If you’re building a computer or springing for a good laptop, you’ve probably heard about dedicated or discrete graphics cards. These two terms are used interchangeably, although they highlight the same component.
This guide focuses on explaining what a discrete graphics card is and how it is different from an integrated graphics card.
The graphics card represents an important asset to any PC. It communicates with the processor and RAM to collect data. It then converts the data into a signal that renders images on a computer monitor in real-time.
There are two types of graphics cards; integrated and discrete.
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Definition Of A Discrete Graphics Card
A discrete graphics card is a separate processing unit inside your computer. This hardware component is a standalone unit that is either connected to your motherboard port suited for graphics or part of the motherboard itself. The latter is usually the case with laptops.
Simply put, a discrete graphics card is separately installed on one of the PCIe slots on a motherboard. That way, it handles all the graphics processing on the computer. This term is often interesting to PC-building enthusiasts who are learning about new terminology.
The two leading giants in the graphics card industry are AMD and Nvidia. They collaborate with hardware-manufacturing companies such as Asus, MSI, Gigabyte, Zotac, among others. Using their unique chips and architecture, these companies design their own discrete graphics cards.
Discrete vs. Integrated Graphics
As mentioned above, aside from dedicated graphics cards, there are also integrated graphics, which are often part of the CPU chip. There are several major differences between the two that are worth mentioning. Let’s start with the integrated graphics card as they’re less rich in features.
In the past, integrated graphics also used to be part of the motherboard, but not in the same way as dedicated cards in laptops. Integrated graphics cards function as part of the processor and use its processing power together with RAM to convert data into the signal that can render images on a monitor.
That makes them significantly weaker in comparison to discrete graphics cards as they are not nearly as effective at rendering images.
Image rendering and displaying have higher processing costs, which brings several problems with it. For one, it shares a certain amount of your RAM. With that said, for a computer that has 8GB of RAM and 1GB of shared memory, the integrated graphics will reserve 1GB of RAM for the graphics while the user will operate with 7GB.
It’s worth noting that this higher processing cost doesn’t refer to the processor’s clock speed. However, since the CPU and integrated graphics share the same RAM, graphical rendering tasks can occupy the processor’s bandwidth, causing slightly slower processing times.
In terms of energy, integrated graphics will use less of your power supply unit. Additionally, paying for an Intel processor with Intel HD 600 series graphics, or an AMD Ryzen APU, is more affordable than squeezing for both a processor and a discrete graphics card.
On the other hand, discrete graphics cards are much pricier. Furthermore, as separate hardware units, they require more power from your PSU. Still, they’re a lot more advantageous in many ways.
Discrete graphics cards are much more effective at rendering complex images and scenes, including different lighting settings and shadows.
They’re built to be more durable and use their hardware for maximum performance without tasking the CPU and RAM with rendering tasks. That said, the same user from above can use 8GB of RAM, granted their system runs the discrete graphics.
Discrete graphics cards have their memory, known as VRAM. In other words, it’s a memory needed for graphic power.
Newer graphics cards can have anywhere from 6GB to 8GB of VRAM. Nvidia’s novel RTX 3080 boasts an amazing 10GB. Meanwhile, the top-notch RTX 3090 is equipped with an unbelievable 24GB of VRAM, which leads to an even more enhanced performance.
Discrete graphics cards usually come with two to three fans. That means they have a better cooling system when compared to the integrated GPU that relies on the same heatsink as the CPU does. Better cooling leads to breezier temperatures, which in turn improves the GPU’s lifespan.
Finally, Nvidia’s and AMD’s discrete graphics cards come with individual features characteristic of gaming systems. They add up a level of customization where users can personalize their gaming experience and add a sleeker and more realistic look to their games.
Who Should Use Discrete Graphics Cards?
Modern integrated GPUs have gotten more advanced over the past years. Intel even claimed that its Intel HD units reached the capability of discrete graphics cards, as per a 2016 report in ExtremeTech.
While integrated graphics did indeed get better and more durable, there’s still a lot of work to be done. They reached the point in performance where they can easily stream 4K videos and handle a little more tasking games.
Still, they’re no match for the technology that is Ray Tracing, nor rendering methods of AMD’s dedicated cards. Discrete cards are meant for more graphically-demanding tasks, which are highlighted below.
So, who should use a discrete graphics card in their system?
- Gamers who keep up with the latest trends in the gaming industry and play demanding games.
- Professional and aspiring game designers and developers who use engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine.
- Graphic designers and illustrators who use Adobe bundle, including Photoshop and Illustrator, as well as other software for graphic manipulations.
- Video producers and editors.
To wrap up, discrete graphics cards are standalone graphics processors connected to the motherboard through the PCIe slot. They provide cutting-edge rendering technology in real-time and a plethora of other features. Some of them include streaming 4K and 8K videos and games, as well as VR.
While integrated graphics have shown major improvement over the past decades, they’re still more suitable for light daily use. Discrete graphics cards can easily make complex graphical tasks look sleek, which makes them a better option for gaming, video editing, and game development.