If you're buying or building a gaming PC, the graphics card is even more important than the CPU. Unfortunately, the process of figuring out how to buy a GPU can be intimidating. There's so much to consider, from the type of monitor you're using to the size of your PC case to the game settings you plan to play at.
Below are list of things you need to keep in mind when shopping for your next GPU. For specific recommendations, see our list of the best graphics cards for a list of the current best options, as well as the GPU Performance Hierarchy to see how today's cards compare to older cards that you might be looking to upgrade and replace.
- Save some money for the CPU. If you spend all your money on graphics and skimp out on the processor, your system might score well on benchmarks, but won't fare as well in real game play (due to lower minimum frame rates).
- Match your monitor resolution. Many mainstream cards are sufficient for gaming at 1080p resolutions and 30-60 fps, but you’ll need a high-end card for resolutions at or near 4K resolution with high in-game settings on the most demanding titles.
- Consider your refresh rate. If your monitor has triple-digit refresh rates, you’ll need a powerful card to show its full potential. Alternatively, if your monitor tops out at 60Hz and 1080p, there’s no point in paying extra for a powerful card that pushes pixels faster than your display can keep up with.
- Do you have enough power and space? Make sure your case has enough room for the card you’re considering, and that your power supply has enough watts to spare.
- Check the MSRP before buying. A good way to tell if you’re getting a deal is to check the launch price or MSRP of the card you’re considering before buying.
- Don't get dual cards unless you have to. Support for Multi-card SLI or CrossFire setups varies from game to game, and seems to be on the wane. Get the best single card you can afford.
- Don’t count on overclocking for serious performance boosts: If you need better performance, buy a more-powerful card. Graphics cards don’t typically have large amounts of overclocking headroom.
AMD or Nvidia?
There are hundreds of graphics cards from dozens of manufacturers, but only two companies actually make the GPUs that power these components: Nvidia and AMD--although Intel intends to be in the game by 2020. AMD has competitive upper-mid-range and budget GPUs, and the latest Navi-based RX 5000-series cards have caught up with Nvidia on the power consumption front. But on the very high-end of the market, Nvidia is uncontested as nothing from AMD can outperform the company's top-end RTX cards today.
Unless you need the level of performance you'll get from something like an RTX 2080 Ti, the best reason to choose one company over the other is whether your monitor supports AMD FreeSync or Nvidia G-Sync. Both of these technologies synchronize the refresh rate between the video card and the display to eliminate tearing. If your monitor supports neither technology, then you can go with either GPU brand. But even this decision is more complicated lately, with Nvidia now certifying an increasing number of FreeSync monitors to variable refresh using Nvidia cards.
How Much Can You Spend?
The price of video cards varies greatly, with super low-end cards starting under $100 (£100) and high-end models going for more than $1,200 (£1,400)--or $2,500 (£2,350) if you count the Titan RTX. Unless you're on a super tight budget, expect to spend at least a couple hundred dollars for a mainstream card, several hundred for a mid-range model and $1,000 (£850) or more for a high-end monster card.
Which GPUs are budget, mid-range and high-end?
Here's a breakdown of the major current GPUs and where they stand. Remember that not all cards with a given GPU will perform exactly the same. For more detail, check out the GPU Performance Hierarchy page.
|GPUs (in perf order)||Class||Recommended Use|
|Nvidia GTX 1030, AMD Radeon RX 550||Super cheap||Only buy these if you don't game (or you don’t game much) and your CPU doesn't have integrated graphics.|
|Nvidia GTX 1050, AMD Radeon RX 560 Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti||Budget cards||Decent for playing games at 1080p or lower res at medium-to-low settings|
|AMD Radeon RX 570, Nvidia GTX 1060, AMD Radeon RX 580, AMD Radeon RX 590, Nvidia GTX 1070||Mid-range cards||Good for 1080p gaming, compatible with VR headsets|
|Nvidia RTX 2060, AMD Radeon RX Vega 56, Nvidia GTX 1070 Ti, AMD Radeon RX Vega 64, Nvidia GTX 1080, Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti, Nvidia RTX 2080, Nvidia Titan XP||High-end||Good for VR headsets and gaming at resolutions at 1440p or high-refresh 1080p monitors.|
|Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti, Nvidia Titan V||Premium||These are best for 4K, and the RTX cards support new ray-tracing and A.I. tech.|
How to buy a GPU: Which specs matter and which don't?
- Graphics card memory amount: Important. Get a card with 3-4GB for serious gaming at 1080p. You'll need more memory if you play with all the settings turned up or you install high-resolution texture packs. And if you’re gaming at very high resolutions such as 4K, 8GB or more is ideal.
- Form factor: Very important. You need to make sure you have room in your case for your card. Look at the length, height, and thickness. Graphics cards can come in half-height (slim), single-slot, dual-slot, and even triple-slot flavors. Most gaming-focused cards will be full-height, and occupy two expansion slots. And, even if a card technically only takes up one or two slots in your case, if it has a big heatsink and fan shroud, it can block an adjacent slot. If you have a tiny Mini ITX motherboard, look for a “mini” card, which is generally 8 inches long or less. However, some cards that carry this moniker are longer, so check the specs.
- TDP: Very important. Thermal Design Power or TDP is a measurement of heat dissipation, but it also gives you an estimate of how many watts you’ll need to run your card at stock settings. So, for instance, if you’re running a 400-watt power supply unit (PSU) with an overclocked 95-watt CPU and you want to add a GTX 1080 Ti (which has a 250-watt TDP) you’re almost certainly going to need a PSU upgrade.
- Power Connectors: Important. Most serious gaming cards draw more than the standard maximum of 75 watts that the PCIe slot provides. These cards require connecting supplemental PCIe power connectors that come in six- and eight-pin varieties. Some cards have one of these connectors, some two, and six-and-eight-pin ports can exist on the same card. If your power supply doesn’t have the supplemental connectors you need, you may need to upgrade or get an adapter that draws power from a couple of SATA or Molex connectors.
- Ports: Important. Some monitors have HDMI, others use DisplayPort and some older units only have DVI. Make sure the card has the connectors you need for your monitor(s), so you don’t have to buy an adapter. Have a choice and not sure which port you want to use? See our HDMI Vs. DisplayPort story for more details.
- Clock speed: Somewhat important. Among cards with the same GPU (ex: an Nvidia GTX 1060), some will be manufacturer overclocked to a slightly higher speed, which could make a very modest difference in frame rates.
- Memory speed / bandwidth: Somewhat important. Like higher clock speed, faster memory can make one card slightly faster than another.
- CUDA Cores / Stream Processors: In some sense, this is very important, as it’s the number of processing units in the GPU, similar to the number of core in a processor. But taken by itself, the number of CUDA cores or Stream Processors doesn't tell you anything about performance, especially if you’re comparing an AMD card to a competing model from Nvidia.
- RT / Tensor Cores: Not that important--for now at least. Ray tracing-focused RT cores and machine-learning oriented Tensor Cores made their consumer-focused debut with Nvidia's 20-series cards. Both technologies hold potential. But as of this writing they only exist on cards priced at $350 (£320) and up (starting with the GeForce RTX 2060), and game support is nascent at best. Plus, Nvidia recently released a driver that unlocks ray tracing (at lower settings) on previous-generation 10-series Pascal cards, as well as the GTX 1660 and 1660 Ti. In other words, while these features are nice in a future-looking sense, they shouldn't be a primary reason for you to buy a card for playing today's games.
Can it support VR?
If you want to use one of the two leading PC VR platforms, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, you need at least a mid-range card with optimal performance coming from high-end cards like the Nvidia GTX 1080 or higher. The lowest-end cards you can use with these headsets are the AMD Radeon RX 570 and Nvidia GTX 1060. And the card requirements of course increase with newer, higher-resolution headsets like the HTC Vive Pro or Pimax headsets.
What about ray tracing and AI?
Nvidia made a big deal of its stand-out new features with the launch of its Turing-based RTX cards, including RT cores for real-time ray tracing, and Tensor cores that aid in AI-assisted super sampling. We’ve discussed the potential of these features at length here--and there is plenty of potential to be sure. But these features (and games that support them) are just in their infancy.
It’s tough to tell how many future games will support a given feature. And plenty of promising graphics tech has failed to gain widespread adoption in the past (see Nvidia’s PhysX). You should make your buying decisions based primarily on the performance and features a card can deliver to you today, but it never hurts to be future-proof especially when you’re spending several hundred dollars (or more) on a high-end card.
Reference Card or Third Party Design?
Even after you decide what GPU you’re after (say, for example, an AMD Radeon RX Vega 64 like the cards in the image above), you’ll usually be faced with plenty of options in terms of cooler design and brand or manufacturer. Nvidia makes and sells its own cards under the Founders Edition moniker, but AMD licenses its reference design to other manufacturers. Both company's GPUs appear in third-party cards from several different vendors.
More expensive third-party cards will have elaborate coolers, extra fans, and often higher clock speeds, but they can also be more expensive than the reference card. And overclocking gains are often minimal (with gains of just a few FPS, particularly at higher resolutions). That said, beefier cooling can often translate to cooler, quieter operation, which can be important given that high-end graphics cards are usually the noisiest, most heat-generating parts in a PC build. For much more on this discussion, see our Graphics Card Face-Off: Founders Edition or Reference GPUs vs 3rd-Party Design feature.
Card Recommendations by Resolution / Use Case
Once you’ve considered all the above and are ready to narrow down your choices, you can head to our GPU Performance Hierarchy page and our Graphics Card Best Picks page to help finalize your buying decision. But for we’ll include a condensed version of our current favorite cards for common resolutions below and gaming scenarios below. Keep in mind that there are third-party options for all of these cards, so you may want to use these picks as a jumping off point to finding, say, the best AMD Radeon RX 580 model for your 1080p particular gaming build.
Best Budget Pick: Radeon RX 570
The Radeon RX 570 appeals specifically to folks gunning for high-detail gaming at 1920x1080 (1080p), who don’t have the budget to step up to an RX 580. That said, with 8GB RX 580s often dipping below the $200 mark these days, AMD’s stepped-up card is arguably a better buy. That’s particularly true for those looking for long-term gaming performance at 1080p or interested in experimenting with high-resolution texture packs. The additional 4GB of memory will likely become increasingly important in future memory-hungry titles, making the RX 580 a card with more gaming performance longevity.
Best For 1080p (FHD): AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT
AMD’s Radeon RX 5600 XT, specifically the Sapphire Pulse OC model we tested, impressed in our performance tests. It easily bested the performance of our previous pick in this spot, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1660 Super, and even performed a bit better than Nvidia’s more-costly (even after price drops) reference RTX 2060, while using less power.
AMD positions this card as the ultimate in 1080p performance. And in our testing most games (save a couple of the most-demanding) ran at or above 60fps at ultra or maximum settings. If you’re willing to dial down some settings, the RX 5600 XT can also serve as a capable card for 1440p gaming, although the RX 5700 will give you extra oomph on that front.
AMD Radeon RX 5600 XTView Deal
Best For 1440p (QHD): AMD Radeon RX 5700
AMD’s Radeon RX 5700 averages 11%-higher average frame rates than Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2060 through our benchmark suite at the same $350 price point. AMD is notably missing real-time ray tracing acceleration, and that means upcoming blockbusters like Cyberpunk 2077 probably won’t look as good on a Radeon card. But this is also the lowest level at which ray tracing makes sense to enable on Nvidia’s hardware. A GeForce RTX 2060 with the technology turned on isn’t guaranteed to scratch your craving for smooth performance at 2560x1440 anyway. In the meantime, we’ll take higher frame rates in today’s titles from the Radeon RX 5700.
Best for VR: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super
Enthusiasts with VR headsets need to achieve a certain level of performance to avoid jarring artifacts. An Nvidia GeForce GTX 2070 Super is fast enough to keep up with the 90 Hz refresh rates of most modern head-mounted displays (HMDs). Moreover, it includes a VirtualLink port for connecting next-generation headsets with a single cable. That’s not really a useful feature today, but it will likely come in handy the next time you consider upgrading your VR headset.
Previously, we recommended the GeForce RTX 2070 in this position. But the 2070 Super’s introduction gives you almost 13%-faster average frame rates across our benchmark suite. What’s more, Nvidia’s own implementation of the 2070 Super is no longer saddled by a so-called “Founders Edition tax.” You can now find it for $500. More performance at a lower price? Sign us up.
Best For 4K: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti
Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2080 Ti is the first card we’ve tested able to deliver smooth frame rates at 4K with detail settings maxed out. Its halo features aren’t used in any games yet, but as those come online, the Turing architecture is expected to shine even brighter.
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