GPU vs Graphics Card – What Is The Difference?

Just like the word ‘literally’ has evolved in the English language to mean both ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively, so has the terms GPU and graphics card in the technology world. Nevertheless, there is still a percentage of those who still get offended when people fail to differentiate them, so let’s get into what’s what.

Not that you need to justify your wording to anyone, but it’s important to know technical differences, especially in the GPU and technology world. It’s also good to know how this confusion began and why it is okay to use these terms to mean one thing.

First, let’s discuss what these terms mean.

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GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)

The NVIDIA Titan V, a top tier GPU

It’s fair to assume that if you heard about the GPU, you’ve heard about the CPU as well and chances are you wondered why their names are similar. The reason is that they are very much alike in regard to their capabilities. One could say that they are two sides of the same coin.

Broadly speaking, the CPU or Central Processing Unit is in charge of processing the information from the entire PC, including the GPU. It gets data and instructions on what to do with that data, does a bunch of complicated Boolean algebra, and returns the requested result.

The GPU is very similar, with the exception of duties. As the name suggests the GPU is intended for graphics processors and as such, it’s built and optimized to work the best with video data.

Just like the CPU has RAM (Random-access memory) so does the GPU come with VRAM (video random-access memory), and just how the motherboard connects RAM and CPU, so does the graphics card for the GPU and VRAM.

iGPU (Integrated Graphics Card)

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

This is probably the most confusing part of the whole discussion. Even the manufacturers themselves call their iGPU solutions an Integrated Graphics solution, which further dilutes the terms.

The truth is that 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. Truthfully, some recent iGPUs are a bit stronger and can cope with some modern games, albeit at a lower resolution and texture quality.

Graphics Card

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

Probably the biggest reason why there’s confusion between GPU and graphics card name is that the graphics card is also known by several other names like video card, video adapted, graphics adapter, etc.

Even though all of these terms are technically describing what the actual card does, the term graphics card is the most widely accepted term, but due to it taking time to get colloquially accepted, it’s obvious how this whole confusion started.

A Graphics card can 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 interfaces with the motherboard usually through a PCIe slot and is powered by the PSU (power supply unit) via power connectors.

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

Can A GPU And Graphics Card Be Used Interchangeably?

ASUS ROG RTX 2080 Ti graphics cards

Of course!

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

Here’s an essential distinction: you’ll likely never say ‘graphics card’ and mean ‘GPU’. This is simply because the intricacy of the processing unit is not often discussed in casual conversation. But, if you’re intending on talking to people who take their computer science seriously, and want to come off as knowledgable, it’s not going to hurt to 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.