What is a GPU, and how is it different to a graphics card?

Looking at the specifications of a laptop or computer can be extremely confusing. Between the GPUs, the graphics cards, the RAMs and the SSDs, it’s easy to see why many people get confused with everything.

One of the most commonly asked questions is whether a GPU and a graphics card are the same thing, or are they actually different from one another. You’ll often see both of these terms come up in forum talk or product descriptions online.

And whilst it’s a great question, it’s actually very easy to explain the difference between the two, because they’re not really the same thing.

Are a GPU and a graphics card the same thing?

If you’re trying to work out the difference between them, then don’t worry. Here’s a simple explanation of the difference between a GPU and a graphics card.

The correct answer is that a GPU is technically part of the graphics card, and it’s not the graphics card itself. So whilst they aren’t exactly the same thing, they are both part of the same unit, with a GPU being the main component of a graphics card.

Where it really gets confusing is that many people refer to them as being the same thing, or use the terms interchangeably with each other. This is probably why a lot of people wonder how they’re different to one another.

To understand the difference more thoroughly, let’s first look at what a GPU actually is.

What is a GPU?

The term GPU was actually made popular by Nvidia, who are one of the biggest producers of graphics cards along with AMD. But, we’ll get the difference between the brands in a minute.

GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit. The GPU is the most important part of any graphics card, and it’s responsible for processing and rendering graphics. It’s important not to get it mixed up with the CPU, which stands for Central Processing Unit, and is a little different.

In some ways, it’s actually similar to the computer’s processor in relation to the motherboard. However, the GPU’s job is to mathematically process graphics, which is pretty complicated. But whilst a CPU is a general puropse processor, the GPU works with your device’s graphics only.

These GPUs use various different complex methods to make the images and objects appear easier on the eye. One example of this is anisotropic filtering, which enables the processor to give textures to the images that are shown on your screen. To do this, we need to use more processor power, which is one of the reasons why these products can be expensive.

There are actually two different types of GPU. You can get integrated GPUs, which are actually built in with the computer or laptops processor (CPU). They’re usually smaller and cheaper than the alternative, which is known as a discrete GPU.

One of the reasons is that an integrated GPU will actually share memory with the processor, so many people prefer to get a discrete GPU instead. This type of GPU is separate, so you don’t end up using memory from another part. In most new devices, discrete GPU’s are used.

What is a graphics card?

So, we know that the GPU is part of the graphics card. But what does a graphics card even do anyway?

Well, a graphics card is responsible for translating the data from your computers processor and essentially turning it into a picture. It does this by changing what’s displayed on the pixels in the monitor – this can be more than a million different pixels for higher resolution displays.

When a graphics card is creating an image on your display, it generally outlines it first, then it fills in the different pixels based on the data that it is fed (this is what rasterizing is).

We can break this down into four different parts to understand how the graphics card works.

  1. The card needs to be connected to the motherboard of your computer. This is where it collects all the data from, as well as power giving it the ability to work.
  2. The processor deciphers data and tells us what we want to show in each pixel on the display.
  3. We need some form of memory, which holds the data of what we’re going to fill each pixel with.
  4. Finally, obviously we need to be connected to some sort if display/monitor so we can see what data we are getting.

This is quite simply what a graphics card is used for, and how it works with the rest of your laptop/computer.

What’s more important – my GPU or CPU?

So, we know about your graphics processing unit, and that it’s one of the more important parts of your computer setup. But we also have to think about your CPU too – your central processing unit.

Whilst a GPU is focussed on processing the graphics (images) that show up on your display, your processor (CPU) handles all of the tasks and instructions you give your computer.

It’s often referred to as the brains of a computer, and that’s a pretty accurate description. Your CPU and GPU are two of the key parts of your system, along with your memory.

What are the most popular GPU brands?

If you’ve been buying laptops or computers for a while, then you’ll probably have heard of the two brands Nvidia and AMD. Both companies are headquartered in California, and although Nvidia is the bigger company, they are both billion dollar businesses.

Different people will have different ideas about who produces the best graphics processing unit (GPU), but there are some common thoughts amongst most computer users.

Nvidia

Essentially, both Nvidia and AMD will make the GPU itself, however they’re not responsible for making the entire system. They’ll sell their GPUs to a company like ASUS, who will then complete the rest of the graphics card, adding in a circuit board and completing the design. Then, ASUS can connect it with their own motherboard to make a laptop.

Nvidia are well known for their GeForce range, which has been at the top of the market for more than two decades now, with the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 being the most popular at present. There is also the Nvidia Geforce GTX range, which is a force to be reckoned with.

The main difference really is that AMD don’t make higher end cards like Nvidia, so for those looking for the very best performance, then Nvidia is usually the choice. But for those on a mid-range budget or looking for a bargain, AMD might be better.

AMD

Much like AMD are the cheaper processor alternative to Intel, they’re also the cheaper GPU alternative to Nvidia too. In fact, they’re in pretty much the same scenario – you won’t notice much difference in performance, but many users prefer to opt for the bigger name brand anyway.

AMD have many different cheaper GPUs for you to choose from, with their AMD series being extremely popular amongst gamers. One of the most popular models is the AMD Radeon RX 5700, which is one of the best graphics cards available at the moment.

Comparing the two brands to each other is one of the most commonly argued things between tech nerds on the internet, and they’ll probably all give you a different opinion. Despite what you may see on the internet, both of them manufacture their own GPUs.

However for the most part, people still tend to side with Nvidia as they are the bigger brand of the two and they generally make more powerful graphics cards.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it’s clear to see the difference between the two terms, as a GPU is actually part of a graphics card. However, when most people are speaking about GPUs, they may refer to it as a graphics card, because the GPU is actually the integral part of the graphics card.

Hopefully this has made things a little clearer for you. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them below! If you’re looking to purchase a laptop, then check out my list of 13 inch laptops before you purchase one. This can help you get the specifications you need (including a GPU and graphics card!).

About Alex

Hello, I'm Alex and this is my website, Spacehop. I started the site as a way to talk about myself, and a few years later we're now a team of 6! I still work full time at a major PC retailer in the UK, and I'm a bit of a tech whizz (self-proclaimed, unfortunately!).

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