Let's be totally honest: 2021 was a nightmarish year for graphics cards. If the surge in demand wasn't bad enough, the global semiconductor shortage made matters a whole lot worse. Combined with increased cryptocurrency mining demand and ludicrous prices capable of sending any bot into overdrive, we've ended up with something of a dreadful drought in 2021.
Though these are the PC Gamer Hardware Awards and that means we still want to crown one of this year's few graphics card releases as the best of the year. That entails rooting through AMD and Nvidia's latest releases for our 2021 nominees, which unsurprisingly doesn't leave us with all too many to choose from.
As you'll see, we're focusing exclusively on gaming graphics cards for these awards, and that's largely because this is PC Gamer we're talking about, but also because no matter how much I would love to put AMD's intriguing MI200 accelerator in the mix for the award, it has crucial research to be getting on with and numbers to crunch, rather than helping me hit a high frame rate in Forza Horizon 5.
Best graphics card 2021: the nominees
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 Ti
The RTX 3080 Ti is the granddaddy of gaming graphics cards—unless you count the RTX 3090, but we don't talk about that. Okay, the RTX 3080 Ti is really the second-tier GeForce GPU for Nvidia, but it's no doubt a powerful card and capable of bringing the Ampere architecture in nearly its best form to bare. It's quite pricey, even if you ignore today's near-ubiquitous price hikes, but there's no doubt it makes 4K gaming look easy.
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 12GB
The cheapest RTX 30-series graphics card for the desktop, the RTX 3060 12GB still isn't cheap enough to be classified as truly 'entry-level'. You can build a great gaming PC around this GPU, at least, and make the most of Nvidia's great Ampere architecture. The RTX 3060 comes with a surprising stock of VRAM for its pay-grade, too—the RTX 3060 has greater memory capacity than the RTX 3080, though it is slower GDDR6 fitted on the cheaper card. Our biggest concern with the RTX 3060 ultimately comes down to how close the RTX 3060 Ti is. But that card came out last year, leaving the RTX 3060 12GB as the pick for 2021.
AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT
We absolutely loved AMD's maiden RDNA 2 graphics cards: the RX 6800 XT is excellent. Though each release since then has deflated our excitement somewhat, ending up with the RX 6600 which felt like it was a little too off the pace to compete. The RX 6700 XT is still a decent card out of that lot, however, offering a middle step between Nvidia's mid-range with enough memory to make us feel more than comfortable in 2021 and beyond.
The winner of the Best Graphics Card 2021 PC Gamer Hardware Award will be announced on New Year's Eve, so check back then to see which one of these GPUs is crowned the best (of a bad year).