Should You Upgrade Your GPU or CPU First? How To Decide

The processing power of your computer determines its efficiency when using it. If your computer or system is running slow, it might be time for an upgrade. But how do you determine whether to upgrade your GPU or your CPU first?

You should upgrade your GPU first if you’re an active gamer, video editor, or have had the GPU for more than four years. In some cases, it’s best to upgrade the CPU first because it’s more cost-friendly, longer-lasting, and controls every aspect of the system, besides graphics.

This guide will cover the difference between a CPU and GPU and how your system’s lifespan will determine which processor needs an upgrade first.

Read on to learn about what to consider when upgrading your processors and how to find the best fit.

a cpu and a graphics card side by side with upgrade CPU or GPU in text

Difference between CPU and GPU

The main difference between a CPU and a GPU is that a Central Processing Unit manages a range of systems, while a GPU has a specific task.

The CPU is the primary tool necessary for your computer to function, but a GPU only handles one area of the computer’s processing, as you’ll read next.

A GPU cannot function without a CPU. It takes data from the CPU and utilizes it to render images that the user can view on the display.

But, that data can’t exist without the CPU. In some ways, a GPU is considered to be more limited in function, though it is fast, the operations required are basic and repetitive.

Because the tasks are so repetitive, your GPU doesn’t need all the capabilities of your CPU. It’s better at its specific job, but it cannot handle anything else that a CPU regulates.

That’s why CPUs are referred to as General Purpose Processors, while GPUs are Special Purpose Processors.

a cpu installed into a socket on a motherboard

What is a CPU?

CPU stands for Central Processing Unit. Also known as a processor, the CPU is the system’s brain that controls the other parts. Just like in a human body, a computer or system cannot function without a brain.

The Central Processing Unit coordinates every computer component – input, output, data storage, running the operating system, processing, and more.

It follows directions from computer programs for data and processing, making it impossible to run a program without a working CPU.

Your CPU fits inside a specific dock in the motherboard of the computer. It contains all the circuitry needed for this wide range of functions and looks like a small ceramic square with an interior chip.

Megahertz (MHz) and gigahertz (GHz) are the units used to measure processing speed in a CPU.

The former measures millions of instructions each second, while GHz measures billions per second. There are five parts of a CPU: RAM, registers, buses, ALU, and a Control Unit.

CPUs have been around since the mid-1970s, but technology has progressed since then.

Though they were decades in the making, CPUs weren’t commercially available until Intel produced the first in 1974. Since then, they have become a standard household device.

What is a GPU?

a graphics card placed on a table with a screwdriver, mouse, ram modules, and a computer case

GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit and manages the graphics operations of a computer. Whereas a CPU handles all directions for computer programs, operating systems, and input and output, the GPU has a particular purpose. 

The GPU, or graphics card, mainly handles 2D and 3D calculations for visual rendering. Visual imagery, videos, and pictures require repeated arithmetic to render, which a GPU does quickly and accurately.

While a central processor handles everything, it does so more slowly. A graphics processor handles one specific task but does so with great speed.

Computer systems did not always include graphics processors, and even now, not all computers come with an integrated GPU.

Because the CPU manages all of the software, GPUs aren’t always crucial.

However, nowadays, more systems are coming with graphics cards that can even help the CPU run other operating systems and complete general computations.

As you’ll read later, GPUs now aren’t just for video gaming and editing. High-level GPUs have the same imagery and animation use, but they extend further into virtual reality, driverless cars, modeling software, and more.

What does an upgraded CPU or GPU improve?

moving through city at speed motion blur

An upgraded CPU improves the run speed of the entire system because CPUs manage all of the operating systems and programs on a computer. A new CPU can significantly improve computer performance.

Technology companies are constantly improving the speed and ability of these systems, so you can find updated CPUs that can handle all the processing power you need.

An upgraded GPU improves the graphics of your system. Ideal for gaming, video editing, and other graphics-focused programs, an advanced GPU enhances the user experience.

With a high-quality GPU, you’ll see better video quality and improved run speeds for your favorite games.

Which should you upgrade first?

woman thinking about a graphics card and CPU in thought clouds illustration

Deciding on which element to update first will depend on your use, budget, and timeline. If you use your computer for gaming or video editing, you’ll need to decide between the two. However, if you don’t use your computer for graphics-heavy processing, a new CPU is your best bet.

The age of your system also factors into the choice. GPUs and CPUs have very different lifespans, so it’s essential to know how long you’ve had the system for and how long you plan on using it.

In addition, the cost disparity between these two processors may encourage you to go towards a cheaper option for the time being. Learn more about each consideration next.

First establish what you use your computer for

The best way to decide between upgrading the CPU or GPU is to consider what applications you use in your system.

Because upgrading either element will affect different tasks in your system, your use is the primary consideration.

Gaming

a girl gaming on pc

If you’re a gamer, you likely already know about GPU versus CPU. Video games rely heavily on both processors, as CPUs keep the games running smoothly, while GPUs give you improved and visually appealing graphics.

The type of game you prefer will give you insight into which processor is most necessary. If you like fast-paced games and don’t need extreme graphics, an upgraded CPU might be better for your situation.

The same is true for games with a large number of NPC’s that must be created, tracked, and provide interactions with you in your game.

With that, you can increase the speed and ability of your computer and notice slight improvements in graphics.

Otherwise, if you prefer immersive games with advanced visual environments and video, it might be better to upgrade your GPU first.

Regardless of your preferred video games, you must have a working CPU and GPU if you want to fully enjoy the experience.

Later, you’ll learn about why a new GPU is ineffective if you have a faulty CPU and vice versa.

Video editing

a guy with glasses using a computer to edit video footage with video editing software

Similar to video gaming, if you’re an editor, an upgraded GPU might be better for your work. Because the GPU addresses only graphics, photo and video editing rely heavily on the processor.

That said, it’s impossible to edit video without a central processor. So, if yours is entirely nonfunctional or too slow to handle your work, it’s time to upgrade the CPU. 

Other programs

For uses other than video editing, gaming, 3D modeling, and other graphics-heavy work, it’ll depend on the quality of both processors.

In general, unless you need intensive graphics processing, it’s a better idea to go with an upgraded CPU.

As you’ll read later, GPUs tend to be extremely expensive in comparison and last for a shorter time.

Sticking with the simpler option of upgrading the CPU will improve your system’s speed without costing you too much.

Do both the CPU and the GPU need to be updated?

Factor in the age and state of the CPU and GPU in order to decide whether or not they both need to be updated. If you’re a tech whiz, you might be able to tell which part needs more urgent care. Otherwise, review how long you’ve had each component and the level of quality they initially had.

Keep in mind that a GPU cannot function well with a low-quality CPU and vice versa. Everything in your computer needs to work together as a whole.

If the CPU is outdated and slow, that will affect the speed and quality of the GPU system.

A CPU sends instructions and data to a GPU, meaning that if it’s slow or unusable, the GPU won’t correctly retrieve those directions.

You’ll be able to learn more about what’s causing lag in your system by considering how long you’ve owned it.

How long you’ve had the system

the inside of a slightly older computer with a zoomed view of the graphics card and CPU cooler

Did your computer come with an integrated GPU, or did you add one later? In general, CPUs last longer than GPUs.

Your graphics card will usually last around 3-4 years before needing an upgrade if you treat it well. On the other hand, CPUs can last up to a decade.

Because of this difference in lifespan, you’ll likely need to replace your GPU much sooner than your central processor.

If you can remember when you first bought your system or later added a graphics processor, that’ll give you insight into how soon it needs to be upgraded and how many more years you have on your CPU.

What level processor you bought

Like all technology, higher-end products will last longer than cheaper devices.

When thinking about how long you’ve had your system, it’s also important to note that a more expensive computer will have a longer lifespan. 

Consider the model you got, how many years you’ve had it, and whether that specific device is known for being long-lasting.

If you spent money on a more advanced option, odds are you’ll get more use out of it.

In terms of which processor you need to upgrade first, you’ll have more insight if you know the model of your system and can find out what other users have experienced.

Decide on your budget

a couple debating their financials - a man holding some cash and a woman pointing to a budget sheet

Before you decide on upgrading your GPU or CPU, decide on your budget. Graphics Processing Units are generally more expensive to upgrade.

Though they have a shorter lifespan, the average GPU is more expensive because of a limited supply.

Fewer companies are producing GPUs, creating a shortage in the industry. Because of this limited supply, prices for GPUs have gone way up, making an already expensive piece of technology even more so.

Additionally, because GPUs cost more and last for a shorter time, you might conclude that upgrading your CPU first is a good place to start.

With that, you’ll notice some improvement in your system and still be able to later afford a GPU upgrade sometime in the future.

What to consider when upgrading your GPU or CPU

The main elements to consider with an upgrade are memory, bandwidth, brand, and cost:

  • Memory: Your graphics card or central processor needs enough memory for your purposes. For example, if you use an excessive amount of video random access memory (VRAM) for high-performance games, go for an option that’ll cover it – but be ready to pay more.
  • Bandwidth: Especially significant for online gaming, bandwidth will determine whether or not your game can receive all of the data it needs when it needs it. Faster bandwidth means faster connection speeds.
  • Brand: Specifically for GPUs, there are only a few well-known brands, NVIDIA being the leader. Because these processors are in low supply, finding a brand you trust is important.
  • Cost: Most likely, you want to keep costs as low as possible without sacrificing quality. Choose a processor within your budget, and consider that you’ll have to eventually upgrade again in the future.

Conclusion

Upgrading your system can be an exciting, if costly, adventure. But determining which way to go in terms of a CPU or GPU upgrade can be challenging, especially with so many different views.

The best way to choose an upgrade that works for you is to consider your intended use – gaming, editing, or standard work programs.

If you are a gamer or graphic editor, upgrading your GPU first might be better for your purposes, especially if your CPU is still functional.

Otherwise, review your computer’s age – including the age of each processor – and your budget.