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HDG Explains: What Is a GPU?

A GPU or GPU is a special microchip that is specifically designed to perform graphics-related tasks at a much faster rate than a CPU or Central Processing Unit .

Generally, GPUs handle the visual side of video games as well as video editing software, graphic design, 3D design, and other similar tools. Recently, GPUs have also started to be used to perform some non-graphical tasks such as mining cryptocurrency, which goes well with their unique internal design.

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The difference between GPU and CPU

Every computer, be it a laptop, tablet, or game console, has a processor. The CPU is the brain of the machine. When you run software on your device, it is the CPU that follows the instructions and does all the necessary calculations. Of course, every microchip executes instructions, so what makes the CPU special?

Most modern CPUs have four CPU cores, although this number is growing rapidly. The number of computations that the CPU can do simultaneously is limited by the number of cores. But the CPU is very good at doing a small amount of complex computation of any kind, very quickly, one after the other.

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However, modern GPUs have a completely different design philosophy. Instead of a small number of complex, fully functional processor cores, they have hundreds or thousands of simple processor cores that are designed to execute instructions in parallel, particularly those related to graphics.

For example, an instruction for a specific shading of a pixel in an image. Modern computer displays have millions of pixels. Rendering and animating realistic 3D graphics with smooth frame rates requires tremendous parallel processing power. So, if you want to process many simple instructions at the same time, you need a GPU

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Are GPUs and graphics cards the same thing?

The terms “graphics processor” and “video card” have come to be used interchangeably. This leads to situations where someone will say that their computer does not have a GPU, but what they really mean is that the computer does not have a GPU

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What is a GPU? A GPU refers specifically to the microprocessor itself, but of course, a GPU cannot work on its own. It needs other components to work. So let’s take a look at the different packaging options for GPUs.

Graphics Cards

Graphics cards

A graphics card is a discrete device that plugs into a standard slot on your computer’s motherboard. It consists of a circuit board, GPU, memory, display connectors, power connectors, and various other components that a GPU needs.

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Graphics cards also have special cooling systems that help keep the GPU at a safe operating temperature. The main advantage of video cards is that they can be easily replaced with newer models without having to replace the entire computer or motherboard.

Integrated GPUs

Integrated GPUs

Integrated GPUs are built into the same chassis as the central processing unit. Thus, a computer equipped with one of them does not need a separate video card to work. Display connectors are provided by the motherboard and the GPU uses the same memory pool as the processor. Of course, the CPU and GPU also use the same cooling system and power supply.

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Integrated GPUs are pretty powerful these days, and some of them can even be used for modest graphics in video games, but their main advantage is cost and space savings. This is why they are a popular solution for many laptops.

Tablets and smartphones also have integrated GPUs, but they are part of the system-on-chip package. On computers, only the CPU and GPU use the same package. In the case of SoCs, RAM, storage, peripheral controllers, and other components that make up the entire system are all in the same silicon package.

Dedicated GPUs

Dedicated GPUs

MSI GP65 Leopard

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Dedicated GPU is different from graphics card and integrated GPUs. It’s easiest to think of it as a video card built into your computer. Laptops are primary devices that use dedicated GPUs.

As with a graphics card, a GPU has its own memory and cooling, but unlike a video card, you cannot change or upgrade a dedicated GPU A small number of laptops use replaceable GPU modules, but this is a rare exception.

External Graphics Cards

External graphics cards

Gigabyte Aorus GTX 10 7 0 Gaming Box

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A recent development – external video cards – use the high speed ports of modern computers. Thunderbolt 3 over USB C is the best solution. External cards can be either an integrated solution or just a case that you can use with any suitable graphics card.

This is a good solution for laptop users who need a more powerful GPU for their desktops. Read more about external GPUs in our article about them.

Understand GPU specifications

If you’d like to know how to choose between different graphics cards, check out our Graphics Card Buyers Guide for details on GPU specifications. If you just need a quick rundown, here are the key numbers that matter when it comes to GPUs:

Unfortunately, knowing these numbers or details will tell you little about how a particular GPU or video card will perform. Ultimately, the most important thing is the performance of the applications you want to run, which you can easily find in published benchmarks on the web.

General GPU computing tasks

The last thing to know about modern GPUs is that they can be used for certain non-GPU tasks. Since GPUs are essentially made up of a huge number of simple processors, any job that requires a lot of parallel computation can benefit from being executed on the GPU

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For example, Nvidia branded cards work with CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture) instructions. You can write software using CUDA to take advantage of the unique design of the GPU to speed up certain types of computation.

There is also OpenCL, which is not tied to a specific card brand. GPUs are used for big data analysis, machine learning, deep learning, cryptocurrency mining and the ever-growing list of complex tasks that would have required supercomputers in the past.

I can see it clearly now

These are the most important facts you need to know about GPUs. Now you know what they are, what they are used for and how they differ from other types of processors. We should all be grateful for GPUs. Without them, using computers would be much less colorful and convenient!

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