It’s a hot May afternoon in the year 2002. You’ve just come home from the video game store with a brand new copy of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City tucked into your armpit. Panting and sweating from excitement, you pull your sneakers off and immediately run to your room without acknowledging your parents or siblings.
It may have been hard to believe back then, but the graphics in Vice City weren’t actually the best graphics possible to mankind. You see, that game came out long before onboard VRAM was a thing in high-end gaming PCs, much less in consoles. The super-sweet graphics you see in modern AAA games are possible largely because of VRAM, a relatively new thing on the gaming scene.
In this guide, we’ll answer some common questions, starting with: “What is VRAM?” We’ll also talk about how it relates to the size of your monitor and how much work you expect your GPU to be able to handle, then show you how to find out how much you have and how to gauge the amount of VRAM you’ll need the next time you upgrade your GPU.
What Is VRAM?
Graphics cards have become the centerpiece of modern PCs and laptops and are an essential component in the modern world of gaming, video editing and encoding, architecture, design… the list is endless and ever-expanding. It’s the one puzzle piece that can make or break even the mightiest builds of today.
As GPUs evolve faster and faster, it can be difficult for an average consumer to tell how long until the modern graphics powerhouses become nothing more than budget graphics cards for gaming. When that happens, the future generation of cards will swoop in to save the day and ruin your house budget.
Nowadays, there’s lots of talk about VRAM and how much of it your graphics card should have to be considered worthy of placing it in your machine. However, not many people talk about what VRAM is actually, nor what purpose it serves. Well, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so let’s start from the beginning and try to scrape off a couple of miles here and there.
What Does VRAM Stand For?
VRAMs stands for Video Random Access Memory. VRAM is a specification used to show how much quick-access data the card can hold at one time. Similar to how the best processor units (CPUs) use ‘’regular’’ RAM to run programs and data, the graphics processor unit (GPU) uses VRAM for graphics-related data and operations, which it processes and sends to the display via the HDMI cable.
VRAM is usually measured in gigabytes (GB) and most graphics cards today come with VRAM ranging from 2 GB up to 16, 24 and even 32 GB (!), so as you can see, there is a wide variety to choose from. The more gigabytes, the more powerful the card will be, but performance isn’t cheap, so mind your wallet!
Why Is VRAM Important?
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get to the meat of things. There are three factors that are equally important when you’re thinking about how much VRAM you actually need.
VRAM: Size of Your Screen
The first factor that affects VRAM the most is your monitor’s resolution (see our screen size-guide for more info).
Higher resolutions require more VRAM since your GPU has to draw more pixels in the same amount of time. If you intend to use a 720p display, then 2 GB of VRAM will suffice. Going up a notch, 1080p displays will benefit from 2-6 GB. However, the best gaming monitors usually sport 1440p and will need 4-8 GB. Everything above eight gigs can satisfy even the raunchiest 4k fantasies your brain can imagine.
VRAM: Graphics Card Usage
The second factor is what you plan on using your graphics card for. If you’re an average, run-of-the-mill PC user who plans on using his PC for watching Netflix, typing, making spreadsheets, or merely browsing the web, then a cheap graphics card under $100 should do the job. Your Benjamins can rest easy.
Maybe you’re also planning on casually playing some of the video games the kids have been talking about these days, in which case 2 gigs of VRAM will do the job nicely. Again, if your budget is a concern, most gaming GPUs under $200 will suffice.
A card with 4-8 GB of VRAM can run almost any modern game and multimedia program with ease. Anything beyond that means going for a future-proof machine, in which case you might want to consider upgrading the rest of the hardware as well. At this VRAM range, you can find some of the mightiest GPUs available. (If they cost a lot more than you’re looking to spend, check out our list of the best GPUs under $300.)
How Much VRAM Do I Need?
The third and the most significant factor is only applicable to gamers, and it concerns the games they play and the graphics quality they wish to play them on.
Similar to how a higher-resolution monitor needs more VRAM, a game with high system requirements will also want to grab a big piece of that video memory pie. Of course, older classics like GTA San Andreas (more ancient than old but whatever) won’t exhaust your GPU at all. Similarly, popular but not good-looking games like Team Fortress 2 or Minecraft won’t be a huge problem to run in 1080p, even with a 2 GB card.
On the other hand, many modern games require some beefy VRAM in order to enjoy them in 60fps with no stuttering. With that in mind, you’ll need at least 4 GB or more if you want to experience Mortal Kombat 11 in all its gore and glory or if you’re eagerly anticipating Red Dead Redemption’s PC debut (any time now, Rockstar, any time now).
That all sounds nice, but will those cards stand the test of time? The term ‘’future-proofing’’ is getting thrown around a lot these days. Why? It’s because more and more people fear that their current hardware won’t be able to support upcoming AAA titles. These games are tailored for 1440p gaming monitors and powerful 4K displays, and for a good reason. If you’re looking into getting a card that will serve you well in the next couple of years, then you’ll be more than happy with 8GB of VRAM.
However, if you’re on the hunt for a card that you’ll be able to sell in order to pay for your granddaughter’s college education, then we hope you’re not too stingy. 11 GB cards will cost you up to $1400. However, if you’re intent on building a gaming machine that will last you for years to follow, that might be the way to go.
How Much VRAM Do I Have?
This is one of the questions that I hear most often when it comes to gaming setups. Funny enough, it’s the simplest one to answer. Unlike gaming RAM, you can’t increase VRAM manually nor is it a standalone component. Instead, as we already mentioned, VRAM is a specification of your graphics card unit.
When it comes to how to check VRAM, you have three simple methods:
- Get your GPU’s package and read up how much VRAM you have. It’s right there on the box. Who would’ve known?
- If you know which GPU model you have, just Google it. This might not always work since some models come in several variations which have different VRAM amounts.
- Find out manually:
- Press “Windows Key + R” to prompt the run tool
- Type “dxdiag” in there
- Click on the “Display” tab
- Check the “Approx. total memory” section
There you have it. The answer to the fabled question which troubles many brave gamers.
How much VRAM you will need depends on how (much) you plan to put it to work. Also, how long you are planning on using it is another important factor. (Remember: unlike RAM, VRAM cannot be swapped out or upgraded.) Finally, you should think about how frugal or extravagant you are with your money.
Keep in mind that “time takes it all, whether you want it or not’’. Eventually, you will have to swap out your card for a new one with more VRAM—that is, if you wish to keep up with the hardware of tomorrow.
As a final piece of advice, I’d recommend you make sure to keep that purchase as many years away as possible by setting yourself up for years to come. This way, you’ll also save your bank account in the long run.