Computing

How much GPU memory is necessary?

Just like the system memory on your PC, graphics cards and laptop GPUs have their own dedicated memory called video RAM (VRAM). Insufficient VRAM can lead to performance issues, particularly since many of the latest games require increasing amounts of VRAM. This can make it difficult for gamers to enjoy their games at the highest settings. The VRAM you require depends on your specific GPU, and the amount of VRAM you need varies based on the applications you use.

Determining the ideal amount of VRAM

Nvidia GPU core
Image: Niels Broekhuijsen/Digital Trends

While graphics memory is most important for gaming, productivity and professional workloads can also benefit from larger amounts of VRAM. Having more VRAM is generally better for graphically intensive tasks, but it’s not necessary to rush out and buy the graphics card with the highest VRAM capacity. Surprisingly, some lower-end cards with ample VRAM can still be slower than higher-end cards with less VRAM.

In most cases, 8GB of VRAM is sufficient to play the majority of games, even modern ones. However, games built specifically for the Xbox Series X/S and PS5 often exceed 8GB of VRAM, even at 1080p resolution. This means that if your GPU only has 8GB of VRAM, there will be some new games that you won’t be able to play, even with a powerful graphics card from a recent generation like the Nvidia RTX 2080. Even the once top-of-the-line Nvidia RTX 3080, which was a highly regarded GPU just a few years ago, is starting to struggle with some modern games due to its “mere” 10GB of VRAM.

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With that in mind, if you want to future-proof your gaming PC, it’s recommended to have at least 12GB of VRAM. This should provide you with a few years of smooth gaming before you start encountering VRAM-related issues. If you choose to get more, such as the 16GB or larger capacities found in the latest generation releases, you’ll be well-prepared for the future.

In terms of productivity, Nvidia suggests in its Professional Solution Guide that a minimum of 8GB to 12GB of VRAM is required. However, it’s possible to get by with less VRAM. For example, Adobe Premiere Pro’s minimum requirement is only 2GB of VRAM, although 4GB to 6GB is recommended. Autodesk AutoCAD’s “basic” specification calls for 1GB of VRAM but recommends 4GB.

It’s always beneficial to have more memory than the minimum requirements, and this is especially important for GPUs since VRAM cannot be upgraded. Based on recommendations from companies like Nvidia and Adobe, it’s advisable to have at least 4GB of VRAM for light work. However, if your work involves video editing in Premiere Pro or creating models in Autodesk Maya, you should consider investing in a GPU with at least 8GB of VRAM, even if it’s not the latest generation.

Understanding the distinction between RAM and VRAM

Crucial Ballistix Sport LT DDR4 RAM inside a computer
Image used with permission by copyright holder

System RAM and VRAM are quite similar in that they both have relatively small capacities and operate at high speeds. However, they are not identical because system RAM is intended for CPUs, whereas VRAM is designed for GPUs. These two processors have distinct needs. System RAM prioritizes low latency, although its memory bandwidth is comparatively lower. On the other hand, VRAM boasts extremely high memory bandwidth at the cost of increased latency. The reason for this difference is that CPUs require low latency more than they require high bandwidth, whereas GPUs prioritize high bandwidth.

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Another crucial difference between system RAM and VRAM is upgradability. It’s relatively easy to upgrade system RAM by simply adding or replacing a stick. However, VRAM cannot be upgraded by the user (unless undertaking extreme hardware modification involving soldering). This means that you are stuck with the amount of VRAM your GPU comes with when you make the initial purchase.

This is not a design oversight or an intentional ploy by GPU manufacturers to make you buy a new GPU every time. The real reason is that GPUs can only be matched with specific amounts of RAM, depending on the memory bus width. CPUs can handle various RAM configurations, especially with non-binary memory, but GPUs cannot.

Is it worth upgrading your graphics card for more VRAM?

If you plan to play upcoming AAA releases from major studios and your current graphics card has less than 10GB of VRAM, it’s probably a good idea to consider upgrading. The necessity for an upgrade will depend on the specific games you want to play, as some may have settings that allow you to achieve smooth frame rates without requiring additional VRAM. However, this will become increasingly rare in the coming years.

Nevertheless, upgrading solely for the sake of VRAM is not recommended. For instance, upgrading from an RTX 3070 Ti with 8GB of VRAM to a lower-tier GPU like the RTX 3060 12GB may provide more VRAM, but performance will still be inferior due to the less powerful GPU. Ensure that any upgrade you pursue improves overall performance and not just VRAM capacity.

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