What is a GPU?
We explain what a GPU is, and what their business applications are
If we think of a central processing unit (CPU) as the logical thinking section of a computer’s silicon brain, then what a graphics processing unit (GPU)? It can be thought of as the brain's 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 can the operating system 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?
Simply put, the GPU is responsible for handling the computational demands of graphics-intensive functions on a computer. This can be things as basic as displaying the desktop on the monitor - drawing all the pixels in the right order at the right time. GPUs are also used when more strenuous graphics tasks are required such as delivering sharp, smooth imagery while playing video games or in the business world, running programs like 3D and 4D rendering software, and video editing software like Adobe Premiere Pro.
GPUs tend to come in two different forms. The first and most recognisable are the modular ‘cards’ that are most often found in desktop tower PCs and are primarily made by either Nvidia or AMD. The manufacturers typically release a new series of GPUs every year and these are plugged into a PC’s motherboard via its PCIe slots. These cards can often be ‘daisychained’ together for better performance using proprietary technology from Nvidia or AMD known as SLI and CrossFire respectively, though performance boosts decrease with every card that’s added to the motherboard.
In short, a GPU is a processor that is specially-designed to handle intensive graphics rendering tasks.
Alternatively, some smaller computers like laptops and tablets rely on the basic graphics capabilities baked into the single processing chip. Larger laptops sometimes have dedicated GPUs but come in the form of mobile chips which are less bulky than a full desktop-style GPU but offer better graphics performance than a CPU’s built-in graphics power alone.
Like a CPU, the GPU is a chip in and of itself and performs many calculations at speed. One of the more recent uses of GPUs has been borne out of the interest in cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies in the past decade. As GPUs have become more powerful over time, enthusiasts have adopted them as powerful cryptocurrency mining tools due to them being able to complete the necessary blockchain computation to earn rewards.
The uptake in using GPUs for crypto mining hasn’t been received well from the major manufacturers and last year Nvidia said that, starting with the RTX 3060, its hardware would self-throttle when Ether mining was detected. That said, Nvidia also offers dedicated products like the CMP HX series hardware that are built specifically for mining purposes.
The uptake in using GPUs for cryptomining hasn’t been received well from the major manufacturers and last year Nvidia said that, starting with the RTX 3060, its hardware would self-throttle when Ether mining was detected. That said, Nvidia also offers dedicated products like the CMP HX series hardware that are built specifically for mining purposes.
What are GPUs used for?
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For some, the word 'GPU' immediately brings to mind the latest video games. But a range of sectors also use GPUs to fulfil complex computing needs.
There are many examples of business softwares that require users to have a decent GPU in order to run as intended. Autodesk’s AutoCAD, the design and drafting software, requires users to have a dedicated graphics card and more powerful hardware will facilitate a smoother design process.
Another popular use for GPUs is for video editing purposes. If you’re editing 4k video, or rendering 3D graphics, a powerful GPU capable of handling these files without breaking a sweat.
A recent addition to common business use cases for GPUs is for training neural networks and machine learning (ML) algorithms. For efficient training with a GPU, high performance business-grade GPUs are preferable.
The majority of the most popular and powerful GPUs on the market are made by just a handful of companies. Nvidia and AMD, which are known for providing high-level components for many big tech companies, while also offering specialised hardware for specific organisations. An example of this is the Nvidia A100 Tensor Core GPU, built specifically for data centres to power artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics.
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. During the worldwide shortage of graphic cards, it could 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. It has since embarked on a multi-year project with Microsoft to create an AI supercomputer, which may rank amongst the world’s most powerful once it is released.
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 2021, 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
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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.
Gigabyte is a 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 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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