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.
Update 4/18/2016: Little has changed since late 2015 in terms of hardware, and we are waiting for new GPUs from Nvidia and AMD. Indications are both companies plan to launch new products around June, but there are always future products in the works.
For most users, our recommendation is to wait until Polaris and Pascal arrive, but for those who can't wait, we've updated product links to select better priced cards.
The best graphics card
- Rivals GTX 980 performance when overclocked
- Incredibly cool, quiet and power efficient
- Nvidia drivers and software are regularly updated
- 4GB vs. 3.5GB of full speed VRAM
- GP104 "coming soon"
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, but until Pascal arrives, we can only speculate on what will be—not what is. And right now, this is the best gaming card.
At a starting price of $290 (~£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.
The best AMD graphics card
- Gobs of memory - 8GB VRAM
- Runs quiet in most systems
- Low idle power
- Power hungry under load
- Less overclocking headroom
- Requires more space
- No HDMI 2.0
We understand there are some users who prefer to use something other than an Nvidia card. While the GTX 970 gets our primary recommendation, this particular spot is as close to a tie as we're likely to see. From Team Red, aka AMD, the Radeon R9 390 is a beastly card that usually beats the GTX 970 in performance…but it requires more power and a larger card to get there, plus about $30 extra. Hence, the virtual tie.
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
- Can deliver 4K at 60 fps in many games
- Overclockable, power efficient, and relatively quiet
- Much cheaper than the Titan X
- Still need two for guaranteed 60+ fps 4K ultra
- 4K gaming is impractically demanding and expensive
- GP104-400 rumored for June
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 that’s why our recommendation for the best high-end graphics card is the Nvidia 980 Ti.
Wait, what about the GTX Titan X—isn't it a faster card? You would think so, and in some cases it is, but throughout a large suite of gaming benchmarks, we've never seen more than a three percent difference between the 980 Ti and the Titan X. Half the VRAM doesn't really matter when few games use more than 4GB, let along 6GB, and both GPUs end up hitting power and bandwidth limits at around the same point.
If you want to game at 4K with a single GPU, the 980 Ti saves you money and provides nearly identical performance. That makes it the better graphics card for almost any sane person, and it still has an impressive 6GB GDDR5 with a 384-bit memory interface.
The best budget graphics card
- Affordable gaming
- Handles 1080p high
- Not too power hungry
- 4GB VRAM
- Not great for higher resolutions
- Not as efficient as Maxwell
- Polaris is coming
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.
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).
Best ultra-budget gaming graphics card
- Sub-75W power
- No PEG power connection
- Playable 1080p medium gaming
- Newer titles may be choppy
- Some models still require 6-pin PEG
- Older Maxwell 1.0 architecture
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. To be clear, there’s compromise involved. You’re not going to be gunning for 1080p at high quality at this price point, but 1080p at medium quality should be doable in most games, or you can dig into your backlog of games and play titles from a few years ago at higher quality settings.
There’s some good news, however, like the fact that the Zotac GTX 750 Ti we’ve selected doesn’t require any form of external power. If you have a PCIe x16 slot on your system, you should be able to plop in the 750 Ti and start gaming. The card pulls all of its whopping sub-75W power over the PCIe slot, which means cooling isn’t much of a problem either.
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 eight games, some newer and some slightly older: Batman: Arkham Origins, Fallout 4, GTAV, Hitman: Absolution, Metro: Last Light, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Rise of the Tomb Raider, 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 selected the Nvidia GTX 970 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. With the next generation of GPUs slated to launch around June, we've eliminated older cards from our list—only the GTX 750 Ti is left, and solely as an ultra-budget option.
The computer graphics world is a fast-changing field, and we've already had a preview of what Nvidia's next-generation Pascal architecture will offer at the 2016 GPU Technology Conference, and AMD has previously stated Polaris will launch around June as well. Given the pending release of consumer Pascal cards, we expect prices on existing cards to continue to slide, particularly at the top—the GTX 980 Ti used to be a solid $650, for example. We could see some dramatic price cuts once new hardware shows up, as Nvidia and AMD are always out to one-up each other.
But until Pascal and Polaris arrive, we can only speculate on how they'll perform. If you didn't jump on the GTX 970 or Hawaii bandwagon already, there's little need to rush into it now. The R9 390 and GTX 970 are great cards, but after five years stuck at 28nm manufacturing, the GPU companies are finally getting the long-awaited process shrink. Stay tuned, as June and July could radically alter the graphics landscape.
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