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. 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 nearly all of their 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 will be coming next year, likely in January at CES.
AMD has similarly revamped their GPU lineup, with the launch of Polaris 10/11 GPUs and the RX 480, RX 470, and 460. More recently, AMD previewed their upcoming Vega architecture, courtesy of the Radeon Instinct machine learning accelerators. AMD has also cut pricing on some of their older GPUs, with the R9 Fury X going for a practical song at less than half its launch price (in some regions at least).
With inventory finally stabilized, people in most markets can go out and buy the card they want. The previous generation of cards is mostly on the way out (R9 390 and Fury X being the only real exceptions), and other than the pending 1080 Ti and AMD Vega, here are the cards that rise above the rest.
The best graphics card
- Excellent performance for the price
- New features like SMP
- Second fastest GPU
- Still relatively expensive
The best graphics card isn't normally the fastest graphics card. That honor goes to the new Titan X, which outperforms the GTX 1080 by about 20-25 percent—and all for 'only' twice the cost! Similarly, the best card isn't the least expensive option, because while there are cards (like the RX 470 and GTX 1060) 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.
If there was any question about which card would claim the top spot, general availability for the GTX 1070 at prices sometimes falling below Nvidia's official MSRP has sealed the deal. 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 GTX 1070 is the card to beat, and AMD's best remains the R9 Fury X, which couldn't surpass last generation's GTX 980 Ti. AMD's RX 480 is interesting as a $200-$240/£170-£200 card, but performance is a sizeable step down from the 1070, and it's often slower than AMD's own R9 390 (though at a lower power draw). Until AMD launches Vega, which is currently slated for the 'first half' of 2017 (probably June), Nvidia can lay claim to the top three high performance GPUs. The 1070 is the most affordable of the three, giving it our pick for the best graphics card.
The best high-end graphics card
- Fastest current GPU (not counting Titan X)
- Excellent efficiency
- Great new features
- Really expensive
If you want the fastest graphics card on the planet, it's a no-brainer: the GeForce GTX 1080 wins, hands down. Okay, sure, the $1200 Titan X beats it, but that's twice the price for 20-30 percent more performance. In our testing, the GTX 1080 is over 30 percent faster than the previous 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 $600 / £590.
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 980 Ti.
The best graphics card value
- Great price and performance
- Fast for 1080p Ultra / 1440p High
- Good efficiency and reasonable size
- Not as power efficient as the competition
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, and stepping down one more notch, RX 470 or GTX 1060 3GB? Frankly, all of those options are viable, but if you want the best bang for the buck, one card rises to the top.
The RX 470 doesn't blow our socks off with performance, but what it does bring to the table is lower power from the AMD camp, with slightly lower performance than the RX 480 and R9 390 at a price now well south of $200 / £200. It took a few extra months for it to get where we wanted, but now the RX 470 has carved out a niche for itself.
The best ultra-budget graphics card
- 'Sweet spot' on price
- Good for 1080p medium/high
- No power adapter required
- Struggles with some newer games
With their launch of the GTX 1050 Ti and the GTX 1050, Nvidia has finished their top-to-bottom rollout of their 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 instead of TSMC for manufacturing the chip, but it doesn't appear to have much impact on performance.
Of the two new cards, I prefer the 1050 Ti, simply because it comes with 4GB GDDR5. The vanilla GTX 1050 only has 2GB VRAM, which is starting to feel a bit too 2014 for my taste. The 1050 takes on AMD's RX 460 cards, with slightly higher pricing for the amount of VRAM, but performance is also higher so it equals out.
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.
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. The games and APIs are: Ashes of the Singularity (mostly DX12), Battlefield 1 (DX11), Civilization 6 (DX11/DX12), Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (DX11/DX12), The Division (DX11/DX12), Doom (OpenGL/Vulkan), Fallout 4 (DX11), Far Cry Primal (DX11), GTA5 (DX11), Hitman (DX12), Rise of the Tomb Raider (DX11), Shadow Warrior 2 (DX11), Total War: Warhammer (DX11/DX12), and The Witcher 3 (DX11).
Here's how they 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 often do well, at least to a certain point, usually around the $200 / £200 mark. The RX 470 and 1060 3GB take the top two spots, swapping places depending on whether you're in the UK or US. Other value-oriented cards fill up the middle section, including a few older cards that are still hanging around, before we get to the high performance parts like 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 at the bottom of both the US and UK charts. If you want the best (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.
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 should see at least one new card in early 2017, though—Nvidia's GTX 1080 Ti. AMD's Vega is further out, but based on the 25 TFLOPS (FP16) rating of the Radeon Instinct MI25, when it launches it might actually beat 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, now is a great time to buy, with the new models typically beating the previous generation by 30-60 percent in performance and efficiency. 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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