GPU vs CPU: What Matters Most for PC Gaming?

I’m sure you’ve probably heard lots of talk about the GPU vs CPU topic.

So, what matters most for video games? The graphics card or the processor?

GPU vs CPU- What Matters Most for PC Gaming?
GPU vs CPU- What Matters Most for PC Gaming?

Gamers have been debating the relative merits of CPU vs GPU since the dawn of personal computers. But recent advances have made it more important than ever to pick the right gaming platform—and that means considering both CPUs and GPUs in your decision. We’ll explain what each does, how they work together, and why it’s crucial to choose wisely when assembling a gaming rig.

Before we dive into this topic, let’s first explain what a GPU and CPU are and what their main functions are.

The CPU: The Heart of Your Gaming PC

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is at the heart of your computer. It performs all of the calculations that help run your machine and execute code. This includes everything from running programs to rendering images.

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Your CPU is a general purpose processor that runs your entire operating system and all of its applications. This includes everything from simple programs like Word to complex software like Photoshop—not to mention games. In games, your CPU manages everything outside the game world: artificial intelligence (AI), physics, game logic and other core functions. It also keeps track of non-gaming tasks running in the background while you play, such as downloading updates or running anti-virus software.

The GPU: The Brain of Your Gaming PC

The Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is a specialized type of microprocessor that handles rendering graphics for your games and applications. As such, it’s responsible for taking the 3D models within a game and deciding how to draw them on the screen.

A GPU is a computer processor dedicated to creating images for a display. It is the key component responsible for creating the vivid environments you explore in games, as well as special effects like explosions, lighting, weather and more. The better the GPU, the more detailed and realistic your game’s world becomes.

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What’s the “core” difference between CPU and GPU?

When building a computer, it’s important to know what you’re going to be doing with your machine. If you’re just checking email and surfing the web, then a $200 processor will do just fine. You won’t need to spend the extra money for a high-end processor or graphics card. If you plan on doing any sort of gaming, though, you’ll want to pay a little more attention. When it comes down to it, graphics processing units and central processing units aren’t all that different. They both need to be fast and efficient at their tasks in order to get the job done right. However, there are some key differences between the two that have a significant impact on how they affect the gaming experience.

Both GPUs and CPUs are made up of transistors that process information in parallel. A GPU can have as many as tens of thousands of transistors, while CPUs typically have between 1 and 4 thousand transistors. The GPU is able to do this because it is constantly running at full speed. That’s why GPUs are so much larger than CPUs—they need space for all those transistors and memory chips!

The CPU is responsible for executing instructions from software programs on your computer, such as Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop.

GPU vs CPU: What Matters Most for PC Gaming?

When it comes to gaming, most of us want the best experience possible on a budget. With graphics cards getting so expensive, some gamers wonder whether or not they should upgrade their graphics card or processor. We know that these two components are essential for gaming, but which one matters more when it comes to performance? While there’s no clear-cut answer, here’s what you need to know about the roles of different hardware in your favorite games.

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In most cases, the GPU is the most important component for PC gaming. While this isn’t always true, more often than not, the graphics card is going to be the deciding factor in what kind of FPS (frames per second) you can get from a game. That said, you don’t need to have the newest GPU on the market to have a great time playing games.

For instance, if you’re running a GTX 1070 and your friend has an RX 480, you’ll be able to play most games at a similar FPS. However, there are definitely times when this isn’t true. If you’re playing a less demanding title like League of Legends or Overwatch, then your CPU will probably be doing most of the work.

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If you’re looking for an easy answer as to which component is more important to gaming, try this:

In all but extreme cases, you’ll want to prioritize your graphics card over your CPU. The GPU is responsible for rendering images, video and animations in your favorite programs. Most of the work done by a GPU is independent of any other component in your system, so it’s possible to run some games on an extremely low-powered processor. On the other hand, the CPU has a lot of different responsibilities related to running software and connecting all of your hardware devices together.

Bad CPU performance can manifest itself in any number of ways while gaming — from framerate drops and stuttering graphics to system crashes. That said, in more common cases where money isn’t as much of an object, the best thing you can do for a gaming PC is buy a solid, powerful processor that will last you a few years into the future, then spend the rest of your money on a top-of-the-line graphics card.

How much CPU power do you need?

If your PC is going to be used for non-gaming stuff, like Web browsing, video playback, or text editing, then a relatively low-powered processor will do just fine. If you plan on doing more serious content creation or even light gaming, you’ll want at least four threads (or virtual cores), and clock speeds of 3GHz or higher. More threads are better for heavy multitasking and highly threaded applications like video encoding; faster clock speeds are better for lightly threaded applications where single-core performance is what matters most.

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How much GPU power do you need?

The first thing to understand about GPUs is that more cores lead to better performance. More than clock speed, which we’ll get to later, adding more processing cores will offer the greatest boost in performance for your money. 

The reason for this is because of the way games are written. In the early days of gaming, it didn’t take much power to render millions of polygons per second on a screen. Today’s games are far more complex and use many algorithms that process data simultaneously to create an image on your display. That data gets fed into a graphics pipeline which has multiple stages that ultimately spit out pixels displayed on your monitor. 

Each stage in the pipeline can be viewed as its own entity that processes data in parallel with other stages.​ This means that having additional processing cores will help move data through each stage of the pipeline faster so that frames can be rendered and displayed on your monitor quicker. This is why GPUs have thousands of processing cores.

Most of the important parts of the 3D render pipeline happen on your GPU. The render pipeline can be broken down into two major pieces: geometry processing and pixel shading. Geometry processing is where all of your meshes are transformed from their original object-space coordinates into screen-space coordinates. 

That’s also where all of your vertex shaders get processed, as well as most of your lighting calculations. Pixel shading is where everything else happens—everything from post-processing effects to transparency rendering to final lighting calculations and blending.

When you turn on anti-aliasing, it affects pixel shading, not geometry processing. When you crank up the texture resolution or draw distance or number of dynamic lights, it affects pixel shading, not geometry processing.

GPUs are optimized for running multiple programs at once and for handling very complex calculations or algorithms that can be broken down into smaller parts (such as rendering 3D graphics). As such, they’re better at doing things like calculating lighting effects and particle physics on many objects simultaneously—or even tracking thousands of enemies on a battlefield all at once. That makes them ideal for playing video games, running graphic design software, editing photos or videos, and other similar media-heavy software tasks.

Should I upgrade my GPU or CPU?

In a professional tone: Ever since the first PC games emerged, the debate about GPU vs CPU has raged on. The question of which component is more important—and what to prioritize when it comes to performance—isn’t a new one, but with the rise of 4K gaming and virtual reality, it’s never been more relevant.

The short answer is that you need both. While some gamers have tried to get away with a decent CPU and a less-powerful GPU (or vice versa), the fact is that both are critical to your gaming setup and will affect your overall experience.

Yes, the GPU is more important than the CPU. But that doesn’t mean the entire computer can be overlooked—it’s a delicate balance of two parts. So if you’re trying to decide between a new CPU or GPU upgrade, consider these points:

GPU:

  • You’ll see higher frame rates in games.
  • You’ll be able to use high-resolution textures and keep them running at smooth framerates.
  • You’ll be able to game on higher settings without worrying about performance lag.

CPU:

  • You’ll get much better multi-tasking performance (especially when using many tabs in a web browser).
  • You’ll see fewer hiccups when switching between apps.
  • Less likely to encounter slowdown from background tasks like anti-virus scans, Windows updates, and other operations that happen intermittently throughout your day.

When it comes to gaming, the processor in your computer handles all of the non-graphics-related tasks like AI, physics calculations and streaming while the graphics card deals with everything related to rendering images on your screen—the quality of textures, frame rate, anti-aliasing, etc. If you’re running a game that requires heavy processing power for AI or physics calculations (like an open world game with multiple characters or a strategy game) then you’ll need a good CPU. But if you’re running a visually intense game (like an FPS) then you’ll need greater GPU power for higher frame rates and better graphic quality. Both factors are equally important.

Which CPU features matter for gaming?

First and foremost, gaming performance is still largely dependent on clock speed, so you’ll want a processor that runs its cores at a high frequency. For most games, the number of cores and threads in your processor won’t matter nearly as much as the clock speed. Core counts do become more important for certain games. We recommend buying a processor with four cores or more if you want to be future-proofed for those games.

The CPU is responsible for executing commands, which applications can then access to control the GPU. It’s easy to assume that the CPU won’t make a difference in performance if you’re just playing games, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. While it’s true that GPU performance is incredibly important for gaming, if your CPU is a bottleneck for the GPU, then your performance will still suffer.

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To determine which CPU features matter most for gaming, we tested a wide range of modern processors using a high-end graphics card on two popular games and measured how many frames per second (FPS) we were able to get at 1080p and 1440p resolutions. We also ran tests with more intensive graphics settings to see how well CPUs scale with higher visual quality in games while keeping the frame rate locked at 30 fps. The results of our tests clearly show that the number of cores and threads in a processor has a large effect on game performance, and clock speed also matters quite a bit.

How well do CPUs scale with more cores and threads?

A single-threaded Intel Core i5-6600K outperforms the quad-core AMD Ryzen 3 1300X in most of our benchmarks, but some titles are better optimized to take advantage of more threads. The Ryzen 3 1300X’s extra cores allow it to keep up with higher-end parts in games like Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation (especially at lower resolutions). Clock speed matters, too. A well-clocked Core i7-7700K will beat out just about any other mainstream Intel or AMD chip in most games, even one with more cores or threads.

Things to consider when upgrading your GPU

If you are thinking of upgrading your GPU, here are a few things to consider:

Monitor resolution

The higher the resolution of your monitor, the more details you can see. You will need a powerful graphics card to render all those pixels in real time. If you have a high-resolution monitor, upgrading your GPU will help you take advantage of its capabilities.

The first thing to do is check the resolution of your monitor. If you have a 1080p monitor and plan on playing games at 1440p or 4K, then you will need a more powerful graphics card. That said, if your monitor has a higher resolution than your GPU can handle, it might not be worth upgrading it just yet.

Refresh rate

The refresh rate is important because it determines how many frames per second a GPU can render on a certain display size. A higher refresh rate means smoother gameplay and better image quality. To get the most out of your graphics card, make sure that it supports the same or higher refresh rate as your monitor.

The refresh rate of the screen also plays an important role in determining if an upgrade is necessary. A 60Hz monitor will work fine with most GPUs, but if you want to play games at 120Hz or 144Hz then you should get a card that supports those speeds as well.

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Memory

The memory is another factor to consider when choosing which graphics card to buy. It determines how much information a GPU can process at once and how much data it can store in its memory pool. The more memory a graphics card has, the better its performance will be when rendering complex scenes and handling large chunks of data at once (such as when playing games).

Form factor

Lastly, we recommend considering form factor before buying any new gear because it affects where you can place components inside your PC case or HTPC enclosure (if applicable).

AMD FreeSync or NVIDIA G-Sync:

If you’re looking at an AMD card, it’s worth noting that most of AMD’s newer cards support FreeSync, which allows for variable refresh rates and reduces screen tearing. You can find the FreeSync logo on many display options. NVIDIA’s G-Sync technology is similar, but only works with compatible displays.

VR support:

If you want to use your PC with a virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, check that your GPU has the required ports (HDMI 1.4 and USB 3.0) on its own end or on its power supply unit (PSU). Some cards come with their own VR-ready HDMI cables (like Gigabyte’s Aorus RX 480), but not all do.

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Which game types require GPU more?

On average, a high-end video card should be able to run games at 60 frames per second (fps) while recording. Today, mid-tier gaming cards are recommended for playing games at 1080p resolution and high settings. These include the GeForce GTX 1060, Radeon RX 570/580, and GeForce GTX 970/Radeon RX 560. For higher refresh rate monitors like 1440p QHD and 4K UHD, you will need an even more powerful graphics card. A top-tier gaming graphics card is recommended for streaming at these resolutions. These cards come with the Nvidia GeForce Titan Xp or the AMD Radeon RX Vega 64.

Of course, it depends on what you’re playing. But there are a few game types that require more attention than others. If you’re an FPS, MOBA, or RTS player, you will notice some things right away such as your GPUs temperature (if you have a GPU cooler) going up because of all the processing it does but most importantly the performance. Having 1-2 additional fans might help a lot depending on your card.

To really understand whether more labor is required from the GPU for certain game types, it’s important to know what a GPU does for the system. It processes graphical information. The CPU (central processing unit) handles all the other tasks of a computer and is responsible for telling the GPU what to do.

The faster your graphics/video card (GPU) can process information, the more frames you will get every second. Frames are basically what make up animation and movement. The minimum acceptable frame rate is 30 frames per second (fps), but many gamers play at 60 fps or higher to ensure smooth gameplay. If you want to play Fortnite on a laptop, however, you only need an Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics chip with DirectX 11 support.

If you want higher frame rates, you need a more powerful graphics card that can handle intense 3D rendering and high-resolution textures. GPUs are excellent at handling repetitive tasks; whereas CPUs are better at juggling different tasks simultaneously. The most powerful graphics cards aren’t cheap, but there are some good options in the mid-range price range from NVIDIA and AMD that will run most games on medium to high settings without too much trouble.

Bottom line

It’s a good idea to upgrade the GPU first if you like fast-paced games such as first-person shooters such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, or real-time strategy games such as The Age of Empires, or MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.

It’s also a good idea to upgrade the GPU first if you play online open-world games with well-defined immersive environments and stunning visuals such as Grand Theft Auto V or RPGs like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.

On the other hand, if you mostly play single-player games that require lots of CPU power to render high-resolution graphics and complex AI systems (such as simulation games), then it probably makes sense to upgrade your CPU first.

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