About Graphics Cards

Graphics cards control a computer’s monitor and do almost all of the work required to display 3D images. This frees up the computer’s processor (CPU) to perform other tasks. The performance of a graphics card is particularly important in PC gaming; most modern 3D games won’t work on a computer without a high-end 3D graphics card.

Function

The graphics card is an integral part of a computer. It’s responsible for taking image data from the processor and translating it for display on a monitor. To create the illusion of movement, the graphics card performs this task at least 60 times a second, allowing the computer to display smooth animations and video. Without a graphics card, a computer won’t even start, but any modern card is capable of basic graphics tasks. More expensive cards are primarily used to achieve greater performance or better picture quality in 3D games.

Types

Graphics cards are available in two forms: integrated and discrete. Integrated graphics are built into a computer’s motherboard as a low-cost solution for undemanding uses (like watching video and displaying images). Typically, integrated graphics have limited capabilities and lack features like dedicated graphics memory. Discrete graphics cards plug into expansion slots on the motherboard so that graphics can be upgraded without replacing the computer itself. Prices vary considerably, with high-end discrete graphics cards costing 10 to 20 times as much as an entry-level discrete card. However, even an entry-level card is usually a significant upgrade over integrated graphics.

Significance

As technology has advanced, graphics cards have gradually gained most of the characteristics of a computer in their own right. High-end cards have their own high-speed memory and a graphics processing unit (GPU) designed to perform specialized arithmetic extremely quickly. Compared with a CPU, a GPU is limited and unsuitable for controlling a computer on its own. However, some scientists have found GPUs useful for accelerating certain computations. The Folding@Home project, which studies the process of protein folding, says that GPUs allow it to perform calculations that would be impractical using standard processors.

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Considerations

A high-end graphics card is often the most power-hungry component of a computer and requires dedicated connections on a computer’s power supply to provide the necessary electricity. Because these connections add to the cost of a power supply, some don’t have them — especially power supplies used in low-end computers. There are two connection types for discrete graphics cards: AGP and PCI Express. AGP is obsolete, but many older computers have only AGP expansion slots. It’s important to match AGP cards with AGP slots and PCI Express cards with PCI Express slots; AGP and PCI Express are incompatible. Forcing a card into the wrong type of slot can seriously damage a computer’s motherboard.

Maintenance

Many graphics cards generate enough heat that they need cooling fans; like any fans, these can become clogged. Periodically removing dust from the fan and any vents on the card will help prevent overheating and prolong the card’s life. At the same time, check to make sure that the card’s fan and vents are clear of obstructions; good airflow is essential for keeping a card cool. Cleaning integrated graphics chips and cards without fans is also a good idea.