How To Know If You Should Upgrade CPU or GPU First

How To Know If You Should Upgrade CPU or GPU First

Understanding the relationship between your PC’s CPU (Central Processing Unit) and GPU (Graphics Processing Unit or Graphics Card) is essential for determining when to upgrade. If your goal is to be the most optimized for gaming, taking steps to future-proof your system for the subsequent big releases will be worth it in the long run.

For a system to run games consistently, the GPU needs to have the capability to output frames for the monitor and CPU to produce enough to stop screen tearing and work with antialiasing settings. Typically, looking at the utilization of the task manager while a game is open will confirm which piece of hardware needs to be utilized more.

This guide will walk you through the most practical way to identify whether to upgrade your CPU or GPU first. 

Upgrading CPU or GPU First

When deciding which PC component to upgrade, the best policy is to go through benchmark and stress testing to see which parts need an upgrade. Most games rely on the GPU over the CPU, with some exceptions. This leads to graphics cards being replaced more often with no noticeable difference on the CPU end. 

The best way to test is by opening your favorite games and task manager and seeing how much the CPU and GPU usage take up. The GPU should be around 20-50% utilization, with the CPU ideally being under 50% utilization, except for some games that utilize the GPU and CPU differently.

The Importance of a Good CPU

A good CPU usage is a baseline for system performance regarding productivity or gaming. Most desktop systems operate well enough on a 4-core processor; additional cores and higher clock speeds help a system with multitasking. See our blog for more information on how many cores you need for gaming.

What the Processor Does in Your PC

The processor multitasks by taking the data from the storage solution and putting it into the CPU cache or RAM for imminent use during gaming or workloads. This relationship between the storage, CPU, and RAM prepares everything to be passed to the GPU responsible for displaying the change between every frame. 

Any CPU or GPU bottleneck or significant variance contributes to the overall system input lag and significantly hampers the PC's ability to perform consistently.  

The Importance of a Good GPU

The GPU shines by providing texture detail and refresh rates onto the monitor. GPUs often rely on their VRAM capacity and steady clock speed to output consistent frames.

 If your GPU is overclocking inclined, boosting the clock speed for extra performance is a great avenue to prolong an upgrade. However, risk is involved, as those cards are closer to dying entirely at the end of their service life, forcing a replacement or an upgrade. 

What the Graphics Card Does in Your PC

Graphics cards provide the primary display output for the system but can accommodate multiple outputs like VR headsets and additional accessories like see-through displays. It's essential to keep the drivers required to run the GPU up to date, as the gaming industry needs to optimize how graphics processing units run recently released games constantly, often culminating in a quarterly/monthly update.

How Often You Should Consider Upgrading

Between the two components, GPUs are the most accessible to upgrade for an inspiring enthusiast. Most prebuilt desktop platforms allow upgrades in a limited or expanded capacity, depending on the manufacturer. 

When to Upgrade Your CPU First

When experiencing stuttering or complete frame dropping, the CPU is most likely the culprit due to being unable to keep up with the game's utilization. Let's look at some classic examples.

Signs You Should Upgrade Your Processor

As seen with most CPU-bound games, AI and damage calculations at scale generate an excessive load for the CPU to handle. Playing games like Warhammer 40k: Darktide demonstrates this best, where hordes of monsters ranging in the dozens at any given time may be harder on the CPU to generate. Attempt to leave sensitive settings like scatter density, lens flares, and ragdolls on low or off for the most negligible impact on the CPU.

Gains in Performance from a Better CPU

With more cores in the CPU, the multitasking factor increases exponentially while gaming. Not only is a higher core count achieved, but the distributed work on most cores should see an increase in performance.

A warning: getting a new CPU upgrade in an already-existing system will only go far if the power supply and motherboard are prepared to host it. Make sure you have ample power and cooling to support upgrading. 

When to Upgrade Your GPU First

Separate from the CPU, there are distinct hallmarks for a GPU that take significantly longer to complete workloads or have trouble running a game outright. Here is what to look for.

Signs You Should Upgrade Your Graphics Card

A clear sign you need to upgrade your graphics card is if you no longer receive driver updates for upcoming games. Most GPUs have a driver support life of around 5-8 years; any GPU beyond that time will lose support concerning performance for future releases. 

In addition to driver support, GPU service age is also a factor. Much like the CPU cooling solutions, GPUs offer a thermal paste and thermal mad solution for the GPU die and accompanying VRAM. For optimal performance, it is recommended that thermal paste/pads be replaced after five years of use. If you don't want to open up your GPU, it may be time to replace it.

Gains in Performance from a Better GPU

After upgrading, you should see gains in performance regarding frame rate, texture quality, and overall reduction in system latency. To play the latest triple-A games, these are necessary for the game to be run at near-peak performance. 

In addition to a GPU upgrade, you will want to monitor your CPU utilization. While the CPU is a dedicated support role, having enough cores and clock speeds provides the GPU with enough data to render and project frames.

Upgrading Your Entire System

At a point in a system's lifespan, no upgrade can save a PC from eventually needing an entire upgrade. The best solution to buying a new PC is when a significant generation of hardware emerges. 

At Apex Gaming PCs, we value the configurations of PCs on our site for all price points. Whatever GPU and CPU configuration you need should be achieved on your customer configurator or any of our main-line systems. 

Written By William Wilson  

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