What is a GPU? A beginner’s guide to GPUs

Whether you’ve purchased a computer, console or even a smartphone, you’ve likely come across the term ‘GPU’, but what is a GPU? 

We’ve compiled this guide to explain all of the basics about a GPU and why it’s a very important consideration when looking for the best laptop or best gaming laptop. Here’s everything you need to know:

A GPU (graphics processing unit) is a component that’s responsible for creating images for your computer. Without any kind of GPU installed in your PC, it would even be incapable of rendering your Windows home screen. 

It’s not just computers that feature GPUs either, as consoles, smartphones and tablets all feature them too. Essentially, any device that’s capable of rendering 3D graphics on a screen is likely to feature some kind of GPU.

GPUs accelerate the rendering of 3D graphics. This is useful for many workloads.

They’re arguably most known for gaming, as they’re required to render multiple complex animations simultaneously. However, GPUs are also widely used for creative purposes too, such as editing video, creating 3D models and more. A powerful GPU is the key difference in what separates the MacBook Pro from the MacBook Air.

GPUs are also used in data centres, enabling the likes of cloud gaming, video streaming and video encoding. They can be used for bitcoin mining too, although the likes of Nvidia have recently tried to block such use on their GeForce GPU range.

There are two kinds of GPUs. The first is an iGPU (Integrated Graphics Processing Unit) which is a GPU that’s built inside a processor.

These generally aren’t very powerful, and are designed for basic rendering tasks rather than for the likes of gaming and 3D animation. That said, AMD and Intel have been improving their iGPUs in recent years to boost the performance for demanding workloads. 

If you’re buying a desktop processor without a graphics card, then it’s worth making sure it actually features an integrated GPU, as this isn’t always the case.

The second type of GPU is a dGPU (Discrete Graphics Processing Unit). This is a component that’s found inside a graphics card for desktop systems, or as a dedicated chip in high-end laptops. The discrete GPU is usually substantially more powerful than an iGPU, specialising at rendering advanced graphics for the likes of gaming and content creation. 

If you want a gaming PC, then a powerful dGPU is essential. They can also support technology such as ray tracing, which enables advanced lighting and shadow effects for extra realism. AMD and Nvidia are currently the main providers of dGPUs, but Intel has also released its own Xe Max GPU (found inside the Acer Swift 3X) and plans to launch more in the future. 

AMD E3 2019

There is a catch to discrete GPUs however, as they require a dedicated cooling system to maximise performance and prevent it from overheating. This unfortunately means gaming laptops are usually far heavier than a standard laptop with just an iGPU. Discrete GPUs also have a high power consumption, resulting in a significantly shorter battery life. 

Discrete GPUs also boost the cost of a laptop, while high-end desktop GPUs are usually the most expensive component when building a PC – the absolute cheapest graphics card in Nvidia’s latest 30-Series range is £299/$329. Because of this, a discrete GPU is only really recommended if you need it for the likes of gaming, content creation or other intense workloads.

There’s a lot of confusion about the differences between a GPU and a graphics card, as the two terms are often used interchangeably.

The GPU is the actual chip that does all of the heavy lifting. The GPU is installed inside the graphics card.

AMD Big Navi
AMD Radeon graphics card with discrete GPU

The graphics card is an ‘expansion card’ that enables the GPU to connect to the motherboard and outputs the image onto your monitor. Graphics cards can also feature additional hardware such as cooling system and their own dedicated RAM.

While AMD and Nvidia produce GPUs, third-party manufacturers such as Asus and Gigabyte sell their own custom-built graphics cards that house these GPUs, introducing unique designs and cooling systems.

The graphics card and GPU have a similar relationship to the CPU and motherboard, with the former providing all of the processing power and the latter sorting out the logistics.

If you’ve been trying to buy a graphics card in 2021, you’ve likely realised that they’re all out of stock. There are multiple reasons why this is the case.

The global supply chain for GPUs was adversely affected when Covid-19 hit, causing many factories to close and multiple countries to close borders. While the production of GPUs slowed, the demand rocketed up as laptop and graphics card sales boomed during the pandemic.

This was all very bad timing for the GPU market, as AMD and Nvidia launched their new generation of graphics cards in 2021, while the PS5 and Xbox Series X also hit stores. This increased demand substantially.

And let’s not forget the cryptocurrency miners, as many people bought batches of graphics cards in order to mine bitcoin with the hopes of making a profit.

Many people, known as scalpers, also took advantage of the short supply of consoles and graphics cards by buying them in bulk, and then selling them on at inflated prices for profit. This made it even more difficult to purchase a graphics card in the rare moments that retailers had new stock available.

There is hope that the graphics card shortage could end before the end of the year, but it’s difficult to be sure with so many factors in play.

If you want to buy a new graphics card, check out our best graphics card list and a table of all of our performance data below.

3DMark Time Spy

Power consumption

Peak temperature

3DMark Time Spy Extreme

3DMark Port Royal

Borderlands 3 frame rate (4K)

Borderlands 3 frame rate (Quad HD)

Borderlands 3 frame rate (Full HD)

Horizon Zero Dawn frame rate (4K)

Horizon Zero Dawn frame rate (Quad HD)

Horizon Zero Dawn frame rate (Full HD)

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