Arguably, one of the most appealing aspects of building a PC is the freedom to choose the exact components that will go into it, and when gaming PCs are concerned, no component is more important than the graphics card.
But how do you pick a graphics card? Chances are that you’ve heard the terms like “dedicated”, “discrete”, and “integrated” thrown around, so what do these terms mean and what are the differences between these three types of graphics cards? And more importantly, which is the right pick for your new gaming PC?
Read on and find out!
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What Is A Dedicated Graphics Card?
If we’re talking about graphics cards in the context of desktop PCs, then it’s most likely dedicated graphics card we’re talking about, though they are sometimes referred to as “discrete” graphics cards as well. As the name implies, a dedicated graphics card is a standalone piece of computing hardware whose sole task is graphics processing, be it vast and detailed 3D game worlds or the simple 2D graphics of your web browser.
A dedicated graphics card uses its own integrated memory, i.e. VRAM, leaving the system RAM free for other operations. Apart from the advantages of having its own RAM reserve to work with, a dedicated graphics card usually operates at higher clock speeds, comes with its own cooling solution, and has a significantly higher power draw compared to integrated graphics solutions.
Most graphics cards come with open-air coolers equipped with 1-3 fans (based on the size of the card) while others come with blowers or even liquid cooling. More advanced cooling, when combined with high clock speeds, equals high power consumption, which is why most dedicated graphics cards also come with 6-pin or 8-pin power connectors, as the PCIe slot simply cannot supply enough power on its own to keep a GPU and its cooler running.
All in all, dedicated graphics cards are usually the best way to go when it comes to desktop PCs, as they offer high performance and efficient cooling, something that you’ll need if you’re building a gaming PC or intend on using professional software that has high GPU requirements. However, graphics cards can also be quite pricey, but that depends mainly on the GPU model itself and what kind of cooling solution was implemented by the OEM.
What Is An Integrated Graphics Card?
Many components that used to be sold separately, such as sound cards or Wi-Fi routers, are now commonly seen integrated into motherboards themselves. The same goes for GPUs , but while there used to be many motherboards with integrated GPUs, integrated graphics now come bundled with CPUs instead. That said, integrated graphics interface with the motherboard directly via the CPU socket and connect to displays via the motherboard’s integrated ports (usually HDMI).
Now, unlike dedicated graphics cards, integrated GPUs don’t have their own VRAM. Instead, they use a portion of the main system RAM for graphics processing. Naturally, this can reflect on system performance, and the GPUs themselves are nowhere near as powerful as dedicated ones are.
Intel’s integrated graphics chips that come with their mainstream desktop CPUs are usually just very basic solutions that are meant to save money and space, and when it comes to gaming, they will rarely be powerful enough. Of course, they can still be decent backups if we’re talking about less demanding games, but they should never be anyone’s primary pick when gaming is concerned.
In contrast, AMD is actually offering Ryzen APUs such as the Ryzen 5 3400G that can actually offer very competent in-game performance. And even though the performance is still nowhere near what some of the cheapest budget graphics cards can offer, these Vega-equipped APUs can be a good way to save some money for those who are trying to build an entry-level gaming PC but are on a tight budget.
At the end of the day, integrated graphics are there to either save space or save money, if not both. In desktops, they can be a great way to shave off costs if the user doesn’t need serious graphics performance. In laptops, they are a great way to reduce power consumption, thus prolonging battery life, and they save a lot of space, too. However, all but a few Ryzen APUs can actually offer decent performance when it comes to gaming.
Which Should You Choose?
When deciding whether to go with a dedicated or an integrated graphics solution, the main factor that you should consider is functionality i.e. what you actually intend on using the PC for.
If we’re talking about a run-of-the-mill desktop PC that would be used for web browsing, Microsoft Office, video playback, etc, an integrated GPU – even the most rudimentary one – will be more than a good enough fit for your needs. Intel’s UHD 630 integrated graphics can handle even 4K quite well when it comes to regular desktop use, and many of AMD’s cheaper APUs are very budget-friendly.
As for dedicated graphics cards, they are only really worth the investment if you actually intend on using them to their fullest potential. For most people, this will be gaming, though professional video editing or 3D modeling software can benefit greatly from the extra graphics processing power that a dedicated GPU can offer.
But when gaming is concerned, we have already mentioned that basic integrated GPUs can only really be sufficient for running older games or less demanding eSports titles. If you want high framerates or you want to play games in higher resolutions, a dedicated GPU is a must.
As you can see, from the video above, AMD’s Vega integrated graphics really outdo the integrated Intel UHD 630 chips that you’ll find in the mainstream Intel CPUs, so if you want to build a gaming PC without a dedicated graphics card, a Ryzen 5 3400G, a Ryzen 3 3200G , or their 2nd-generation counterparts would be your best bet.
But on the other hand, you can’t find integrated graphics in the more powerful Ryzen CPUs whereas all but those Intel CPUs marked with an “F” at the end of their model number come with integrated graphics. So, if you want both integrated graphics and high-end CPU performance for CPU-heavy software, Intel will still be the better bet
.Now, another important factor that we can’t overlook is the pricing. As mentioned before, going with an integrated graphics solution is way cheaper, since the GPU is included as part of a CPU/APU that can cost as little as $50 in the cases of some AMD Athlon and Intel Celeron models. And, as we have previously established, the Ryzen APUs can offer good gaming performance in the $100-$150 price range.
Meanwhile, the cheapest dedicated graphics card that you can get in 2020 that’s actually worth buying starts at about $100. If you’re after a solid mid-range solution such as the GTX 1660 Ti, you should expect to spend almost $300, and that’s on top of the cost of the CPU itself. So, if you’re pinching pennies, going with a good integrated GPU can save you some money, but as previously established, they won’t be enough for higher resolutions or higher framerates.