Whether you’re upgrading your old rig, or putting together a new one, every great gaming PC needs a graphics card. (So does every great gaming laptop, for that matter, but you won’t be able to upgrade that without a soldering iron and some serious tech skills.)
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 to the best graphics cards will steer you in the right direction.
A note on pricing problems
Although our recommendations below still stand, it is important to note that right now graphics card pricing is being heavily impacted by shortages. As cryptocurrency miners buy up all available stock, finding mid-range cards and even some of the most expensive ones, has become increasingly difficult — especially at reasonable prices.
If you are looking to upgrade now, you will need to be careful about where (and when) you make your purchase. You may need to jump on new stock arriving at stores or just get lucky with your timing. Don’t feel forced into paying far more than necessary for cards that should be priced far cheaper.
Although no one knows when the crypto-mining card cost spike will end, the prices should come down eventually. If you can wait, your best bet may be to do so.
Nvidia GTX 1060
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 one of the cheapest entry-level cards for virtual reality.
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 × 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 580, but ultimately we gave the Nvidia option the nod for beating the Radeon on pricing and power-draw with similar performance.
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 to start and no more than $280 for the fastest incarnations, it’s not the most powerful available. If you want that – read on.
Our full Nvidia GTX 1060 review
The best graphics card for 4K
Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti
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: $500+
Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti:
Unlike the GTX 1060, there’s nothing budget-friendly about the massive GTX 1080 Ti. Aside from the Nvidia GTX Titans, which are absurdly expensive and not that much faster, the GTX 1080 Ti 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 4K resolution. 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 true competitor at this level from AMD this generation, the GTX 1080 Ti is an easy choice for anyone with deep pockets and a need for speed. Basic cards start at $700, and reach over $800 when packed with high-end features like liquid cooling loops and impressive overclocks.
Our full GTX 1080 Ti review
The best entry-level graphics card
Nvidia GTX 1050
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: $100+
Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1050:
If you’re looking to buy a current generation graphics card there are only two options at the $100-ish price point: the AMD RX 560 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 × 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.
Our full Nvidia GTX 1050 review
What about AMD?
Fans of the red team will no doubt notice we didn’t include any AMD picks in this best-of list.
That’s a problem with best-of lists: they’re about what is the very best, and don’t leave room for second place, even if it’s a very close second. And AMD’s offers are indeed very, very close. The Radeon RX 580 and Radeon RX 570 are highly competitive with the GTX 1060, and its more recent Vega 56 and 64 cards offer credible competition for the GTX 1070 and 1080. They just aren’t quite as easy to recommend.
Performance wise AMD’s new crop of top-tier cards are pretty great, even beating out their Nvidia counterparts in some respects, but that leaves them in a strange limbo of who to recommend them to. If you want 4K gaming, the GTX 1080 Ti is better than the Vega 64 and if you’re looking for something more mid-range, the GTX 1060 is a better bet than the Vega 56.
There are instances you might want to pick them instead of an Nvidia card though. If you don’t fit into our above categories, the Vega cards are AMD’s highest performing offerings since its Fury range from 2015. We thought they performed great in our testing. Additional features like FreeSync are useful too. AMD’s version of adaptive monitor sync is available in a wide selection of affordable monitors. If you’re not familiar with it, read up on the technology here.
The AMD cards also tend to perform better in games built specifically for DirectX 12. There are not many games like that so far, but if you’re playing such a title — like Ashes of the Singularity — you may be better off with a Radeon.
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 frame rate 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.
- ‘Far Cry 5’ on PC will support multi-GPU configurations, 4K at 60 fps
- Leak shows Inno3D cryptocurrency mining card based on the GTX 1080 Ti
- Dell XPS 8930 review
- Nvidia speaks out against rising price of GPUs due to cryptocurrency mining
- Nvidia’s top-end GTX graphics cards could more than double in price