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How to Buy the Right Graphics Card: A GPU Guide for 2022

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 (opens in new tab) 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.

Thankfully, the supply and GPU prices on Nvidia's RTX 30-series cards as well as AMD's RX 6000 cards continues to improve. After 18 months of extreme prices, most cards can now be found online for only 20–30% over MSRP, sometimes less. However, note that next-generation GPUs are around the corner, like the Nvidia 'Ada' RTX 40-series and AMD's RDNA3, so keep that in mind.

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 (opens in new tab) 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 basically died. 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 — though Intel's Xe Graphics has started to ship for laptops and should also come to desktops in the next few months. With its 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 Sony PlayStation 5 and Microsoft Series S|X consoles. At present, the list of games with what we would categorize as impressive use of ray tracing remains relatively limited.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Our Ray Tracing GPU Benchmarks Hierarchy breaks things down using six demanding RT games. Games that only use a single RT effect, like reflections, tend to be less demanding and less impressive overall. 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. Support for this feature is limited to a subset of games, admittedly a growing one — many of the complete ray tracing games support DLSS. AMD has its own open source alternative to DLSS, called Fidelity FX Super Resolution (AMD FSR), and FSR 2.0 should further improve things, but DLSS is more widely supported in games that really need upscaling.

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 $2,000 or more in the case of the GeForce RTX 3090 Ti. As is often the case, top-end cards aren't worth the money unless for some reason you absolutely have to have the best performance possible, or if you do professional work where 10% more performance will pay for itself over time.

Dropping a tier or two down will greatly improve the bang for the buck. Currently, for example, an RTX 3080 12GB can be had for about $1,000. That's half as much as the RTX 3090 Ti, for about 15% less performance on average. The same goes for the AMD side. The RX 6900 XT (opens in new tab) costs about $1,050 while the RX 6700 XT (opens in new tab) can be had for half that much. There's no question about the 6900 being faster, but is it worth paying double the price? Only you can decide.

Here's the short list of current generation cards and the best prices we're tracking right now:

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 6500 XT, RX 6400, 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 3050, RTX 2060, GTX 1660 Ti, GTX 1660 Super, GTX 1660; AMD Radeon RX 6600 XT, RX 6600, 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 Ti, RTX 3070, RTX 3060 Ti, RTX 3060, RTX 2080 Ti, RTX 2080 Super, 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 Ti, 3090, RTX 3080 Ti, RTX 3080, 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. (AMD and Nvidia both seem to be shifting to TBP, Typical Board Power, which means the power of the entire card. That's what most of us expect when we're talking about graphics power anyway.) 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 on the table. With cards like the RTX 3090 Ti, and rumors of next-gen 600W GPUs on the horizon, extreme users will probably want a 1200-1600W PSU. Yikes!

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 own RTX 30-series cards come with 12-pin connectors, but the cards 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 3–5% 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 Turing 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. Note that features like AMD's Infinity Cache on RDNA 2 help reduce the number of memory accesses, so bandwidth alone isn't the only factor to consider.

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. Obviously, this isn't a critical factory if you have no interest in VR.

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 have similar ray tracing performance to Nvidia's RTX 20-series, but they lack support for DLSS and AMD's FidelityFX Super Resolution isn't quite the same thing. Intel for its part will support RT in hardware and has a competing XeSS upscaling solution that uses Xe Matrix cores, basically the same idea as Nvidia's Tensor cores. From what we know, Intel's RT performance will be very low, given even the fastest Arc A770 only has 32 ray tracing units — though we don't yet know how fast the RTUs are in comparison to Nvidia's RT cores.

Game support for DXR (DirectX Raytracing) and DLSS/FSR continues to improve, but there are tons of games where it's simply not an important consideration. If you like to turn on all the bells and whistles, placebo effect increases in image quality be damned, that's fine. We expect RT performance to become increasingly important in the coming years, but it could be two or three more GPU architectures before it's a make or break deal.

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, lots of RGB lighting, and often higher clock speeds, but they can also be more expensive than the reference card. Overclocking gains are often minimal, with gains of just a few FPS, so don't feel bad if you're not running a blinged-out card. 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

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Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050

The Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 (opens in new tab) almost looked too good to be true, promising full RT and DLSS support with a starting price of $250. At launch, it immediately sold out and we saw prices of over $400. Three months later, you can actually find the cards in stock for just $250. Some might argue that's not really a "budget" price, but dropping down $50 to the RX 6500 XT results in 35% less performance and effectively useless DXR support. If you want to go lower than $250, we suggest looking at previous generation cards and perhaps even a used graphics card. That's a big can of worms to open, but when the cheapest GTX 1650 Super cards (opens in new tab) cost well over $300, there's no point in even considering them.

Best Mainstream Pick

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AMD Radeon RX 6600

The AMD Radeon RX 6600 (opens in new tab) nominally costs the same $329 as the RTX 3060 below, and performance outside of DXR/DLSS games is basically tied. However, AMD's GPU can actually be found for close to MSRP, while Nvidia's card costs nearly 50% more. Winner: AMD

Best Mainstream Nvidia Pick

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Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060

The Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 (opens in new tab) upgrades the memory and GPU quite a bit compared to the budget 3050, delivering 35% more performance on average. 12GB of VRAM also means you won't need to worry about running out of memory any time soon. Nominally priced at $329, the RTX 3060 still tends to cost more than we'd like, but keep an eye out for future price drops.

Best Card for 1440p

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AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT

Just a bit more money than the RTX 3060 will get you an AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT (opens in new tab), and a honking 37% boost to performance in most games. It's about a tie in DXR performance, making AMD's card the easy pick this time. You'll also get great 1440p gaming performance, with over 60 fps in most games even at ultra settings, and 12GB of VRAM should be plenty for the next several years at least.

Best High-End Card

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Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080

If you're looking for the champion of graphics cards, right now it's the GeForce RTX 3080 (opens in new tab). Technically there are slightly faster cards, but they all cost more (i.e. RTX 3090 Ti, RTX 3090, RTX 3080 Ti) or have very lackluster ray tracing performance (RX 6900 XT, RX 6800 XT). The RTX 3080 can max out all the graphics settings at 4K in most games, and DLSS can do wonders for ray tracing performance. Just beware that Nvidia's next-generation Ada GPUs are slated to arrive around the September timeframe.

MORE: Best Graphics Cards

MORE: GPU Benchmarks

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

MORE: All Graphics Content

MORE: How to Sell Your Used PC Components

After a rough start with the Mattel Aquarius as a child, Matt built his first PC in the late 1990s and ventured into mild PC modding in the early 2000s. He’s spent the last 15 years covering emerging technology for Smithsonian, Popular Science, and Consumer Reports, while testing components and PCs for Computer Shopper, PCMag and Digital Trends.

With contributions from
  • 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