GPU vs Graphics Card – What Is The Difference?

You've probably heard the terms GPU and graphics card used interchangeably, but they are actually two different things. Let's find out the difference.

Many terms in the English language have come to mean the same thing as others. In the technology world, this is the case with the terms GPU and graphics card. Still, there are some people who get offended when someone fails to differentiate them, so let’s take a closer look at what’s what.

Not that you need to justify your choice of word to anyone else. However, especially in the GPU and technology world, it never hurts to familiarize yourself with the technicalities. It’s also useful to know how this confusion began and why it is generally okay to use these terms interchangeably.

Let’s first look at what these terms mean.

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GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)

NVIDIA Titan V
The NVIDIA Titan V, a top tier GPU

We can only assume that, if you have heard of a GPU, you have also heard of a CPU. You might also have wondered why these two names are so similar. In fact, they are very much alike in terms of what they can do. It could be said that they are two sides of the same coin.

Generally speaking, the CPU or Central Processing Unit is in charge of processing information from the entire PC, including the GPU. It essentially retrieves data and instructions on what to do with that data, does some complicated Boolean algebra, and delivers the requested result.

The GPU is very similar, other than its main purpose. The GPU is intended for graphics processors, so it is designed and optimized to work more effectively with video data.

Just as the CPU uses RAM (random-access memory), the GPU comes with VRAM (video random-access memory). Similarly, the motherboard connects the RAM and CPU, while the graphics card connects the GPU and VRAM.

iGPU

Ryzen 7 vega apu
Many of AMD’s Ryzen APUs include integrated Vega graphics (those with a “G” suffix in the product name)

We’ve reached probably the most confusing part of the entire discussion. Even manufacturers themselves call their iGPU (Integrated Graphics Card) an Integrated Graphics solution, which further dilutes the two terms.

Plot twist: An Integrated Graphics Card is in fact a GPU and not a graphics card. It shares the system memory with the CPU and is not very capable of high-fidelity graphics. To be fair, some recent iGPUs are more powerful and are suitable for some modern games, even if they must be played at a lower resolution and texture quality.

Graphics Card

AMD Graphics Card
An MSI Gaming X graphics card with dual-fans

The main cause of the confusion surrounding the terms GPU and graphics card is that the graphics card is also known by several other names including video card, video adapted, graphics adapter, and others.

Although technically these terms all describe what the card does, the term graphics card is the most widely accepted one. However, it’s easy to see why people might get confused when discussing this hardware.

A graphics card could be considered its own computer because it has an independent processing unit and dedicated memory. Of course, there’s no storage available on it, but it does have video output ports. It usually interfaces with the motherboard via a PCIe slot and is powered by the PSU (power supply unit) via power connectors.

This microsystem within a system of microprocessors is rounded off with its own cooling solution, usually in the form of a heatsink and a dedicated fan. There are also other cooling options, such as water cooling, but those usually operate on the system level.

Can GPU And Graphics Card Be Used Interchangeably?

ASUS ROG RTX 2080 Ti graphics cards

Of course!

Sure, there are some people who insist on being pedantic, but the fact of the matter is that if you say ‘GPU’ to refer to a ‘graphics card’, you will probably be understood by the vast majority of people.

Curiously, it doesn’t really work the other way around; you will probably never say ‘graphics card’ and mean ‘GPU’. This is because the intricacies of the processing unit are rarely discussed in casual conversation.

Basically, if you’re talking to people who take their computer technology seriously and you want to seem knowledgeable, it might be better to simply say ‘GPU’.

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Aleksandar Cosic
Aleksandar Cosic

Alex is a Computer Science student and a former game designer. That has enabled him to develop skills in critical thinking and fair analysis. As a CS student, Aleksandar has very in-depth technical knowledge about computers, and he also likes to stay current with new technologies.