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What is a Graphics Card?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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A graphics card, also known as a video card, is a piece of hardware installed in a computer that is responsible for rendering the image on the computer’s monitor or display screen. Graphics cards come in many varieties with varying features that allow for a price range that extends from about $20 US Dollars (USD) to $2,400 USD or more.

The first consideration when buying a graphics card is to be sure it is capable of displaying the best resolution the monitor can support. For Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) monitors this means supporting the native resolution. Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors do not have a native resolution. In this case, ensure the card is capable of supporting the highest resolution, even if the CRT monitor will be frequently used at lower resolutions.

The second consideration is on-board memory. A graphics card must work very hard to render images to the screen. Unlike text files, graphics images are much larger files consisting of great amounts of data that must be processed by the graphics or video card. A faster card has its own resident memory chips to perform this function so as not to impinge upon the system’s Random Access Memory (RAM). Less robust cards have less resident memory and require sharing system RAM to process images.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a graphics card with shared memory will be unsatisfactory, but much depends on the primary purpose of the computer and on the amount of system RAM present. More system RAM is better if it will be shared, but for gaming and multimedia enthusiasts, a card with resident memory is a better choice. This is also true for those wishing to watch, work with or edit movies.

The graphics processing unit (GPU) is a chip akin to the computer processing unit (CPU). The GPU on the graphics card processes data in parallel lines called “pipelines.” The more pipelines a card has, the faster it can process data. Some cards feature dual GPUs for additional performance. Other factors that play into performance include bus speed and the type of on-board memory the card supports.

Because graphics cards work hard they generate heat. For this reason most high-performance video cards utilize built-in fans. Fans can be quiet or noisy, depending on the card model. High-performance fanless video cards are also available. These cards use heat sinks to pull heat away from the GPU. The advantage of a fanless card is lack of noise; disadvantages include expense and a wider footprint that can take up two slots inside the computer.

Installing a graphics card is very easy. The card features an interface that plugs into a port or slot inside the computer on the motherboard. Older motherboards offer an Advanced Graphics Port (AGP) interface, while newer boards have the faster Peripheral Computer Interface Express (PCIe) interface. A PCIe card cannot be installed into an AGP slot, and visa-versa, so be sure to get a card that is compatible with your system.

External ports on the card can allow an additional monitor to be plugged in for gaming or for advanced graphics displays that can be spread across two monitors. A graphics card might also have an “S-Video Out” port for sending the signal to a television, or a High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) port. Advanced ports that extend functionality add to the cost of the card.

While prices vary widely, the average gaming enthusiast is likely to be happy with a card in the $150 - $300 USD range. For someone who uses a computer for more general purposes, a graphics card closer to $65 USD will likely do the job. Watch for rebates and sales to get a good deal, and read customer reviews for information about issues like fan noise and performance.

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Discussion Comments
By anon325050 — On Mar 13, 2013

What if I drop it in water? My friend told me to but it cost me $1,000 dollars, so what do I do?

By pleonasm — On Nov 14, 2012

@browncoat - To be honest, if someone doesn't know what they are doing with a computer and isn't really capable of looking it up thoroughly (not trying to be mean, I know some people just don't really care that much or don't have time) then I would suggest going to a computer parts store and asking around.

They will almost always have someone who can help you with something as basic as a graphics card. Just don't get talked into paying to have it installed. It's the work of a few minutes at the most (you just snap it into place) if you've got a PC (don't take apart laptops unless you know what you're doing).

By browncoat — On Nov 13, 2012
@anon99036 - I'm not an expert, but I was looking up graphics cards the other day because I was thinking about buying one myself (I want to build my own computer). The problem with getting a graphics card for your computer might be that you need to get one that's compatible with all the other components (like your monitor and your motherboard) and there might not be one that's capable of interacting with 4 year old components and also showing your game in good detail.

I would suggest researching "how to build a computer" and checking out what they say about graphics cards. There are a few places out there that rate all the cards according to how well they play certain games and you can work out what's possible for you from there.

By anon301369 — On Nov 03, 2012

"Your computer will not take two cards; it will take one or none."

This guy is not correct. A computer will take two graphics cards.

By anon298735 — On Oct 22, 2012

Why do we use graphic cards in our laptops?

By anon249749 — On Feb 22, 2012

Thanks for the information. It is useful for beginners like me.

By anon190843 — On Jun 27, 2011

Can I please have help on finding the right one? I'm trying to play Minecraft but I need a better graphics card.

By anon155838 — On Feb 24, 2011

can i use a graphics card and not a screen?

By anon138945 — On Jan 03, 2011

No, don't be daft. All laptops come with prebuilt graphics on the motherboard. these type of graphics are called onboard graphics and sadly they cannot be updated. If you have a desktop pc, yes it can, and you can add better graphics etc, only if your card is compatible.

PCI-E cards are probably better as they are more powerful in my opinion. Your computer will not take two cards, it will take one or none. Laptops are only upgradable by memory!

By anon106549 — On Aug 26, 2010

great article, r.kayne.

By anon105935 — On Aug 23, 2010

kindly somebody tell me what is the purpose of a graphics card.

By anon99967 — On Jul 28, 2010

You can see your graphics card by right clicking on "my computer" and then "properties." it shows graphic memory.

By anon99036 — On Jul 25, 2010

i need to find a good card compatible with the game borderlands, but my computer is four years old and the graphics card fried. could you give advice me on the my problem?

By anon89394 — On Jun 10, 2010

i don't know how to use a graphics card.

By anon85409 — On May 20, 2010

How can I find out if my laptop has a graphics card or not?

By anon82916 — On May 08, 2010

Can a graphics card be used in laptops?

By anon73436 — On Mar 27, 2010

i want to know where is the graphic card slot located in a laptop.

By anon54194 — On Nov 27, 2009

How do I add a graphics card to my Laptop?

By anon40504 — On Aug 09, 2009

i have a dell laptop and also 256 mn vedio card. is it sufficient or not?

By praju — On Jul 27, 2009

Can i use a graphics card without a PCI slot ?

By bigdivot48 — On Jan 05, 2008

My computer has 1 AGP port and 4 PCI ports, can I put in one AGP card and one PCI card?

Is this a waste of money?

Will the cards conflict with each other?

By anon6653 — On Jan 05, 2008

My computer has 1 AGP port and 4 PCI ports, can I put an AGP graphics card and a PCI graphic card in their respective slots?

Is this a waste of money?

Will the computer use one card over the other?

Will the cards interfere with each other?

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