What is a teraflop?

So, you’re in the market for a new graphics card, but you’re stuck trying to figure out which option is right for you. On top of comparing specs, you’ve probably seen the words “teraflop rating,” but maybe you’re not sure what it means. 

A teraflop rating measures the performance of your GPU, and it’s often crucial when it comes to sifting through all the graphics cards. There’s a lot you should know about teraflop (TFLOP) measurements and ratings.

OK, what is a TFLOP?

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Unlike gigahertz (GHz), which measures a processor’s clock speed, TFLOP is a direct mathematical measurement of a computer’s performance.

Specifically, a teraflop refers to the capability of a processor to calculate one trillion floating-point operations per second. Saying something has “6 TFLOPS,” for example, means that its processor setup is capable of handling 6 trillion floating-point calculations every second, on average.

Microsoft rates its Xbox Series X custom processor at 12 TFLOPs, meaning that the console is capable of performing 12 trillion floating-point calculations each second. For comparison, the AMD Radeon Pro GPU inside Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro tops out at 4 teraflops, while the redesigned Mac Pro can reach up to 56 teraflops of power.

Do TFLOPs matter for gaming?

Microsoft

Microsoft recently revealed details about its Xbox Series X, stating that its graphics processor is capable of 12 teraflops of performance. That’s double the 6 teraflops on the Xbox One X! The company described this as a “true generational leap in processing and graphics.” And that’s mostly true — processor speed isn’t everything when it comes to game performance (look at what the PS5 is doing with new storage innovations, for example), but it is a core factor in how well games play and how many calculations for graphics and action can be done at any given time.

All that added power will enable higher frame rates and resolution support, as well as hardware-accelerated ray tracing. This performance will be further augmented with Microsoft implementing a custom algorithm for variable rate shading (VRS), which renders a scene at different details depending on where the focus is. That helps maximize performance where it’s most needed, making a game look fantastic, without having to use all the system’s resources to do so.

What are floating-point calculations?

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Floating-point calculations are a common way of gauging the computational power of computers. In fact, once we started using FLOPs, it quickly became a common international standard for talking about computer prowess.

Floating-point, or “real” numbers, are a set of all numbers including integers, numbers with decimal points, irrational numbers like pi, and so on. From a computational standpoint, a floating-point calculation is any finite calculation that uses floating-point numbers, particularly decimals. This is far more useful than looking at fixed-point calculations (which use only whole integers), because the work that computers do frequently involves finite floating-point numbers and all their real-world complications.

FLOPS measure how many equations involving floating-point numbers that a processor can solve in one second. There is a lot of variance in the FLOPS that various devices need. A traditional calculator, for example, may need only around 10 FLOPS for all its operations. So when we start talking about megaflops (a million floating-point calculations), gigaflops (a billion) and teraflops (a trillion), you can start to see what sort of power we’re talking about.

Manufacturers frequently include FLOPS as a specification on computers so they can talk about how fast they are in a universal way. However, if you have a custom-built machine and really want to brag about its teraflops, too, then there’s a pretty simple equation that you can use to figure it out:

Flops Calculation

So, more TFLOPs means faster devices and better graphics?

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In some cases, this assumption is correct. However, it’s not entirely uncommon to see GPUs with more teraflops that perform significantly worse. The phenomenon is similar to wattage. Your performance is going to depend on a wide range of factors, such as a spotlight’s brightness and construction. Even if it has the same wattage as another spotlight, it might perform differently. Teraflops use that same logic, considering other factors like processors, frame buffers, and core speed.

But yes, as a guideline, more TFLOPS should mean faster devices and better graphics. That’s actually an impressive sign of growth. It was only several years ago that consumer devices couldn’t even approach the TFLOP level, and now we’re talking casually about devices having 6 to 11 TFLOPs without thinking twice. In the world of supercomputers, it’s even more impressive.

Researchers who compare specs are now discussing supercomputers that have more than 100 petaflops, and a petaflop is a thousand teraflops. Currently, the performance record is held by an IBM-built supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is capable of 122.3 petaflops.

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