTX


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Which graphics cards are the best?

As with most things in life, there is no absolute best in the realm of graphics cards. Performance, processors, memory, noise, and cooling are all factors that come into play when comparing. Benchmarks for measuring performance are used to compare cards, like the 3DMark Score. The main manufacturers on the scene are NVIDIA and AMD who make a large lineup of cards (actually, the only other company in the desktop/laptop graphics cards business is Intel, which only makes integrated cards). Computer manufacturers and vendors like ASUS, MSI, and GIGABYTE also customize many of the cards in their machines and add custom cooling systems, so the same card model can have different specs if bought from different vendors. You’ll need to check the specs to make sure what you’re buying. Also bear in mind that card models for desktops are different from those for laptops. And while you can always change the card on a desktop, laptops aren’t so easy, you’ll most likely have to change the whole laptop to change the graphics card. Finally, in the tech realm, being the “best” is a very short time interval away from being “bested”. Now without further ado, for desktops, the best card currently on the market is the NVIDIA Titan RTX (released December 2018, part of the GeForce 20 series;), which sports: 

NVIDIA Titan RTX

  • A PCIe 3.0 port
  • 1350 MHz GPU, can be boosted up to 1770 MHz
  • 24 GB of RAM with 14000 MHz effective speed, 672 GB/sec bandwidth, and 384-bit memory bus width
  • Real-Time Ray Tracing
  • Price: $2,499.00 (just for the graphics card… by itself)

The AMD Radeon VII (released February 2019, from the RX 5000 series), though apparently underpowered at first glance, might give the Titan a run for its money with the following specs. 

AMD Radeon VII

  • A PCIe 4.0 port
  • 1450 MHz GPU, boostable to 1750 MHz
  • 16 GB of RAM with 2000 MHz effective speed, 1024 GB/sec bandwidth, and 4096-bit memory bus width
  • Price: an astonishing $699

For laptops, the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080, which is currently at the top of the list for laptops, has the following specs: 

NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080

  • 1380 MHz GPU, and can boost to 1590 MHz
  • 8 GB of RAM with up to 14 Gbps Speed and 448 GB/sec bandwidth
  • Real-Time Ray Tracing
  • Price depends on the laptop model


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Conclusion

High-end graphics cards are a necessity if you want to game, use CAD tools, render videos, animate, or… mine Bitcoin! They can pack plenty of punch but don’t come cheap. Now that you know the basics, you can use these to navigate your way to a compromise between features and price. And don’t forget that most resource-intensive games and applications will have minimum requirements for the graphics card, so you can use those to guide your purchase. Happy Hunting!



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