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How Much RAM Does Your Graphics Card Really Need?

Introduction

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.

  • radiowars
    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.
    Reply
  • burnley14
    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!
    Reply
  • cleeve
    Thanks burnley, animated GIFs are a bit of a pain to make, but it's nice to know they're appreciated. :)
    Reply
  • blueer03
    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?
    Reply
  • cleeve
    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.
    Reply
  • knutjb
    How much ram will the 5870 eyefinity version need?
    Reply
  • cleeve
    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.
    Reply
  • liquidsnake718
    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.
    Reply
  • How about doing this same comparison with crossfire setups?
    Reply
  • Arkz
    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
    Reply