What is a GPU?
GPUs aren't just good for gaming - they have business applications too
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.
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.
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What are GPUs used for?
Although GPUs are normally associated with the realistic graphics found in top-quality video games, a number of other industries also rely on their powerful processing capabilities.
The smooth running of certain business applications is almost entirely reliant on the processing power coming from the GPU. For example, a system that has a low-end GPU will struggle to render 3D models through AutoCAD software, resulting in incredibly slow performance or even system crashes.
Moreover, video editing is another popular use of GPUs. If a workflow requires the editing of large volumes of high-resolution files, like 4K or 360-degree videos, you'll likely want a top of the range GPU capable of transcoding files at a decent speed to avoid bottlenecks.
However, it is important to mention that not all GPUs are made equally. If you are seeking a specialised, enterprise kind of processor which is designed with specific applications in mind, it is probably worth opting for a business-grade GPU. These are made by a number of semiconductor industry giants, such as Nvidia and AMD, which are known for providing high-level components for many big tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Lenovo. An example of this would be Nvidia's RTX and Quadro range, which are built with professionals in mind.
Some companies offer even more specialised hardware, as is the case with Nvidia's high-performance computing range of integrated services, which includes data centre GPUs like the A100.
Who are the biggest GPU companies?
Nvidia is a US technology company based in California, founded in 1993, that designs GPUs for gaming and professional markets, as well as system on a chip units (SoCs) for the mobile computing and automotive markets. Its primary GPU line is GeForce, which is a direct competitor to AMD’s Radeon.
Some of its well-known GPUs include the GeForce RTX 3080, Nvidia Titan V, and the Nvidia RTX A6000. Right now, due to a worldwide shortage of graphic cards, it can be tricky to get your hands on one of its GPUs, especially its GeForce RTX 3070 cards.
In July 2021, Nvidia switched on what it claimed to be the UK’s fastest supercomputer, the Cambridge-1, which contained a number of NVIDIA A100 Tensor Core GPUs.
Advanced Micro Devices, also known as AMD, was founded in 1969 and is another US tech company based in California. It develops computer processors and other products for business and consumer markets. It originally manufactured semiconductors before spinning off this division in 2008, which was then formed into GlobalFoundries.
AMD’s main products include motherboard chipsets, microprocessors, graphics processors, and embedded processors. Some of its products include the AMD Radeon graphics series and the Ryzen processor range.
In March, the company announced it would launch the Ryzen 5000 Pro series of mobile processors for thin and light business laptops. This consists of three chips: the Ryzen 7 Pro 5850U, Ryzen 5 Pro 5650U and Ryzen 3 5450U. The 5850 is the highest spec of the three, featuring an eight-core, 16-thread design, 20MB cache and base and boost clock frequencies of 1.9GHz and 4.4GHz, respectively. AMD claimed the chip is the only processor with eight high-performance cores designed for thin and lightweight laptops.
Aftermarket GPU vendors
A differentiating factor between GPUs and CPUs is that the former often receives what's known as the 'aftermarket treatment'. While the core tech behind graphics cards comes from the two usual suspects, there are a number of companies on the market that will take these base-level pieces of hardware - known as 'reference models' or 'reference cards' - and apply a few finishing touches to them, often bringing some performance upgrades in one way or another.
This can be in the form of overclocking - taking the risky business out of the customers' hands, adding modified housing - often for the purposes of thermal efficiency, or adding a few extra fans for the same reason. RGB lighting is also another common one, if that's your thing.
California-based EVGA is known mainly in the gaming sector for its long-running partnership with Nvidia, the GPUs of which it's perhaps best known for modifying.
Offering a range of upgraded GPUs for Nvidia cards, these modifications range from simple RGB lighting upgrades to overclocked capabilities and even dedicated closed-loop liquid cooling units, just for the GPU.
EVGA is also well-known for producing SLI bridges to daisy-chain GPUs together, motherboards, power supplies, gaming peripherals, and more.
Like EVGA, Gigabyte is another company that's more than just an aftermarket GPU vendor. It has a wider portfolio of products than EVGA which includes GPUs and peripherals, but also larger pieces of hardware such as displays, PCs, laptops, motherboards, and other PC components such as solid state drives (SSDs).
While catering to the gaming crowd with aplomb, it also appeals to the arts and creative corners of industry with laptops and monitors suitable for the likes of professional photo editing, for example. It also has further ambitions for future expansion into the AI and deep learning spaces too, but these forays are in their infancy.
Another aftermarket vendor with a diverse product portfolio is MSI. The company is firmly rooted in gaming but branches out in certain areas to cater for the creatives, 3D animators, video editors and more. It also offers a number of enterprise-grade machines as part of its Business & Productivity Series focused on high-performance, high-security computing. A real jack of all trades, master of many, MSI also has ventures in artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of things (IoT) and cloud servers.
It's one of the most trusted brands in the gaming space and offers aftermarket GPUs for both Nvidia and AMD cards.
Like MSI, Asus is another titan of tech, not just PC gaming. The Taiwanese hardware firm was founded in 1989 and claims to be the world's number one motherboard and gaming brand, and in the top three notebook vendors globally.
Gamers will be well versed in Asus' efforts in the aftermarket GPU space. It produces cards under its main brand umbrella, as well as its two gaming offshoots TUF and Republic of Gamers. The brands mainly serve Nvidia GPUs but AMD fans also have a number of options to choose from, albeit a comparatively much smaller number than those looking for Nvidia cards.
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