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How to Buy the Right Graphics Card: A GPU Guide for 2020

How to Buy the Right Graphics Card

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 (for recommendations, see our Best Gaming Monitors page) 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 best graphics cards list of the current 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.

Quick tips

  • 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 synthetic benchmarks but won't do 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 at between 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 and processor to reach 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, along with the correct type of power connectors (up to two 8-pin PCIe, depending on the card).
  • 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. Tools like CamelCamelCamel can help separate the real deals from the fake mark-up-then-discount offerings.
  • Don't get dual cards—they're not worth it. Game support for Multi-card SLI or CrossFire setups has been trending down for years. Get the best single card you can afford. Adding a second card is usually more trouble than it's worth.
  • 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, usually only 5-10% at best.

AMD or Nvidia?

Nvidia and AMD GPUs

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's Xe Graphics should arrive soon. AMD has competitive upper-mid-range and budget GPUs, and the latest Navi-based RX 5000-series cards have mostly 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 faster RTX cards today. That may change once so-called "Big Navi" cards arrive, but the Nvidia Ampere GPUs are also coming.

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.

For more on these subjects, see our recent AMD vs Nvidia: Who Makes the Best GPUs? and FreeSync vs. G-Sync 2020: Which Variable Refresh Tech Is Best Today? features.

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 $200 for a good mainstream card, several hundred for a mid-range model and $700 (£650) or more for an extreme performance card.

Which GPUs are budget, mid-range and high-end?

Here's a breakdown of the major current GPUs and where they stand, grouped roughly by price and performance. (For example, note that the GTX 1070 is with the 'mid-range' now, since it's about as fast as a 1660 Super.) 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)ClassRecommended Use
Nvidia GeForce GT 1030; AMD Radeon RX 550Super cheapOnly buy these if you don't game (or you don’t game much) and your CPU doesn't have integrated graphics.
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super, Nvidia GTX 1650; AMD Radeon RX 5500 XT 4GB/8GB. Older: Nvidia GTX 1060, GTX 1050 Ti and GTX 1050; AMD RX 590, RX 580, RX 570, RX 560Budget cardsDecent for playing games at 1080p or lower res at medium-to-low settings
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti, GTX 1660 Super, GTX 1660; AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT. Older: Nvidia GTX 1070 Ti, GTX 1070; AMD RX Vega 56Mid-range cardsGood for 1080p gaming, compatible with VR headsets
Nvidia RTX 2070 Super, RTX 2070, RTX 2060 Super, RTX 2060; AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT, RX 5700. Older: Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti, GTX 1080; AMD Radeon VII, RX Vega 64High-endGood for VR headsets and gaming at resolutions at 1440p or high-refresh 1080p monitors.
Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti, RTX 2080 Super, Titan RTX. Older: Nvidia Titan V, Titan XpPremium / ExtremeThese 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: Critical. Get a card with at least 4GB, and preferably 6GB or more for 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. 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 (205mm) long or less. However, some cards that carry this moniker are longer, so check the specs.
  • TDP: 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 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. Generally speaking, a 600W PSU will handle all but the most powerful graphics cards, and 800W is enough for any single GPU even with overclocking.

Power connector
  • Power Connectors: Important. Most serious gaming cards draw more than the standard maximum of 75W that the x16 PCIe slot provides. These cards require connecting supplemental PCIe power connectors that come in 6- and 8-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'll want to upgrade—adapters that draw power from a couple of SATA or Molex connectors are not recommended as long-term solutions.

Ports
  • Ports: Critical. Some monitors have HDMI, others use DisplayPort, and some older units only have DVI. Make sure the card you plan to buy has the connectors you need for your monitor(s), so you don't have to buy an adapter—or potentially a new display (unless you want to). 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 can make a modest difference in frame rates. Clock speed isn't everything, however, as core counts and architecture need to be factored in.

  • CUDA Cores / Stream Processors: Somewhat important, like clock speed, as it only gives you part of what you need to know when trying to determine the approximate performance level of a GPU. Comparing core counts within the same architecture is more meaningful than comparing different architectures. So looking at Nvidia Turing vs. Pascal CUDA cores (or Streaming Multiprocessors) isn't as useful as looking at just Turing. The same goes for AMD, where comparing Navi and Vega or Polaris Stream Processors (or Compute Unit) isn't particularly helpful. Comparing AMD and Nvidia architectures based purely on core counts is even less useful.
  • TFLOPS / GFLOPS: Important. TFLOPS, or trillions of floating-point operations per second, is an indication of the maximum theoretical performance of a GPU. (It may also be expressed as GFLOPS, or billions of FLOPS.) Core count multiplied by the clock speed, multiplied by two (for FMA, or Fused Multiply Add instructions), will give you the TFLOPS for a GPU. Comparing within the same architecture, TFLOPS generally tells you how much faster on chip is compared to another. Comparing across architectures (e.g., AMD Navi 10 vs. Nvidia Turing TU106, or AMD Navi 10 vs. AMD Vega 10) is less useful.
  • Memory speed / bandwidth: Somewhat important. Like higher clock speed, faster memory can make one card faster than another. The GTX 1650 GDDR6 for example is about 15% faster than the GTX 1650 GDDR5, all thanks to the increased memory bandwidth.
  • 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 RTX 20-series cards. Both technologies hold potential. But as of this writing they only exist on cards priced at $300 (£280) and up (starting with the GeForce RTX 2060), and game support is improving but still lacking. Plus, rumors indicate the second generation ray tracing cards may leave the first gen cards sucking wind. 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. That could change in late 2020 when the next-gen consoles launch with ray tracing support.

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 a card like the Nvidia RTX 2060 Super/AMD RX 5700 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 still arguably in the toddler stage.

It's tough to tell how many future games will support a given feature. Plenty of promising graphics tech has failed to gain widespread adoption in the past (see Nvidia's 3D Vision and 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. Plus, as noted above, the next-generation PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles will support ray tracing, meaning it's likely to see a lot more use in 2021 and beyond.

Reference Card or Third Party Design?

(Image credit: Future)

Even after you decide what GPU you're after (say, for example, an RTX 2060 Super 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 for higher end models, while AMD licenses its reference design to other manufacturers. Both companies' 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. Here we include a condensed version of our current favorite cards for common resolutions 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 5600 XT model for your particular 1080p gaming build.

Best Budget Pick: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super

While AMD's RX 570 4GB is still available for $120, Nvidia's GTX 1650 Super is about 30% faster, but that's only a small part of the upgrades. It also uses substantially less power, plus it includes Nvidia's latest NVENC hardware to help with video encoding and decoding. You don't actually need a ton of CPU power to livestream your gameplay, as the 1650 Super is more than capable of doing the dirty work all on its own.

Even if price is your driving concern, saving $40 to end up with an older and less efficient architecture doesn't really make sense. More performance, better efficiency, and better video support make the 1650 Super an easy recommendation.

Zotac GeForce GTX 1650 SuperView Deal

Best for 1080p (FHD): Nvidia GTX 1660 Super

The GTX 1660 Super is 15% faster in our testing than the regular 1660, nearly 20% faster than the RX 5500 XT 8GB, and over 30% faster than the 1650 Super budget pick. We've looked at the GTX 1660 vs. RX 5500 XT and declared the Nvidia card the winner, but we also think the GTX 1660 Super is better than the GTX 1660 for just $20 more.

Despite Nvidia's Turing GPUs still using TSMC 12nm FinFET, actual power use is basically identical to AMD's Navi 14 chips made using TSMC 7nm FinFET. The fact that Nvidia is faster and the same power while using the older manufacturing node says a lot. For $230, the GTX 1660 Super basically gets you the same level of performance as the older GTX 1070 in a more efficient design. It also comes with the enhanced Turing NVENC that makes it a great choice for streaming video.

EVGA GeForce GTX 1660 Super SCView Deal

Best For 1440p (QHD): AMD RX 5700 XT

AMD's current fastest GPU is the RX 5700 XT, and while it's technically 4-5% slower than the RTX 2070 Super, it also costs over $100 less. That nets AMD the win, though if you want ray tracing support the RTX 2060 Super and RTX 2070 Super are worth a look. Power use is also dramatically improved over the previous generation Vega cards, mostly closing the gap with Nvidia.

AMD's Navi architecture made a host of improvements over the previous AMD GPUs, and combined with TSMC's 7nm lithography, it ends up as a capable gaming GPU for 1440p. There are a few games where you may need to tweak settings a bit, but you can lock in 60 fps at ultra settings in most games, and break 100 fps at medium to high settings in all but a handful of games.

AMD Radeon RX 5700 XTView Deal

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.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 SuperView Deal

Best For 4K: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti

If you're looking for the no-holds-barred champion of graphics cards, right now it's the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. It's capable of maxing out all the graphics settings at 4K in most games, so if that's what you're after, this is the card to get. It's mostly overkill for 1080p and even 1440p gaming, where the RTX 2080 Super is often sufficient for a much lower price. However, enabling all the ray tracing effects in games like Minecraft RTX performance can bring even the 2080 Ti to its knees.

Nvidia's Turing architecture is at the heart of the RTX 2080 Ti, boosting performance even if you don't enable ray tracing or DLSS. It's around 45% faster than AMD's RX 5700 XT when playing games at 4K, for example. Concurrent floating-point and integer execution is part of what helps the 2080 Ti excel, and future ray tracing games are likely to be even more demanding. Provided you're not worried about cost, or the impending Nvidia Ampere GPUs, this is as fast as current GPUs get.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 TiView Deal

MORE: Best Graphics Cards

MORE: Desktop GPU Performance Hierarchy Table

MORE: How to Stress-Test Graphics Cards (Like We Do)

MORE: All Graphics Content

MORE: How to Sell Your Used PC Components

  • abryant
    Archived comments are found here: http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/id-3801286/buy-graphics-card.html
    Reply
  • drawingpin
    I still can't believe you're recommending the 1050 when you can pick up the 570 up for the same price. Just plain old crazy.
    Reply
  • shmoochie
    21746778 said:
    I still can't believe you're recommending the 1050 when you can pick up the 570 up for the same price. Just plain old crazy.

    Same price AND two free new games. This buying guide is soooo bad. It's clearly still outdated.
    Reply
  • Dantte
    You sure thats right... you have the RTX2060 listed as high-end (same as the 2080), but the 2070 is not listed? I would think the 2060 should be midrange and the 2070 take its place on the highend list.
    Reply
  • Gurg
    Local MC: EVGA Black Gaming GeForce RTX 2080 Ti Dual-Fan 11GB GDDR6 PCIe Video Card for $1019.

    2080 ti prices are finally becoming more reasonable.
    Reply
  • Krakadoom
    This guide is ridiculous. How much did nVidia pay you to recommend the 20 series cards? For most people that's not a good buy, as the value for money is terrible and there are better options, be it radeon or 10 series cards.
    Reply
  • West996
    Why no mention of the 2080. It is skipping right over. 2070 is best for VR and 2080 ti is best, no mention of the 2080 being a nice mid point?
    Reply
  • Krazie_Ivan
    absolutely NOBODY should be buying a 1050 or even 1050ti over the RX570. the performance gap is massive in favor of the RX570, despite being sold at the same price. the very definition of "no-brainer" here...

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6_Dj-TedSU
    Reply
  • justin.m.beauvais
    I have to say I was utterly shocked to not see the RX 570 on your list. It is nearly as capable as the RX 580 and available for a LOT less. Also, why the 1050 3GB? The 4 GB of the 1050 Ti makes a lot more sense for 1080p gaming, of course then you are talking about it costing significantly more than some of the sales we are seeing on the RX 570, which makes it all the more confusing why ANY GTX 1050 is being recommended. In most cases the RX 570 is well over 70% faster than the 1050. That is not a small number. That is a big number. $20 more for 70% better performance... HOW CAN YOU RECOMMEND THE 1050!? I can't work it out in ANY way inside my head!

    Also, don't buy the GT 1030 or RX 550? What about those people who's old computers would benefit from upgrading their GT 710 or GTX 550? Those people with older systems would be wasting money on anything more than a 1030. Are we just assuming everyone has at least a Haswell i5?

    The article started off so well, then TANKED when talking about graphics card recommendations. Take out EVERYTHING recommending cards and this is somewhere between a good and a great "Things to consider when buying a graphics card" article.
    Reply
  • cryoburner
    Recently, examples of the 3GB card began showing up for sale at about $10 higher than Radeon RX 560. Consistently better frame rates mean we’re willing to spend a bit more money for the GeForce GTX 1050 3GB card over AMD’s alternative option.

    AMD's alternative to the 1050 3GB is the RX 570, a card that is more than 50% faster and has more VRAM. They are not even in the same "performance class" according to this guide, yet they are roughly the same price. Going by current US pricing on PCPartPicker, there are just two 1050 3GB cards listed there, both $140. Meanwhile, RX 570s start at around the same price, with one actually $10 less after rebate, and as has been mentioned, they are not only much more powerful, but also can be picked up bundled with a couple big new and upcoming game releases. And for $10 more, you can get a card with 8GB of VRAM, which might hold up even better in future games.

    Now, I would say that a 1050 or 1050 Ti might be a reasonable choice for upgrading a prebuilt system with a low-end, 300 watt PSU that couldn't cope with anything more, since the cost of replacing the power supply could increase the total cost of moving up to a mid-range card. Otherwise, no, there is no comparison in terms of value here, and AMD's alternative blows the competition out of the water. Who cares what the RX 560 is doing when the much more capable RX 570 costs just a little more. If the category were called something like "Best for Low-Power Systems" a 1050 or 1050 Ti could be a decent pick, but they are far from the "Best Budget Pick" for anyone not working around a low-end power supply. The RX 570 should definitely be given a mention at least.

    As for the rest of the lineup, it seems fine enough to me , and I would generally agree with it. The 20-series cards might only offer mediocre performance gains over the previous generation, but they do bring some new tech to the table, and their prices are coming down to somewhat more reasonable, if still underwhelming levels. AMD isn't exactly offering better value for the money in the $300+ range right now. The Vega cards can be considered decent, but due to their more expensive design, AMD doesn't have as much room to undercut Nvidia with them. And I suspect the same will apply to Radeon VII, while the eventual Volta cards will likely be coming to the sub-$300 range, at least initially.
    Reply