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 nearly all of its 10-series parts, starting with the GTX 1080 and GTX 1070, then the GTX 1060 (with a 3GB model as well), and wrapping up with the ultra-budget GTX 1050 and GTX 1050 Ti. There's also the new Titan X (Pascal), and the GTX 1080 Ti. After a no-show at CES, many are wondering when the 1080 Ti will arrive. Some are saying PAX East and others expect it closer to Computex; I'm in the latter camp. 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 similarly revamped its GPU lineup, with the launch of Polaris 10/11 GPUs and the RX 480, RX 470, and 460. More recently, AMD gave us some of the details on the upcoming Vega architecture, and thanks to the Radeon Instinct MI25, we expect about 45 percent better performance than the Fury X. Late 2016, we saw what will likely be the last gasp of the previous generation AMD GPUs, and pricing on all the 300-series and Fury parts has increased substantially in the past month. If you missed the chance, your best bet now is to wait for Vega, or go for Polaris.
With inventory for the Nvidia 10-series and AMD RX parts holding stable, people in most markets can go out and buy the card they want. Here are the cards that rise above the rest.
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.
Nvidia's GTX 1070 is a killer card, outperforming older cards that initially cost twice as much, 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 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 and 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 a graphics card for less than $150 / £150. Our graphics card guide includes options covering the entire market, from ultra-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 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 (4.2GHz 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 recent GTX 1050 Ti review.
The Nvidia GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 are the two best graphics cards, and the RX 470/480 and GTX 1060 3GB/6GB 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, with the RX 470 and GTX 1060 3GB standing out. 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 dropped older cards that now have 'too high' pricing from these charts, which includes most of Nvidia's 900 series and AMD's 300 series.)
Those charts show the rather interesting breakdown of the market right now. Less expensive cards do well, at least to a certain point, usually around the $200 / £200 mark. The 1060 3GB take the top spot, followed by the RX 470 4GB or RX 480 8GB (depending on your market), and the GTX 1060 6GB rounds out the top four. These mainstream cards are then followed by the 1050/1050 Ti and RX 460 4GB, all of which rate above our overall 'best' pick, the GTX 1070.
Not surprisingly, the fastest card in our test suite also delivers one of the worst overall values, with the GTX 1080 sitting near the bottom of both the US and UK charts. (Only the Fury X, with it's price trending up over the past month, does worse.) If you want the GTX 1080, you need to be prepared to pay the piper his due—and a Titan X (Pascal) would look even worse as a value proposition.
Just remember 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.
Wrapping it up
Looking forward, the computer graphics world is a fast-changing field, but Nvidia has effectively played their current hand for Pascal, and AMD's Polaris launch is also complete. We're now waiting for Nvidia's GTX 1080 Ti and AMD's Vega, with the two potentially going head-to-head in the May/June timeframe. Based on Vega's 12.5 TFLOPS rating, it has the potential to overthrow even the Titan X. That would be a nice change of pace, as AMD hasn't claimed the top spot in the graphics world since the R9 290X launch several years back. Both of these cards target ultra-high-end gamers and enthusiasts, however, so they won't have much of an impact on the sub-200 crowd.
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.
Some online stores give us a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Read our affiliate policy for more info.