Unraveling The Mysteries Behind Obscure GPU Specifications

When purchasing a video card, it’s kind of hard to make a decision when there are specifications on the data sheet that twist your tongue when you try to read them. Pixel shaders, CUDA cores, stream processors, VRAM, and memory interface width may confuse many people who are not computer science graduates. The good news is that you don’t really have to hold a degree in computer science in order to understand these specifications. If you want to buy a video card and its spec sheet is reading like Klingon or ancient Nordic runes, this article is for you.

gpuspec-gpu

If you’re familiar with CPUs, you’re already familiar with the concept of the clock. If you’re not, the clock is essentially dictating how fast your GPU will run tasks. The base clock in a graphics card is the speed at which it runs without any optimization. This is just its run-of-the-mill mode.

The boost clock speed indicates how fast the GPU will process information when you’re running highly graphics-intensive operations. The card will temporarily overclock itself as needed as long as the GPU isn’t using the maximum amount of voltage it can use and it isn’t suffering from excessive temperatures. Boosting when the GPU is already at 96 degrees Celsius, for example, would melt it down quickly. Of course, if your GPU is anywhere above 85 degrees, you have many more things to worry about than its ability to boost its clock.

With any video card, the GPU is the horse that drives the wagon. But what about the wagon? How much does it carry? This is where memory comes in. The road at which data travels is known as the memory bus. The wider the bus is, the more data will travel at one time. A 256-bit bus allows the GPU to send data at 256 bits per cycle. The memory speed is a measurement of how much of this data travels per second. Both of these values are monumental to determining how fast your card actually is. GPU clock and the quantity of memory don’t mean anything if the bus isn’t wide enough.

Despite a fast GPU and a high amount of memory, some cards don’t have a bus that’s wide enough to send all of that data back and forth in moments of intense stress. This leads to low framerate issues as a result of data bottlenecking. As the name suggests, bottlenecking happens when there’s a lot of data waiting to be sent but the channel it’s sent through isn’t large enough to accommodate the load.

Lately, graphics cards have avoided showing the specs for their shaders. It’s not because they have something to hide but because it’s no longer such a huge problem anymore. Pixel shaders manage the depth, mapping, and color of each pixel. Vertex shaders transform 3D vertices into a 2D format for display. Geometry shaders perform very heavy-duty graphical calculations like tesselation. These specifications aren’t necessarily shown on every graphics card’s spec sheet and you shouldn’t have a problem with them as long as you’re getting a card that’s not too ancient.

gpuspec-vram

Remove the “V” in VRAM and that’s what it’s a fancy word for. VRAM simply represents the amount of graphical information that can be stored on a video card during a game or other rendering operation.

Both of these things are similar. Nvidia uses CUDA cores and AMD uses streaming processors. Each of these represent a core on the GPU that assists with rendering. CUDA distinguishes itself in the fact that it can also be used for co-processing on your computer. SETI@Home, for example, can take advantage of your CUDA cores to perform complex math. Adobe Premiere Pro uses CUDA for GPU-assisted rendering. Certain codecs can also take advantage of NVENC, Nvidia’s encoder, to transcode video into H.264 MPEG video much faster than your CPU can.

If you still feel a little confused about graphics card specs, please discuss it further in a comment below!

5 comments

  1. Nice article, but the title doesn’t match the comtent
    The word unraveling is way overdone compared to the real content. You only lifted a corner of the blanket.
    No explanation on the term CUDO, a new tem introduces without explanation (NVENC).
    No explanation of values to expect or to compare.
    After reading this article it is for me still unclear what to compare when trying to figure out what card fits my needs

    You missed the nail with miles

  2. @Miguel — Please, I am not complaining, I would love to hear “more specific”, in your next piece. I know, that most true gamers, understand what you are talking about and know WHAT to look for, that will fit their computers and gaming needs. However, there are a lot of us, who honestly, do not understand how important the Video Card is today, especially, with all of the Streaming of TV Shows, Movies, You Tube, so on and so forth.

    Basically, I see that Video Cards are vital to any computer, these days and more should be known about them. I know that, I get this newsletter, so, that I can continue to learn more about computers and how they function. I do realize, that I am a 71 year old lady, but, that doesn’t matter, since, I am self taught and have built 12 computers, from scratch. I will never stop learning, as long as I have any breathe, left in me … As the old cliche goes.

    I need to know more, simply to upgrade or to know what to replace, when my video card “dies.” Trust me, we have all been there and done that. Hard Drives frequently, give you some notice … In my personal experience, Video Cards do not necessarily, give you much warning, if, any! Many non-savvy computer users, will think their computer died, when it’s only that the Video Card or Sound Card, have died. Two easy fixes, that can save them, time and money.

    So, please Miquel … Keep writing on your Video Cards series and maybe, just break it down, a bit more, in pieces. Say for instance … One article going more in-depth on the clocking and over-clocking of a Video Card. I think, I understand your statement, that if, your Video Card is over 85 degrees, you are in trouble. To me, that means like when your CPU is really, really hot and can eventually, burn up the CPU or you can also, permanently damage your Motherboard, making it totally useless, to anyone!

    Just my thoughts and suggestions. I truly, enjoyed your article, just wished there was a bit more to it. :)

    • Thank you. I didn’t take it as a complaint. I took it as a suggestion at first. Now I take it as something even better! It’s awesome to know that you’ve built many computers. I actually would like to dive deeper into this rabbit hole and actually explain several concepts about video cards. And since this publication is about Making Tech Easier, then I think that is something I definitely need to pursue continuously. This is one of the ways in which I can pursue it. I am thinking I will dive even deeper into the GPU, explaining NVENC, explaining how H.264 works, and engaging in discussions about why GPUs have so many cores and CPUs have only a few.

      Your input was more than beneficial.

      • Thank you, Miguel. I really like your ideas, about how to do this. Hadn’t thought of this, but, you are right GPUs do have “so many cores” and CPUs have only a few. Maybe, just a few more basics, like the difference from a PCI – Express or the PCI or the older AGP Video Cards. I know, there are not many AGP Video Cards on the market, if, any … But, should you be working on an older computer, let’s say and you need to try an find an AGP Video Card, you honestly need to know where to look. You can usually find them online at refurbished places and then, you may not. Also, the price of a used or refurbished AGP Card could be a LOT more expensive, than purchasing a new motherboard and getting the newer components, for a much cheaper price, overall.

        That was one of the many reasons, I did build 12 computers. I would build one, and then, it would become obsolete. Must admit, I learned to “cut corners” to save some money, but, the computers would give me plenty of good service, before I needed to upgrade or re-build. A few of them, I built for family and friends, too. So, I have learned where to search and look for “hidden treasures” online. Lately though, it does seem as though, many of my favorite online places, are not online anymore or are not offering the same things. This also, happens in life, things change. :)

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