Definition of a graphics card

Written by paul travers | 13/05/2017
Definition of a graphics card
A graphics card controls how images are processed and displayed on the screen. (John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

A graphics card is a piece of hardware that helps a computer to process and display images and graphical effects. An integrated card is built into the computer's motherboard while a dedicated card can be fitted or removed from an expansion bay, allowing you to upgrade your graphics processing power when required. Graphics tend to require much more processing power than other functions like text and some programs such as 3D games require a graphics card of a certain level in order to run. Most programs use graphics to some degree so a high quality graphics card will also help your computer to run more smoothly in general.


A graphics card is also variously known as a video card, a display card, a video adapter and a graphics accelerator. The Oxford dictionary defines a graphics card as "a printed circuit board that controls the output to a display screen." PC magazine is slightly more detailed and defines a graphics card as "the plug-in card in a desktop computer that creates the electronic signals required by the monitor."


The graphics output of a program or process can require a lot of processing power. Most of the processing done on a computer is done by the computer's central processing unit or CPU, according to Tech Terms. A graphics card assists the CPU in processing the graphics portion of any process. This can make any program that uses graphics to run faster and more smoothly and is often essential for graphics-heavy programs such as image editing suites and games, especially those using 3D effects.

Integrated and dedicated cards

Integrated or on-board graphics cards are built into the motherboard. They typically use some of the main system random-access memory (RAM), reducing the total RAM available for other purposes. They are also usually much less powerful than dedicated graphics cards. Dedicated cards are fitted into expansion bays attached to the motherboard and so can be changed or upgraded. They have their own RAM and processors and can assist in the graphics output without affecting the main system processing power and RAM.


Graphics cards contain a graphics processing unit (GPU), which controls and accelerates the creation of images. Most modern graphics cards also have a built-in heat sink and fan to help prevent overheating. One of the most important aspects of an individual card is the amount of RAM it has. The minimum requirements listed for a particular game or other program will often include a graphics card with a minimum amount of RAM.

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