In this guide, we break down what differentiates a dedicated graphics card from an integrated one and provide tips on making the all-important choice of which best suits your needs.
What is An Dedicated Graphics Card?
A dedicated graphics or graphics processing unit is a standalone, specialized piece of computing hardware whose sole function is to render graphics for display, be they for 3D games or pottering around with daily tasks such as web browsing and email.
A dedicated graphics card uses its own dedicated, inbuilt memory, or RAM, leaving the system RAM for other functions. By way of example, an integrated graphics card with 6GB of RAM on a system with 16GB of RAM will only use its own 6GB of RAM to render. The result is that a sizeable chunk of processing power is shifted to the GPU, allowing the CPU more resources for other tasks.
Beyond memory, a dedicated card has much higher power requirements and consumption than integrated graphics cards necessitating its own heat dissipating cooling system and power regulation.
A dedicated graphics card, also called a discrete graphics card on laptops, connects to the motherboard via a PCI-E slot and requires a path to the power supply unit via 6-pin and 8-pin power connectors.
Gaming PCs where 3D graphical fidelity is required, or other graphically demanding tasks such as animation, video editing, and other forms of 3D rendering, favor dedicated graphics cards. Dedicated GPUs have the price tag to match and are often the single most expensive component in a PC.
Examples of dedicated graphics cards are the Nvidia GTX 1080, Nvidia RTX 2070, AMD Radeon RX Vega 64 and AMD Radeon RX 580. As you can see Nvidia and AMD dominate the graphics processing unit market, although the cards themselves are distributed by a host of manufacturers such as MSI, EVGA, Gigabyte, Asus and many more.
What Is An Integrated Graphics Card?
Independent components that were once connected to the motherboard are now being built in or integrated into the motherboard or processor — these range from networking capabilities like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to audio solutions.
Born from the fruit of the ongoing miniaturization of computing hardware the integrated graphics card is none other than a CPU (read processor) or motherboard with a built-in function for rendering graphics without the need for a dedicated graphics cards. The graphics processing unit is built into the same die as the CPU or motherboard chipset.
The integrated graphics uses a portion of the system RAM rather than having a dedicated batch for graphical processes meaning its graphical abilities are far less powerful than a dedicated graphics card. Equally, the CPU loses a portion of its memory resources to graphical tasks. Although recent advances mean specific models can rival the graphical output of mid-range dedicated GPUs convincingly.
Integrated graphics consume far less energy across the board than dedicated cards and are, therefore, favored for laptops and less demanding tasks. As integrated graphics are significantly cheaper than their dedicated counterparts, they are the preferred option for budget and entry-level machines.
In the world of dedicated graphics cards, AMD and Intel lead the charge. Intel offers its range of Intel HD Graphics, Iris, and UHD solutions, while AMD has a proprietary technology known as APU, or accelerated processing unit, which, acronym aside, refers to a combined GPU and CPU, or as above, an integrated graphics card.
Examples of processors with integrated graphics are the AMD Ryzen 5 2400G and Intel Core i5.
Which Should You Choose?
The choice of whether to go dedicated or integrated comes to down to functionality and what you hope to achieve with a specific PC.
For a run of the mill desktop used for word processing, excel spreadsheeting, watching streaming services like Netflix or Amazon prime (Intel’s latest generation of HD Graphics run swimmingly at 4K Ultra HD resolutions), a quick jaunt down the Youtube rabbit hole, and browsing the internet then an integrated graphics card is more than adequate.
The power a dedicated card offers isn’t cost effective for daily tasks. It’s a bit like buying a Maserati to drive 2 minutes down a city road with a speed limit of 25 mph on a regular basis. It’s overkill.
If you’re into a bit of gaming or want to run older games, then Intel’s latest Iris Pro Graphics 580 (with a nice helping of RAM) is more than capable of handling medium settings at 1080p. Similarly, AMD’s Ryzen series of APU offer very much the same. The gaming experience will be watered down and venturing into newer power hungry title territory isn’t advisable. Fancy playing League of Legends on medium settings? An integrated card should work fine.
If you don’t game and your PC feels sluggish, then the chances are you need to prop up the system with additional RAM, rather than switching from an integrated to a dedicated graphics card. Adding even just 2GB of RAM can improve performance considerably.
If you’re looking to run the latest games with a stable 60 to 90 FPS on ultra settings with 4K resolution, then a dedicated graphics card is the way to go. These puppies are designed solely to make gaming better and do so in style. We’re talking PUBG at max settings, Battlefield V in all its glory without a hint of frame rate fluctuation, and pretty much any other game under the sun.
The same goes for an editing suite or graphic design workstations running complex rendering processes in Adobe Photoshop or Final Cut – a dedicated graphics card can handle the processing needs of 3D rendering, multiple high-quality video files laden with effects, or multiple monitors setups.
Streaming setups also benefit immensely from a dedicated card, especially when using one and the same machine to both game and broadcast to a streaming platform like Twitch.
Cost is also a significant consideration: as above integrated cards cost markedly less than dedicated equivalents because the units are built into the CPU or motherboard. These are components you would have bought regardless as they are essential.
The savings aren’t just in the hardware either but also in terms of battery life and power consumption. Dedicated GPUs voraciously devour watts and even a discrete version in a laptop is a sure fire way to see your battery life dwindle down to nothing in no time at all.
Buying a new dedicated GPU often entails extra costs such as updating the power supply unit and cooling system to handle the added power requirements or purchasing a compatible motherboard to get it working.
Additionally, dedicated GPU tech is very much an arms race where bragging rights are the common currency with partakers eager to get the latest cards, which can cost as much as the whole computer. If you catch the bug, it’s hard to resist splashing out for the latest offerings from Nvidia or AMD, although the performance benefits may not be all that significant.
The Bottom Line
Now that you’ve got a clearer understanding of how each of these types of graphics cards works, we hope the matter makes a bit more sense. If in doubt, opt for a dedicated graphics card for serious gaming and stick to an integrated graphics card for everyday computing tasks.
The UK-based journalist and gamer, Thomas, describes himself as a man of few words with an unhealthy obsession for everything wonderful about the world of gaming. Thanks to his experience in the gaming industry, he brings a wealth of talent into GamingScan.