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The best graphics card

Vega enters the fray, not with a bang but a whimper.

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, and the best graphics card is the GTX 1070. But that's not the only card worth considering, and the upcoming GTX 1070 Ti is likely to replace it as the must-have card for gaming.

The graphics card consists of dedicated video memory and a graphics processing unit (GPU) that handles all sorts of calculations, like mapping textures and lighting surfaces while rendering millions of polygons. Simply put, finding the best graphics card for your budget will have the most impact on your PC's gaming experience. We've sifted through the current options and picked out the best graphics cards that are worthy of going in your next PC, whether it's a savvy middle-of-the-road build, a budget rig, or a 4K monster.

- Check out this week's best graphics card deals

Nvidia has everything from the pixel smashing GTX 1080 Ti, to the GTX 1080, and flowing down to the GTX 1070, GTX 1060, GTX 1050 Ti, and GTX 1050. There's also the Titan Xp, which replaces the Titan X (Pascal) as the absolute fastest card (but it's not even remotely worth the small price increase over the 1080 Ti). The GTX 1070 Ti is also rumored to be coming out soon, which will either cause price drop on the 1070, or it may replace that card in the market.

AMD has revamped its GPU lineup as well, replacing the 400-series cards with new 500-series parts. All of the 400-series and 500-series use AMD's Polaris architecture, and more recently, AMD launched the RX Vega 64 and RX Vega 56. Unfortunately, AMD GPUs above the RX 560 continue to suffer from higher than expected prices, and power and efficiency remain serious concerns. The RX Vega 64 performance is good, but it's not better than the year-old GTX 1080.

Previous generation graphics cards are mostly no longer manufactured, though you can find used/refurbished models. What's important to remember is that you don't need to upgrade your graphics card unless you're unhappy with its performance.

Cryptocurrency mining for coins like Bitcoin and Ethereum continues to cause difficulties for gamers. We wouldn't recommend chasing mining rewards, as the net proceeds have dropped quite a bit, but others clearly have more faith in blockchain technologies. AMD's Polaris (RX 570/580) and Vega (RX Vega 56/64) GPUs are priced up to 30 percent higher than the official launch prices, and mainstream Nvidia GPUs (GTX 1060/1070) are still a bit higher than we'd like. But looking at the current market, here are the best graphics cards for gaming.

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The best graphics card

  • Excellent performance
  • Great for 1080p and 1440p gaming
  • Highly efficient architecture
  • May be too expensive for some
  • DX12 performance sometimes lacking
  • GTX 1070 Ti coming soom

The best graphics card isn't normally the fastest graphics card. That honor goes to the new Titan Xp, or at least the GTX 1080 Ti. Similarly, the best card isn't the least expensive option, because while there are cards (like the RX 560 and GTX 1050) that deliver great value, performance is still a factor. The best graphics card is the one that can strike a balance between high performance and a reasonable price.

Nvidia's GTX 1070 has been our top pick since it launched, and with cryptocurrency mining no longer causing quite as many problems, it returns to its rightful place. Unless you're looking for 4k gaming performance, the GTX 1070 can struggle, but for 1080p and 1440p it remains the overall champion. It also manages to do all this while only significantly less power than AMD's competing Vega 56—150W versus 210W, but the Vega 56 can in some cases use a lot more than 210W.

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The best high-end graphics card

  • Fastest current GPU (not counting Titan Xp)
  • Excellent efficiency
  • Great new features
  • Costs as much as a complete budget PC
  • No fancy HBM2, and it's not Volta
  • Do we even need to mention the price?

If you want the fastest graphics card on the planet, it's a no-brainer: the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti wins, hands down. Okay, sure, the $1200 Titan Xp beats it, but that's nearly twice the price for five percent more performance. In our testing, the GTX 1080 Ti is over 30 percent faster than the GTX 1080, and more than twice as fast as the GTX 970 ... at least if you're running resolutions and settings that need this level of performance. Also good news is that 1080 Ti cards tend to be too costly to attract the attention of cryptocurrency miners, so cards are still available at MSRP.

Combined with the architectural improvements of Pascal, long-term we could see even greater improvements in performance compared to Maxwell. Pascal has better delta color compression, resulting in higher effective memory bandwidth by about 20 percent (according to Nvidia). Nvidia also revealed a tiling rendering optimization that enables better use of bandwidth, giving the Pascal cards an additional 25 percent or more memory bandwidth. GDDR5X clocked at 10 GT/s means the 484GB/s of actual memory bandwidth in practice works like 580 GB/s, and the tiled rendering yields around 726GB/s (under the right workloads). Graphics preemption can be used to improve load balancing and time-sensitive work (eg, asynchronous time warp in VR), and Simultaneous multi-projection (doing up to 16 projections in a single pass) means in VR workloads the GTX 1080 Ti could actually end up being over twice as fast as the 980 Ti.

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The best midrange graphics card

  • Great price and good performance
  • Suitable for 1080p
  • Efficient and quiet
  • Only 3GB VRAM

Nowhere has the pain of mining fever been more pronounced than in the midrange graphics card segment. Our previous pick, the RX 470 and its replacement RX 570, are priced too high to really recommend. The RX 570 4GB is supposed to be a $180 graphics card, but it currently sells for $230 and more. Ugh.

What are we to do? We tried to balance performance and pricing while staying close to $200. The best solution for now is the GTX 1060 3GB, but it's definitely a compromise, and if you're willing to spend $250 the GTX 1060 6GB is arguably a better long-term option. It costs about $50 more and is around 10 percent faster, with performance basically matching the previous generation GTX 980.

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The best ultra-budget graphics card

  • Extremely affordable
  • Good for 1080p medium/high
  • No power adapter required
  • Struggles with some newer games
  • Only 2GB VRAM

With the launch of the GTX 1050 Ti and the GTX 1050, Nvidia has finished its top-to-bottom rollout of GTX 10-series products. All of the cards use the new Pascal architecture, varying mostly in core counts, amount of VRAM, and clock speeds. The GP107 used for the 1050 cards does mix things up slightly, using Samsung 14nm instead of TSMC 16nm for manufacturing the chip, but it doesn't appear to have much impact on performance.

While I prefer the performance of the 1050 Ti, and also like the fact that it comes with 4GB GDDR5, it's hard to argue with the price of the vanilla GTX 1050. Available for $100-$110, it may only have 2GB VRAM, but it's not intended to run ultra quality settings, and for budget gamers it's still a capable card. Perhaps more importantly for some users, it doesn't require a separate power connector, which is why I didn't go with AMD's RX 560. If you're not worried about the power requirement, the RX 560 4GB costs about $20 more and is generally a superior solution.

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How we test graphics cards and performance

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). For gaming systems, it's also likely the most expensive part in your build. On a practical budget, it's critical to find the graphics card with the best ratio of price to performance. That's why we've previously looked at cards in the $300/£250 range, though in 2017 the best values are either above or below that mark.

For raw performance, Nvidia's GTX 1070 is a killer card, easily outperforming all older cards. It's overclockable, quiet, and efficient; more importantly, it's able to run every game we've tested at more than 60 frames per second at 1080p Ultra, and most games break 60 fps at 1440p Ultra. You can argue about price and whether or not you really need Ultra quality settings, but right now, the GTX 1070 is the best graphics card for gaming.

While the GTX 1070 is the card we'd recommend to most—but not all—PC gamers, it's not the only option worth considering. The GTX 1080 and GTX 1080 Ti are 20-50 percent faster, albeit at substantially higher prices. Meanwhile the GTX 1060 3GB is a bit too slow in some games, particularly if you have a 1440p display, but it's only $200. If you can wait, the GTX 1070 Ti is rumored to be coming later this month, which might push the GTX 1070 down to $350.

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 the complete range of Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, including the GTX 1000/900 series and AMD RX 400/R9 300 and R9 Fury/Nano cards. We've previously looked at earlier cards like the R9 200 and GTX 700, though we've stopped testing those with newer releases. Basically, subtract about 10 points from the model number for each generation, so GTX 770 is roughly equal to a GTX 960, or the still older GTX 680. (No, that's not a perfect estimate, but it's at least relatively close; some models do better than others.)

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, with 1920x1080 being the most common resolution. However, we also test at 2560x1440 and 4K, which are becoming increasingly popular choices, particularly at the high-end. The best graphics card shouldn't cost more than other cards with comparable performance, and 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 features supported by the card are important. The card's noise level, power draw, and temperature matter, too. Thankfully, nearly all of the cards run fairly quiet, even under load, and temperatures are within the acceptable range as well—though Nvidia still has an advantage when it comes to power.

From a high level, we tested each card on a high-end PC (4.5GHz overclocked i7-5930K), at 1080p medium, 1080p ultra, 1440p ultra, and 4K with ultra/high settings (depending on the game). We include results from fifteen games, mostly newer releases, using the 'best' API for each GPU on each game. That means low-level APIs are mostly used for AMD cards, while DX12/Vulkan are only used in certain games for Nvidia cards.

Here's how the cards stack up in terms of average and minimum frame rates across these games. You can see individual game charts including most of these GPUs in our RX Vega 64 and Vega 56 preview.

The Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti and GTX 1080 are the two fastest graphics cards, followed by the Vega 64, GTX 1070, and Vega 56. The RX 570/580 and GTX 1060 3GB/6GB deliver good performance as well, though the current value proposition for some midrange GPUs is questionable thanks to cryptocurrency mining. I've included some previous generation cards here as well, so you can see where things like the GTX 980 Ti/980/970 and R9 Fury X/390/380 slot into the current GPU landscape.

AMD's RX Vega cards bring some needed competition to the high-end, high-price market. Unfortunately, the GTX 1070/1080/1080 Ti are simply better values right now, particularly if you factor in the higher power requirements of Vega. AMD really needs to get the lower priced standalone Vega cards on shelves if they're to compete.

Wrapping it up

Looking forward, the computer graphics world is a fast-changing field. There have been more than fifteen new GPU models to market, and at least one more remains. AMD's RX Vega cards are currently lacking in the price and performance areas, but that could change with new drivers and better supply. If that happens, the RX Vega 56 may steal some thunder from the GTX 1070 at the $400 price point, which is likely why Nvidia is creating a GTX 1070 Ti.

If you find your current system isn't keeping up with the gaming times, look at the performance charts and decide how far up the ladder you're looking to climb, then buy accordingly. Those who already own an R9 300 or GTX 900 series card should be safe for the time being, and while games continue to push for new levels of performance, tuning a few settings should keep most graphics cards viable for at least a few years.

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