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What is a GPU and how does it work?

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The GPU is one of the most important parts of our phone or Android tablet, whether you're rocking a Moto G, a Galaxy Note 4 or a Nexus 7 (2013), but for many it is still a great unknown. As in every Android for Beginners article, we aim to shed some light on a fundamental but often overlooked aspect of Android. This time, we'll shed some light on a dark part of our phone's hardware: what is a GPU and how does it work?

Listen up children and learn. Today's lesson: the GPU. © ANDROIDPIT

What is a GPU?

GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit, so that probably already gives you an indication of what it does. It is a processor dedicated solely to graphics processing operations or “floating point” calculations.

One of the main functions of the GPU is to lighten the load on the CPU (Central Processing Unit), especially when running graphics intensive applications like hi-res games or 3D graphics apps.

For example, consider a game like a first-person shooter. The GPU, in this case, would be responsible for creating graphics, textures and colors within the game, while the CPU, not having to work the graphics, can use its resources for artificial intelligence or calculations of the game's mechanics.

A GPU's architecture does not differ too much from a CPU, however, its construction is much more optimized towards the efficient calculation of graphical information. Therefore, if you were to ask your GPU to perform anything other than graphical tasks, it would suddenly become an ineffective and slow component rather than the fine-tuned tool it is.

tegra x1 353
The GPU is a hugely important part of your smartphone or tablet.© Nvidia

Types of GPU

Dedicated graphics cards provide higher power. They are specifically designed for this work, and are integrated with the motherboard through a separate port. These kinds of GPU also have separate RAM to the CPU that can only be used by the GPU. You don't find these kinds of graphics cards in Android devices, but rather in desktop PCs and laptops.

Integrated graphics are more familiar to Android users because they are included on what we call a System-on-a-Chip (SoC) like the Snapdragon 810 which includes an integrated Adreno 430 GPU. This time, the memory used is the system memory and the GPU is integrated into the processor itself.

There are also hybrid GPUs which are a mixtures of both types. That is, they have a small amount of dedicated RAM, but also use system memory.

androidpit tegra x1 graph
Nvidia's new Tegra X1 is a phenomenal improvement over Nvidia's previous GPUs. © Nvidia

How does a GPU work?

Unlike central processors, with a few cores running at high speed, GPUs have many processing cores running at low speeds. These cores are basically aimed at two different functions: the processing of vertices and pixels.

Vertex processing essentially revolves around the idea of coordinate systems. The GPU handles geometric calculations to reproduce dimensional space on your screen. This results in things like depth and spatial data in games and the possibility of rotation in three-dimensional space.

The pixel processing of GPUs, or to put it more simply, the graphics we see, is very complex and requires even more processing power than is required by vertices. Pixel processing renders the various layers and applies the effects needed to create complex textures to get the most realistic graphics possible.

dirt road racing 3D
Spatial information and visual textures are all part of what the GPU does. © 3dinteger

After both of these processes have been handled, the result is transported to a digital readout, in this case, the screen of your smartphone or tablet. The processes I have described here occur continuously, millions of times a second, as we play a game. (Now you know why your phone sometimes heats up.)

Of course, it's all a lot more complicated than this, but you should now be able to fake your way through a conversation on GPUs without looking too clueless. Or perhaps you are inspired to go out and read more on the topic?

If you have any questions about GPUs just ask below. What part of your smartphone would you like explained next?

This article is based on an original article by Daniel Viejo for

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Kris Carlon

Kris Carlon
Senior Editor

Kris is a former AndroidPIT Editor who came to the team via a lengthy period spent traveling and relying on technology to keep him in touch with the outside world. He can usually be found juggling three phones at once and poring over G+ posts, Reddit and RSS feeds.

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  • KnIghT Sep 2, 2017 Link to comment

    Could you perhaps elaborate on the GPU's an Android device uses..But the processors and their brands, like The Adreno used by snapdragon..IT peeked my interest and i would like to know the Graphic processors available on the android market and familiar myself with it. Thanks ^^

  • saipratap reddy Feb 16, 2015 Link to comment

    sensors in android...

  • Reg Joo Feb 16, 2015 Link to comment

    Frames per Second

  • Pratheek Feb 15, 2015 Link to comment

    Can you please explain the term FPS?

    • XCyber Drey Jul 10, 2017 Link to comment

      When you are playing a video game you are looking at a screen. That screen is consisted of many, many tiny pixels. Each of which all have their own color. The combination of these tiny pixels gives you the screen you see. A display of pixels on a screen is a Frame. A computer game looks like a smooth running game. This is because the color of the pixels change very rapidly and intelligently to give the illusion of motion. The computer is supposed to update the color of the pixels frequently to satisfy for the flow of the game. Each time the computer does this pixel color update, it updates the color of all pixels simultaneously (the entire screen). Each time the computer updates the all the pixels, it gives an entirely new, usually quite similar image, each image is known as a frame. Think of a cartoon flip book, each page is like a frame. FPS, is frames per second, and refers to how often and fast the computer updates the pixels aka frame. If something is said to have 60 FPS, the computer updates the frame 60 times every single second. As you can well imagine this is extremely fast and to your eye would appear as just fluid motion.

    • KnIghT Sep 2, 2017 Link to comment

      FPS - Frames Per Second, can be explained as the rate of frames that ur screen displays, which is literally the amount of frames ur screen displays per second. A frame is a picture and ur device refreshes ur screen "x" times a second and the number of frames that it shows u on the screen in a second is the Frames Per Second/FPS of ur device. Just imagine watching a movie, in which u are seeing a flawless exchange of frames which creates a continuous motion... Really, Persistence of Vision, U are a god!
      FPS can also be defined as First Person Shooter, Any game where ur character holds a gun and the screen only shows that person holding the gun as u would see if u were to hold one urself... CoD mate...CoD.

  • Biswa Patra Feb 15, 2015 Link to comment

    Which Mobile GPU best Mali Vs Adreno ????

  • Random Username Feb 15, 2015 Link to comment

    What's the game with the truck called?

  • Carmelo Rivera Feb 14, 2015 Link to comment

    Please, talk about whether 2K screens are battery friendly or not. Thanks.

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