Benefit from having a GPU in your system
Graphics cards have come a long way since the days when they were primarily used for gaming. Not to say that their purpose has changed over the years, but apart from gaming there are many other applications in which graphics cards are put to good use. Today we'll explore some of the areas which benefit greatly from having a GPU in your system.
- Video Decoding
With the prices of full HD monitors hitting rock bottom, DVD resolution movies simply don't cut it anymore. While HD movies offer better clarity for such monitors, they also put some strain on the CPU. Entry level CPU's can handle 720p videos fairly well, but when it comes to full HD or 1080p videos, the CPU utilization can easily shoot up to 50%, making the PC quite sluggish, giving you a laggy playback. A graphic card can easily offload this task from the CPU giving you a smoother and lag free playback of full HD content.
Previously, it was only paid software like Cyberlink's Power DVD that supported GPU acceleration and that too only for an original Blu-Ray. However, now you have free players like Media Player Classic: Home Cinema and VLC that also support hardware acceleration. If you have any graphics card from Nvidia's 8000 series and above, ATI's 3000 series and above or Intel's X-4500 HD chip (found in G45 chipset) and above, you should easily be able to offload the video from the CPU.
You can select this setting while installing the player itself. You'll immediately see a difference in playback as the player is more responsive, even skipping ahead in the movie is a lot quicker. To check if it is actually offloading, simply open Task Manager and click the Performance tab. The CPU utilization should not go beyond 20-30% in a 1080p movie.
- Video Encoding
Unless you have a PMP or a smartphone that let's you play videos directly by dragging and dropping them in, you'll have no choice but to re-encode your favorite shows or movies in a smaller mobile format. Even if your device can accept DVD or even HD movies, you still might want to consider converting them for the sake of saving some storage space. Once a task left to the CPU, which was really long and painful, not to mention you couldn't really do anything once the encoding process began, your graphics card can now cut that time in half or even less depending on how many shaders units your graphics card has.
One of the popular software's to support Nvidia's CUDA and AMD APP (formerly known as ATI Stream) software is Cyberlink's Media Show Espresso. This program comes with many presets for different devices like iPod, PSP, Xbox, PS3 etc., so you just drag and drop your video, select the device you would be playing it on and the software does the rest for you. This is apid software however. AMD has their own free conversion tool which can be downloaded from their site but it's a not the best and only limited to a few video formats. MediaCoder is a free video encoder that supports Nvidia CUDA and also a wider variety of file formats as input and output. It is a little buggy, but the developers are constantly updating it, so hopefully one day we'll have a stable version that also supports AMD cards.
- Flash 10.1
With Internet broadband reaching very affordable levels, it's fairly common to see a 1Mbps line in households today. Thanks to that, we now have the liberty of watching HD YouTube videos quite easily instead of waiting for them to buffer. Just like regular HD videos, HD YouTube videos are generally H.264 files (.MP4) that are typically decoded by the CPU. However with the latest Flash 10.1 plug-in, all your YouTube videos can now be decoded by the GPU, provided you have a compatible one.
This means you can easily watch 1080p YouTube clips without any lag or stutter and continue using your PC at the same time. HTML 5 will also have GPU acceleration, but unlike Flash, it will be the browser that natively supports it rather than a pug-in, like we have today.
Photo and Video Editing
Adobe's Photoshop CS4 introduced the world to GPU acceleration in photo editing. Certain tasks like zooming in and out, flipping or rotating a 3D image is quite heavy on the CPU no matter how much RAM or how fast you're CPU may be. Your graphics card is able to perform such operations a lot faster with more fluidity.
vReveal is another paid program that uses Nvidia's CUDA technology. The same goes for video editing software such as Cyberlink's Power Director and Super LoiLoScope that make use of GPU to accelerate the video creation process. Since Nvidia is really pushing their CUDA technology upon developers, you'll find that many of these programs work only with Nvidia cards.
There's a reason why HTPC builders include a graphics card in their build. Current generation graphics cards are capable of handling high bit rate video and audio like Dolby TrueHD, DTS HD, 7.1 channel LPCM audio and bit streaming audio, which is used in BluRays. Along with this rich support for various HD audio formats, the graphics card is also used for accelerating the video being played. One would typically install a custom interface for their HTPC, since you're going to be using it sitting on your couch. XBMC 10.0 is one of the more popular installations and the latest version has support for GPU acceleration of a wide variety of video formats.
Other than entertainment, your GPU can also be used to help the medical community through the Folding@Home initiative. This is distributed computing project to help scientists understand protein folding, misfolding and related diseases. The program was first released for the PS3 and is now available for the PC that uses your GPU (ATI and Nvidia) to fold proteins. So you see, other than gaming, there are many areas where you can put a graphics card to good use.