The amount of memory a graphics card has on board is one of its main parameters along with the frequencies of the memory and GPU chips. At one time this parameter even determined which maximum resolution and color depth a graphics card could support in 2D applications. Thus, graphics cards with 1MB of memory could not use 32-bit color depth at all and supported 24-bit color depth in 640x480 resolution only. As the era of 3D games dawned, graphics memory also began to be used for storing textures and, eventually, other kinds of data, too.
Graphics processors and games evolving, the amount of data to be stored in the graphics card’s memory was ever increasing, and the manufacturers had to install more memory on their products. This made the end product more expensive, and an attempt to use system memory for storing textures was made. Thus, the i740 graphics chip, developed by Intel, would use the onboard memory only as a frame buffer while textures were stored in system memory and accessed by means of the GART mechanism (Graphics Address Remapping Table) described in the AGP bus specification.
However, AGP texturing never really took off because memory they then installed on graphics cards was already superior to system memory in speed characteristics whereas the storing of graphics data, even if some portion of them, in system memory had a very negative effect on the overall performance. As a result, the manufacturers returned to their earlier tactics and renewed the “weapons race”. Graphics cards with 64, 128 and 256MB of graphics memory appeared on the market eventually. Some unconscientious manufacturers used to play a nasty trick then: they put a lot of slow memory on inexpensive graphics cards and emphasized the amount of memory in the advertisements. This didn’t provide any real benefits, but could even lead to a performance hit if the memory clock rate was too low. Having purchased such a product with an impressive number on the box, the user would find out that it wasn’t nearly as fast as expected.
But as for top-end graphics cards with 128 or even 256MB of high-speed memory, the performance gain could be small or lacking altogether with them because their memory was not used fully. This amount of memory, 256MB, became useful and even necessary only when the new generation of games arrived and when gamers began to play in high resolutions and with enabled full-screen antialiasing. Finally, we’ve come to what we have now.
Today, 128 megabytes of graphics memory is the bare minimum for a modern graphics card. This amount is typical of the most inexpensive products that are not actually intended for regular gaming. Graphics cards positioned as gaming products are equipped with at least 256 megabytes of GDDR2/GDDR3 memory. Top-performance solutions come with 512MB of GDDR3/GDDR4 and new-generation graphics cards can boast as much as 640 or even 768 megabytes of memory. Solutions with 1GB of memory on board are about to arrive, too. But do today’s games really need that much? Let’s try to check it out.