It is quite easy to look at the specs of a GPU and assume you need the 12GB VRAM over the 10GB option – but if your budget is important, and stock is sparse, you have more to consider than those 2GB of VRAM. Although the signs are good for GPU stock and pricing in the next 12 months, enthusiasts are still looking at every component under a magnifying glass before buying. In this article we are going to hopefully answer the question – how much VRAM do you really need?
If you’re building a PC for the first time, or even if you’ve been building PCs for some time, there is still a little grey area that sits right on your system requirements list that might be a puzzle. VRAM is largely overlooked as one of the requirements that need some education, because it’s a case of “bigger is better” for most other aspects of memory.
Take processor cache for example. Or DRAM on your DDR4 memory. The bigger, the better. Unfortunately for most people, when there is a £100+ difference in price with a graphics card, they are not always sure if the 2GB or 4GB upgrade is actually worth it, pound for pound.
We will go through the reasons you should be looking at GPU RAM and how you can work out where the value is.
The Upgrade Cycle
Before we can get to the meat of the article, we need to understand the specifications we see on GPU manufacturer websites.
When manufacturers publish the specifications, they will generally base them off the previous generation, but also highlight the improvements from the generation before that. So, when Nvidia publish specs for a RTX 3080, they will compare it to the GTX 1080. The 3080s were released in September 2020, and the 1080s came out in 2016. This is due to the upgrade cycle of a customer, which is around 4 – 5 years.
Above we can see Nvidia’s published specs compared with the last two generations of GPU. This enables the customer to do a like-for-like comparison with the card they probably have installed.
While we’re on the subject, it would be handy if manufacturers also compared it to their competitor GPUs over the last two generations. That way, if people were swapping from AMD to Nvidia GPUs, they would have a benchmark to look at.
So, the upgrade cycle is around 4-5 years. This means the last time you bought a video card, in theory, you would have been rocking a GTX 1080 Ti, with 11GB of the high bandwidth GDDR5X video memory. Below we can see how these two cards – separated by a generation – benchmark side by side.
When Should You Compare VRAM?
It becomes a lot easier to compare and understand VRAM requirements if we look at the RTX 3060. For example, there’s an 8GB Ti and 12GB version of the RTX 3060, and it is possible to see with physical benchmarks what the difference is.
The problem is, the RTX 3060 – for the last year or so - represented great value, considering they will play just about anything with AAA in the marketing, and they’re great for mining. Ugh.
That means they’re out of stock just about everywhere. That said, if you are lucky enough to find an RTX 3060 Ti 8GB and an RTX 3060 12GB in stock anywhere, then this benchmark will help you decide how much VRAM you actually need.
|Gigabyte GeForce RTX 3060 Ti GAMING OC PRO 8GB OC ||Vs. ||Gigabyte GeForce RTX 3060 EAGLE 12GB OC GPU |
|GA104-202-A1 ||GPU Chip ||GA106-300-A1 |
|38 ||Execution units ||28 |
|4864 ||Shader ||3584 |
|80 ||Render Output Units ||64 |
|152 ||Texture Units ||112 |
|8 GB ||Memory Size ||12 GB |
|GDDR6 ||Memory Type ||GDDR6 |
|1.75 GHz ||Memory Speed ||1.875 GHz |
|448 GB/s ||Memory Bandwidth ||360 GB/s |
|256 bit ||Memory Interface ||192 bit |
|1.410 GHz ||Base Clock ||1.320 GHz |
|1.770 GHz ||Boost Clock ||1.807 GHz |
|1.67 GHz ||Avg (Game) Clock ||1.78 GHz |
Right off the bat you can see the cards are not stacked against the 8GB card by any means. There are a few important factors here that allow the 8GB Ti to stand up in a benchmark against its 12GB cousin.
Battlefield 5 – 1920x180 (1080p Benchmark (GPUMonkey)
Here we can see the demanding Battlefield 5 putting the RTX 3060s through their paces, and the 8GB Ti shining through in the framerate department.
It is important to note here, also, what amount of VRAM is in use by the game. At 1080p, with RTX on and Ultra settings, we saw Battlefield 5 use less than 5GB with the RTX 3060 Ti 8GB, but the RTX 3060 12GB had well over 5GB in use.
Is 8GB/12GB VRAM Overkill?
“So why do I need 8GB or 12GB at all?” you may be asking.
The simple reason is that this is just one benchmark on one game. The truth is, graphics card manufacturers don’t look at what games people are playing now – they need you to get a few years out of your GPU so you feel like you had some value for money. Nobody wants to hand over £700 every couple of years, after all.
While manufacturers at AMD and Nvidia are not thinking “futureproof”, they certainly want you to be able to buy the AAA titles over the next few years, which will definitely use a lot more VRAM.
Battlefield 5 is GPU, CPU and RAM intensive, and a good benchmark game - but what if you want to run 1440p and 4K gaming on a game next year? You should be able to do this, therefore the GPU will have the buffer to do so.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a great example of what developers could throw our way, and will have the RTX 3060 8GB using around 7GB of GPU memory when playing with RTX On/Ultra Settings @ 1080p. Although the API will never let the GPU top out and start using system RAM if things get iffy – this is a LOT of VRAM in use and a fair amount of stress on the GPU.
Credit: Gentleman (YouTube)
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla won’t see over 6GB of VRAM in use at 1440p, with a steady 60FPS, but this is because the game relies on both your CPU and your GPU. If you’re running Windows 11, you might also benefit from the DirectStorage feature, which we covered in another article.
Credit: zWORMz Gaming (YouTube)
Let’s be honest… Call of Duty Warzone is the game you should look at when considering VRAM. Playing Warzone in 4K you’ll see the game is using around 8GB of VRAM, and the game will also eat up other resources. The CPU takes the least hammering, but system RAM will be up to around 50% usage in a 32GB setup.
The developers’ system requirements for this game are quite misleading, however, in that the developers recommend 10GB of allocation. This is where allocation and usage are important. Although a game may state 10GB of allocation, the game itself may only use 8GB of VRAM, using clever rendering optimisation to get round the potential buffer zone.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 requires a huge 11GB allocation, but rarely uses over 8GB during gameplay. This can be checked using tools like Afterburner and SpecialK to see the allocation vs usage.
What Game Features Use VRAM?
When you are about to buy a game, you are not going to go through the technical specifications of the game’s development and figure out how it has been optimised for PC. What you’re going to do – like the rest of us – is check out a video benchmark on YouTube. You’re going to look at how switching the game to Ultra settings works out for the GPU and other components in use.
Video RAM is designed to store anything necessary to render a frame of video on your monitor screen. During gaming, VRAM is used for assets, textures and other data such as shader information and complex lighting maps. Generally speaking, none of this data will be stored in system RAM and is directly processed and stored in the GPU.
You will notice a huge jump in the amount of VRAM usage during an open-world or sandbox game. As the game is loading up areas of a map, it will start a conversation with your GPU, where the amount of available VRAM will have a direct correlation to how much of the map, draw distance and asset loading is possible.
If the game cannot load up a fair amount of data while you are playing, and without you suffering stuttering or other problems, it will dial down the amount of data it attempts to render. This conversation will continue throughout the game and will also take into account things like DLSS – which must also be stored in VRAM.
Ray tracing is one thing gamers are eager to experience right now, and the RTX 3060 8GB cards from Nvidia are extremely powerful and capable.
While ray tracing does eat a lot of VRAM, games are developed using SDKs (Software Development Kits) that will allow developers to improve memory allocation. For example, the open source RTX Memory Utility (RTXMU) SDK, released in July 2021 by Nvidia, allows developers to create rich, ray traced worlds without significant effort or extra development time. This utility basically ensures there is no mismanagement of CPU memory, and the VRAM used is only what is actually needed.
“For applications using RTXMU, NVIDIA RTX cards get a ~50% reduction in memory footprint.” – Nvidia
An example of the RTXMU SDK in use can be seen below, when Nvidia showed off Wolfenstein: Youngblood at GDC 2021.
There are games that are going to require a lot of VRAM available, and they are mostly sprawling, epic open-world and sandbox games that you’d expect. You can still expect to play most games in this genre with an RTX 3060/3080 with 8GB – 10GB of VRAM at 1440p. For example, an RTX 3060 Ti with 8GB of VRAM will easily play Grand Theft Auto 5 at 50FPS – 60FPS at 4K. At 1440p, Grand Theft Auto 5 plays at over 110FPS without breaking a sweat, and when you are in heavy traffic or scenic areas, you will see that drop to a palatable 50FPS - 60FPS. MSAA tweaks will see that improve further.
As we’ve shown, 1080p and 1440p gaming is easily possible for many types of games, but when you start looking at 4K gaming – VRAM is going to be a requirement. Do your due diligence and check out benchmarks for games for the specific GPU you are looking at… and then check out the same generation GPU with less VRAM to make sure you’re getting value.
The Nvidia Ti (Titanium) sticker does mean you’re getting a premium GPU, and if it is overclocked – even better (the Pro versions of Nvidia GPUs still pack a punch). Ti means great value for gamers, essentially, so look for deals on these models before looking at newer generations with higher VRAM.
Incidentally, the GPU we have used as a benchmark, the Gigabyte GeForce RTX 3060 Ti GAMING OC PRO 8GB OC, is an outstanding card, with plenty of years left in the upgrade cycle – so it’s no surprise that we recommend it for all types of gaming.
Unfortunately, the stock levels may be low at the time of writing, so a good substitute is the Gigabyte GeForce RTX 3060 Ti EAGLE 8GB OC GPU. Many YouTube creators in the PC building space recommend this GPU because it ticks just about every box right now in the gaming sphere, and will do for the next few years of AAA releases.