Gaming Build: Guide to GPUs

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Gaming Build: Guide to GPUs

Building a PC is now more accessible than ever. There are many ways to find compatible parts, and a quality rig can typically last you longer than any console. As someone who, primarily, has been a console-based gamer for most of my run, I understand the perception that building a PC is intimidating or complex—so much so that I've gamed on consoles because I think they're as close to "plug-and-play" as is possible today. Luckily, building a PC is not as difficult as you might think; the hard part is doing the research and figuring out what you want from your machine. With a little bit of know-how, you'll come to see the connections between different parts are straightforward. In this guide, we'll take a closer look at graphics cards, specifically.

So what is a graphics card and what does it do? If the CPU is your PC's brain, then it's logical to call the GPU its heart. GPUs generally come in two varieties: integrated or discrete. Integrated refers to a GPU that is built into your PC's processor. Since our goal is building a PC for gaming, the discrete category is more relevant here. A discrete (or dedicated) GPU refers to one that stands alone from the processor. In essence, a GPU is a circuit board that hosts a processor and has a cache of dedicated memory that isn't shared with the CPU. It is also much more powerful than integrated graphics, with a performance ceiling that's significantly higher. If you're going to be using your PC for graphics-intensive tasks, a dedicated GPU is a must.

Games are complex enough on their own, with a ton of systems working in tandem and computations happening behind the scenes. Your GPU's job is to translate all that information into a format that your display can output without missing a beat. Especially for gaming at high-end settings, your GPU will be the most important part of your rig and will largely determine your experience. Dedicated GPUs also consume way more power and generate a fair amount of heat, too, so you'll often see them with their own dedicated cooling system.

NVIDIA or AMD?

For anyone putting together a gaming rig, choosing a graphics card is arguably one of the most exciting parts. It's also one of the most expensive, so plan to spend a significant portion of your budget allocation here. In the dedicated graphics market, the two major manufacturers are NVIDIA and AMD. Both brands offer cards that differ widely in performance and price, so you really can't go wrong with either, but here we will note some of the key differences between these cards.

NVIDIA's cards are usually the latest and greatest, with the company even announcing the new RTX 40-series Super Cards at CES 2024. One of the features that generates a lot of buzz about NVIDIA cards is their ability to handle ray tracing, which is GPU-intensive and renders light in game more accurately. Another reason you might want an NVIDIA GPU is DLSS (or Deep Learning Super Sampling), which allows the GPU to improve performance by using AI to upscale lower resolution as opposed to rendering at higher resolution natively. The 40-series cards also have access to DLSS 3, which can offer an even greater boost to frame rates, thanks to dedicated AI Tensor Cores or specialized processors found only on those cards. NVIDIA's cards are fast, period. NVIDIA's 4090 card is easily the best you can buy from the brand. It's expensive, though, with prices now reaching more than $2,000. But don't be discouraged. There are plenty of cheaper options from NVIDIA that won't break the bank.

PNY NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4090 OC XLR8 Gaming VERTO EPIC-X RGB Triple Fan Graphics Card
PNY NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4090 OC XLR8 Gaming VERTO EPIC-X RGB Triple Fan Graphics Card

Have I mentioned that AMD's graphics cards offer some of the best performance per dollar across the board? The brand has a long legacy of making CPUs but didn't enter the GPU market until 2006. While they don't quite soak up as much of the mainstream spotlight as NVIDIA's offerings, AMD's GPUs are an absolute value and just-as-capable alternative for those looking for performance in their rigs. The brand's flagship and latest set of cards is known as the RX 7000 series. The best card in the lineup is the RX 7900 XTX, which costs roughly half as much as NVIDIA's top option. Performance-wise, most benchmarks place it closer to that of a 4080 (it's still cheaper, though). You can also find 6000-series cards, which are fantastic cards for those of you who are building on a tighter budget.

ASUS Radeon RX 7900 XTX TUF Gaming OC Graphics Card
ASUS Radeon RX 7900 XTX TUF Gaming OC Graphics Card

If you're getting FOMO for NVIDIA's DLSS tech, rest assured that AMD isn't far behind the curve, with its own upscaling tech known as FSR 3. Unlike DLSS, which is proprietary to NVIDIA's cards, AMD's tech works with all GPUs. While DLSS probably edges out if you're directly comparing image quality, AMD's cards are still an amazing option for those gamers looking for value.

Reference Cards vs. Third Party

If you're new to the graphics card world, you might be confused by the term "reference card." Manufacturers like NVIDIA and AMD develop their own cards and sell them directly to consumers as well as to other companies. Those companies then might add their own modifications to an existing card and sell them as a different model. Those original card designs are what are known as "reference cards." NVIDIA's "Founder's Edition" GPUs are a perfect example of a reference card. Usually the only real difference you'll find between different cards is the cooling system.

Take, for example, these two different versions of an RTX 4080 card from NVIDIA: the ASUS GeForce RTX 4080 Republic of Gamers Strix OC Graphics Card has a three-fan setup, whereas the GeForce RTX 4080 Noctua OC Graphics Card features two fans in collaboration with computer-fan brand industry vet Noctua. Like the above cards, there's room for major variance between the same card via different models' manufacturers, whether that be in terms of performance, dimensions, or aesthetics.

ASUS GeForce RTX 4080 Republic of Gamers Strix OC Graphics Card  (left) and GeForce RTX 4080 Noctua OC Graphics Card (right)
ASUS GeForce RTX 4080 Republic of Gamers Strix OC Graphics Card (left) and GeForce RTX 4080 Noctua OC Graphics Card (right)

Other Considerations

When buying a card, one of the biggest considerations is the resolution you plan on playing your games at and/or the monitor you plan to use. Let's take NVIDIA's RTX 3080 card, for example. This card can render at 4K resolution, but you could opt to use it on a 2K setup instead if you're prioritizing smoother frame rates. In fact, many gamers would probably tell you that a 2K setup lands you right in the sweet spot in terms of cost to performance. Cards like this ASUS GeForce RTX 4070 Graphics Card or this Gigabyte Radeon RX 7700 XT GAMING OC Graphics Card are great middle of the road options for their respective manufacturers. And I mean "middle" in the most flattering way possible, because those GPUs will easily look and perform better than anything on modern consoles.

ASUS GeForce RTX 4070 Graphics Card (left) and Gigabyte Radeon RX 7700 XT GAMING OC Graphics Card (right)
ASUS GeForce RTX 4070 Graphics Card (left) and Gigabyte Radeon RX 7700 XT GAMING OC Graphics Card (right)

Once you've decided on a GPU, you'll have to do a bit of digging to find out its power requirements and take that into consideration when buying your computer's power supply (PSU). We'll dive into PSUs in their own guide but, for now, just know it's always better to have more power than you need—manufacturers' power-draw requirements don't always factor in the rest of your parts. Size is another important thing to consider, especially if you already have a particular PC case in mind. Today's cards are bigger than ever, so make sure you find a case that can physically house your GPU. In general, you'll want to find out if your parts are compatible with one another. If you're new to this world, PC Part Picker is a great resource to help plan your build and determine the compatibility of your parts.

Ultimately, you should do your own research, and don't be afraid to dive into the specs and look at benchmarks. I recommend watching comparison or benchmark videos to get a better idea of how a specific game might run on a particular card to see what GPU fits your needs the best. Features like upscaling technology, on the other hand, emphasize why it's important to watch benchmark videos so you can see those differences and make a more educated choice about whether a certain card is worth more to you price-wise.

With a better understanding of some of the above factors, you should have no problem finding the right GPU for your build. What graphics card are you putting in your machine? Let us know in the Comments section, below, whether you're researching something to replace your current setup or if this is your first time putting together a rig. If you have any questions, feel free to post those, too. 

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