How to Buy the Right Graphics Card

If you’re building (or buying) a gaming rig, the graphics card is even more important than the CPU. Unfortunately, the process of picking a GPU can be intimidating, because there’s so much to consider, from the type of monitor you’re using to the size of your chassis to the game settings you’re playing at.

- How to Buy the Right Graphics Card

Below are list of things you need to keep in mind when shopping for your next GPU. For specific recommendations, see our list of the best graphics cards and the GPU Performance Hierarchy.

Quick tips

  • Save some money for the CPU. If you spend all your money on graphics and skimp out on the processor, your system might score well on benchmarks, but won’t fare 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 and 30-60 fps, but you’ll need a high-end card for resolutions at or near 4K, with high in-game settings on the most demanding titles.
  • Consider your refresh rate. If your monitor has triple-digit refresh rates, you’ll need a powerful card to show 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 case has enough room for the card you’re considering, and that your power supply has enough watts to spare.
  • Check the MSRP before buying. The best 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.
  • Don’t get dual cards unless you have to. Support for Multi-card SLI or CrossFire setups varies from game to game, and seems to be on the wane. Get the best single card you can afford.
  • 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.

AMD or Nvidia?

- How to Buy the Right Graphics Card

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–although Intel intends to be in the game by 2020. AMD has competitive upper-mid-range and budget GPUs, but these chips tend to be less power-efficient than Nvidia’s latest offerings. On the very high-end of the market, Nvidia is uncontested as nothing from AMD can outperform the company’s top-end RTX cards today. That could change in 2019.

Unless you have a preference for a particular company, the best reason to choose one over the other is whether your monitor supports AMD FreeSync or Nvidia G-Sync. Both of these technologies synchronize the refresh rate between the video card and the display to eliminate tearing. If your monitor supports neither technology, then you can go with either GPU brand.

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 more than $1,200. Unless you’re on a super tight budget, expect to spend at least a couple hundred dollars for a mainstream card, several hundred for a mid-range model and $1,000 or more for a high-end monster card.

Which GPUs are budget, mid-range and high-end?

Here’s a breakdown of the major current GPUs and where they stand. Remember that not all cards with a given GPU will perform exactly the same. For more detail, check out the GPU Performance Hierarchy page.

GPUs (in perf order)
ClassRecommended Use
Nvidia GTX 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 GTX 1050, AMD Radeon RX 560 Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti Budget cardsDecent for playing games at 1080p or lower res at medium-to-low settings
AMD Radeon RX 570, Nvidia GTX 1060, AMD Radeon RX 580, Nvidia GTX 1070 Mid-range cardsGood for 1080p gaming, compatible with VR headsets
AMD Radeon RX Vega 56, Nvidia GTX 1070 Ti, AMD Radeon RX Vega 64, Nvidia GTX 1080, Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti, Nvidia RTX 2080, Nvidia Titan XPHigh-endGood for VR headsets and gaming at resolutions at 1440p or high-refresh 1080p monitors.
Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti, Nvidia Titan VPremiumThese are best for 4K, and the RTX cards support new ray-tracing and A.I. tech.

Which specs matter and which don’t?

  • Graphics card memory amount: Important. Get a card with 3-4GB for serious 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, 8GB or more 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. Most gaming-focused cards will be full-height, and occupy two expansion slots. And, even if a card technically only takes up one or 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 long or less. However, some cards that carry this moniker are longer, so check the specs.
  • TDP: Very 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. So, for instance, if you’re running a 400-watt power supply unit (PSU) with an overclocked 95-watt CPU and you want to add a GTX 1080 Ti (which has a 250-watt TDP) you’re almost certainly going to need a PSU upgrade.

- How to Buy the Right Graphics Card

  • Power Connectors: Important. Most serious gaming cards draw more than the standard maximum of 75 watts that the PCIe slot provides. These cards require connecting supplemental PCIe power connectors that come in six- and eight-pin varieties. Some cards have one of these connectors, some two, and six-and-eight-pin ports can exist on the same card. If your power supply doesn’t have the supplemental connectors you need, you may need to upgrade or get an adapter that draws power from a couple of SATA or Molex connectors.

- How to Buy the Right Graphics Card

  • Ports: Important. Some monitors have HDMI, others use DisplayPort and some older units only have DVI. Make sure the card has the connectors you need for your monitor(s), so you don’t have to buy an adapter. 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 Nvidia GTX 1060), some will be manufacturer overclocked to a slightly higher speed, which could make a very modest difference in frame rates.
  • Memory speed / bandwidth: Somewhat important. Like higher clock speed, faster memory can make one card slightly faster than another.
  • CUDA Cores / Stream Processors: In some sense, this is very important, as it’s the number of processing units in the GPU, similar to the number of core in a processor. But taken by itself, the number of CUDA cores or Stream Processors doesn’t tell you anything about performance, especially if you’re comparing an AMD card to a competing model from Nvidia. 

Can it support VR?

If you want to use one of the two leading PC VR platforms, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, you need at least a mid-range card with optimal performance coming from high-end cards like the Nvidia GTX 1080 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 like the Vive Pro or Pimax headsets.

What About ray tracing and AI?

Nvidia made a big deal of its stand-out new features with the launch of its Turing-based RTX cards, including RT cores for real-time ray tracing, and Tensor cores that aid in AI-assisted super sampling. We’ve discussed the potential of these features at length here–and there is plenty of potential to be sure. But these features (and games that support them) are just in their infancy.

It’s tough to tell how many future games will support a given feature. And plenty of promising graphics tech has failed to gain widespread adoption in the past (see Nvidia’s PhysX). You should make your buying decisions based primarily on the performance and features a card can deliver to you today, but it never hurts to be future-proof especially when you’re spending several hundred dollars (or more) on a high-end card.

Reference Card or Third Party Design?

- How to Buy the Right Graphics Card

Even after you decide what GPU you’re after (say, for example, an AMD Vega 64 like the cards in the image above), 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, but AMD licenses its reference design to other manufacturers. Both company’s GPUs appear in third-party cards from several different vendors.

More expensive third-party cards will have elaborate coolers, extra fans, and often higher clock speeds, but they can also be more expensive than the reference card. And overclocking gains are often minimal (with gains of just a few FPS, particularly at higher resolutions). 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.

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 Performance Hierarchy page and our Graphics Card Best Picks page to help finalize your buying decision. But for we’ll include a condensed version of our current favorite cards for common resolutions below 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 580 model for your 1080p particular gaming build.

Best Budget Pick: GeForce GTX 1050 3GB

Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1050 3GB is mostly an upgrade over the 2GB version, offering reasonable performance at 1920×1080 (so long as you’re willing to dial back quality). 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.

Best For 1080p (FHD): AMD Radeon RX 580

Radeon RX 580 is based on the same Polaris 10 GPU as the Radeon RX 480 that preceded it. AMD simply dialed in higher clock rates to improve performance. While we’re always appreciative of higher frame rates, this also had the side-effect of increasing power consumption. Still, Radeon RX 580 generally outperforms the similarly-priced GeForce GTX 1060 6GB, particularly in DirectX 12 games, earning it a spot on our list.

Best For 1440p (QHD): Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070

Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1070 gives us very little gripe about. It’s an excellent card for gaming at 2560×1440. Not only does it use less power than AMD’s competing Radeon RX Vega 56, but also the lower-end Radeon RX 580. The 1070’s high performance, cool temperatures, and quiet fans were revolutionary when it launched in 2016. Our only hesitation buying one now would be an impending next-gen replacement.

Best for VR: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080

Enthusiasts with VR headsets need to achieve a certain level of performance to avoid jarring artifacts. A GeForce GTX 1080 is fast enough to keep up with the 90 Hz refresh rates of modern HMDs. Moreover, it includes a number of features designed to improve the efficiency of rendering VR environments. Although $550 is still a lot of money to spend on high-end graphics, remember that GeForce GTX 1080 once sold for $700.

Best For 4K: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti

Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2080 Ti is the first card we’ve tested able to deliver smooth frame rates at 4K with detail settings maxed out. Its halo features aren’t used in any games yet, but as those come online, the Turing architecture is expected to shine even brighter.

MORE: Best Graphics Cards

MORE: Desktop GPU Performance Hierarchy Table

MORE: All Graphics Content

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