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Do You Need a Graphics Card?

When you are considering buying a small form factor PC or NUC, the issue will come up whether one should buy a graphics card or not? This is no minor issue. A graphics card uses a lot of power, requires air flow, and cooling – all things which work against a small size.

However, the embedded graphics that are coming in today’s computer chips may be more than sufficient for what many need. They may be able to buy a small form factor computer without a dedicated Graphics Card.

THE STANDARD ABBREVIATIONS WE’LL BE USING.

  • APU Accelerated Processing Unit/All-in-One Processing Unit – A CPU + iGPU
  • CPUComputer Processing Unit – The brains of the computer.
  • GPUGraphics Processing Unit
    • dGPUDedicated Graphics Processing Unit – a graphics card or separate chip
    • iGPUIntegrated Graphics Processing Unit – a Graphics Processor embedded on the CPU. Less powerful than a dGPU.
  • NUCNext Unit of Computing – very small computers
  • RAMRandom Access Memory – the short term memory of the computer
  • SFFSmall Form Factor computers

THE ISSUE OF NUC’S.

NUC’s are too small for standard graphics cards – though some NUC’s may soon have graphics chips such as the MX150. To compensate for this, some NUC’s have Thunderbolt 3 outputs which can use an external graphics card set up like the Razer Core.

If you are not doing 4K video editing, or heavy gaming, you might not need a separate graphics card, or even a separate graphics chip. Intel chips and AMD chips usually come with an (integrated Graphics Processing Unit) iGPU embedded on the chip; and most of the time, it is surprisingly sufficient.

Essentially, this is what Apple did with its 2014 MacMini.  Apple relied on the Iris 5100 integrated graphics as the iGPU on the CPU chip. While it was not great solution, it was more than sufficient for most usage, and could even do a bit of video editing if one were patient with longer rendering times. Of course, that was using Apple’s Final Cut Pro software, which is optimized for Apple products.

Apple even released the 2015 21.5 inch iMac without a dGPU (dedicated Graphics Processing Unit); and instead relied on the Iris Pro 6200 iGPU embedded on the CPU. The Iris Pro 6200 iGPU was powerful enough to run a 4K Retina screen, which gives one a sense of its power – though it could not play high end games, which infuriated many [Excuse the gentleman’s language].

Thankfully, the 2017 21.5 inch iMacs came with Radeon dGPU’s.

However, even in 2017, Apple has yet to refresh its Mac Mini line from 2014, and the Mac Mini has only 2 cores on its CPU’s, so it is not recommended at this time.

In 2016, Intel came out with the truly impressive Skull Canyon NUC which came with an amazing 45W, i7-6770HQ, 4C/8T CPU with an embedded Intel Iris Pro Graphics 580 iGPU. It was a beast, which could outperform all but the highest end desktops.

But, being a NUC, one has to add in OS (operating system), RAM, and storage oneself to the Skull Canyon. However, Intel made it easy to do. Of course, for the squeamish, one can buy pre-built Skull Canyon NUC with the OS, RAM, and storage added in, for a minor premium. Actually, not that much, since the boutique computer builders who do this, can buy the memory, storage, and OS, at wholesale prices, and one would find it hard to add in the OS, RAM, and storage for less. (Click Here)

The Skull Canyon streams 4K video handily; so if all you want the NUC for is a home theater, then this is a good choice for a PC. However, the Skull Canyon NUC is far more powerful, and can actually run as a production computer. It performed surprisingly well with Photoshop and Lightroom (Go to 4:48). Reports have come back that it is usable for video editing, if one is willing to be patient as it renders.

Games played on the Skull Canyon ran okay, if one was willing to play at a lower resolution, and settle for slightly lower frame rates. With the Skull Canyon, there is also the option of using the Thunderbolt 3 port to export to an external graphics card, however that sort of defeats the purpose of a NUC.

THE PROMISE OF SOON TO BE RELEASED COFFEE LAKE CPU’s.

Recently, released specs show that Coffee Lake holds amazing promise in the area of low- and mid-power CPU’s. Some will have 6 cores with 12 threads. These could make Intel NUC’s perfect, even for video editing. Right now, a few lower-powered 8th generation Coffee Lake CPU’s are only being offered on laptops, but what goes into a laptop will soon be available in a NUC or small form factor PC.

SOON TO BE RELEASED AMD RAVEN RIDGE CPU’s.

Not only Intel, but AMD’s Raven Ridge APU’s (Essentially CPU’s + iGPUs’s) have incredible iGPU’s which are real game changers. They have incredible graphics power, which will forego the need for a dGPU (dedicated Graphics Processing Unit/Card) in most cases.

If so, one may soon be able to buy an AMD based NUC/SFF with a powerful AMD APU which does away with any need for a graphics card – unless, of course, you are a professional video editor.

But there is more.

Intel CPU’s MAY SOON COME WITH AMD iGPU’s.

This may be the best of all possible worlds.

Until recently, Intel was known for making better CPU’s. Though that is changing. AMD was famous for its APU’s and GPU’s. So this promises to provide chips that have the best of both worlds.

This is still playing out, even as I write this, but the upshot is: Around 2018, SFF’s and NUC’s should start being released that are perfect for all but highest-end professional gaming or video-editors.

The need for a graphics card may be declining.

WHAT IF YOU STILL WANT A GRAPHICS CARD?!.

Well, if you want a graphics card, you will have to forego the super small NUCs, which are usually too small to install a graphics card. Instead you will have to go with smaller computers, or mini-ITX builds, using cases such as the Streacom F7C.

EVEN THEN, THE CASE WILL DETERMINE THE GRAPHICS CARD.

If you want a powerhouse graphics card, you cannot go with a mini-ITX build in a Streacom F7C. The card would not fit in the case. One could use a small Quadro Card, but that is far less powerful.

SO, YOU’LL GO WITH A BIGGER CASE

Well, then you are leaving the realm of an SFF, and moving into the area of regular sized computers. You have no choice. Powerhouse graphics cards require airflow, and oodles of power, which means a big power supply unit. The case, except for some specialty cases, will be much bigger, and even then will be borderline regular size.

Still, If you are that much into gaming, you probably want to go with the best flagship video cards out there, such as that GTX 1080, based on NVIDIA architecture. But they will cost.

Bitcoin miners use graphics cards to mine bitcoins, and have driven the price of graphics cards through the roof. So one should consider if a really high end video card is necessary.

A GTX 1050, or 1060 may be suitable if one does video editing, where the emphasis is usually on the CPU, and one can settle for a less powerful dGPU.

Of course, one could also go with AMD cards: the Raedon RX Vega options. But, like the GTX cards, these will also cost.

If goes with small specialty cases, like the Streacom F7C, then one can buy micro graphics cards like the Quadro series.

CONCLUSION

Unless you are doing video renderings of long 4K videos, you may be able to get away with the dGPU found on the CPU’s. This is especially true of AMD Raven Ridge CPU’s. Intel is also releasing small graphics chips like the MX150. Finally, if your SFF or NUC comes with Thunderbolt 3 outputs, you can run your stream through an external GPU.

It is starting to look like graphics cards may no longer be needed for the average to even mid-power NUC/SFF user.

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