If you’re just now getting into the world of computer hardware (welcome, by the way), you’ve probably already started to see the abundance of abbreviations used by the community. PSU, CPU, mobo, RAM, GPU… and so on. When I first started reading up, I was constantly confused by the interchangeability of “GPU” and “Graphics Card.”
And for the most part, it’s fine—the two terms really do mean the same thing. It’s the same reason people will sometimes just say “card”, and leave it at that. There is a difference, though, and for a newcomer, it might help to know what that difference is.
What is a GPU?
First things first, what exactly is a GPU? GPU stands for “Graphics Processing Unit”—and so it makes sense that the abbreviation itself is generally used as a catch-all term for anything responsible for processing graphics.
In exact terms, a GPU is a tiny (usually around 3x3cm in size) that contains electronic circuits. Generally speaking, while this chip is responsible for rendering and subsequently displaying everything that pops up on your screen, it needs help in order to perform this function.
There’s two different settings that it’s commonly placed in: In a CPU, and within its own PCB (Printed Circuit Board).
When placed inside a CPU, it’s referred to as an iGPU, or integrated graphics. When placed in its own PCB, it’s referred to as a Graphics Card.
What is an iGPU?
As stated before, when a GPU is placed in a CPU, it becomes what’s known as an iGPU. Being connected to the CPU in this way has its advantages.
It’s cheaper than other options, and gives the GPU chip everything that it needs to function. It allows the GPU to communicate with the rest of the system, performs power management, and gives it access to the system’s memory.
On the other hand, though, because of how small a CPU is, there’s only so much it can offer the GPU. As a result, iGPUs tend to be low-powered, and are generally used for office computers.
What is a Graphics Card?
On the flipside, when a GPU is placed within its own PCB, it becomes a dedicated Graphics Card (abbreviated as dGPU). These cards are often huge, due to how many parts are crammed into the PCB. It comes with its own cooling shroud, cores, VRAM modules, and a PCIE connector—which offers a much faster connection to the Motherboard. As a result, a Graphics Card is far more powerful than an iGPU.
While their size might be off-putting, the design is meant for practicality. Their modularity means that they can be swapped out at a moment’s notice, and the independent cooling shroud ensures that the card itself doesn’t get too hot.
There’s a lot of different Graphics Cards out there, and their performance tends to vary from model to model. There’s also more specialized designs, meant to excel at one specific task (such as cryptomining), rather than performing everything well.
Realistically, though, if you’re looking to buy a dGPU, chances are you’re looking to play video games on it—especially considering the recent crypto crash.
What About Video Cards?
While not as common as the other two types, Video Cards are still used by many people around the world. As the name suggests, they’re far more specialized, and are meant to handle video processing extremely well.
As such, these cards are generally only used by professionals in the industry.
So What’s the Difference?
Realistically speaking, the differences between the terms GPU and Graphics Card are fairly minimal. It’s a large part of why the terms are used interchangeably by most people (I know I’m guilty of it myself).
Still, though, there is a distinction to be made between the different terms, and it may be useful to know what exactly those differences are—especially if you’re just now joining the world of computer hardware.