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The GPU, or graphics processing unit, is the part of your computer in charge of handling graphics. In other words, if games are choppy on your computer or it can’t handle very high quality settings, it’s likely that the GPU is too weak (rather than the CPU, the central processing unit). These days, many computes (especially laptops) have “integrated graphics”, which means that the GPU is actually on the same physical chip as the CPU, or on the motherboard (as opposed to a discrete video card).
Still, it counts as a GPU (if a far less powerful one than a discrete GPU). If you’re not sure what sort of GPU you have and want to find out a bit more about it, free utility GPU-Z has you covered. It’s actually very similar to CPU-Z which I’ve reviewed a few months ago, only for your GPU.
A Window Bursting With Data
GPU-Z’s default tab can be a bit intimidating at first, especially if this is your first foray into GPU-related metrics. The first few fields, all the way up to the BIOS version, have to do with your GPU’s manufacturing properties. What is it called, what’s the revision number, and even what it’s physical die size is and how many transistors it contains.
This isn’t a manual so I won’t go over this soup of settings one by one. Instead, let me point out a small handful which are the most useful (in my opinion), either to make sure you got the computer you ordered, or to get a basic grasp of your GPU’s capabilities:
- Name: This is NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 above. This is the single quickest way to describe your GPU in any gaming-related forums or technical support queries. Just mention its exact name and model as shown here.
- Memory Size: This is 2048 MB above. A GPU is a complex beast, and many different parameters affect its performance. That said, its memory size is a key one, so you’d better take note of how much memory you have.
- Computing checkboxes: I mean the ones that say OpenCL, CUDA, PhysX, DirectCompute 5.0. If you do any sort of general-purpose computing with your GPU (such as mining for Bitcoin or any of the other ways highlighted in 10 Ways To Donate Your CPU Time To Science) you are going to need at least one of these, most likely OpenCL. So, this is a quick way to find out whether or not your GPU supports it.
Gauging Real-Time Load (Sensor Output)
The Sensors tab shows what sort of workload your GPU is under, right now:
Unlike the Graphics Card tab, this tab is very easy to read even if you’re not into acronyms. The graphs make it easy to see exactly how much of your GPU’s potential is being used, and even its current temperature. This screen is constantly refreshed, so you can run a game and see what happens to your GPU load. For example, this is what happened when I ran Orcs Must Die 2:
You can see just about every metric shot up noticeably. The memory load appears lower than before because I took the screenshot a moment after quitting the game, but you can see that the GPU temperature shot up from 28 to 43 Celsius, that the core and memory clocks shot up as well, etc.
In other words, running GPU-Z in the background lets you estimate how far you can task your graphics card, and whether your game is slow because the graphics card can’t handle it or for some other reason.
Can Take Its Own Screenshots, Can’t Upload Them
As soon as I took my first GPU-Z screenshot using SnagIt (my screenshot utility), up popped a message:
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who likes to take screenshots of GPU-Z – many people like (or need) to share their GPU information on forums, so GPU-Z makes this easy using its screenshot capture/upload feature. As you will see in a moment, this feature works only partially. The camera icon for triggering it is a bit on the tiny side:
Click the icon, and get a menu with three quick options:
Saving a screenshot to file isn’t very interesting, but having GPU-Z upload it for you to a free image hosting service is a nice time-saving touch. As least, until you actually try it:
Yup: That’s the part that doesn’t work. Sad, but true – and maybe I saved you the trouble of finding this out on your own. The other option, saving a simple screenshot file to disk, worked fine and produced a GIF image (yup, not a JPG) showing the contents of the window.
A bit like the D7 troubleshoooting utility, GPU-Z is a tool you won’t need to use every day, but is definitely good to have when you’re frustrated by a slow game or need a hand with figuring out what’s wrong with your computer. Did you give it a spin? What do you think?