The trick is, graphics cards are inherently hard to recommend because user needs vary so wildly. Everything from monitor resolution, power and thermal requirements, and even game preference will dictate how much you spend, and what you spend it on.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for GPUs, but we hope this guide will push you in the right direction
Why should you buy this: The GTX 1060 3GB strikes the perfect balance between price and performance.
Who’s it for: Gamers looking to improve their gaming quality without breaking the bank.
How much will it cost: $200-$300
Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1060:
The GTX 1060 might not be the cheapest card, and it might not be the most powerful, but it offers a solid balance of the two that will appeal to most PC gamers.
It also hits the sweet spot for graphical memory. The GTX 1060’s 3GB of GDDR5 should be just the right amount for 1080p gaming, although higher-resolution textures may push up against that limit. It’s also tied for the least expensive card certified for virtual reality, at least until Oculus’ minimum specification program starts.
The result is a card that has no trouble playing well optimized games like Battlefield 1 or Fallout 4 with the settings cranked. Even at 2,560 x 1,440, we saw average performance of 60 frames per second, or higher. It’s a tough battle between the GTX 1060 and AMD’s similarly priced RX 480, but ultimately we gave the Nvidia option the nod for beating the Radeon in terms of performance at the $200 price point.
That said, it isn’t going to deliver top performance in every game. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is by far the most demanding game we’ve tested, and the GTX 1060 delivered just 37 frames per second on average while running at ultra settings in 1080p. This video card is great in most situations, but at $200, it’s far from the absolute most powerful available. If you want that – read on.
The best graphics card for 4K
Why should you buy this: You want to play the latest games at the highest frame rate and resolution.
Who’s it for: 4K monitor owners and PC gaming enthusiasts.
How much will it cost: $600+
Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1080:
Unlike the GTX 1060, there’s nothing budget-friendly about the massive GTX 1080. Aside from the Nvidia GTX Titan, which is absurdly expensive and not that much faster, the GTX 1080 is the most powerful consumer offering in Nvidia’s arsenal, and it shows in its gaming performance.
This card can hit an average of 60 frames per second in many games, even at 3,840 x 2,160. While there were similarly priced cards in the previous generation, such as the AMD R9 Fury series and the GTX 980 Ti, even they couldn’t capably handle 4K gaming on their own.
Without a serious competitor from AMD in this generation, the GTX 1080 is an easy choice for anyone with deep pockets and a need for speed. Basic cards start at $600, and reach almost $800 when packed with high-end features like liquid cooling loops and impressive overclocks.
The best graphics card for DirectX 12
Why should you buy this: You’re interested in supporting newer graphical standards.
Who’s it for: Gamers with an eye on virtual reality, 1440p gaming, and improved support for Vulkan and DX12.
How much will it cost: $209
Why we picked the AMD RX 480:
While the RX 480 doesn’t quite catch up to the GTX 1060 in DirectX 11 games, there are still some reasons you might reach for a Radeon. For one, AMD has made a stronger commitment to open source standards and APIs. That includes FreeSync, a part of the DisplayPort standard, instead of Nvidia’s G-Sync, which requires a licensed hardware module. And then there’s Vulkan, a new API with a lot of promise for high-end gaming on Windows PCs and strong support for Linux.
Performance-wise, you’re going to see numbers just behind the GTX 1060 in most cases. That means 60 frames per second or more, even at 2,560 x 1,440, and support for virtual reality headsets. Notably, we saw the RX series cards take a strong lead in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, scoring 61 frames per second, almost 40 percent better than the GTX 1060.
Where you’ll really start to see an advantage is when you run games in DirectX 12 mode. While we’re still developing a test suite that allows us to compare the two, you don’t have to look hard for benchmarks that show improved performance on the AMD side. It’s not so much a matter of feature support as it is driver optimization. Right now, AMD is making the most of what DirectX 12 offers.
The best entry-level graphics card
Why should you buy this: You want to turn a PC without a GPU into a certified gaming rig.
Who’s it for: Casual and occasional gamers.
How much will it cost: $110
Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1050:
If you’re looking to buy a current generation graphics card (and you should) there are only two options at the $110 price point: the AMD RX 460 and the GTX 1050. The latter takes home our recommendation for best entry-level card by providing the best performance at that price point. Simple enough.
Like the GTX 950 we reviewed last year, the GTX 1050 pumps out 60 frames per second, or close enough to it, at 1,920 x 1,080, even with the settings turned up. Most models will also feature a shortened PCB and simple cooling, typically without an external power connection. That means the slim card will fit into compact cases, as well as pre-built systems with total power as low as 300 Watts.
Of course, the tradeoff for the GTX 1050’s bargain price means it likely won’t last as long as other GPUs. While that GTX 1080 is still firing on all cylinders a few years down the road, the GTX 1050 might start looking a little sad. At least at $110, your wallet won’t hurt too much having to pick up the tab.
What you need to know before you buy
This is an excellent time to buy a video card. While there may be a new card or two sometime in the next year, both lines are basically filled out at publish, and all the hardware is relatively new. You aren’t risking a more budget-friendly, or more powerful option dropping your new card’s value any time soon.
You should take monitor resolution into consideration when choosing a GPU. While any of these cards should produce solid 1080p performance, 1440p and ultrawide displays are becoming more popular, and they need more graphical oomph to run. Adaptive refresh is also becoming more common, but Nvidia cards can’t utilize AMD FreeSync, and AMD cards can’t take advantage of Nvidia G-Sync, so you’ll want to pair a monitor with the right brand.
On a similar note, make sure you’re choosing an appropriate CPU to match your GPU’s power level, and vice versa. Most modern Core i5 processors should be plenty quick for gaming. A Core i3 dual-core is well suited for use with a GTX 1050, but might bottleneck a GTX 1080, for example. If your processor is very old, you may want to replace it before grabbing a new video card.
Finally, you may be worried about DirectX 12 support, which we addressed when talking about some cards above. DirectX 12, the latest version of the graphics API most games use, is supported by the latest generation video cards from both brands. There’s no need to worry that your new card won’t run a new game. However, when it comes to performance, it does appear AMD has an edge in many DirectX 12 games. If you play a game that is optimized for DX12, then have a look at its benchmarks on AMD and Nvidia cards before making a pick.
How we test
When we test graphics cards, we tend to focus on three major factors: feature set, performance, and price.
Feature set is often determined by brand and platform, which we always consider as we review a card. It’s not just about whether it can handle a virtual reality headset, or how many monitors it supports. We check out graphical standard and API support, and special features like Nvidia’s Ansel, or AMD’s WattMan overclocking software.
Of course, performance is key. We run review units through a series of synthetic and real-world benchmarks, even beyond those we report. We keep detailed records of framerate trends, frame times, and any anomalous activities, like noise, heat, or artifacts.
Ultimately, it all comes down to cash. With so many GPUs, board partners, and differences in clock speed and memory, there’s no shortage of options, and it’s all too easy to overpay. We check the price of each individual card, and even help determine availability at launch.