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The best graphics card

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

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 lighting surfaces while rendering millions of polygons. Simply put, the graphics card is the most vital component of your gaming PC. We've sifted through the current options and picked out the ones 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.

Nvidia has now launched all of its 10-series parts, from the pixel smashing GTX 1080 Ti, to the now-reduced-price GTX 1080, along with the GTX 1070, GTX 1060 (with a 3GB model as well), and wrapping up with the budget-friendly GTX 1050 Ti and GTX 1050. There's also the new 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). As for the earlier Nvidia GPUs, all the 900-series parts show significant price increases since 2016 and are no longer worth buying (though you don't need to upgrade if you're still using one).

- Check out this week's best graphics card deals

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, all AMD GPUs above the RX 560 remain difficult to find at anything close to MSRP, and while RX Vega 64 performance is good, it's not better than the year-old GTX 1080, and it does use significantly more power. There's also a question of pricing and supply, with prices well above the standalone launch price target.

Cryptocurrency fever continues to be a concern for gamers, with Bitcoin and Ethereum prices shooting up over the past few months. The result is that pricing and availability of AMD's Polaris and Vega GPUs are horrible, and Nvidia GPUs are at inflated prices as well. I won't dig into the mining aspects too much, but the result is that finding a good mainstream priced GPU right now is very difficult. And if it's anything like late 2013, it may be a while before that changes. I've altered a couple of picks due to the pricing on other cards, and will continue to monitor the situation. In the meantime, here are the best graphics cards for gaming.

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The best graphics card

  • Excellent performance
  • Second fastest GPU
  • Actually available at MSRP
  • Still expensive
  • DX12 performance sometimes lacking

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, but cryptocurrency miners have caused a shortage of the cards, resulting in prices that are nearly the same as the GTX 1080. If you're looking for a fast graphics card for gaming, right now the GTX 1080 is a much better buy. In short, the 1080 delivers excellent performance, and with the price reduction after the 1080 Ti launch it's now within reach of many gamers. It's also faster than anything AMD currently offers while using significantly less power, and RX Vega 64 fails to shake things up in any meaningful way.

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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

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 5 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 320GB/s of actual memory bandwidth in practice works like 384GB/s, and the tiled rendering yields around 480GB/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 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
  • Mining fever shortages

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 basically out of stock at most places. Even if you do find one in stock, prices are insane right now (though showing a few signs of returning to normal). The RX 570 4GB is supposed to be a $180 graphics card, but it current carries about a $100 price premium. 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 can wait for prices to drop back to 'normal' we'd suggest holding out for a card with more VRAM. The GTX 1060 6GB costs about $40 more and is around 10 percent faster.

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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 that's a no-man's-land right now thanks to crypto mining.

For raw performance, Nvidia's GTX 1080 is a killer card, easily outperforming all older cards, and prices have only gone down since the launch. 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 1080 is the best graphics card for the demanding gamer in all of us.

While the GTX 1080 is the card we'd recommend to most—but not all—PC gamers, that's primarily due to scarcity and pricing on the mainstream offerings. The GTX 1070 only costs about 10 percent less right now, but it's over 20 percent slower. Meanwhile the GTX 1060 6GB is a bit too slow in some games, particularly if you have a 1440p display. But if you can wait, the 1070 should return to its $350 MSRP in the coming months and reclaim our primary recommendation.

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 midrange GPUs is messed up thanks to Bitcoin/Ethereum/cryptocurrency. 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.

For those who can't afford to spend that much money, the bottom of the chart still holds some compelling options, but right now it's difficult to recommend most midrange cards. Here's a different look at all of the cards we tested, this time rating them in terms of value—FPS for money spent. (Note: I've included 'used' pricing on the older cards, like Nvidia's 900 series and AMD's 300 series. You'll have to decide if buying used is even worth the risk, something I generally discourage.)

You can see quite clearly the problem with prices on mainstream hardware right now. Other than budget cards like the GTX 1050/1050 Ti and RX 460 (and RX 560 if I were to test it), a lot of cards deliver less value for the money compared to a few months ago, and even used cards that are several years old are near the top of the charts. AMD GPUs remain in a bad state as far as supply/demand goes. The good news is that things are improving, and prices on RX 570/580 are much better now than last month. Another month or so and things might be back to 'normal.'

The newcomer RX Vega cards obviously don't do so well, typical of high-end, high-price hardware. The GTX 1070/1080/1080 Ti are simply better values right now, not even factoring 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, though rumors of potentially higher mining performance may be impacting things here as well.

Note that while value is important, the above charts show a skewed view of things. FPS per dollar/pound sounds like a reasonable measurement, but you also need to consider your current hardware, and how much performance you really want. If you're looking to game on a 1440p display, the excellent 'value' of a GTX 1060 3GB doesn't matter much when it typically falls well short of 60 fps. And if you're already using something like a GTX 970 or R9 390, the prospect of upgrading to a GTX 1080 or RX Vega 64 starts looking even more questionable.

Wrapping it up

Looking forward, the computer graphics world is a fast-changing field. AMD's first RX Vega cards are here, but pricing and power requirements are not in their favor. Over the next couple of months, the RX Vega 56 may be able to steal some thunder from the GTX 1070 at the $400 price point, assuming AMD can meet the demand for standalone cards. Based on the way things are going with Vega 64 and the RX 570/580, I suspect Vega 56 will trend closer to $500 initially, but we'll see.

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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