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The best graphics card - January 2018

Cryptocurrency mining has caused massive shortages on nearly all GPUs.

Every gaming PC needs a good graphics card, because no matter the other components, it's the real workhorse. You can have the fastest CPU, storage, and memory around and still end up with a lame duck if you don't have an appropriate graphics card. It's the beating heart that pumps red-hot pixels onto your monitor.

Normally, we update this guide with a look at the current prices and the best overall options for each category. Unfortunately, as we recently wrote, it's a terrible time to buy a graphics card. The surge in Bitcoin and Ethereum prices (along with many others) helped increase the profitability of GPU mining, by at least double or even triple, and the result has been a rush on graphics cards.

This has impacted everything from the GTX 1050 Ti and RX 560 through the GTX 1080 Ti and RX Vega 64. In many cases, particularly in the US, you can't even find cards in stock—or if you do find a card, it will cost twice as much as the original launch price. Because of this, we are not making any changes to our recommendations, on the assumption that things will correct at some point (that may already be happening with the crash of crypto prices over the past week). What follows is our favorite graphics cards and the ones we would recommend, assuming prices aren't insane.

Also note that other markets, like the UK and Europe, have not been hit as hard by the GPU shortage. This is due to the inherently higher prices, on both the hardware and electricity. So many of our recommendations will still hold in non-US markets. And if you're in the US and need a graphics card right now, either because your current GPU went belly up or because you're building a new PC, we suggest picking up a budget card like a GT 1030 or RX 550 to hold you over. You might also be able to find/borrow an older used card from a friend.

- Check out this week's best graphics card deals

A graphics card consists of dedicated video memory (VRAM) coupled to a graphics processing unit (GPU). The GPU handles all sorts of calculations, running complex shaders and mapping textures to determine what the final pixels will look like on your display. VRAM acts as a high-speed memory pool for the GPU, avoiding the painfully slow PCIe bus that's limited to 16GB/s. In contrast, modern GPUs have 256GB/s or more of memory bandwidth. VRAM capacity can be a factor, because if it's not large enough to hold everything a game needs, the graphics card has to pull data over the PCIe bus, and 4GB is the minimum we generally recommend for new cards.

Simply put, finding the best graphics card for your budget will have the most impact on your PC's gaming experience. We've sifted through the current options and picked out the best graphics cards 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 everything from the pixel smashing GTX 1080 Ti, to the GTX 1080, and flowing down to the GTX 1070 Ti, GTX 1070, GTX 1060, GTX 1050 Ti, and GTX 1050. There's also the $3,000 Titan V, which replaces the Titan Xp as the absolute fastest card, but it's not even remotely worth the huge price increase over the 1080 Ti.

AMD has has it's 500-series parts, which mostly consist of slightly higher clockspeeds relative to the older 400-series GPUs. All of the 400-series and 500-series use AMD's Polaris architecture, while the newer RX Vega 64 and RX Vega 56 feature an updated architecture and improved performance. Unfortunately, AMD's Vega GPUs use a lot more power and generally have lower performance than Nvidia's competing cards. The RX Vega 64 performance is good, but the 18-month-old GTX 1080 is faster and uses almost 100W less power, and it typically costs less—a triple-whammy.

Most previous generation graphics cards are no longer manufactured, though you can find used/refurbished models. What's important to remember is that you don't need to upgrade your graphics card unless you're unhappy with its performance.

As mentioned above, Cryptocurrency mining for coins like Bitcoin, Ethereum, Z-Cash, and more continues to cause increased demand for graphics cards. Late December and early January saw a massive jump in the profitability of mining, though with the downward trend of cryptocurrency prices things may start to settle down again.

Here are our recommended cards, with up-to-date pricing on each, so when things return to normal you'll be able to see it.

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The best graphics card

  • Excellent performance
  • Great for 1080p and 1440p gaming
  • Highly efficient architecture
  • May be too expensive for some
  • DX12 performance sometimes lacking
  • 'Only' GDDR5, not GDDR5X

The best graphics card isn't normally the fastest graphics card. That honor goes to the Titan V, 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 one that can strike a balance between high performance and a reasonable price.

Nvidia's GTX 1070 has been at or near the top of the heap since it launched, and once cryptocurrency mining leaves our damn hobby alone, it should return to its rightful place (if the newer GTX 1070 Ti doesn't claim top honors). Short of 4k gaming, where the GTX 1070 can struggle, it remains the overall champion. It also manages to do all this while using significantly less power than AMD's competing Vega 56—150W versus 210W, though the Vega 56 can in some cases use a lot more than 210W.

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The best high-end graphics card

  • Fastest current GPU (not counting Titan V/Xp)
  • Excellent efficiency
  • Great new features
  • Costs as much as a complete budget PC
  • No fancy HBM2, and it's not Volta
  • Do we even need to mention the price?

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, as does the $2,999 Titan V, but we're talking minor increases in performance for a gigantic price jump. The Xp is about five percent faster, and the Titan V is up to 25 percent faster (more when overclocked), but those are only cards for very deep pockets. In our testing, the GTX 1080 Ti is about 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.

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 484GB/s of actual memory bandwidth in practice works like 580 GB/s, and the tiled rendering yields around 726GB/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 Ti 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

The midrange GPUs got hit with the brunt of the mining craze, with prices on AMD's RX 470/480 and RX 570/580 in particular skyrocketing this past year. The GTX 1060 cards have been hit as well, but in terms of value they still beat AMD's alternatives.

We tried to balance performance and pricing while staying close to $200. That makes the best solution the GTX 1060 3GB, and while 3GB VRAM might be a bit of a concern, most games don't really need more memory. The difference between high quality 2GB textures and ultra quality 4GB textures is often negligible. It's still a compromise, and if you're willing to spend a bit more the GTX 1060 6GB and RX 580 8GB are better long-term options. Those normally cost about $50-$75 more and are around 10 percent faster, with performance similar to the previous generation GTX 980.

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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 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 we 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. Normally 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 we didn't go with AMD's RX 560. If you're not worried about the power requirement, the RX 560 4GB typically costs about $10 more and is slightly faster.

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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 the best values are currently either above or below that mark.

For raw performance, Nvidia's GTX 1070 is a killer card, easily outperforming all older cards. 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 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, it's not the only option worth considering. Performance scales proportionately with money as you move from the 1070 to the 1070 Ti, 1080, and 1080 Ti, and the same goes for moving down to the GTX 1060 6GB and 1060 3GB. AMD's cards are a similar story, with the Vega 56 outperforming the RX 580 8GB by about 35 percent while costing 65 percent more, and the 580 8GB is about 18 percent faster than the 570 4GB with a 25 percent price premium.

Testing graphics cards

Our graphics card recommendations are based on our own extensive benchmarks and testing, along with looking at the reviews and testing done elsewhere. We have benchmark data for the complete range of Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, including all the GTX 10-series and AMD RX Vega/500 series. While we've previously looked at the R9 Fury/300/200 series and GTX 900/700 series, due to time constraints and availability we're no longer actively testing those 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 from now, 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. 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 used for AMD cards if they're available, 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 GTX 1070 Ti review.

The Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti, GTX 1080, and GTX 1070 Ti are the three fastest graphics cards, followed by the Vega 64, GTX 1070, and Vega 56. As we move down into the mainstream cards, the RX 570/580 and GTX 1060 3GB/6GB deliver good performance as well.

AMD's RX Vega cards bring some needed competition to the high-end, high-price market. Unfortunately, Nvidia's cards are simply better values right now, particularly if you factor in the higher power requirements of Vega. AMD really needs to get lower priced Vega cards on shelves to compete.

[Note: The following charts have not been updated since December, as the current crpto-climate has made finding cards at reasonable prices nearly impossible, particularly in the US.]

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In terms of best value, we've provided two different looks at what the cards offer, both in FPS per monetary unit. The top charts show the graphics cards in isolation, which can be useful if you have a PC and you're looking to upgrade your GPU. The second set of charts looks at framerates in terms of total system cost. Neither approach is a perfect representation of value, but combined it gives a different look at how the cards rate.

Budget GPUs on their own may look pretty good, but combine one with system price and you're almost always better off putting more money into your graphics card. Notice that for a mainstream build (we used the parts from our best gaming PC build guide), the most expensive cards are still at the top.

A quick note on cryptocurrency mining

We haven't based our recommendations off mining performance, but if that's something you want to do, basically anything from the GTX 1060 and RX 570 and above will work. You can mine reasonably well with any current graphics card, and it's more a matter of finding the best algorithm to mine (CryptoNight, Ethash, Equihash, Lyra2Re2, Skunk, Nist5, NeoScrypt, etc.) Again, we don't recommend buying hardware purely for mining purposes, but feel free to do so.

Wrapping it up

Looking forward, the computer graphics world is a fast-changing field. There were about twenty new GPU models launched during 2017, and keeping track of it all can confuse even the best of us. Our recommendations are based off performance combined with current prices, and price cuts or a limited time sale could easily move a card to the top of the list.

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 able to run any current game, though not necessarily at 60 fps and maximum quality. Games continue to push for new levels of performance, but tuning a few settings should keep most graphics cards viable for at least a few years.

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