How to pick a graphics card and central processor
It can be a little intimidating trying to understand the inner workings of PCs, which makes it hard to map out which components you need when upgrading or planning a new build. New products, technologies and buzzwords appear all the time, and standards, protocols and performance have changed greatly over the last few years.
Two key internal computer components to understand are the CPU and the GPU.
What is the CPU?
The CPU is at the heart of all the actions performed by any home computer. It’s not the only critical system component — storage drives, RAM, and input/output buses are also absolutely required for a computer to run — but it ultimately defines how you’ll design the rest of your PC.
There are two manufacturers on the market, and whether you choose an Intel or AMD CPU determines which type of motherboard you’ll need. It’s not just separated by brand, though. There’s a new line of processors released every 1-2 years and almost every new CPU generation requires a new motherboard design centered around a new chipset, and rarely are new CPUs designed to be backward-compatible with older chipsets.
If you will be gaming, a high-performing CPU is incredibly important in any build. Dual-core CPUs are generally not recommended for high-end modern games. You will see benefits from having up to eight cores, but most gamers find four and six-core CPUs to be the sweet spot in terms of performance, price and heat management.
You can find low-end CPUs for everyday computing for just over $100, while the most powerful consumer-oriented models usually top out at around $400.
You need a CPU, regardless of whether you choose one by AMD or Intel. AMD tends to be cost-effective and has a lead in performance, too. However, CPU prices tend to fluctuate.
If you’re not planning on playing resource-intensive AAA titles, though, you can get by with a budget-friendly CPU. Even processors that are several years old can perform everyday tasks like word processing and web browsing without a single hiccup.
Powerful eight-core processors are expensive and generate a considerable amount of heat. They also require relatively beefy power supplies. Budget-oriented CPUs simply don’t have the processing power to handle big tasks like UHD video conversion and high frame rate gaming.
For price-to-performance ratio, this is one of the best gaming CPUs released in history. It also commands only a reasonable amount of power and is relatively efficient, so the stock cooler should be capable enough as long as you’re not heavily overclocking.
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Near the top of AMD’s consumer CPU line, this eight-core beast is perfect for high frame rate play in modern, resource-intensive games. It’s just a hair slower than the 12-core Ryzen 9 5900X, but it’s also significantly less expensive, and only the most demanding games and professionals will ever notice a difference.
If you’re building a basic PC for general use at home or the office, this is a perfectly fine dual-core option. It’s not suitable for anything but casual gaming, however, it is affordable.
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What is a GPU?
If you’re not playing modern games, creating advanced rendered graphics or converting large, high-resolution video files, you don’t need a standalone GPU. Almost all CPUs sold have a GPU built-in. An integrated GPU is more than capable of browsing the internet and doing other functions without any slowdowns.
Your GPU should be similar in capabilities to your CPU. When you are gaming, the CPU essentially compiles all the data about what’s in the current video frame and shuttles that data to the GPU. The graphics processor then applies the more advanced rendering techniques that make modern games look so great. If your CPU is significantly more powerful than your GPU, you’re essentially sitting on unused processing power and wasting the extra money you spent on a high-end graphics card.
Nvidia allows third-party manufacturers, who release the huge majority of add-in boards, to configure cards to their own liking, with custom circuit board configurations, capacitors, cooling solutions and clock speeds. However, most AMD add-in boards perform similarly to one another because the company doesn’t allow third-party manufacturers to alter much.
The newest video cards have advanced technologies to increase performance. Nvidia’s DLSS and AMD’s FSR are both highly effective at upscaling content independent of GPU power, while features like G-Sync and FreeSync variable refresh rates dynamically match your monitor’s refresh rate to the frame rate produced by the GPU. This reduces or eliminates the stuttering and screen tearing that can occur when those two values are different.
The biggest drawback to modern GPUs is cost. Increased demand from a wide variety of sectors has influenced the price.
Current GPUs are also large compared to previous versions and, in most cases, consume a significant amount of power and create a good deal of heat. If you’re upgrading an older system with a new GPU, make sure your fans are arranged properly and also that the card itself fits in your case.
As one of the budget offerings from the last generation of Nvidia GPUs, this one isn’t ideal for high resolutions but is one of the few on the market that costs less than $1,000.
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The Radeon RX 6000 series marked AMD’s return to competition with Nvidia for the king of the GPU hill. It’s a solid performer at 1440p resolutions, making it a top mid-range choice.
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Should you get a CPU or GPU?
Everybody needs a CPU, but not necessarily a high-performing one. If you’re a gamer and your graphics card is a couple of years old, it might be worth upgrading your CPU to match it, although that means you’ll also need a new motherboard.
Not everybody needs a discrete GPU, though. If you only play casual or classic games, your processor’s integrated GPU should do just fine. If your CPU is relatively recent and you still can’t get a consistent frame rate in your favorite titles, though, it might be time to search for a new GPU.
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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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