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Building a new gaming rig for 2016? We've found five video cards you must consider

best video card for any budget nvidia geforce gtx
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Building a gaming desktop is the best way to experience modern high-end games, but it isn’t cheap. Even the most frugal of home PC builders would struggle to assemble a collection of parts for less than $500 or so and still have it capable of playing the latest high-end games. More extensive builds can stretch to $1,000 or much, much more.

Related: Installing a new PC graphics card is easier than you think

Luckily, there’s an incredible variety of choices when it comes to graphics cards, one of the most expensive parts of any gaming-grade PC. Below you’ll find our picks for the best bang-for-your-buck cards, current as of January 2016. Note that these picks are quite specific; in addition to the model of Nvidia or AMD GPU, they’re broken down into specific manufacturers to find the best deal. That said, similar prices can probably be found for similar cards, if you have a preference for one company or the other. Also note that those prices tend to shift extremely quickly.

The Best

EVGA GeForce GTX 970 SC ACX 2.0 ($360)

EVGA GeForce GTX 970 Shot

If you’re willing to invest a little more than the average in your graphics card, the GTX 970 will not disappoint. Though this design garnered some criticism for its odd partition of VRAM into 3.5GB and .5GB sections, it’s still the best value out there in terms of price versus performance.

This EVGA variation of the stock GPU boosts the base clock speed to 1,317MHz and includes a double-fan cooler for more efficient operation at high speeds. With prices hovering around $340 at the time of writing, it’s also one of the better deals from a trusted card manufacturer, and EVGA’s warranty is good for three years.

This card should handle all new releases at 1080p resolution for several years, and for some games it might be good enough for 1440p, but for 4K resolution you’ll probably have to up your budget quite a bit.

Buy it now from: 

Amazon Fry’s Electronics Staples

The Rest

Sapphire Radeon R7 250 ($92)

Sapphire Radeon R7 250 Shot 2

Buying a competent GPU for under $100 isn’t an easy task, even with the recent trend towards lower prices. But this Radeon R7 250 should be able to handle most older games with decent resolution and framerates, and even a few more recent releases, so long as you’re willing to put the graphical settings down a bit.

The Sapphire version of the card doesn’t do anything fancy, but it’s short enough to fit into compact Mini-ITX case builds (assuming you have room for a double-width cooler – though the card itself only uses one external expansion slot, the fan is somewhat bulky). Penny-pinchers can use a mail-in rebate to get a further $20 off the retail price.

Buy it now from:

Amazon

Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960 2GB OC ($190)

Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960 2GB OC Thumb

The “sweet spot” for graphics cards is between $100 and $200. This allows acceptable gameplay, but without breaking the bank. At this price, the GeForce GTX 960 is an excellent choice, allowing players to run most new games with only a few compromises for resolution or effects. This middle-of-the-road card offers the same Nvidia GPU architecture as higher-end models at a fraction of the price.

Gigabyte’s 2GB model of the GTX 960 is competitive at $190, and it offers a modest boost over the stock processor speed. A re-engineered board makes this particular version much shorter than the stock design, making it ideal for compact builds (providing they allow for double-PCIE cards).

Buy it now from:

Amazon

Asus Radeon R9 390x STRIX Overclocked ($415)

ASUS Radeon R9 390x STRIX Overclocked Shot

If you want to spend a lot of money on a graphics card, you can. But if you want to get awesome performance out of a high-end card without spending a ton, the Radeon R9 390x is your new best friend. With specifications and performance comparable to the much more expensive GTX 980, plus a frankly insane 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, it will handle just about anything you can throw of it short of absolutely intense games at 4K resolution. And with a price point of between $400-450, it’s not an unreasonable budget bump over something like the GTX 970. The Asus version picked here is quite cheap at $415 (plus a $20 rebate!), and it includes a triple-fan cooler, a modest overclock, and three DisplayPort outputs for triple-screen gaming on a single card.

Buy it now from:

Amazon

EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti SC+ ACX 2.0+ ($650)

EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti SC+ ACX 2.0+

While AMD has made valiant efforts with its Fury X line, Nvidia has maintained competitive price and performance gains even at the highest levels. It would be almost impossible to justify the expense of the peerless Titan cards, but for gamers who want maximum performance and are willing to pay for it, the GeForce GTX 980 Ti is the go-to answer at the high end of the range, reaching towards $700. Its 6GB of GDDR5 RAM, enhanced memory speed, and 2,816 CUDA cores make it an ideal pick for multi-monitor and 4K gaming, if your computer has the power and space to accommodate it.

EVGA’s SC+ model includes a double-fan cooler which it claims makes the card run 5C cooler than stock, and its overclock boosts the GPU to 1190MHz when at load. At $650 (plus a free copy of Rise of the Tomb Raider, for a limited time) a 3-year warranty, and an included backplate, it’s a solid option.

Buy it now from:

Amazon