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Best Graphics Cards for the Money

Best Graphics Cards for the Money
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Detailed graphics card specifications and reviews are great, assuming you have the time to do the research. But at the end of the day, a gamer needs to know what the best graphics card is for their money. So, if you don’t have the time to research the benchmarks, or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right card, then fear not. We've compiled a simple list of the best gaming cards offered in any given price range.

The Desktop GPU Performance Hierarchy table has also been updated and is now located in its own separate article.

Updates

There was only one new graphics card launch in the last month, and yet our list of recommendations is dramatically different than what we published in October. Why? Rather than basing our recommendations on price targets, we’re aiming for resolutions and detail settings. As you no doubt noticed, the presentation gets a facelift, too.

In rethinking the way enthusiasts approach upgrades, AMD’s most recent introduction, the Radeon R9 380X, loses much of its luster. Adding just a bit more performance (and cost) than the 380, you don’t get enough of a boost to adopt the next-highest graphics quality preset. Still, if you want to know more about how the 380X is unique, check out AMD Radeon R9 380X Nitro Launch Review.

The data from that piece guides our recommendations for gaming at 1920x1080. Enthusiasts looking to crank up the detail settings in today’s hottest titles need to think bigger than the 380/380X. Go with AMD’s Radeon R9 390 or Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 970. The GeForce tends to be faster, while AMD’s Radeon sells for a bit less money. Both are strong performers, though.

Gamers willing to tone down graphics quality at 1080p for the sake of spending less should consider the Radeon R9 380. Available under $200, it’s a full $100 less than the 390. And if you pay close enough attention, it’s possible to find 4GB models selling for the same price as the cheapest 2GB versions. A 4GB GeForce GTX 960 also goes for $200, but loses to the 380 in our benchmark suite more often than not.

The same Radeon R9 390 that garnered our attention at 1920x1080 also works well at 2560x1440, assuming you make some quality concessions to nail down smooth frame rates. Then again, many of us game on PCs specifically to enjoy the platform’s greater capacity for conveying unrivaled detail. If you insist on maxing out graphics quality at 1440p, you’ll need more rendering horsepower. An AMD Radeon R9 390X should get you there in most modern titles at a price right around $400. We’d love to include Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980 alongside the 390X. However, the least-expensive models sell at a ~$80 premium.

Where we do see Nvidia commanding respect is at the ultra-high-end. Its GeForce GTX 980 Ti musters playable performance at 3840x2160. You will have to finesse the detail preset on a game-by-game basis; demanding settings easily overwhelm single-GPU configurations. That’s a fate shared by AMD’s flagship.

Both models flirt with a $600 price point, which will undoubtedly leave you wondering what it’d take to push the highest quality settings on a 4K screen. A couple of Radeon R9 Fury cards would do the trick. But two GeForce GTX 980 Tis in SLI really represent top-of-the-line right now. Fury X boards might be an option for some, except that their radiators are especially unwieldy in CrossFire, particularly if you’re liquid-cooling your CPU.

Back at the bottom of our hierarchy, the Radeon R7 250X and 260X we recommended so many months in a row recently became scarce. Though you’ll still see the odd entry here or there, AMD’s Radeon R7 360 is far more prevalent—and under $100 in some cases. As a result, the Tobago (Bonaire Pro)-based board assumes a spot on our list for sub-FHD resolutions.

Graphics Card Top Picks

MORE: Best Cases
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MORE: Best Monitors
MORE: Best Motherboards
MORE: Best Power Supplies

Some Notes About Our Recommendations

A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list:

  • This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money. If you don’t play games, the cards on this list are more expensive than what you really need.
  • Recommendations for multiple video cards, such as two Radeon cards in CrossFire mode or two GeForce cards in SLI, typically require a motherboard that supports CrossFire/SLI and possibly a chassis with plenty of space to install multiple graphics cards. These setups also usually call for a beefier power supply than what a single card needs, and will almost certainly produce more heat than a single card. Keep these factors in mind when making your purchasing decision.
  • Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t base our decisions on always-changing pricing information, but we can list some good cards that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest, along with real-time prices for your reference.
  • The list is based on some of the best U.S. prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will almost certainly vary.
  • These are new card prices. No used or open-box cards are in the list. While these offers might represent a good deal, it’s simply outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.

Best @ HD (720p)

Playable: Nvidia GeForce GT 730 64-bit GDDR5

Our entry-level recommendation is Nvidia's GeForce GT 730 64-bit GDDR5. This card is essentially a GeForce GT 630 with more memory bandwidth. As a result, it lands between its predecessor and the GeForce GTX 650. That's a great starting point for gamers on a tight budget. If you're in the market for a solid sub-$100 discrete board, just be sure you have the 64-bit GDDR5 version in your shopping cart; the 128-bit model is actually slower due to a less powerful GPU.

Maxed-Out: AMD Radeon R7 360

Based on the same Bonaire GPU as Radeon R7 260, the Radeon R7 360 is just a bit faster thanks to a more aggressive core and GDDR5 memory clock rate. We wouldn’t expect the 360 to catch AMD’s venerable R7 260X, though, which featured a few extra shader cores and texture units.

Still, resourceful gamers should be able to coax playable frame rates from this card at 1920x1080. If you really want to play it safe, consider the Radeon R7 360 a solid bet for resolutions below FHD, such as 1680x1050.

Best @ FHD (1080p)

Playable: AMD Radeon R9 380

AMD again finds utility in aging silicon, this time from the Tonga GPU, formerly powering Radeon R9 285. The company recently rebranded it to Antigua for the Radeon R9 380. If you knew the former, the latter looks mighty familiar: 1792 shader cores, 112 texture units and 32 ROPs. The 285 utilized a 918MHz core clock and GDDR5 memory at 1375MHz. Radeon R9 380 enjoys a speed-up to 970MHz with memory at 1425MHz on a similar 256-bit bus.

That increase is enough to put the 380 ahead of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 960 in just about every one of our benchmarks at 1920x1080 and 2560x1440. But after our recent review of AMD’s Radeon R9 380X, we collectively decided to peg this as a board suited to gamers with FHD monitors.

Maxed-Out: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970

Introduced at a price point under $350, the GeForce GTX 970 is a disruptive force in the graphics card market. It enabled Radeon R9 290X-class frame rates for less money, forcing AMD to drop the prices on its single-GPU flagship. There's been some kickback from the community as Nvidia originally released some incorrect specifications regarding the card's memory bandwidth, ROPs and L2 cache, but this doesn't change the fact that, more often than not, the GeForce GTX 970 will beat the Radeon R9 290X at similar graphics settings.

Best @ QHD (1440p)

Playable: AMD Radeon R9 390

AMD’s Radeon R9 390 now sells for less than the outgoing 290X. Although the 390 features fewer shaders than its predecessor, higher core and memory clock rates, in addition to an extra 4GB of GDDR5, create a situation where the 290X is edged out. Sounds like a win-win for gamers.

The extra performance is good for cranking up the detail settings in the latest games at 1920x1080. And because it comes with plenty of on-board memory, we’re also calling AMD’s 390 our recommendation for playable performance at 2560x1440 (so long as you’re willing to dial-back graphics quality a bit).

Maxed-Out: AMD Radeon R9 390X

AMD’s Radeon 390X wields the same 2816 Stream processors, 176 texture units and 64 ROPs as the 290X before it. But its core clock rate is up to 50MHz higher, its memory frequency receives a 250MHz bump and it boasts 8GB of GDDR5.

That’s enough of an improvement to battle Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980. Except the 980 sells for quite a bit more, leaving AMD to claim our recommendation for 2560x1440 in the latest games with detail settings maxed out.

Best @ UHD (2160p)

Playable: AMD Radeon R9 Fury X

A single Radeon R9 Fury X is fast enough to post playable frame rates at 3840x2160 in most modern games using carefully chosen quality settings. It’s actually quicker than Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980 Ti by virtue of its HBM, too. But you’ll need to place the liquid-cooled card’s 120mm radiator in your chassis, making it a little unwieldy. Again, the two boards are equally impressive, compelling us to call this a tie.

We can’t shake the feeling, though, that any gamer willing to drop the cash on one Fury X and a 4K screen has aspirations to experience the latest titles cranked up to their Ultra presets, necessitating even more graphics muscle.

Playable: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti

In the month since our last Best Graphics Cards update, select GeForce GTX 980 Ti partner cards fell to $600, matching the cheapest Radeon R9 Fury X. We’re calling both flagships playable at 3840x2160, provided you’re willing to dial back detail settings on a game-by-game basis.

AMD does claim a slight performance advantage at 4K. However, the 980 Ti tends to be cooler, quieter and more self-contained. It’d be hard to go wrong either way.

Maxed-Out: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti in SLI

A GeForce GTX 980 Ti or Radeon R9 Fury X is great for getting playable frame rates out of modern games using relaxed settings. But if you really want a smooth experience at 4K, you’ll want the cooperative rendering power of CrossFire or SLI. While we favor single-GPU solutions wherever possible, there simply is no processor fast enough to sustain smooth frame rates in all of today’s games at 3840x2160 and ultra-quality.

MORE: Is Your PC Ready For A 4K Display

Our Radeon R9 Fury X review demonstrated that a card with 4GB of memory can handle UHD without running out of room for texture data. Thus, two GeForce GTX 980s in SLI would likely get the job done. That’s more than 4000 CUDA cores for less than the price of a GeForce GTX Titan X.

Radeon R9 Fury cards are even faster, though now you’re talking about an outlay of ~$1100. Those are the quickest boards from AMD that we’d pair up—Fury X is nice and short, but a pair of radiators is just too unwieldy.

The better option is two GeForce GTX 980 Tis pumping all of their waste heat out of your case in a simpler dual-slot form factor. For the ultimate in 4K with maxed-out quality, two 980 Tis are the way we’d go. Just be ready to drop $1200 on graphics and a platform powerful enough to prevent bottlenecks.

MORE: AMD & Nvidia GPU Hierarchy Table
MORE: Best Cases

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MORE: Best Monitors
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MORE: Best Power Supplies
MORE: How To Build A PC

Chris Angelini is Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Display all 121 comments.
Top Comments
  • 21 Hide
    Math Geek , December 15, 2015 8:49 AM
    i like the new organization. this is really the question asked in the forum 1000x a day, "what card do i need to play _____ at ______ on max settings?" breaking them down by price range was nice and useful but in the end it does seem that target resolution/settings is the way we think about it more than price range.

    so obviously read between the lines for the missing cards and know that if it is between "playable" and "maxed" then your settings will be somewhere in the middle and so on.... not that this will stop all the questions but hopefully it will be easier for some to use this to answer the question for themselves :) 

    this is the answer to "why is there such a HUGE gap in card recommendations between $200 and $350?" because everything in the middle is simply slowly upping the settings until they are maxed out at $350 970/390 price range!!!

    edit: and can you put the hierarchy chart back at the end of this article or at least link to it at the end. this is rather important overall when figuring out where a specific card fits into the recommendations. is it better than ___ or worse?? and so on. of all the changes this one disturbs me a lot. PUT THE CHART BACK INTO THE ARTICLE!!!!
  • 13 Hide
    DbD2 , December 15, 2015 6:48 AM
    Massive gap between $120 and $220, where a huge % of the market buy their cards. Having just looked for cards at this range - where's the nvidia 750ti, and 950. 750ti is faster, lower power and uses a new architecture (maxwell vs GN 1.1) and costs about $10 more then a 360. 950 is a big step up on that, and costs about $150, latest architecture, low power, great 1080p performance (AMD only have the ancient 370 in this range) - not everyone wants to go up to $220.
Other Comments
  • 2 Hide
    cknobman , December 15, 2015 6:31 AM
    So AMD gets recommendations across the board.

    The Nvidia fanboy club is gonna have a heart attack over this.

    Yesterday Michael claimed (in his article) the 980TI is still the fastest graphics card on the planet, something I thought the Fury had taken claim too (at least when it comes to > 1080p resolutions). So much for that fact Michael.
  • 13 Hide
    DbD2 , December 15, 2015 6:48 AM
    Massive gap between $120 and $220, where a huge % of the market buy their cards. Having just looked for cards at this range - where's the nvidia 750ti, and 950. 750ti is faster, lower power and uses a new architecture (maxwell vs GN 1.1) and costs about $10 more then a 360. 950 is a big step up on that, and costs about $150, latest architecture, low power, great 1080p performance (AMD only have the ancient 370 in this range) - not everyone wants to go up to $220.
  • 7 Hide
    Vilnis , December 15, 2015 7:00 AM
    Hm, somehow do not like the new look of this much needed article. Categories by price was more useful, at least for me. Overall layout also - different, but not necessary better
  • 2 Hide
    FinneousPJ , December 15, 2015 7:08 AM
    I like the new system better than simple price ranges
  • 3 Hide
    FCsean , December 15, 2015 7:10 AM
    Better update this when the R9 Fury X2 comes out:) )
  • -2 Hide
    Tzn , December 15, 2015 8:25 AM
    Really messed up article, basically recommending expensive and not so well sold gpu'd where aren't needed. Oh tom...
  • 2 Hide
    codyleemanofaction , December 15, 2015 8:27 AM
    I love the new recommendations by target resolution. I'd never have thought to break that down into 'playable' and 'maxed.' Genius! Great job guys! I do echo the sentiments of another reader... the layout is a little wonky. I think what's missing that the old accomplished is the Photos doing the talking, and the text explaining it. Beats me, I'm no journalist, nor web designer; Just a gamer!
  • 2 Hide
    GodCorleone , December 15, 2015 8:40 AM
    Where did the gtx 950/ r7 370 cards go??????? Please get them back. Why did you change it!!! :'( 
  • 6 Hide
    GodCorleone , December 15, 2015 8:46 AM
    Also the previous sections divided by price were useful... Why oh why please for the love of god CHANGE IT BACK!!!!!! :'(  :'( 
  • 21 Hide
    Math Geek , December 15, 2015 8:49 AM
    i like the new organization. this is really the question asked in the forum 1000x a day, "what card do i need to play _____ at ______ on max settings?" breaking them down by price range was nice and useful but in the end it does seem that target resolution/settings is the way we think about it more than price range.

    so obviously read between the lines for the missing cards and know that if it is between "playable" and "maxed" then your settings will be somewhere in the middle and so on.... not that this will stop all the questions but hopefully it will be easier for some to use this to answer the question for themselves :) 

    this is the answer to "why is there such a HUGE gap in card recommendations between $200 and $350?" because everything in the middle is simply slowly upping the settings until they are maxed out at $350 970/390 price range!!!

    edit: and can you put the hierarchy chart back at the end of this article or at least link to it at the end. this is rather important overall when figuring out where a specific card fits into the recommendations. is it better than ___ or worse?? and so on. of all the changes this one disturbs me a lot. PUT THE CHART BACK INTO THE ARTICLE!!!!
  • 0 Hide
    Wayfall , December 15, 2015 8:53 AM
    I recommend the MSI GTX 970 4Gb, its a monster and the best graphics card I have ever bought.
  • 0 Hide
    chimera201 , December 15, 2015 8:58 AM
    Don't see the point in recommending Geforce GT 730 unless you don't have integrated graphics. HD graphics 530 is probably better.
  • 0 Hide
    turkey3_scratch , December 15, 2015 9:00 AM
    Quote:
    Where did the gtx 950/ r7 370 cards go??????? Please get them back. Why did you change it!!! :'( 


    Because they're not the best for the money.
  • 2 Hide
    GodCorleone , December 15, 2015 9:09 AM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    Where did the gtx 950/ r7 370 cards go??????? Please get them back. Why did you change it!!! :'( 


    Because they're not the best for the money.

    GTX 950 is a very good bang-for-buck card.
  • 3 Hide
    hemery , December 15, 2015 9:56 AM
    The older presentation was WAY BETTER.
    This one s.cks
    Put back the old one URGENTLY, please!
  • 6 Hide
    Gillerer , December 15, 2015 10:26 AM
    I have a couple of suggestions for future editions of this article:

    1) Add section for non-gaming discrete GPUs. Possible usage scenarios include HTPC use with video processing and output to UHD@60 HDMI2.0, as well as getting (possibly multiple) UHD@60 or QHD@60/144 outputs in a general use computer. Most motherboard integrated graphics connectors only allow UHD@30 at most, and apart from DP usually only 1920x1200@60.

    2) Make some sort of mention to target framerate - requirements for 144 Hz operation at FHD or QHD are, after all, quite different from 60 Hz. Obvious setting groups that would emerge are FHD@144/QHD@60 and QHD@144/UHD@60.
  • 6 Hide
    logainofhades , December 15, 2015 10:31 AM
    Have to admit, I liked the old format better, than this one. It was more useful, for those on a budget, and looking for what to buy. Targeting resolutions is a nice addition, but suggesting more than just a couple cards per resolution would be much more useful.
  • 2 Hide
    Gillerer , December 15, 2015 10:35 AM
    Just to clarify, as the article stands, it's unclear whether the playble/maxed out recommendations at FHD and QHD target 60 Hz or 144 Hz operation.
  • 2 Hide
    logainofhades , December 15, 2015 10:40 AM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    Quote:
    Where did the gtx 950/ r7 370 cards go??????? Please get them back. Why did you change it!!! :'( 


    Because they're not the best for the money.

    GTX 950 is a very good bang-for-buck card.


    That it is. Not much slower than a GTX 960, and can often be found for a decent amount cheaper. It is pretty much my starting point, for when I make gaming rig recommendations.
  • 3 Hide
    miroslavhm , December 15, 2015 11:01 AM
    This is a great way to present recommendations - based on the targeted usage.
    GTX950 and 750 are great, but not worth paying for gaming. The minimum worth purchasing is R9 380 - and these vary on the market from $150 to $250, so pretty much making non sense a purchase of lesser capable card. Then it is GTX970 or R9 390, and then GTX980/ti. Anything else is some kind of compromise that costs too much for its purpose.
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