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 (GPU) that handles all sorts of calculations, like mapping textures and rendering millions of polygons. Simply put, the graphics card is 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.
Nvidia has now launched their GTX 1080, GTX 1070, and GTX 1060; AMD followed suit with their launch of Polaris 10 and the RX 480, and the RX 470 and 460 are due out in August. All of these cards are theoretically available at retail...except many keep going out of stock due to the high demand and insufficient supply. Things will settle down over the coming weeks, and at some point we'll actually see the cards selling at or below MSRP. Hopefully that happens sooner rather than later, and the custom cards will in general be desirable over the Founders Edition and reference models, since they typically include better cooling and/or lower prices.
With all the next generation cards arriving, the result has been a freefall in GPU prices. GTX 980 Ti can now be found for as little as $403/£395 AR (after mail-in rebate), around $200/£150 lower than in April, and other cards are showing similar drops. However, AMD and Nvidia appear to be ceasing production on many of their 28nm GPUs, which means inventory of previous generation parts is likely to dry up. Short-term, we expect to see some decent sales to clear out inventory, after which prices may start to creep back up on the older parts (assuming you can find them). Whatever card you're looking at, it will definitely pay off to check prices before pulling the trigger.
Update 7/28/2016: In light of pricing and availability, we've modified our picks slightly. Simply put, until the RX 480 is available at close to AMD's recommended pricing of $200-$240, it's a hard card to recommend; the GTX 1060 seems to be doing slightly better, with a few cards showing up at Newegg for under $300, but we're still hoping to see more $250 models.
The best graphics card
- Excellent performance for the price
- New features like SMP
- Second fastest GPU
- Availability and Founders Edition pricing
If there was any question about which card would claim the top spot, general availability at a price of $420-$450 for the GTX 1070 has sealed the deal. AMD's RX 480 is interesting as a $200-$240/£170-£200 card, but it's actually a slight step back in performance from the R9 390 in many games. The GTX 1070 meanwhile is the card to beat. As we show in our full review, the 1070 manages to match or exceed the GTX Titan X and GTX 980 Ti in every game at every setting we tested…and it does so at a much lower price point while using significantly less power.
The performance boost is thanks mostly to the move from 28nm planar transistors to TSMC's current 16nm FinFET transistors, which shrinks the GPU size, reduces power leakage, and allows for higher clocks. Where the base clock of 980 Ti and Titan X is 1000MHz (stock), the 1070 runs at 1506MHz. Even with fewer CUDA cores—1920 on the 1070 vs. 2816 on the 980 Ti and 3072 on the Titan X—the added clock speed and architectural enhancements keep the 1070 in the lead.
The best high-end graphics card
- Fastest current GPU
- Excellent efficiency
- Great new features
- Price and availability
If you want the fastest graphics card on the planet, it's a no-brainer: the GeForce GTX 1080 wins, hands down. At least until the $1200 Titan X launches on August 2, but that's twice the price for maybe 30 percent more performance. In our testing, the GTX 1080 is over 30 percent faster than the GTX Titan X and GTX 980 Ti, and it uses almost 30 percent less power. Again, that's all thanks to the move from 28nm transistors to 16nm FinFET, allowing Nvidia to cram more parts into a smaller area, with less power leakage thanks to FinFET. Even better: we're finally seeing GTX 1080 cards in stock at prices below $650.
Now toss in the architectural improvements of Pascal, and 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). GDDR5X clocked at 10 GT/s means the 320GB/s of actual memory bandwidth in practice works as well as the Titan X's 384GB/s. Graphics preemption can be used to improve load balancing and time-sensitive work (e.g., 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 could actually end up being twice as fast as the Titan X.
The best graphics card value
- Great price and performance
- Fast for 1080p Ultra / 1440p High
- Good efficiency and reasonable size
- 6-pin connector on reference model cards
Gone is the extended debate/flame war between AMD and Nvidia fans, trying to determine whether the GTX 970 or the R9 390 represented the better value. In its place we have a new argument: RX 480 or GTX 1060? Frankly, it's a bit of a tossup, so we're including them both, starting with AMD's RX 480.
The RX 480 doesn't blow our socks off with performance, but what it does bring to the table is lower power from the AMD camp, and performance just shy of the R9 390 for about $50-$100 less. We suspected as much when AMD revealed the initial specs, and our testing has cemented this card as a great value. Even with R9 390 now selling at its lowest price ever, we wouldn't recommend picking up a last-gen Hawaii card—or Nvidia's GTX 970 for that matter, at least not unless prices drop a lot lower.
Another great value
- Good performance and excellent efficiency
- You can actually find them in stock (usually)
- Lackluster DX12/Vulkan performance
Nvidia's answer to the RX 480 came swiftly. By moving to a smaller GP106 GPU, Nvidia was able to shrink the chip size, cost, and power requirements relative to the GTX 1070 and 1080. The result is a graphics card that generally outperforms the RX 480, at a theoretically slightly higher price. Or at least, it does in DX11 games; DX12 and Vulkan games to date have favored AMD hardware.
The 1060 is effectively a repeat of everything we've said about the 1080 and 1070, only with a slightly smaller card and at a lower price point. There's still a Founders Edition (pictured below) at a higher MSRP, and custom designs from AIB partners are already available. That's the one difference: the GTX 1060 supply hasn't been quite as constrained as the GP104 cards, or perhaps demand for the 1060 isn't quite as high.
The best budget graphics card
- 'Sweet spot' on price
- Good for 1080p High/Ultra
- RX 470 coming soon
- Uses more power than the competition
The RX 480 has arrived, but we're still waiting on the RX 470. The other graphics cards we've selected deliver exceptional performance, or in the case of the RX 480 GTX 1060, great performance at a great price, but some people don't have $200-$250 to spend on a graphics card. The RX 470 seems destined to take over the $150 price point when it launches, but if you can't wait, there are some good values in AMD's and Nvidia's previous generation hardware.
The Radeon R9 380 continues to be our budget pick, delivering better performance than Nvidia's GTX 950 and 960. We considered going with the the GTX 950, since that card can be found for as little as $120/£105, but ultimately the better performance on the 380 won out. Plus, you can see our performance for value charts below; the GTX 950 is a close second, but the R9 380 comes out one top in both performance as well as value metrics.
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 we've stretched that with the GTX 1070 this round.
At $400-$450/£380-£400), Nvidia's GTX 1070 is a killer card, outperforming older cards that initially cost twice as much, and prices will only go down from here. 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 of the games are still breaking 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, there are many viable alternatives. Maybe you don't care for Nvidia or their overwhelming market share, or maybe you've got cash to burn, and need a card that can run games at 4K resolution. Perhaps you're trying to build a dirt-cheap gaming PC and you need an even cheaper graphics card. Our graphics card guide includes options covering the entire market, from budget to mainstream to 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 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 for our charts. 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 for now.
From a high level, we tested each card on a high-end PC (4.2GHz overclocked i7-5930K), at 1080p, 1440p, and 4K with Ultra settings at the lower resolutions and Ultra or High at 4K. We included results from fifteen games, some newer and some slightly older: Ashes of the Singularity (DX12), Batman: Arkham Origins, The Division, Doom (2016), Fallout 4, Far Cry Primal, GTAV, Hitman (DX12), Hitman: Absolution, Metro: Last Light, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Rise of the Tomb Raider, The Talos Principle, Tomb Raider 2013, and The Witcher 3. Here's how they stack up in terms of average and minimum frame rates across these games:
The Nvidia GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 are the two best graphics card, and the RX 480 and GTX 1060 deliver impressive value even if they can't compete in raw fps. For those who can't afford to spend that much money, the middle and bottom of the chart still hold a lot of compelling options, and it's only going to get better as new parts arrive. Here's a different look at all of the cards we tested, this time rating them in terms of value—FPS for money spent. (Prices were the best online values we could find on 7/28/2016.)
Those charts show the rather interesting breakdown of the market right now. AMD is competing on value if not performance, and their existing R9 380/390 cards pack a serious punch. The GTX 950 breaks into the top three for the US market, but you have to sacrifice some performance to get there. For the UK, however, price volatility on the new parts ends up pushing the 1060 and 970 into a tie for third. Meanwhile, if you want the best (GTX 1080), you need to be prepared to pay the piper his due. Note that the prices used for these charts reflect current street prices, and we used the best realistic prices we could find at the time of writing; things fluctuate on a weekly and even daily basis.
Looking forward, the computer graphics world is a fast-changing field, and with the 16nm and 14nm FinFET process now coming online for GPUs, things are going to be very interesting. Nvidia has aimed squarely at high-end gamers and enthusiasts with the GTX 1080/1070/1060, while AMD is gunning for the mainstream market with their RX 480 targeting a starting price of just $199 (not that it's there right now), and RX 470/460 should be here 'soon.'
While we love getting new hardware in for testing and review, the days of revolutionary upgrades mostly seem to be in the past. Even with the move from 28nm to 14/16nm FinFET, we're still not doubling performance, at least not at the same price point. If you find your current system isn't keeping up with the gaming times, however, 30-60 percent better performance will certainly help. Those who already own an R9 300 or GTX 900 series card should be safe for the time being, while R9 200 and GTX 700 series owners may be feeling the upgrade itch. Anything older than that and the latest generation hardware can easily double performance—or more. After five years stuck at 28nm manufacturing, the GPU companies have finally received their long-awaited process shrink. Thank goodness.
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.