In-depth

What is a GPU?

GPUs aren't just good for gaming - they have business applications too

A GPU model against a black background

If we think of a central processing unit (CPU) as the logical thinking section of a computer’s silicon brain, then the graphics processing unit (GPU) is its creative side, helping render graphical user interfaces into visually attractive icons and designs rather than reams of black and white lines. 

While many CPUs come with some form of integrated GPU to ensure that Windows can be displayed on a connected screen, there is a myriad of more intensive graphics-based tasks, such as video rendering and computer-aided design (CAD) that often require a dedicated or discreet GPU notably in the form of a graphics card. 

When it comes to the latter, Nvidia and AMD are the two main players in the graphics card arena, while Intel’s own Iris Plus and UHD integrated GPUs tend to carry out a lot of light-weight work in laptops without dedicated graphics. On the mobile side, the likes of Qualcomm and MediaTek provide lightweight GPUs for handheld devices, though these often come in system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs where the GPU is on the same chip as the CPU and other core mobile chipset components. 

It can be easy to think of a GPU as something only people keen on playing PC games are interested in, but a GPU provides a lot more than just graphical grunt.

What does a GPU do?

"GPU" became a popular term for the component that powers graphics on a machine in the 1990s, when it was coined by chip manufacturer Nvidia. The company's GeForce range of graphics cards were the first to be popularised and ensured related technologies such as hardware acceleration, programmable shading and stream processing were able to evolve.

While the task of rendering basic objects, like an operating system's desktop environment, can usually be handled by the limited graphics processing functionalities built into the CPU, some more strenuous workloads require extra horsepower, which is where a dedicated GPU comes in.

In short, a GPU is a processor that is specially-designed to handle intensive graphics rendering tasks.

Computer-generated graphics - such as those found in videogames or other animated mediums - require each separate frame to be individually 'drawn' by the computer, which requires a large amount of power.

Most high-end desktop PCs will feature a dedicated graphics card, which occupies one of the motherboard's PCIe slots. These usually have their own dedicated memory allocation built into the card, which is reserved exclusively for graphical operations. Some particularly advanced PCs will even use two GPUs hooked up together to provide even more processing power.

Closeup of computer graphics chip GPU inside a laptop

Laptops, meanwhile, often carry mobile ships, which are smaller and less powerful than their desktop counterparts. This allows them to fit an otherwise bulky GPU into a smaller chassis, at the expense of some of the raw performance offered by desktop cards.

What are GPUs used for?

Although GPUs are most often associated with life-like graphics in top-quality video games, they can also have their use in other industries.

For instance, business applications such as AutoCAD benefit from GPUs in rendering 3D models. Due to this type of software demanding constant changes in a short period of time, the PC on which it is being rendered needs to be able to withstand the strain of the editing process. In this case, the GPU facilitates the re-rendering of the 3D models.

Another popular use of GPUs is in video editing, especially when working with huge quantities of high-resolution files, such as 4K or 360-degree videos. Editing these kinds of files can be troublesome for most standard CPUs, which is why a high-end GPU is especially useful in being able to transcode the video files at a reasonable speed.

GPUs can also facilitate the processing of functions for machine learning and the creation of neural networks, which is another task that can be overwhelming for a CPU due to the large swathes of data involved in the process.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that not all GPUs are created equal. If you’re looking for a specialised, enterprise kind of processor which is aimed for specific kinds of applications, it’s recommended that you choose a GPU with additional in-depth support. These are manufactured by semiconductor industry giants such as AMD and Nvidia, which are known for providing high-level components for some of the biggest tech companies, from Microsoft and Lenovo to Facebook and Google.

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