A graphics card, also called a video card or a display card, is a circuit board in a computer with specialized hardware optimized for displaying high-quality graphics at a high rate of speed. Most modern computers include them, and while they’re sometimes associated with video gamers looking to get the most fun out of their games, they’re also useful for professional applications like using Adobe Photoshop to edit photos or editing business videos.
Understanding Your Display Card
Even if you don’t think your computer usage is particularly graphically intense, it can be beneficial to have a specialized graphics card in your computer.
A video card by definition in a computer processes the mathematical operations necessary to speedy display images and videos. It typically contains dedicated random access memory, or RAM, chips used to store data related to visual media and a specialized processor chip called a graphics processing unit, or the GPU, which is optimized for dealing with video.
Developers of video-intensive programs write subsections of their software that directly command the GPU, rather than the computer’s main central processing unit. Because the GPU handles specialized instructions designed for video, but even though the CPU is a general purpose instrument, you can often get more video performance out of a computer by selecting a good graphics card than by upgrading its general purpose CPU or RAM chips.
When it comes to brand names, an AMD and NVIDIA graphics card is a common choice.
Onboard GPUs and Video Cards
Rather than having a dedicated display card, some computers have what’s called an onboard, or integrated, graphics processing unit. The term onboard GPU refers to a chip located on the computer’s main circuit board, or motherboard.
An onboard GPU is often cheaper, and it potentially leaves an expansion slot where a circuit board open inside the computer for future use. It can also save power over a dedicated video card and generate less heat inside the computer, meaning that fewer fans or other cooling systems are needed to keep the computer running comfortably.
The downside is that such chips usually share RAM with the computer’s general operations, meaning that less is available for the computer to solve complex graphical operations. This means that for more intensive video operations (and video games) it’s often advantageous to have a standalone graphics card, although an integrated GPU chip is often fine for watching the occasional streaming video or doing simple video and photo edits.
Your Display Card Requirements
Whether you need something beyond an onboard GPU and what requirements you may have depend on what you do with your computer. If you mostly use programs, such as Microsoft Word and Excel, send email and access the web, then the card that came with your computer is likely fine.
If you do more sophisticated tasks, such as editing video or photos for your business, or you enjoy using your computer to play games, you may need a more powerful graphics card. If you’re not sure which card you need, look at the required and recommended hardware list for some of the software that you plan to use. Often, programs will list minimum and recommended video cards by name and will then suggest a minimum amount of video RAM for you to make sure you have installed.
Installing a Video Card
Provided your computer has an available compatible expansion slot, you can usually install a standalone video card, if your computer doesn’t already have one. If your computer does have one, you can usually replace it with a new one, if you need to do so.
If you have a video card and also an onboard GPU, your computer will usually default to using the more complex and powerful video card for most video operations, although you may be able to configure this behavior.