Push your PC to the max with the best graphics cards for gaming

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

If you want to build an awesome desktop for gaming, the first step is to hunt down the best processors you can currently buy on the market (along with their compatible motherboards). For now, these include Intel’s eighth-generation Core processors and its massive X-Series chips. On the AMD side, the company now offers its Ryzen 7/5/3 and Ryzen Threadripper CPUs.

Once you have a processor and motherboard in place, the next step is to choose the best graphics card for gaming you can buy. Nvidia and AMD are the sole players in this market, and rely on third parties such as Asus, EVGA, MSI, Sapphire, and Zotac to produce add-in graphics cards. These manufacturers tend to saturate the market and make the choice a bit overwhelming.

Thus, the best attack vector is to focus on the foundation. On the Nvidia front, the company provides its GeForce GTX 10 Series cards, and actually manufactures “Founders Edition” models so you’re not investing in additional fluff third-party makers like to layer onto Nvidia’s design. AMD doesn’t do this, but instead solely creates a reference design for its partners to use and modify at will.

Everything listed in our guide below is based on Nvidia’s Founders Edition models, and AMD’s reference designs. The strategy here is to decide what best fits your needs and budget, and then investigate the third-party products based on those decision. These companies typically speed up the graphics chip, improve on the cooling design, and even rip out the fans for water-based solutions. That means you’ll see additional power requirements for third-party cards.

The Titan versus the Vega

best graphics card for gaming

If you want to see a heavyweight boxing match between Nvidia and AMD, this is the fight of the year. Nvidia got a head start when it released the Titan Xp earlier this year, but AMD’s Radeon RX Vega 64 came out swinging in August to regain control of the graphics card market. AMD clearly comes out on top in the performance-per-dollar battle, but at the cost of a higher power requirement. The Vega 64 also falls behind in memory bandwidth, texture fill rates, and pixel fill rates.

But note that the RX Vega 64 offers improved performance when system builders use a liquid-based cooling setup versus air-based cooling. This card also relies on “stacked” skyscraper-style on-board memory versus the city block-style GDDR5X-based memory used in Nvidia’s design. Yet despite HBM2 memory saving physical space, AMD’s card is still bigger than the Titan Xp — and that’s just based on the reference designs.

Nvidia
Titan Xp
AMD
Radeon RX
Vega 64
Architecture Pascal GCN 5
GPU: GP102-450 Vega 10 XT
Cores: 3,840 4,096
Base speed: 1,480MHz 1,247MHz
Boost speed: 1,582MHz 1,546MHz
Memory: 12GB GDDR5X 8GB HBM2
Memory speed: 11GBps 1.9Gbps
Memory interface: 384-bit 2,048-bit
Memory bandwidth: 547GB/sec 484GB/sec
Ports: 3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
Dimensions: 4.376 x 10.5 inches
2-slot height
5.11 x 11.02 inches
2-slot height
Power connectors: 1x 8-pin
1x 6-pin
2x 8-pin
Power usage: 250 watts 295 watts
Interface: PCI Express 3.0 x16 PCI Express 3.0 x16
Performance (FP32): 12.1 TFLOPS 12.6 TFLOPS
Starting price: $1,199 $499

$500 to $700: Ultra 4K gaming and beyond

Best graphics card for gaming

Right now, Nvidia fills this price bracket with its two GTX 1080 cards. The GTX 1080 – along with the GTX 1070 – was the first card to hit the market based on Nvidia’s “Pascal” graphics chip design. Both arrived in May 2016, and were followed by the beefier GTX 1080 Ti graphics card in February 2017.

That said, the two GTX 1080-branded models are the best Nvidia-designed cards currently on the market falling under the Titan Xp’s $1,199 price point. Both can be purchased straight from Nvidia as Founders Edition models, but if you want increased speeds, different cooling options, and more, there are plenty of third-party solutions on the market.

For example, EVGA alone produces 18 cards based on the GTX 1080 TI, and 13 based on the vanilla GTX 1080 design. Zotac only sells seven GTX 1080 Ti cards, and seven GTX 1080 cards.

Nvidia
GTX 1080 Ti
Nvidia
GTX 1080
Architecture: Pascal Pascal
GPU: GP102-350 GP104-400
Cores: 3,584 2,560
Base speed: 1,480MHz 1,607MHz
Boost speed: 1,583MHz 1,733MHz
Memory: 11GB GDDR5X 8GB GDDR5X
Memory speed: 11Gbps 10Gbps
Memory interface: 352-bit 256-bit
Memory bandwidth: 484GB/sec 320GB/sec
Ports: 3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
1x DL-DVI
Dimensions: 4.376 x 10.5 inches
2-slot height
4.376 x 10.5 inches
2-slot height
Power connectors: 1x 8-pin
1x 6-pin
1x 8-pin
Power usage: 250 watts 180 watts
Interface: PCI Express 3.0 x16 PCI Express 3.0 x16
Performance (FP32): 11.3 TFLOPS 8.9 TFLOPS
Starting price: $699 $549

$400 to $500: QHD to Ultra 4K gaming

Best graphics card for gaming

To be honest, you can purchase the latest gaming console for the cost of one of the graphics cards listed in this price bracket (well, almost). In this batch, we have Nvidia’s two GTX 1070 cards, one of which just launched at the beginning of November (the 1070 Ti). Their biggest opponent is AMD’s recently-released Radeon RX Vega 56 graphics card, which targets the GTX 1070 Ti more than it does the vanilla GTX 1070.

For this group, AMD’s card provides a wider memory bandwidth, but requires more power. And despite the Vega 64 having 3,584 cores, they’re only speeding along at a maximum 1,471MHz versus the lower core count with higher speeds in the two GTX 1070 cards. All three should do fairly well pumping out high framerates at an Ultra HD resolution although the vanilla GTX 1070 may feel less stressed when rendering your games at a QHD setting.

Nvidia
GTX 1070 Ti
Nvidia
GTX 1070
AMD
Radeon RX
Vega 56
Architecture Pascal Pascal GCN 5
GPU: GP104-300 GP104-200 Vega 10 XL
Cores: 2,432 1,920 3,584
Base speed: 1,607MHz 1,506MHz 1,156MHz
Boost speed: 1,683MHz 1,683MHz 1,471MHz
Memory: 8GB GDDR5 8GB GDDR5 8GB HBM2
Memory speed: 8Gbps 8Gbps 1.6Gbps
Memory interface: 256-bit 256-bit 2,048-bit
Memory bandwidth: 256GB/sec 256GB/sec 409GB/sec
Ports: 3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
1x DL-DVI
3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
1x DL-DVI
3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
Dimensions: 4.376 x 10.5 inches
2-slot height
4.376 x 10.5 inches
2-slot height
5.11 x 11.02 inches
2-slot height
Power connectors: 1x 8-pin 1x 8-pin 1x 8-pin
1x 6-pin
Power usage: 180 watts 150 watts 210 watts
Interface: PCI Express 3.0 x16 PCI Express 3.0 x16 PCI Express 3.0 x16
Performance: 7.8 TFLOPS 6.5 TFLOPS 10.5 TFLOPS
Starting price: $449 $399 $399

$150 to $400: FHD to QHD gaming

Best graphics card for gaming

This bracket is a bit more crowded due to Nvidia’s two GTX 1060 designs. One provides 6GB of on-board memory and 1,280 cores whereas the other only has 3GB of memory and a lower core count. Meanwhile, the upper end of AMD’s Radeon RX 500 series introduced earlier this year targets both GTX 1060 models and includes two variants of the company’s RX 580 design (8GB and 4GB).

In the case of AMD, the RX 500 Series is based on the company’s older GCN 4 “Polaris” design first introduced in 2016. AMD originally released its Radeon RX 400 series last year using this design, but then tweaked Polaris and issued the 500 Series earlier this year. The target: affordable graphics for the mainstream desktop market supporting high-resolution games, and high-quality virtual reality.

Nvidia
GTX 1060 6GB
Nvidia
GTX 1060 3GB
AMD
Radeon RX 580
AMD
Radeon RX 570
Architecture: Pascal Pascal GCN 4 GCN 4
GPU: GP106-400 GP104-140 Polaris 20 XT Polaris 20 XL
Cores: 1,280 1,152 2,304 2,048
Base speed: 1,506MHz 1,506MHz 1,256MHz 1,168MHz
Boost speed: 1,708MHz 1,708MHz 1,340MHz 1,244MHz
Memory: 6GB GDDR5 3GB GDDR5 4GB / 8GB GDDR5 4GB GDDR5
Memory speed: 8Gbps 8Gbps 8Gbps 7Gbps
Memory interface: 192-bit 192-bit 256-bit 256-bit
Memory bandwidth: 192GB/sec 192GB/sec 256GB/s 224GB/sec
Ports: 3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
1x DL-DVI
3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
1x DL-DVI
3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
3x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
Dimensions: 4.378 x 9.823 inches
2-slot height
4.378 x 9.823 inches
2-slot height
2-slot height 2-slot height
Power connectors: 1x 6-pin 1x 6-pin 1x 8-pin 1x 8-pin
Power usage: 120 watts 120 watts 185 watts 150 watts
Interface: PCI Express 3.0 x16 PCI Express 3.0 x16 PCI Express 3.0 x16 PCI Express 3.0 x16
Performance: 4.4 TFLOPS 4.0 TFLOPS 6.2 TFLOPS 5.1 TFLOPS
Starting price: $299 $249 $199 / $229 $169

$80 to $150: eSports gaming

Best graphics card for gaming

Finally, we enter budget territory. As the specifications reveal in the chart below, the processor core counts are low, thus these cards mostly don’t require an additional connection to your desktop’s power supply. But note that you still may see solutions from third-party makers requiring an additional 6-pin or 8-pin connection to handle overclocked speeds, and/or additional cooling features.

Both Nvidia and AMD are targeting the mainstream market wanting decent graphics in their PC games. More specifically, these cards are ideal for eSports players who require high frame rates, but don’t want to sacrifice graphical quality. These cards are a huge bump up from integrated graphics, but don’t expect the level of quality produced by solutions listed in the higher price brackets.

Nvidia
GTX 1050 Ti
Nvidia
GTX 1050
AMD
Radeon RX 560
AMD
Radeon RX 550
Architecture: Pascal Pascal GCN 4 GCN 4
GPU: GP107-400 GP107-300 Polaris 21 XT Lexa Pro
Cores: 768 640 1,024 512
Base speed: 1,290MHz 1,354MHz 1,175MHz 1,100MHz
Boost speed: 1,392MHz 1,455MHz 1,275MHz 1,183MHz
Memory: 4GB GDDR5 2GB GDDR5 2GB GDDR5 2GB GDDR5
Memory speed: 7Gbps 7Gbps 7Gbps 7Gbps
Memory interface: 128-bit 128-bit 128-bit 128-bit
Memory bandwidth: 112GB/sec 112GB/sec 112GB/sec 112GB/sec
Ports: 1x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
1x DL-DVI
1x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
1x DL-DVI
1x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
1x DL-DVI
1x DisplayPort 1.4
1x HDMI 2.0b
1x DL-DVI
Dimensions: 4.38 x 5.7 inches
2-slot height
4.38 x 5.7 inches
2-slot height
2-slot height 2-slot height
Power connectors: N/A N/A 1x 6-pin 1x 6-pin
Power usage: 75 watts 75 watts 80 watts 50 watts
Interface: PCI Express 3.0 x16 PCI Express 3.0 x16 PCI Express 3.0 x8 PCI Express 3.0 x8
Performance: 2.1 TFLOPS 1.8 TFLOPS 2.6 TFLOPS 1.2 TFLOPS
Starting price: $139 $109 $99 $79