The best graphics cards

Wes Fenlon Jul 04, 2015

The CPU may be the brain of your PC, but when it comes to gaming, the graphics card is the beating heart that pumps pixels out of your obelisk of a tower and into your monitor. A graphics card consists of dedicated video memory and a graphics processing unit that handles all sorts of calculations, like mapping textures and rendering millions of polygons. The graphics card is, simply, the most vital component of your gaming PC. And these are the ones worthy of your next PC, whether it's a savvy middle-of-the-road build, a budget rig or a 4K monster.

Update 7/3/2015: We've updated our recommendations for 4K gaming and a budget graphics card based on recent releases.

The best graphics card

MSI GTX 970 Gaming 4G

AT A GLANCE

  • Rivals GTX 980 performance when overclocked
  • Runs incredibly cool, quiet and power efficient
  • Nvidia drivers and software are regularly updated to support new games and features
  • Memory management issue prevents the 970 from using all 4GB of VRAM at full speed, but the problem only shows when running at settings the card can't handle

Nvidia introduced both the GTX 980 and the GTX 970 in early September 2014, primarily focusing on the 980’s killer performance and impressively low power consumption. But the Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 is the more important card: it’s priced closer to Nvidia’s typical mid-range graphics, while nipping the 980’s heels when it comes to performance. Eurogamer calls it “that rarest of things in the graphics card market—a genuine game-changer...its performance per pound ratio is so strong that some might say there's little point considering any other high-end GPU currently available—and that includes Nvidia's own flagship GTX 980.”

At a starting price of $330 (~£215), the GTX 970 offers 4GB of GDDR5 VRAM, 1664 CUDA cores, and a base clock of 1050 MHz. That may not sound incredibly fast, but the GTX 970’s base clock leaves tons of room for overclocking, and its boost clock can pass the 1500 MHz mark. Also, keep in mind the full specs to the right are only the base numbers from Nvidia. The card you'll buy from EVGA, Gigabyte, etc. will almost certainly be clocked higher.

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GTX 970 specs

CUDA cores: 1664
Base clock: 1050 MHz
Boost clock: 1178 MHz
Single precision: 4 teraflops
Memory config: 4GB 256-bit GDDR5
Memory speed: 7.0 Gbps
Outputs: 3xDisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 2.0, dual-link DVI

A direct spec comparison between the GTX 970 and older Nvidia hardware isn’t going to show you exactly how fast this card is. Because of improvements in Nvidia’s new Maxwell architecture used in the 980 and 970, the card is nearly as fast as the 780 Ti, which launched at $700. Nvidia has made architectural improvements with Maxwell that make its graphics processing more efficient, especially at higher resolutions like 1440p and 4K.

According to Nvidia, each CUDA core in the 900 series is 40% more efficient, which explains why the 970 can go toe-to-toe with the 780 Ti, which has 2880 CUDA cores to the 970’s 1664. Improved color compression helps performance at high resolutions. And the 970’s performance-per-watt is dramatically better than 700 series cards. While gaming, benchmarks show the GTX 970 drawing less than 200 watts of power, while competitors like the AMD R9 290X and the 780 Ti draw closer to 250 watts.

Let’s look at some actual performance numbers for the GTX 970.

GTX 970 Battlefield4

GTX 970 BioshockInfinite

GTX 970 Heaven

GTX 970 Thermal

The GTX 970 is currently the price/performance champion. It regularly outperforms or matches the R9 290X, an older card that currently costs $100 to $200 more. And there’s more goodness on top of that. 

Nvidia’s GeForce Experience is a fantastic, regularly updated driver suite that includes Shadowplay for recording game footage with minimal performance hit. On Maxwell GPUs, Shadowplay can record 4K 60fps video (although with the 970, capturing at 1080p is more practical). It can stream straight to Twitch. Nvidia’s optimization tool can tweak your game settings automatically, if you don’t like making manual adjustments. Some new APIs and technologies from Nvidia GameWorks, which I wrote about here, are also exclusive to Maxwell.

Testing has brought to light the fact that the GTX 970 encounters performance issues when using all 4GB of its VRAM, due to the card's memory architecture. This problem wasn't obvious in regular usage and the review process because the 970 typically performed extremely well running games at reasonable settings (primarily gaming at 1080p and 1440p). Pushing the card to use all 4GB VRAM, by running games at 4K or with maximum anti-aliasing, can cause some serious framerate spikes. You can read more about these problems here.

There's a reason why the memory issue didn't show up in positive initial reviews of the card like ours: you have to go far out of your way, and run the card at resolutions/settings it's not really capable of handling, to spot any issues with its memory management. If you're still suspicious/confused about the 970's performance, read Digital Foundry's excellent breakdown of the controversy. It's a great, informative read.

The fact remains that the GTX 970's overall performance is fantastic for the price. It's not the card we recommend for 4K gaming or extreme performance. For most gamers, we still think this is the best value available.

If you’re convinced, there’s only one question left: which GTX 970 do you buy? Nvidia ships its cards to companies like ASUS, EVGA and Gigabyte, which install their own coolers on the cards and sometimes overclock them before selling them to consumers. The good news is that all these companies get the same parts, so performance won’t vary wildly from one to another. The bad news is that makes it a bit hard to choose one.

We recommend the MSI GTX 970 Gaming 4G because it's a great card with near-unanimous positive reviews: quiet, very overclockable, and much cheaper than some other 970 options at $340 on Amazon.

We can also recommend the Gigabyte G1 Gaming. These other versions of the GTX 970 should offer similar performance; the more expensive cards are often overclocked out of the box or come with more robust coolers.

The best graphics card for 4K gaming

Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti

AT A GLANCE

  • 6GB of VRAM
  • Can deliver 4K, 60 fps in many games
  • Overclockable, power efficient, and relatively quiet under load
  • Much cheaper than the Titan X
  • You'll need two for guaranteed 60 fps ultra settings
  • 4K is still impractically demanding and expensive for gaming

4K gaming is here. It’s expensive. It’s demanding. It’s not quite practical just yet. But you can do it. And to do it well, you’re going to need a hell of a graphics card. We’ll always advocate the best single-GPU solution for gaming when possible—it eliminates a number of issues and complications that can pop up with SLI and CrossFire setups—and that’s why our new recommendation for the best 4K graphics card is the Nvidia 980 Ti.

Why the 980 Ti? Because at $650, it delivers nearly all of the performance of the $1000 Titan X, but half of the VRAM. The thing is, the Titan X is such a monster, that leaves the 980 Ti with an ample 6GB of GDDR5 memory to play with—more than enough for 4K gaming, even with some seriously big texture files to deal with. And compared to SLI GTX 970s and 980s, the 980 Ti fares well, too.

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Here’s what we wrote in our review: “On average, 970 SLI is only 5-10 percent faster than the 980 Ti, but depending on the game it may be as much as 20 percent faster...or 15 percent slower. For such a small overall gain in performance, we’d take the 980 Ti. The added VRAM will likely prove more beneficial with time, with several newer releases already using more than 4GB VRAM at maximum quality and high resolutions, and it leaves the door open to 980 Ti SLI in the future.”

A pair of 980s will offer better performance, but that will also cost you in the vicinity of $1000, whereas a single GTX 980 Ti is much cheaper and eliminates dual-GPU issues. A pair of 290X cards in CrossFire is a cheaper solution that can deliver 5-20 percent better performance than a single 980 Ti, but two of those cards will draw far more power and be noisier than a single 980 Ti.

There is one new, close competitor for the 4K gaming mantle, and that’s AMD’s R9 Fury X. It’s a powerful card that nearly matches the 980 Ti in performance. The Fury X also makes great strides over AMD’s last-gen cards in noise and power consumption, rivaling Nvidia’s quiet, power efficient cards. But in our testing, the 980 Ti had a couple advantages. It regularly eked out a small 5-10 percent performance advantage over the Fury X. It’s currently far more overclockable, to the tune of 15-20 percent, while the AMD Fury X can’t even hold a 10 percent overclock stable.

And the big one: the 980 Ti has 2GB more memory, which we’re already seeing games start to use at 4K resolution. The Fury X’s 4GB of memory could be a serious limiting factor for high-end games in 2016 and beyond.

That’s why the 980 Ti is overall the best card for 4K gaming. But keep in mind that even a single 980 Ti won’t be able to give you a completely consistent 60 fps framerate at 4K if you have to run everything on Ultra. Tweak a few settings and you’ll be sure to stay over 30 fps in demanding games like GTA 5 and The Witcher 3, and even reach 60 fps in plenty of games that aren’t on the bleeding edge.

The best budget graphics card

AMD Radeon R9 380

AT A GLANCE

  • Extremely cheap
  • Can handle most demanding games from 2014 and earlier at 1080p ultra
  • AMD's drivers and software aren't as good as Nvidia's

Nvidia’s GTX 970 is such a good deal around the $330 range, it’s hard to recommend a budget graphics card in remotely the same price range. Why spend $250 or $300 on a decent mainstream card when you can spend just a bit more on an incredible price/performance value? For an affordable card, we want to drop down to around the $200 mark, and that's where AMD's refreshed R9 380 card wins the day.

The R9 380 is essentially last year's R9 285, with the same GPU, but some tweaks under the hood to power management, increased clock and memory clock speeds to slightly increase performance. More importantly, the R9 380 dropped the R9 285's price down to $200, and you can probably find one even cheaper than that. Our current budget card recommendation is the VisionTek R9 380 at a bargain price of $175, but if you're willing to spend a bit more, the Sapphire R9 380 4GB is a better option. More on that in a sec.

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Radeon R9 380 Specs

Stream processors: 1792
Core clock: 970 MHz
Memory clock: 2GB/4GB GDDR5 at 1375/1425 MHz
Memory bandwidth: 182.4 GB/s
Outputs: DisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 1.4a, 2x dual-link DVI.

The R9 380 isn't quite as cheap as our previous favorite, the R9 270X, but it delivers significantly better gaming performance while coming close to the price. It's capable of delivering over 30 frames per second in Grand Theft Auto 5 at 1080p, 40+ fps in Shadow of Mordor and well over 60 fps in BioShock Infinite, all at ultra settings. Pretty damn good for a $200 card.

The biggest drawback of the R9 380 (and other similarly priced low-end graphics cards) is its 2GB of VRAM. 4GB would be much better for today's demanding games and would help the longevity of the card. There actually is a 4GB variant of the R9 380, but typically price at $240. We would've liked to see the 4GB of VRAM in the $200 model.

Thankfully, Sapphire's R9 380 4GB card saves the day. If you're willing to spend $220, you'll get a card that can dabble with 2560x1440 resolutions (though at lowered settings) and is easily capable of gaming at 1080p. It's definitely still a 1080p card first and foremost, but 4GB of VRAM will give you plenty of memory for games with demanding high resolution textures.

AMD’s drivers and software aren’t as robust or up-to-date as Nvidia’s, but the AMD control center does, at least, make it very easy to overclock their cards. Since the R9 380 is already clocked up over its predecessor, the R9 285, just don't expect to get too much of an overclock out of it.

How we test graphics cards and others we tested

Games are rarely bottlenecked by your CPU, but dozens of games every year will push your graphics card to its limits. It's the component you'll want to upgrade most frequently (though if you buy the right card, it should last you at least two years), and likely the part you'll spend the most money on. On a practical budget, it's critical to find the graphics card with the best ratio of price to performance. That's why our recommendation for the best graphics card is the Nvidia GeForce GTX 970.

At $330 (~£215), Nvidia's GTX 970 is a killer card, outperforming cards released in 2013 that cost $100-$200 more. It's overclockable, quiet, and efficient in its power usage. Most importantly, it's able to run most of 2014's most demanding games at 60 frames per second, 1080p, and ultra settings. It's the best card for the price.

The GTX 970 is the card we'd recommend to most—but not all—PC gamers. Maybe you've got cash to burn, and need a card that can run games at 4K resolution. Or maybe you're trying to build a dirt-cheap gaming PC with an even cheaper graphics card. Our graphics card guide includes three picks for budget, mid-range, and crazy-high-end gaming PCs.

Testing graphics cards

Our graphics card recommendations are based on our own benchmarks and testing, as well as research into the reviews and testing done by other sites. Along with Maximum PC, we have benchmark data for a range of Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, including the GTX 980, Nvidia 700 series, AMD R9 290X, and more.

What makes the best graphics card? For PC gamers, it's a balance of price and performance. The graphics card must be able to run demanding games at high framerates and settings at 1080p, the resolution most gamers still use. It shouldn't cost more than other cards with comparable performance. The card should be fast enough to still perform respectably two years later, even if it can't run everything at max settings.

Graphics performance isn't the only consideration. The quality of game drivers and other software features supported by the card are important. The card's noise level, power draw and temperature matter, too.

Competitors

We decided the Nvidia GTX 970 was the best graphics card for most gamers after benchmarking the newest GTX 970 and 980 and comparing those numbers to other cards we’ve benchmarked, including their closest competitors: the AMD R9 290X, R9295X2, Nvidia GTX 780 and 780 Ti. And those are hardly the only cards we considered. We looked at past testing data, comparing numbers from our own testing, Maximum PC’s benchmarking, and data from Tom’s Hardware, Anandtech, and elsewhere.

AMD’s R9 290X outperforms the GTX 970 at 4K, but it’s $150 to $200 more expensive. Amazingly, the GTX 970 turns in better scores at 1600p despite its much lower price.

AMD’s R9295X and the Titan-Z are definitely more powerful cards, but they’re also incredibly expensive--$1000 and $3000, respectively, for dual-GPU single cards. The 970 is absolutely a more efficent card, and a much better price/performance pick for 1080p or even 1600p gaming.

Nvidia knows the 900 series is a game-changer, which is why they’ve discontinued the GTX 770, 780 and 780 Ti. The new cards deliver better performance at a lower price.

The GTX 980 is the only card we’d currently consider recommending over the 970, but you don’t get nearly as much for the price as you do with the 970.

Future testing

The Nvidia GTX 970 is the best graphics card for gaming for the forseeable future, but this is a fast-changing field. Dramatic price cuts often happen every few months, and Nvidia and AMD are always out to one-up each other. AMD will soon have new cards, or price cuts that make its cards more competitive against the GTX 970. We’ll be updating this guide in the future as new cards are released and the graphics field continues to change.

A note on affiliates: some of our stories, like this one, include affiliate links to stores like Amazon. These online stores share a small amount of revenue with us if you buy something through one of these links, which helps support our work evaluating PC components.

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