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How Much RAM Does Your Graphics Card Really Need?

How Much RAM Does Your Graphics Card Really Need?
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Advertisers love numbers because they are a simple and straightforward way to convey the idea of improvement. For example, version 2.0 is always better than version 1.0, a clock speed of three gigahertz simply must be faster than two gigahertz, and four gigabytes of RAM are better than three gigabytes. Rarely will somebody challenge the universally-accepted truth that more is better.

Unfortunately, the real world is a lot more complex than the simple numbers suggest. Sometimes version 2.0 loses the elegant interface that made version 1.0 so compelling. Sometimes 3 GHz clock speeds are slower than 2 GHz if they are based on an inferior architecture. And sometimes, more RAM doesn't make a difference.

Graphics card manufacturers have been exploiting the amount of RAM as a marketing tool since the very beginning. Back in the day, you needed a certain amount of RAM on the graphics card to simply run a resolution like 1024x768. As time went on and 3D accelerators emerged, RAM on the graphics card was employed to store textures and allow for features like anti-aliasing (AA), post-processing, and normal mapping.

The focus of this article isn't to dig into the minutia of where your graphics card RAM is being used. Instead, we're more interested in looking at the tangible impact that different amounts of graphics card RAM will have on your gaming experience. Our goal is to let you know exactly what advantage, if any, you can expect from a graphics card that has more RAM on-board.

Having said that, there are a few important concepts we'll need to cover before this will make any sense, so let's get started.

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Top Comments
  • 39 Hide
    burnley14 , October 1, 2009 3:20 AM
    I really like the alternating images you use in these articles, they are very helpful and make it much easier to compare the various detail settings.

    Also, great article overall. Keep up the good work!
  • 33 Hide
    cleeve , October 1, 2009 3:36 AM
    Thanks burnley, animated GIFs are a bit of a pain to make, but it's nice to know they're appreciated. :) 
  • 19 Hide
    cleeve , October 1, 2009 4:00 AM
    knutjbHow much ram will the 5870 eyefinity version need?


    Depends on the resolution and settings just like everything else. but it's a good question, if there's enough interest in this article I'll look into that in the future.
Other Comments
  • 9 Hide
    radiowars , October 1, 2009 3:13 AM
    Great article guys. I've debated this many times with friends- good to see a definite result. Heh, GTX 275 w/ 896 works well @ 1680x1050 for me. I doubt I'd need anything higher than that for my resolution.
  • 39 Hide
    burnley14 , October 1, 2009 3:20 AM
    I really like the alternating images you use in these articles, they are very helpful and make it much easier to compare the various detail settings.

    Also, great article overall. Keep up the good work!
  • 33 Hide
    cleeve , October 1, 2009 3:36 AM
    Thanks burnley, animated GIFs are a bit of a pain to make, but it's nice to know they're appreciated. :) 
  • 0 Hide
    blueer03 , October 1, 2009 3:48 AM
    This was very interesting. But I would like to see the performance difference from a mid-stream (say a 4850) as compared to a high end video card. Would it have made sense to spring for the 1GB 4850, or would there be no difference because of the cards inherent limitations? And the same thing with the lower level cards. At what point in the hierarchy of video cards does springing for more than the reference memory levels make sense?
  • 4 Hide
    cleeve , October 1, 2009 3:57 AM
    With lower end cards you'd see the same effect, but with the lower frame-rates that those cards would produce. The end result is the same: one they run out of RAM at a certain setting, the performance will suffer, but until then it's the same across the board.
  • 3 Hide
    knutjb , October 1, 2009 3:58 AM
    How much ram will the 5870 eyefinity version need?
  • 19 Hide
    cleeve , October 1, 2009 4:00 AM
    knutjbHow much ram will the 5870 eyefinity version need?


    Depends on the resolution and settings just like everything else. but it's a good question, if there's enough interest in this article I'll look into that in the future.
  • 2 Hide
    liquidsnake718 , October 1, 2009 4:11 AM
    Im surprised that Crysis doesnt utilize all the RAM(even for an older title) for distance similarly to titles like GTA. Im sure the new Crytek engine will make use of Ram so we can see even buildings and huge alien robots further in the distance with vivid details.

    We can only look forward to a more intense and visually stunning Crysis 2 as I can only imagine how the story would progress and end up being in space. I can imagine huge asteroids looking as real coming at the player using nvidias 3d vision and utilizing AA in order to make it apparent from a distance.

    Think Halo style world but with unrivaled graphics and a more realistic feel with DX11.
  • 11 Hide
    Anonymous , October 1, 2009 4:28 AM
    How about doing this same comparison with crossfire setups?
  • -8 Hide
    Arkz , October 1, 2009 4:29 AM
    il tell ya whats a bitch, i have a 1920x1080 monitor, nice? yes. I have an 8800GT too.. nice? kinda.. its the 256MB version.. so.. if i wanna turn up the sexiness i get baaaad fps
  • 2 Hide
    HibyPrime , October 1, 2009 4:30 AM
    Would have been nice to see more of the GTA4 benches, as it's pretty safe to say it requires the most video ram of current gen games.

    Slowly increase the ram from the 500mb point to see where the 512 cuts out. Maxing out all of the sliders to see if the 2GB is ever able to make a win over the 1GB as well as showing the visual difference from the 1GB up to whatever the max is.
  • 1 Hide
    tjf311 , October 1, 2009 4:32 AM
    What if I wanted to run in crossfire? What would be the optimal configuration then? 2x? 3x? 4x?
  • 1 Hide
    Shnur , October 1, 2009 4:32 AM
    Great article!
    I am actually looking forward a 5870 (or nVidia next-gen if it comes in this year) after prices are settled and early drivers are out of the way so I can really see an improvement over my 4870 1gb. This is the kind of article I wanted to see for a while and I give you guys a big heads up for it! It would be nice at a later time to see with the new cards how does 2gb vs 1gb performs when paired in CF/SLI so we can eliminate the card speed factor that we have here, because even if the game would like to use more ram, the card is not fast enough to process the information, when you get two cards, there's more power as for processing but same storage, that would be a great thing to check :) 
    And I'm looking forward an eyefinity review with a game running on 3 HD screens or something similar because as of today an HD screens costs about 200$ so buying two or three is expensive but still on the level of "affordable" when a single 30" is more expensive than this...
  • 2 Hide
    Supertrek32 , October 1, 2009 4:34 AM
    CleeveThanks burnley, animated GIFs are a bit of a pain to make, but it's nice to know they're appreciated.

    It's a very nice thing to have. I wish more benchmarks on Tom's had these, since I'm reading to find out what I want to buy. It's great for figuring out if the next card is worth it for that next step up.

    It answers the "Yeah, I could use very-high instead of regular-high with this card instead of that, but will I even be able to tell the difference?" question.
  • 2 Hide
    megamanx00 , October 1, 2009 4:35 AM
    Indeed 2GB is rather frivolous right now. Given current prices I'd really recommend a 1GB 4870 over a 512MB 4870. GRID and FarCry2 are games that currently favor 1GB, and I'm sure we'll see more this fall.
  • 5 Hide
    eddieroolz , October 1, 2009 4:45 AM
    Great article, very well written and informational.
  • 0 Hide
    WINTERLORD , October 1, 2009 4:46 AM
    great article. and good to know. all this graphics stuff latly makes me wanna upgrade lol. that and i have a new favorite game. intersting to say the least, and from looking at this, i would definatly get atleast a 1gb card in the future. since games are always changing like the editor said, i believe that when directx 11 comes out and 2 years down the road, that you would definatly want 1gb of ram on your card. but seems like 512 would be good for a good long time as well
  • 0 Hide
    IzzyCraft , October 1, 2009 5:19 AM
    The more the better as long as the gpu and setup can use all of it. Seems like 1 gig is a norm now and a good apart for those who are cranking up the AA and AF and resolution esp if that AA is super-sampling.
  • 4 Hide
    porksmuggler , October 1, 2009 5:19 AM
    excellent article, nice overview of a frequently debated issue.
  • 0 Hide
    intelx , October 1, 2009 5:21 AM
    very good article, saving money with the same speed.
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