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.
What a month for graphics news, right?
Computex came and went, giving Nvidia the perfect venue for launching its GeForce GTX 980 Ti. If you’re a hardcore gamer, then you already memorized the card’s spec sheet. But in short, it sports a cut-back version of the GM200 processor found in GeForce GTX Titan X, including 2816 CUDA cores instead of 3072. The GPU also wields 176 texture units (instead of 192) and 6GB of GDDR5 memory (rather than Titan’s 12GB). Nvidia didn’t touch the back-end though, leaving its GM200 with 96 ROPs and a 384-bit memory interface capable of moving up to 336.5 GB/s of data. The changes weren’t enough to affect 980 Ti’s TDP—Nvidia rates it for the same 250W as GeForce GTX Titan X. However, those alterations did carve a big slice out of the flagship’s price tag. Whereas Titan X continues to sell for more than $1000, 980 Ti starts at $650.
As you might imagine, there really isn’t a reason to recommend the Titan at this point (not that the card ever made our monthly column anyway). Now, gamers with money to spend can contemplate the lighter-weight version, weighing it against the GeForce GTX 980. Of course, when the 980 Ti launched, 980s were still going for $550. Someone at Nvidia decided that the gap between them was too narrow though, so it cut GeForce GTX 980 back to $500. Bottom line, if you’re gaming on a 4K screen, consider GeForce GTX 980 Ti a minimum. The 980 is better for 2560x1440 with detail settings cranked up. A GeForce GTX 970 would serve that configuration well too (and for significantly cheaper).
Even in the face of those price drops, you probably held off on pulling the trigger, knowing full well that AMD’s own ultra-high-end answer was imminent.
The company’s launch made it difficult for us to write a Best Graphics Cards for the Money update any sooner. We already delayed for three weeks, and there’s still more excitement coming. But we have to keep moving.
Before you object, we’ll be publishing a performance review of Radeon R9 Fury X in the next few days. In fact, by the time you read this, we’ll already have the card in our lab, running through our benchmark suite. So yes, today’s story misses our verdict on that model. But we promise it’ll be part of our recap early next month, and that gives us time to comment on the state of availability.
What we have today, then, is a clearer picture of AMD’s 300-series, including the Radeon R9 390X, R9 390, R9 380, R7 370 and R7 360. That’s a lot of cards for one day, right? Well, as we discovered in AMD Radeon R9 390X, R9 380 And R7 370 Tested, they’re rebranded versions of the 200-series. Many at AMD recoil at that word, but it fairly accurately describes the recycling of existing products with minor adjustments and new names. But let’s be clear. There’s nothing inherently wrong with AMD’s approach, so long as the company can keep battling it out with Nvidia based on its performance/dollar. The challenge is simply that the numerator in this equation isn’t being pushed forward very much. Efficiency doesn’t improve either. And the new features we’re seeing represent only what AMD can do using existing technology. If anything, the real winners here are the folks who liked what they saw when these were much younger graphics cards and continue enjoying them today.
So, speaking of competing on the value front, how do these new cards fare? Well, AMD’s suggested price on the Radeon R9 390X is $429, R9 390 is $329, R9 380 is $199, R7 370 should go for $149 and R7 360 is a $109 card.
Sure enough, as of this writing, the Hawaii (now referred to as Grenada)-based 390X is available for $430. That’s $100 more than the Radeon R9 290X. The extra cost is largely attributable to 390X’s 8GB of GDDR5 memory, which can come in useful at 3840x2160. This really isn’t a 4K card though, so we say skip it altogether.
AMD’s Radeon R9 390 starts at $330 online, matching the company's MSRP perfectly. We didn’t get chance to benchmark this one yet, but we know it should compete with Radeon R9 290X and GeForce GTX 770. Its 8GB of GDDR5 will be seen as an asset by some, particularly in light of Nvidia’s memory miscommunications. At the resolutions this card handles best, however, that extra capacity is far less notable than its clock rate increases. This face-off is difficult to call; the GeForce GTX 770 and Radeon R9 390 will both serve you well at 2560x1440 with details cranked up.
As you scale down the stack, AMD’s 300-series hits its stride. The Radeon R9 380 is an interesting board for 1920x1080, particularly because it battles Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 960 at a similar $200 price point. The AMD card is faster, albeit quite a bit more power-hungry. If you disregard your power bill, though, the Radeon is compelling enough to steal away a recommendation from the GeForce. It’s also good enough to vaporize our previous Radeon R9 280 honorable mention.
The Radeon R9 280X could still warrant consideration at $245, but we’re going to pull its recommendation and suggest looking lower for solid 1920x1080 performance and higher for a more satisfactory experience at 2560x1440.
More mainstream gamers will find the R7 370 at AMD’s promised $150 price. Igor seemed to like it in his recent review, calling it “the most palatable of [AMD’s] three models.” In months past, we recommended the R9 270 in this spot. Armed with the same GPU (minus a few shaders) and more aggressive clock rates, plus lower power consumption, it easily slots into the older board’s position.
Radeon R7 360 similarly replaces the R7 260 at that card’s original $109 price point. But because Radeon R7 260X boards are still out there for about $115 with more shaders and texture units, we’re inclined to keep the existing recommendation in place.
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. We've added a reference page at the end of the column covering integrated graphics processors, which is likely more apropos for home, office, and basic multimedia usage models.
- Be sure to check out our new performance per dollar comparison page, where you can overlay the benchmark data we’ve generated with pricing, giving you a better idea where your ideal choice falls on the value curve. The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance.
- 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. In most cases, if we have recommended a multiple-card solution, we try to recommend a single-card honorable mention at a comparable price point for those who find multi-card setups undesirable.
- 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.