A graphics card is a computer component that produces images for a display output. Sometimes they are built into the motherboard of a computer, whereas other graphics cards are designed as removable circuit boards that can be replaced or upgraded as needed. This is especially important for users who need a high-performance graphics card for detailed visual work like graphic design, video editing, or video gaming.
How does a graphics card work?
A graphics card consists of many of the same components as other printed circuit boards, including:
- An input interface like a peripheral component interconnect (PCI) or accelerated graphics port (AGP) that receives data and power from the computer’s central processing unit (CPU) and directs it to the GPU
- A graphics processing unit (GPU), which functions similarly to a computer’s CPU but focuses only on processing the data needed to render a display
- Random access memory (RAM), which temporarily stores the pixel data produced by the GPU and creates the full image
- A cooling mechanism like a fan or heat sink, which counteracts or distributes the thermal energy produced by the GPU throughout the card to prevent overheating
- An output interface like HDMI or USB-C, which feeds data from the RAM to the output display device
Is a graphics card necessary?
All consumer-grade computers (laptops and desktops) come with either an integrated graphics card that’s built into the motherboard or a dedicated graphics card that’s removable. Without either of these, a computer does not have a way to power the graphical user interface (GUI) and therefore no way to accept commands from a user. The only computers that have historically not needed graphics cards are large mainframe computers that do not have a GUI, but instead use graphics terminals connected to a user’s external device.
Dedicated graphics cards are not necessary, but for graphic-heavy applications like video/photo editing or video gaming, a weak graphics card can create significant lagging or cause program failure. As such, many professionals in these areas require dedicated graphics cards that can keep up with their high-performance demands. Sometimes users will attempt to improve their integrated graphics card performance by manually raising the clock speed, a practice called overclocking. However, overclocking can overheat and damage the computer components and therefore voids any manufacturer warranties.