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How to Buy the Right Graphics Card: A GPU Guide for 2021

How to Buy the Right Graphics Card images of GPus and PC.
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Getting the best graphics card is key if you're looking to buy the best gaming PC or looking to build a PC on your own. 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 the 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 Benchmarks Hierarchy to see how today's cards compare to older cards that you might be looking to upgrade and replace.

Note that, when we wrote this, stock of both Nvidia's latest 30-series cards as well as AMD's 6000 cards were extremely limited. (As in, practically non-existent.) Frankly, even previous generation hardware is currently overpriced and out of stock. For help on that front, check out our Where to Buy an RTX 3060 Ti, 3070, 3080 or 3090 and Where to Buy Radeon RX 6800, RX 6800XT, RX 6900XT stories. Hopefully, issues with availability as well as bots buying cards to sell them at higher prices will ease in the coming months, as we get further from launch and more silicon comes of the fabrication lines.

Quick tips

  • Save some money for the CPU. If you spend all your money on graphics and don't opt for one of the best CPUs, 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. So be sure to pair your GPU with the best gaming monitor for your needs.
  • 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 PC 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 three 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. But note that in recent months, due to supply issues and increased demand, most recent cards have been selling for well above their MSRP.
  • 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%.

AMD or Nvidia?

Nvidia and AMD GPUs (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

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 could arrive this year. With its latest "Big Navi" RX 6000 cards, AMD is more competitive than it has been in years with Nvidia and its current-gen Ampere cards, like the GeForce RTX 3080, in general performance.

That said, the realistically lit elephant in the room that we've been ignoring thus-far is real-time ray tracing. Introduced as a major new feature with Nvidia's now previous-generation RTX 20-series cards, "Team Green" is now on its second generation RTX with 30-series GPUs. AMD ("Team Red") stepped into this game in a big way in 2020 with its RX 6000 cards, but it's still on its first go-round with real-time ray tracing, and so lags behind Nvidia on this front.

Still, the rollout of games that make use of (and specifically good use of) ray tracing has been slow. There's no doubt that more games are adding RT support—and many more will in the future as ray tracing is also supported by the recent Sony PlayStation 5 and Microsoft Series X consoles. But as of this writing, only roughly 20 AAA games have ray tracing support (depending on what you classify as a AAA title and substantive ray tracing), with perhaps ten more slated to launch this year. Of those, we really only think two (Control and Cyberpunk 2077) really do the tech justice. So weigh the importance of ray tracing performance with how interested you are in these games, how important the best possible visuals are to your enjoyment, and how much future-proofing you want baked into your GPU.

Also, don't forget DLSS, Nvidia's AI-assisted resolution upscaling. It can deliver improved performance with less of a hit on frame rates than is typical from maxing out your monitor's resolution the traditional way. But again, support for this feature is limited to a subset of games (admittedly a growing one). And once again, AMD has its own (open source) answer to DLSS, called Fidelity FX Super Resolution (AMD FSR). But it isn't ready for a 1.0 release yet, and Nvidia's DLSS 2.0 implementation has been in the wild for over a year now.

For more on these subjects as well as screen-smoothing variable refresh technologies, see our AMD vs Nvidia: Who Makes the Best GPUs? and FreeSync vs. G-Sync: 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 and high-end models going for more than $1,500 for RTX 3090s. And that's before you account for the currently inflated prices. As is often the case, top-end cards aren't worth the money unelss for some reason you absolutely have to have the best performance possible. Droping a teir or two down will give you most of the performance for far less money. And honestly, until ongoing stock issues subside, the whole issue of price is up in the air. Because unless you're lucky or fast (and usually both), you'll likely either be paying above MSRP or waiting for prices to come down as availability improves. 

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 Benchmarks 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 RTX 2060, GTX 1660 Ti, GTX 1660 Super, GTX 1660; AMD Radeon RX 5700, RX 5600 XT. Older: Nvidia GTX 1070 Ti, GTX 1070; AMD RX Vega 56Mid-range cardsGood for 1080p gaming, compatible with VR headsets
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070, RTX 3060 Ti, RTX 3060 (soon), RTX 2070 Super, RTX 2070, RTX 2060 Super; AMD Radeon RX 6800, RX 5700 XT. 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 GeForce RTX 3090, RTX 3080, RTX 2080 Ti, RTX 2080 Super, Titan RTX. AMD Radeon RX 6900 XT, RX 6800 XT. 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 6GB, and preferably 8GB 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, more than 8GB 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 (or more). Most gaming-focused cards will be full-height and occupy two or more expansion slots, with current-gen cards being thicker and larger than many previous-gen models. Even if a card technically only takes up 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. (Nvidia is shifting to TGP, Total Graphics Power, which means the power of the entire card.) If you're running a 400-watt power supply unit (PSU) with an overclocked 95-watt CPU and you want to add a card with a 250-watt TDP, you're almost certainly going to need a PSU upgrade. Generally speaking, a 600W PSU was fine for many previous-generation cards. But if you're opting for an RTX 3080/RX 6800 XT or above, you're best choosing a higher-wattage PSU, especially if overclocking is in the cards.

Power connector (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
  • Power Connectors: Important. All 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. (Nvidia's RTX 30-series cards come with 12-pin connectors, but they also include 8-pin to 12-pin adapters.) Some cards have one of these connectors, some two or even three, and 6- and 8-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 (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)
  • Ports: Critical. Some monitors have HDMI, others use DisplayPort, and some older units only have DVI. A few monitors also support USB Type-C routing DisplayPort signals, but these are relatively rare for the time being. 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 RTX 3060 Ti), 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 memory speed, core counts and architecture need to be factored in. Better cooling often trumps clock speed as well, on cards with the same GPU.
  • 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 Pascal vs. Ampere CUDA cores (or Streaming Multiprocessors) isn't as useful as looking at just Ampere. The same goes for AMD, where comparing Navi and Vega or Polaris Stream Processors (or Compute Units) 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 GHz, 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.

Can it support VR?

If you want to use your GPU with a PC VR HMD, 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.

What about ray tracing and AI?

We discussed this above, but to briefly recap, Nvidia's latest RTX 30-series GPUs are the best solution for ray tracing and DLSS. AMD's RX 6000-series GPUs are similar ray tracing performance to Nvidia's RTX 20-series, but they lack support for DLSS and we're waiting on AMD's FidelityFX Super Resolution alternative. Game support is still spotty, and only a few games truly benefit from ray tracing, to the extent where we miss it if it's not enabled.

Reference Card or Third Party Design?

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Even after you decide what GPU you're after (say, for example, an RTX 3060 Ti), 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. We've also noticed that Nvidia's RTX 3080 and 3090 Founders Edition cards (along with several custom models) can get particularly hot on their GDDR6X, so it pays to do some research. 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 Benchmarks and our Best Graphics Cards 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 6800 XT model for your particular gaming build.

Best Budget Pick: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super

Nvidia's GTX 1650 Super is arguably the best overall card for budgets of under $200. It's about 30% faster than AMD's old RX 570, uses substantially less power, and 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. Current pricing is unfortunately a joke, but hopefully that will correct in the coming months.

Zotac GeForce GTX 1650 Super

Zotac GeForce GTX 1650 Super

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 (in theory, anyway—like many GPUs, current prices for in-stock cards is about double what we'd expect to pay).

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 SC

EVGA GeForce GTX 1660 Super SC

Best For 1440p (QHD): Nvidia RTX 3060 Ti

Nvidia's current 'slowest' Ampere GPU is the RTX 3060 Ti, nominally priced at $399. It outperforms the previous gen RTX 2080 Super and represents the best overall value for price and performance, assuming you can find one. The RTX 3060 12GB should launch soon, which may be an even better value, but we'll have to wait and see. AMD's hasn't launch a new RDNA2 alternative to Nvidia's mainstream GPUs yet, but we could see RX 6700 / 6700 XT in the coming months as well.

In the meantime, the 3060 Ti delivers excellent 1440p performance, averaging 87 fps across our current 13-game test suite at ultra settings. The only games where it dropped below 60 fps are Dirt 5 and Watch Dogs Legion, but that was with ray tracing enabled (and without DLSS on the latter). There are other 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.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti

Best for VR: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070

Enthusiasts with VR headsets need to achieve a certain level of performance to avoid jarring artifacts. While you could use an older GPU like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 2070 Super and still keep up with the 90 Hz refresh rates of most modern head-mounted displays (HMDs), we've updated our recommendation to the newer RTX 3070.

The RTX 3070 is about 30% faster than the 2070 Super, which is perhaps a bit overkill for today's VR games, but it will prove beneficial in the days to come. We're still waiting for VR to hit critical mass, however, and not even Half-Life Alyx seemed to encourage many people to upgrade.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070

Best For 4K: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080

If you're looking for the no-holds-barred champion of graphics cards, right now it's the GeForce RTX 3080. Okay, technically the RTX 3090 is faster, but it's twice the cost and effectively takes over from the Titan RTX. The RTX 3080 can max out all the graphics settings at 4K in most games, with the same price as the outgoing RTX 2080 Super (again, in theory). It's also your best chance to experience games with all the ray tracing effects cranked up, like for example Minecraft RTX that could bring even the previous gen 2080 Ti to its knees.

Nvidia's Ampere architecture sits at the heart of the RTX 3080, and it boasts extreme performance even if you don't enable ray tracing or DLSS. It's around 30% faster than the 2080 Ti, and while overall performance is basically tied with AMD's RX 6800 XT, Nvidia has the advantage at 4K, and especially when ray tracing or DLSS are supported (and enabled). Ampere potentially doubles the RT performance of Turing, and has more than double the theoretical computational power thanks to a doubling of FP32 cores. The only problem is finding one in stock, as gamers and coin miners are both snapping them up as quickly as Nvidia and partners can make them.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080

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Matt Safford
Matt began piling up computer experience as a child with his Mattel Aquarius. He built his first PC in the late 1990s and ventured into mild PC modding in the early 2000s. He’s spent the last decade covering emerging technology for Smithsonian, Popular Science, and Consumer Reports, while testing components and PCs for Computer Shopper and Digital Trends. When not writing about tech, he’s often walking—through the streets of New York, over the sheep-dotted hills of Scotland, or just at his treadmill desk at home in front of the 50-inch 4K HDR TV that serves as his PC monitor.