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.
Earlier this month, Nvidia unveiled their upcoming GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 cards, along with providing release dates: May 27 and June 10, respectively. We've now posted our full review of the GTX 1080, but the cards aren't available at retail yet. As expected, the result has been the start of a freefall in GPU prices, and it's not clear where it will stop.
Deal update 5/23/2016: Some GTX 980 cards are now selling for as little as $370 after rebate, a drop of $40 since last week, and over $100 in just the past month. GTX 970 is at $260 after rebate, GTX 960 2GB starts at $160 after rebate, 960 4GB at $190, and GTX 950 at $130. Extreme cards are affected as well, with GTX 980 Ti now falling to $530 after rebate.
On the AMD side of things, you can grab a R9 390X for $340 after rebate, and it could drop further with Polaris 10 and 11 expected to launch some time in June. The more affordable (and only slightly slower) R9 390 meanwhile has finally dropped below $300, to $290. R9 Nano prices start at $480, $10 lower than a couple of weeks ago, while you can pick up a slightly faster but significantly larger (and more power hungry) R9 Fury starting at $470. The R9 Fury X is in a tough spot now, as the cost of the liquid cooling makes it an expensive card to manufacture; at $610, prices have not fallen enough to keep that card in the running. R9 380X 4GB starts at $220 still, although there is one available for $180 after rebate, while the R9 380 4GB goes for $170 after rebate, about $10 less than last month. Finally, the R9 380 2GB starts at $150, so we highly recommend spending the extra $10 for the added VRAM.
And this is just the beginning. How far will the Maxwell and R9 Fury/300 cards fall in price over the coming weeks is anyone's guess, but it will definitely pay off to check prices before pulling the trigger.
But before you get too excited about the new hotness that is the GTX 1080, consider this. The Founders Edition will cost $699 at launch, which is about 30 percent more than the MSI 980 Ti Gaming 6G LE we'll get to in a moment. In most games right now, it's around 30-40 percent faster, which is great, but if you don't want to spend $700 the 980 Ti is still worth considering. The GTX 980 Ti meanwhile is around 25 percent faster than a GTX 980, and with the new prices it's 43 percent more expensive. GTX 980 is likewise about 25 percent faster than GTX 970, but it costs 37 percent more. The R9 390 splits the difference, closer to the 980 than the 970, with about 15 percent better performance for 7 percent more money. Pricing is highly volatile right now, however, so things are changing on a weekly if not daily basis.
The best graphics card
- Rivals GTX 980 when overclocked
- Cool, quiet and efficient
- 4GB vs. 3.5GB of full speed VRAM
- GTX 1070 coming June 10
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, and despite the memory brouhaha, it's close to the 980 when it comes to performance. Of course it's now slated to be replaced with Pascal in the form of the GTX 1070, but until Pascal arrives, we can only speculate on what will be—not what is. Plus, prices on the GTX 970 have fallen since the GP104 announcement, keeping it in the running for the time being.
At a starting price of $270 (~£248), the GTX 970 offers 4GB of GDDR5 VRAM, 1664 CUDA cores, and a base clock of 1050MHz. 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 1400MHz mark. Also, keep in mind these are the default specs; most cards from EVGA, Gigabyte, MSI, etc. come factory overclocked.
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, 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.
The best AMD graphics card
- Gobs of memory - 8GB VRAM
- Low idle power
- Power hungry under load
- GTX 1070 and Polaris 10 coming soon
At this point, we could easily rate the R9 390 as a better performance card than the GTX 970, because it is. Pricing changes have made it more competitive, but we're still looking at Nvidia's GTX 1070 and AMD's upcoming Polaris 10. If you need a new $300 graphics card today, however, the Radeon R9 390 is a great option and we're effectively tied with the GTX 970.
Amazingly, the R9 390 is based on the existing Hawaii architecture, which debuted back in October, 2013. There are faster cards from both teams now, but the GCN architecture is alive and well, and there are indications DX12 games—when and if they start showing up in quantity—will run significantly better on the 390 compared to the GTX 970; hell, it even beats the GTX 980 in Ashes of the Singularity.
The 390 takes the former R9 290 and doubles the memory and pushes the RAM clocks from 5GHz to 6GHz, with a slight increase in core clocks as well. It's a card that should be capable of mainstream and high-end gaming for several more years.
The best high-end graphics card for 4K
- 6GB of VRAM
- Overclockable, efficient, and quiet
- GTX 1080 coming May 27
- Need SLI for guaranteed 60fps at 4K
If you're looking for more than a GTX 970 or R9 390, chances are you're also running a 4K display—or at least a QHD display that can do more than 60Hz. It's possible to run games at 4K on our primary pick, but many titles will only run smoothly with medium or even low quality settings. If you want to do it properly, you’re going to need a hell of a graphics card. We always advocate getting the best single-GPU solution for gaming when possible, and for most of the past year our recommendation for the best high-end graphics card has been the Nvidia 980 Ti.
Now, however, GTX 1080 is mere days away from shipping, and we can state that performance is a solid 35 percent faster than the GTX 980 Ti on average. Which would be terrible if the GTX 1080 were selling at $600 and the 980 Ti were at $650, but these days the 980 Ti sits at $530 for the MSI cards we're recommending, and Founders Edition GTX 1080 cards will cost $699 (or more) at launch. If you don't want to spend more than about $550, the 980 Ti remains a viable option, at least until the GTX 1070 shows up.
The best budget graphics card
- Affordable gaming
- Handles 1080p high
- 4GB VRAM
- Not great for higher resolutions
The 970 and 390 are awesome graphics cards at around the $300 mark, so it's hard to recommend something slower unless the price is truly remarkable. Basically, the $200-$250 range gets absorbed from either above and below. That means we want a great card for less than $200, and the R9 380 4GB is the perfect card for this spot.
As with the other cards, right now there's a lot going on, with the GTX 1080, GTX 1070, Polaris 10, and Polaris 11 all slate to go on sale within the next month or so. We don't know how the 1070 will perform, and it's in a different price segment, but Polaris 10/11 could very well push much higher performance into the $150-$200 price range in the near future.
If you're worried that buying a budget graphics cards will mean sacrificing image quality, let's be clear: we still want good performance at 1080p, and we’re willing to pay a bit more for that privilege. If you’re okay with medium quality and you don’t want to spend more than $100, we have one final pick below; we’re gunning for high quality 1080p at around 60FPS (and on slightly older titles, 2560x1440 at medium to high quality is often possible).
The R9 380 is an update to last year's R9 285, with a few minor tweaks to clock speeds. Both cards use the Tonga GPU core, with some optimizations to deliver similar performance to the R9 280/280X at a lower price. The one change with the R9 380 is that 4GB cards are more readily available, and we strongly recommend going that route—there are quite a few games where 2GB VRAM will fundamentally limit what is otherwise a strong GPU.
Best ultra-budget gaming graphics card
- ~75W power
- Playable 1080p gaming
- Many models still require 6-pin PEG
- 2GB VRAM may prove limiting
We know where you’re coming from: $600 for a graphics card is fantasy land, $300 is way too much, and even $180 would break the bank. How about something closer to $100? Why yes, we can go that low, though as before, the market is in a state of flux, so things could change substantially in the next month.
We previously recommended the GTX 750 Ti for this segment, which starts at under $100, but many recent games are becoming a bit much for that GPU. The GTX 950 starts at $120, now with models that don't require a PEG connector, and we feel the added cost is worth it, considering the performance difference. And you still get 768 CUDA cores and 2GB GDDR5 VRAM.
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 our recommendation for the best graphics card remains the Nvidia GeForce GTX 970.
At $290 (~£203), Nvidia's GTX 970 is a killer card, outperforming older cards that initially cost twice as much. It's overclockable, quiet, and efficient; more importantly, it's able to run most recent games at 60 frames per second, 1080p, and usually 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 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 can't with an even cheaper graphics card. Our graphics card guide includes six picks covering the entire market, from ultra-budget to budget, and 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 900 series, Nvidia 700 series, AMD R9 300 series, and the R9 Fury/Nano cards.
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 software 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 generally has an advantage in both power and temperature levels.
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, Batman: Arkham Origins, The Division, Doom (2016), Fallout 4, Far Cry Primal, GTAV, Hitman (2016), 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:
We've currently selected the Nvidia GTX 970 and R9 390 as the best graphics card for most gamers after benchmarking all of the latest GPUs and comparing the numbers—including power requirements, noise, and performance. However, look at the top of the chart and you can see what the future holds.
The computer graphics world is a fast-changing field, and with benchmarks now in hand for the GTX 1080, things are about to get interesting. As these guides are primarily for people buying new hardware, we won't always be able to include data from previous generations, but right now we have all of the R9 390, R9 Fury/Nano, and GTX 900 series covered. We'll be updating things again as soon as we know actual retail pricing for the GTX 1080, not to mention once we have GTX 1070 and AMD's Polaris 10/11 GPUs in for testing.
GTX 1070 is due early next month, and based on our experience with the 1080, it looks like Titan X levels of performance at $380-$450 will be here soon. AMD has previously stated Polaris will launch around June as well. But if you already own an R9 390 or GTX 970, they remain great cards, and there's no need to upgrade right now; those with previous generation R9 200 or GTX 700 hardware on the other hand will want to consider an upgrade, while HD 7000 and GTX 600 and earlier are overdue. After five years stuck at 28nm manufacturing, the GPU companies are finally getting the long-awaited process shrink. Stay tuned, as June and July will radically alter the graphics landscape.
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