What the heck is a discrete graphics card anyway?
If you’re shopping around for a laptop or individual parts for your custom PC build, chances are you’ve come across technical terms like ‘discrete graphics’ and ‘integrated graphics.’ Sounds a bit confusing, doesn’t it? Whether you’re new to computer jargon or you’re looking for a quick refresher, I’ve got you covered. Not only will you gain more clarity on the difference between discrete graphics cards and integrated graphics, but you’ll also be able to confidently make an informed decision about the type of graphics you want when choosing your next system. Read on to learn more.
[ Further reading: The best graphics cards for PC gaming ]
A discrete graphics card is a GPU that’s separate from the central processing unit, or CPU—hence the “discrete.” Essentially, it takes care of rendering all visuals and has its own dedicated memory and cooling. A discrete graphic card is installed in one of the PCIe (aka peripheral component interconnect express—I dare you to say that five times fast) slots on your computer’s motherboard. You can plug a lot of different things into a PCIe slot like network cards, SSD expansion cards, and more. However, graphics cards are the most common.
Remember how I said a discrete graphics card has its own dedicated memory? It’s called VRAM, the acronym for video random access memory. Unlike RAM, which allows you to temporarily store and access data (think open files and such), VRAM is different in that it is much, much faster, which allows it to store intense graphical information. When the system calls forth an image, the VRAM will process it and then it shows up on the screen. If you’re a gamer or video editor, having ample VRAM is super important, as it helps prevent any unnecessary stuttering or freezing. Unfortunately, it’s a physical part that’s soldered onto the GPU, so you can’t upgrade it after the fact. Shop smart.
Discrete graphics cards tend to process visual tasks—be it gaming or video editing—significantly faster than integrated graphics. Graphics cards also hold more abundant visual outputs than integrated graphics, which typically relies on a single HDMI port on the back of your motherboard. You’ll usually find several HDMI and DisplayPorts on discrete offerings.
If you want to go much, much deeper, our roundup of the best graphics cards for PC gaming includes a comprehensive section explaining what to look for in a discrete GPU.
Integrated graphics are a GPU that’s attached to the processor. In other words, the GPU and CPU are on the same chip. Integrated graphics used to have a bad reputation, but nowadays they’re surprisingly suitable for everyday use and lightweight gaming. You just have to be realistic with your expectations, as integrated graphics are more limited in terms of power.
One of the most important things to note is that integrated graphics shares its memory with the main system RAM. So, if you’re doing anything resource-heavy, integrated graphics will use up as much RAM as it needs to. All visuals also have to go all the way out to the system memory to be processed, rather than occurring on memory chips located right next to the graphics chip itself, as is the case with discrete GPUs. You might notice some slowdown or freezing as a result, and systems that rely on integrated graphics will achieve faster gaming frame rates when paired with faster system RAM.
Which is better?
Ah. We’ve arrived at the most important question of all. Which is better? Well, it depends on what you plan on doing with your laptop or desktop PC. Are you a hardcore gamer that needs higher-than-average frame rates or would you consider yourself more of a casual gamer that plays older titles? Do you perform image editing tasks on your PC? Whatever your answer may be, it’s going to directly impact your decision.
If you’re after stable gaming performance or faster editing times, you’ll want to spring for a laptop or PC with dedicated graphics. Since discrete graphics cards have their own dedicated memory and cooling solutions, they can have much larger graphics chips, usually making add-in boards much more powerful than even the most impressive integrated graphics. PC gamers who want to play the latest games will want a system with a discrete graphics card if possible. (May we make some recommendations?)
That said, there are a number of downsides to be aware of. A dedicated graphics card generates more heat and consumes more power. Plus, they tend to make laptops heavier and more bulky. Discrete graphics bumps up the price of a PC as well. If you’re looking for a more economical option, you’ll want to consider sticking with integrated graphics.
If you don’t need a ton of graphics power for games or photo/image editing, a laptop or PC with integrated graphics is the way to go. Integrated visuals also consume far less energy than a dedicated graphics card. That means you’ll get much better battery life out of a laptop and a slimmer, more portable profile (systems with integrated graphics don’t require bulky extra cooling, either). Oh and you can still play some games, just not those big fancy triple-A titles. You’ll just need to turn down the graphics a bit.
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Author: Ashley Biancuzzo, Associate Editor
Ashley is a professional writer and editor with a strong background in tech and pop culture. She has written for high traffic websites such as Polygon, Kotaku, StarWars.com, and Nerdist. In her off time, she enjoys playing video games, reading science fiction novels, and hanging out with her rescue greyhound.