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The best graphics card

Prices are starting to return to normal, and we've updated our picks accordingly.

When it comes time to build or upgrade your new gaming PC, deciding on the best graphics card is a big consideration—it's the component that demands the biggest chunk of your budget. Sure, you'll want a decent processor and enough RAM and storage, but the GPU is the beating heart that pushes pixels onto your display. A good mainstream processor can basically max out everything the best graphics cards can do.

The best gaming PC

Need a full suite of components for a new gaming PC? Check out our complete build guide.

The best graphics card is also one you can buy, and unfortunately prices have been pretty horrible for the past several months. The good news is that the end is in sight. We've gone from prices that were double the MSRP, to prices that are 'only' 50 percent above MSRP, and now we're only about 10-20 percent above the original MSRP for many GPUs. Note that I say 'many' and not all, because certain models, particularly AMD's RX Vega and 500-series GPUs, continue to be in short supply. We've adjusted our picks accordingly.

- 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.

With the cryptocurrency mining fever cooling off, now is a great time to think about upgrading your graphics card. Because you never know when Bitcoin and Ethereum prices might shoot up again and cause another shortage. Here are our recommended cards, with up-to-date pricing on each.

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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 was at the top of the heap since it launched two years ago, but it's now been displaced by the similar but faster GTX 1070 Ti. When the cards launched, the 1070 pricing was substantially better, but with cryptocurrency mining shortages ending, the 1070 Ti is closer to the original MSRP and represents the best overall value. The 1070 Ti ends up about 10 percent faster than the 1070, which also makes it faster in most cases than AMD's competing Vega 56—all while using less power.

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The best high-end graphics card

  • Fastest realistic GPU (ie, not a Titan)
  • Excellent efficiency
  • Great new features
  • Costs as much as a complete budget PC
  • No fancy HBM2, and it's not Volta, Turing, or Ampere
  • 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.

Performance needs to be your top consideration if you're looking at the 1080 Ti, especially with the current pricing, which remains pretty inflated. The MSRP of the 1080 Ti is $699, and while Founders Edition cards occasionally show up on Nvidia's site at MSRP, right now the least expensive 1080 Ti cards sell for $900—that's nearly a 30 percent markup. Ouch. If you're willing to step down a notch, the GTX 1080 starts at $600, a 20 percent markup, or just go with the 1070 Ti or wait a bit longer.

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The best midrange graphics card

  • Great price and good performance
  • Suitable for 1080p
  • Efficient and quiet
  • Only 3GB VRAM
  • Price is still higher than original MSRP

Most gamers are on a budget, and as good as the 1070 Ti and 1080 Ti are, they're expensive. If you're not gaming at 1440p, the GTX 1060 cards are the best alternative that won't light your wallet on fire. The midrange GPUs got hit with the brunt of the mining craze, with AMD's RX 570/580 prices skyrocketing. The 1060 prices went up as well, but they've mostly recovered and represent the clearly better value right now.

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 might be a better long-term option that starts at around $40 extra. The GTX 1060 cards have come down in price, but they're still about 20-25 percent above the original MSRP.

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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
  • Overpriced compared to MSRP

The chief competition for the RX 560 4GB comes from Nvidia's 1050 and 1050 Ti. The RX 560 beats the 2GB 1050 and loses to the 1050 Ti, on average, but it costs less than either one making it the clearly better value for the budget-minded. Right now, you can find the RX 560 4GB (I'd skip the 2GB models) for as little as $140, after the $15 mail-in rebate. That's still a hefty markup from the $110 we saw before the mining shortages hit, but going any lower doesn't make much sense—you'd be better off buying AMD's Ryzen 3 2200G APU, which isn't a bad idea if you're in the market for a new PC.

The RX 560 4GB is not a high performance graphics card. It's billed as a GPU suitable for lighter esports gaming, including CS:GO, LoL, and Overwatch. It can easily hit 60fps at 1080p in most games at low to medium quality, which is about as much as we can ask of a sub-$150 graphics card. Just know that performance of the RX 560 is a step down from previous generation cards like the R9 390, and more in line with the R9/R7 370. You might also consider trying to find a gamer friend looking to upgrade, in which case you could offer a reasonable price for a last-gen card and help your friend defray the cost of a modern GPU.

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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 Ti 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 Ti is the best graphics card for gaming.

While the GTX 1070 Ti is the card we'd recommend to most—but not all—PC gamers, it's not the only option worth considering. Performance scales with price as you move from the 1070 Ti to the 1080 and 1080 Ti, and the same goes for moving down to the GTX 1070, 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.

Do you need a new graphics card?

If you're doubtful that your current PC is fast enough to warrant purchasing a better graphics card, I have some data for you. Even with the fastest graphics card around (ie, the GTX 1080 Ti), running at a resolution that puts more of the burden on your CPU (1080p ultra), there's often only a minor improvement in gaming performance. Yes, truly old CPUs are going to struggle, but going from an i7-4770K to an i7-8700K improves gaming performance by 23 percent on average.

Don't be fooled into thinking VRAM capacity is more important than the GPU, however. It can be a factor, but slower GPUs with 4GB VRAM usually aren't capable of running settings that actually need 4GB VRAM. In any case, other than the budget pick, all of the cards we've selected have at least 4GB, which is more than sufficient for high quality and even ultra quality settings. 

What happens if you use a graphics card that's 20-30 percent slower than a GTX 1080 Ti? Your CPU becomes even less of a factor. If you have at least 8GB of system memory and a Core i7-4770K or better CPU, you should be fine with everything up to about the GTX 1070/GTX 1070 Ti level of performance. 

Testing graphics cards

Our graphics card recommendations are based on our own extensive benchmarks and testing, and then factoring in the price. 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. We've previously looked at the R9 Fury/300/200 series and GTX 900/700 series, but due to time constraints and availability we're no longer actively testing those cards.

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 modern cards are 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 at 1080p medium, 1080p ultra, 1440p ultra, and 4K with ultra/high settings. We take the 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.

But how do these cards compare in terms of value?

[Prices updated as of April 20, 2018]

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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.

It's interesting how the markets change the picture. For GPU alone, the US favors the GTX 1060 3GB, 1050, RX 560, and GTX 1060 6GB, all with relatively equal value. Shift to the UK, and the GTX 1050, 1060 3GB/6GB, and 1050 Ti take top honors, but with more of a spread. Europe (using Germany pricing) favors the same cards as the UK, but in the order of 1060 3GB, 1050, 1060 6GB, and 1050 Ti.

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 at the top, and in fact Nvidia claims all four of the top positions.

Is there value in cryptocurrency mining?

We haven't based our recommendations off mining performance, and profitability has been trending down quickly over the past couple of months. These days, power costs would eat up most of your profits in the US, UK, and Europe, unless you get really cheap (like five cents per kWh) power, and even then it could take a year or more to break even. We don't recommend buying hardware purely for mining purposes, especially at the current price and difficulty levels.

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 (or better) 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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