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GPU vs CPU: What Matters Most for PC Gaming?
February 24, 2019
Some gaming PC decisions are easy. For instance, the answer to the question of whether you should upgrade the storage space on your hard disk drive or your solid state drive is most likely an enthusiastic “Yes!” to either.
Other decisions, however, are much more complicated. Knowing whether you should upgrade your CPU or GPU, for one, is much more complicated. We’re here to help with that decision.
CPU and GPU overview
What is the CPU?
The central processing unit (CPU), also referred to as the “processor,” carries out and controls the computer program’s instructions by performing input/output (I/O) operations, basic arithmetic, and logic. An essential part of any computer, the CPU receives, directs, and processes the computer’s data.
Since it’s usually the most critical component, it’s often characterized as the “brain” or “heart” of the desktop or laptop PC, depending on which body part you’d consider the most important. And when it comes to gaming, it’s a pretty important component of the gaming system.
A CPU “core” is also another word for the CPU’s processor - they’re all synonyms. Historically, processors had only one core that would focus on one single task. Today’s CPUs, however, have between 2 and 28 cores, each of which focuses on a unique task. So a multi-core processor is a single chip that contains two or more CPU cores.
And CPUs with more cores are more efficient than those with fewer. Dual-core (or 2-core) processors are common, but processors with 4 cores, also called quad-core processors (for instance, 8th Generation Intel® Core™ processors) are becoming more popular.
What is the GPU?
The graphics processing unit (GPU), also called graphics card or video card, is a specialized electronic circuit that accelerates the creation and rendering of images, video, and animations. It performs fast math calculations while freeing the CPU to perform other tasks.
There are two kinds of GPUs: One is an integrated (or embedded) GPU that lives directly on and shares memory with the CPU. And the other is a discrete GPU that has its own card and memory.
The GPU is an extremely important component of a gaming system, and in many cases, even more crucial than the CPU when it comes to playing certain types of games.
Simple description: A GPU is a single-chip processor that’s used chiefly to manage and enhance video and graphics performance.
What’s the “core” difference between CPU and GPU
While a CPU uses several cores that are focused on sequential processing, a GPU is created for multi-tasking; it has hundreds to thousands of smaller cores to handle thousands of threads (or instructions) simultaneously.
Some CPUs use Hyper-Threading technology which enables a single CPU core to act like two separate virtual (or “logical”) cores, or threads. The idea is they can share the workload between them and increase the number of instructions acting on separate data, while running concurrently - thus speeding performance.
What is more important for PC gaming: CPU or GPU?
For many, the GPU is universally lauded as the most important for PC gaming. That’s because the GPU is what actually renders the images, scenes, and animations that you see. Most of today’s fast-paced games are incredibly demanding for the type of rendering power that the GPU provides. At the same time, these games are designed to take advantage of the multiple cores and threads that newer CPUs offer.
Both the CPU and GPU are important in their own right. Demanding games require both a smart CPU and a powerful GPU. But the question of how significant they are for PC gaming depends on what they will be used for primarily, and for which games in particular.
CPUs are given certain tasks during a game that the GPU isn’t that great at performing - such as the artificial intelligence (AI) functionality of non-player characters (NPC). Many tasks, however, are better for the GPU to perform.
Some games run better with more cores because they actually use them. Others may not because they are programmed to only use one core and the game runs better with a faster CPU. Otherwise, it will not have enough power to run and will be laggy.
Minecraft, for instance, only runs with one core so it doesn’t need extra power. In this case, the CPU’s speed is the only thing that will influence frames per second (FPS) during the game.
Which game types require more labor from the CPU?
Today’s quick-moving games including first-person shooters (FPS), multiplayer games, open sandbox games, and more are built to reap advantages provided by the latest CPUs and their multi-cores and threads. In fact, they require them to play well.
For instance, the first-person shooter multiplayer game Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 recommends at least a quad-core processor: either the Intel i5-2500K, which has 4 cores and 4 threads, or AMD Ryzen R5 1600X, which has 6 cores and 12 threads.
But for competitive players using high refresh-rate monitors (1080p), the game actually recommends an AMD Ryzen 1800X (an 8-core processor with 16 threads) or an Intel i7-8700K (which has 6 cores and 12 threads). The 8th Generation Intel i7-8700K happens to be one of fastest processors with some of the highest clock speeds (boost speed at 4.7 GHz) that Intel offers for gaming and streaming.
Similarly, the acclaimed massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft recommends quad-core processors as well: Intel i7-4770 (4 cores, 8 threads) or AMD FX-8310 (8 cores, 8 threads) or better.
The hugely popular online open-world game of Grand Theft Auto V recommends an Intel i5 3470 (4 cores, 4 threads) or AMD FX-8350 (8 cores, 8 threads). And the epic battle royale game of Fortnite Battle Royale recommends at least an Intel i5 2.8 GHz processor with 4 cores and 4 threads.
Which game types require more labor from the GPU?
Most of today’s games ask a lot from the GPU, maybe even more than the CPU. Processing 2D and 3D graphics, rendering polygons, mapping textures, and more require powerful, fast GPUs. The faster your graphics/video card (GPU) can process information, the more frames you will get every second.
The recommended graphics for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, for example, is an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 4GB, GTX 1060 6GB, or Radeon R9 390/AMD RX 580. These are all considered mid-range cards that are good for 1080p gaming, and running games at medium or even high settings at higher resolutions. The designation of 1080p refers to the resolution (Full HD) of 1920 x 1080 pixels.
For more competitive players, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 recommends GeForce GTX 1080 or Radeon RX Vega 64 graphics cards. These are considered high-end cards that are good for gaming at resolutions of 1440p Quad HD (QHD) or higher-refresh rate monitors as well as VR headsets.
But you’ll need to make sure that you have a monitor that meets these specs (say, one with 144 Hz refresh rates), otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense to get the higher-end, and more expensive, graphics card. And the inverse is also true: if you have a monitor that only goes up to 60 Hz refresh rates, then it won’t be able to keep pace with a more powerful, pixel-pushing card.
For World of Warcraft, the recommended GPU is an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960 4GB or an AMD Radeon R9 280 or better. The GTX 960 offers solid 1080p performance with power-efficient consumption, and runs cooler and more quietly than previous models. Although the R9 280 features more video memory than the GTX 960, both GPUs can run demanding games at high settings.
Both the giant sandbox action-adventure game Grand Theft Auto V as well as battle royale wunderkind Fortnite Battle Royale recommend an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 2GB, or an AMD Radeon HD 7870 2GB. Both GPUs are decently priced and built for fast 1080p gaming.
Should I upgrade my GPU or CPU?
In a perfect world, you would simply buy the best of both. Unfortunately, budget constraints may make it necessary to pick one or the other, at least for now.
Many games now use more cores as a matter of course (the quad-core CPU seems to be the most prevalent), and thus experience faster and better FPS rates. So you’ll probably want to go with the slightly higher-priced quad-core processors if they’re not too prohibitively expensive.
Current dual-core processors can bottleneck your graphics card and cause your gaming performance to suffer unless your GPU is also an older and less powerful version.
Quad-core CPUs are also more affordable, better performing, and less laggy than earlier versions. With more and more newer games relying on multiple cores rather than just CPU speed, having more cores in your system makes sense.
In fact, if you’re a hard-core gamer looking to the future and want to ensure that you’re able to run the most power-hungry triple-A (AAA) games to come - and probably more importantly you can afford the extremely high prices - it may make even more sense to go with the premium options in either CPU or GPU.
On the CPU side, one of the most powerful Intel processors on the market today is the Intel Core i9 series. Two models, the i9-8950HK and the i9-9900K, both offer insanely fast gameplay processing power and speed with 8 cores and 16 threads.
And if you’ve got or are planning to buy a 4K/Ultra High Definition (UHD) monitor, which offers more than 8 million pixels, you may want to consider upgrading your GPU to a card like the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. This runs at over $1,000, though.
Things to consider when upgrading your GPU
If you are thinking of upgrading your GPU, here are a few things to consider:
1. Monitor resolution: Most graphics cards today meet the minimum gaming requirements for 1080p resolution. However, you will need a high-end card to match any monitor with resolutions at 1440 pixels and above including QHD, WQHD, and UHD or 4K.
2. Refresh rate: If your monitor has 144 Hz or higher refresh rates, then you’ll also need a card that’s just as powerful to work its potential. At the same time, a monitor with a 60 Hz refresh rate doesn’t need a powerful, and higher-priced graphics card.
3. Memory: Memory doesn’t just matter in the CPU. Your GPU should offer at least 4GB for intense gaming at 1080p, and at least 8GB if you’re cranking it up to 4K mega-gaming.
4. Form factor: Check the specs on the graphics card since the height, length, and girth are all important measurements to consider for your GPU. You need it to fit in your gaming system or case.
Graphics cards are available in configurations such as half-height, full-height, single slot, dual-slot, and more. Do your homework to avoid unnecessary cost and disappointment when you go to install it.
5. AMD FreeSync or NVIDIA G-Sync: These two technologies synchronize refresh rates between the GPU and your monitor to reduce or eliminate tearing. Be sure to check which technology your monitor supports before buying a new video card.
6. VR support: If you’re going to be using one of the two main PC gaming VR platforms - either the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift - you will need at least mid-range cards such as the NVIDIA GTX 1060/1070/1080 or AMD Radeon RX 570/580.
Know your gaming requirements
Upgrading your gaming system and, in particular, your CPU or GPU is very much a subjective situation. You may want to do so to play a particular game or a particular type of game. You may be a casual gamer who just wants to play different types of games every so often.
Or you might be a hardcore gamer who is gaming enough to need the kind of processing and performance that will keep pace with your busy gaming schedule.
There is also your budget to consider. If you have a limited amount to work with but have the ability to add to your gaming rig periodically, then making incremental, more cost-effective updates might make sense.
But if you know that you will be playing the latest and greatest AAA titles as soon as they’re released, and you have the available budget, then going with the highest-end CPU and GPU that you can afford may be worth it.
GPUs can be the most expensive part of your gaming build, so if you’re on a more stringent budget, then it might be a good idea to save some of it for your CPU. If you spend too much on the GPU without paying attention to the CPU, then your gameplay might suffer with lower frame rates per second.
Upgrade your CPU 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, then it probably makes sense to upgrade your CPU first.
Upgrade your GPU first
On the other hand, if you mostly 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, then first upgrade the GPU and start saving for a new CPU.
About the Author: Jolene Dobbin is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Jolene is an East Coast-based writer with experience creating strategic messaging, marketing, and sales content for companies in the high-tech industry.