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What is a Video Adapter?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A video adapter is circuit board that allows a computer to output images to a monitor. Sometimes a video adapter can be built into a computer’s motherboard, but usually, they are plugged into an expansion slot. These devices vary quite a lot, and they are sold in a wide range of different price and capability ranges. The most important parts of a video adapter are generally the graphics processing unit (GPU) and the random access memory (RAM).

Inside a computer, a video adapter usually looks like a rectangular cartridge plugged into the motherboard. From the outside, the only visible part is generally the area where the monitor plugs into the computer system. The types of monitor outputs can vary significantly depending on the era when the video adapter was manufactured. Sometimes there are two monitor outputs for systems that support dual monitor technology, and sometimes there can be television outputs.

The way a graphics card functions is very much like a helper for the system's main processor. They generally take data from software on a computer’s hard drive and translate that data into something that can be seen on the monitor. They contain hardware for outputting images as well as the GPU chip, which performs calculations and other operations. Most video adapter devices also have RAM, which helps hold graphics-related data for fast access.

Video adapters with faster GPU systems and more RAM can perform complex calculations more easily. These are generally required to play state-of-the-art computer games with high-quality graphics technology. The GPU can be especially important in translating data for three-dimensional (3D) graphics to the computer screen, and many high-technology games will not function properly unless the GPU is adequately powerful. High-tech video game consoles generally have sophisticated video adapters under the hood for the same reason.

Deciding what kind of video adapter to buy is usually a question of need. For some people, extreme graphics capabilities are unnecessary, and many of them can be perfectly fine with simple display functionality. Other people who play a lot of games or work in technical fields where graphics are crucial might need more powerful systems.

Sometimes upgrading to a more powerful graphics card may require a total system upgrade. As video adapters advance, the kinds of ports they plug into tend to advance as well. Older systems often have outdated ports that won’t handle the basic data bandwidth and speed needed for newer video adapters.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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