The best graphics card is as intangible a commodity in 2021 as it was in the last few months of 2020. Stock is still tight, production remains constrained, and we have as much visibility over fresh cards coming into the channel as we do to the reasoning behind Jen-Hsun Huang's vast spatula collection. It surely has to go further than, man likes to cook.
It's been quite the circus if you've been looking for the best graphics card for your gaming PC over the last six months or so. With each passing generation throwing up new and exciting features, everyone wants a piece of the action. Unfortunately, this means the good GPU stock manages to fly off the shelves before anyone has a chance to check their bank balance.
Nvidia doesn't expect to have normalcy return until May, at the earliest, and we've not heard one word from AMD on the matter...
Still, this year we find ourselves in the unprecedented situation where both Nvidia and AMD are offering up genuinely competitive gaming GPUs. The Nvidia Ampere generation offers a huge leap in performance over its previous architecture, with the Nvidia RTX 3080 and Nvidia RTX 3070 cards going down as some of the best graphics cards ever made. That is, if you can ever get your hands on one.
There's perhaps a half-decent chance to pick up an RTX 3060 12GB come February, which is when the card's expected to launch. Even so, we know from past launches that this initial stock is tight and snapped up in a flash.
With Big Navi waltzing onto the stage, and the AMD RX 6800 XT—a real contender to the RTX 3080—having dropped ahead of the holidays, the red team is finally giving Nvidia a run for its money. Even the AMD RX 6800 has given us very capable 1440p and even 4K performance, though its a little more expensive than the RTX 3070. So with the competition this tough, it's a wonder anyone can make a practical decision. Well, that's where we come in.
We have to forget about stock problems for the new cards when we're looking at which GPUs are the best, because right now it's not just the new cards. Stock of all graphics cards is tight, and there is simply no good option even on last gen GPUs. So, right now, we have to rank the best graphics cards as though you could buy them, because eventually you will be able to. And, to be fair, there are more Nvidia GPUs filtering into retail every now and then. AMD chips? Not so much.
Okay, right now the RTX 3080 is rare as pigeon eyelashes, but there is no doubt Nvidia's new RTX 3080 is the best graphics card today. It represents a huge generational performance boost over the previous RTX 20-series. That's impressive when put up against either the RTX 2080 or 2080 Super, but when you consider that this nominally $699 card can not just match, but massively outperform the $1,200 RTX 2080 Ti it really hits home.
The thing which really stands out from our testing is the difference it makes to ray tracing performance. The first generation of ray tracing-capable cards required such a huge frame rate sacrifice that most people shied away from turning it on, but that's no longer the case with this generation.
When you can now get ray traced performance that exceeds the frame rates you'd get out of the top card of the RTX 20-series when running without it, you know that this is a whole different beast. And hey, the RTX 3080 can actually run Crysis.
Nvidia has managed this by adding a whole load more CUDA cores to the mix in this 8nm GPU, as well as updated Tensor Cores (for extra DLSS goodness), and second-gen RT Cores to make with the ray traced pretties.
The RTX 3080 may need a fair chunk more power—you'll want at least an 850W PSU—and be tricky to get hold of so soon after launch, but this is the most desirable graphics card around today. Which I guess is also why it's so tricky to get hold of.
Read our full Nvidia RTX 3080 review (Founders Edition).
As a red team alternative to Nvidia's high-end graphics cards, there have been few finer than the RX 6800 XT. A highly competitive card that comes so close to its rival, with a nominal performance differential to the RTX 3080, it is truly an enthusiast card worth consideration for any PC gamer with 4K in their sights.
It's a tough call between it and the RTX 3080, but the latter just pips AMD to the post with the final touches à la RTX. The RX 6800 XT is $50 cheaper, delivers high 4K performance, and a hefty VRAM increase over the RTX 3080. However, it's easy to argue that an extra $50 dropped on the RTX 3080 is money well spent: a small price to pay for greater 4K performance, much improved ray tracing, and DLSS. All available today and with two year's worth of developer support in the bank.
Yet we're still big fans of what AMD has managed to accomplish with the RX 6800 XT, a return to form for the Radeon Technology Group that injects some much needed competition into the GPU market and offers a worthy red team alternative for any high-end gaming PC build.
Read our full AMD RX 6800 XT review.
The cheapest Ampere to date, the RTX 3060 Ti is a close relation to the RTX 3070. Both utilise the same GA104 GPU, the RTX 3060 Ti with fewer SMs enabled, and memory capacity and capability remains the same at 8GB GDDR6 across a 256-bit bus.
While 17% less capable in core count, the RTX 3060 Ti makes up for it with some judicious GPU Boost frequencies. That partially explains why the RTX 3060 Ti can be within 17% to just single digits off the pace of the RTX 3070, despite operating at a silicon disadvantage. Not bad for a $399 card.
If you haven't already done the maths: At $399, the RTX 3060 Ti is 20% cheaper than the RTX 3070, and so performance per dollar is on the up with the diminutive graphics card. That's why we love it so; it's a great GPU for the full stack of resolutions and has decent ray tracing capability to boot, courtesy of second generation RT Cores.
If the RTX 3080 or RTX 3070 seem out of reach, the RTX 3060 Ti certainly makes for a decent stand-in. Perhaps most impressive of all about this graphics card is how it stacks up to the 20-series generation: It topples the RTX 2080 Super in nearly every test.
Read our full Nvidia RTX 3060 Ti review (Founders Edition).
Perhaps the only high-end Ampere that's anything close to reasonably affordable, the RTX 3070 is also impressive for its ability to match the top-string Turing graphics card, the RTX 2080 Ti, for less than half of its price tag.
At $499, it's still a significant sum by any means—we're talking next-gen console equivalent pricing here—but it's hardly an exorbitant sum when compared to PC gaming's top graphics silicon today. In return, you're gifted a 4K-capable graphics card which doesn't require too much fiddling to reach playable, if not high, framerates. And it'll absolutely smash it at 1440p, no question about that.
Its gaming performance credentials are undoubtedly impressive, but what makes the RTX 3070 our pick for the sensible PC gaming connoisseur is the entire Nvidia ecosystem underlying the RTX stack today. DLSS is a neat trick for improving performance, with only a nominal loss in clarity, and other features such as Broadcast and Reflex go a long way to sweetening the deal.
Read our full Nvidia RTX 3070 review (Founders Edition).
The RTX 3090 may have sat unchallenged at the top rungs of graphics performance at launch, but it wouldn't be long until AMD rustled together a challenger in the RX 6900 XT, or 'Big Navi'. The RX 6900 XT hopes to knock Ampere's finest from its perch on high and send it spiralling back down to Earth. And it gets kind of close, too, with 4K performance a little off the pace of the RTX 3090—and all for one third off the asking price.
For that reason, it's simply the better buy for any PC gamer without any ulterior motives of the pro creator variety. But there's a reason it's not number one in our graphics card guide today, and that's simply due to the fact it's not that much better than an RTX 3080, and sometimes not at all. It's another $300 on top of the RTX 3080's price tag, and you'd hope for higher performance in both rasterised and ray tracing workloads, yet inevitably its ray tracing acceleration lags behind the competition.
But the RX 6900 XT does come with assurances that the RTX 3080 can't make, such as its 16GB of GDDR6 memory, which is a whole 6GB greater than the 10GB of (faster) GDDR6X memory on the green team card. With that in mind, for raw gaming alone, the RX 6900 XT is a cheaper alternative to the RTX 3090, if still a victim to its own extreme price tag.
Read our full AMD RX 6900 XT review.
This colossal graphics card is supremely powerful, but far more fitting of Titan credentials than GeForce ones. It's not built with your average gamer in mind, instead it's targeting creative professionals and compute intensive application acceleration, and that's why it doesn't come with your average price tag, either.
As immense in price tag as it is in stature, the question on everyone's lips is: Is it worth it? For gamers, no. It's just not much quicker than the RTX 3080. But for pro-creators, for whom time is money, and where lower render time has a direct correlation with how much they can earn, that's where the RTX 3090 comes into its own.
It's for that reason that we've placed this card last on our list, but since we know PC gamers will undoubtedly spend ungodly quantities of cash just in order to save face and ensure bragging rights, it's still worth a mention. After all, it is the most powerful gaming graphics card on the planet right now, whether it's a great deal or not.
Read our full Nvidia RTX 3090 review (Founders Edition).
As the only one of the AMD RX 6000-series cards to launch without undercutting a direct Nvidia Ampere rival, the straight RX 6800 feels as though it's almost been cut adrift. It's a strange situation because historically we've always been keen to recommend the second string of any Radeon release. AMD always launches main series cards in two, one with the full might of the new GPU, and a secondary card with a slightly stripped back chip.
Normally they perform at a similar level for a lot less cash. Except this time the performance gap is relatively large, and the price difference not great enough to negate the issue. You've also got the RTX 3070 being priced $80 lower than this RX 6800 card. Sure, the RX 6800 does sometimes outperform the cheaper Nvidia card, but for the money you'd surely want the only marginally more expensive RX 6800 XT because it's much faster. If I was spending this much cash on a new GPU, the extra $70 would absolutely feel worth it.
The RTX 3070 also offers Nvidia's broad gaming ecosystem and, while ray tracing can be seen as a luxury, DLSS is an excellent performance-boosting feature still not matched by AMD. But it does have to be said, the RX 6800 is still a mighty impressive card outside of the ramifications of its place in the stack. This thing makes the $1,200 RTX 2080 Ti look bad.
Read our full AMD RX 6800 review.
Graphics cards buying advice
While the CPU is still the 'brain' of your PC, it's the graphics card that matters the most when it comes to the vast majority of gaming. Dozens of games will push your graphics card to its limits every year. It's the component that makes the most difference to your gaming performance and the part you'll want to upgrade most frequently. But if you buy the right card, it should last you at least two years.
If you're looking for maximum performance, you used to be able to run two cards in SLI or CrossFire. However, it's become increasingly common for major games to ignore multi-GPU users completely. That includes all DXR games. There's also the fact that fewer of the next-gen cards actually support the linking of two cards. On the Nvidia side, only the $1,500 RTX 3090 comes with NVLink connections and then only for creative apps.
Finding the best graphics card is one decision that'll make or break your gaming experience. It’s where the bulk of your build or upgrade budget should be spent, so it’s surely the component a PC gamer will give the most thought to. But first you have to ask yourself the all-important question: how much money can I afford to put down on a new GPU?
Most of us will have to be a little pragmatic about our precious PC upgrades, so it’s vital to weigh up the price/performance ratio of a new GPU. Thankfully there are some fantastic graphics cards that won't necessarily cost you an arm and leg when you are finally able to buy one, and will still offer more frames per second than a speed-run of the Louvre.
4K gaming performance
Back with the introduction of the GTX 1080 Ti, gaming at over 60Hz frame rates while at a 4K resolution has been a possibility with Nvidia's high-end kit. But the bar has been lowering ever since, with even the RTX 2070 being able to offer something close to high-fidelity 4K gaming last generation. With the introduction of the RTX 30-series, we're looking at 4K performance right the way down to the RTX 3060 Ti.
Not only is it cheaper than ever to buy a 4K-capable graphics card, it's possible to pick up a decent 4K gaming monitor for less. The entire ecosystem for high-fidelity gaming is getting cheaper by the day, and it finally feels like an attainable goal for PC gamers that don't have RTX 3090-money burning a hole in their chinos.
But Nvidia is only one side of the coin. AMD went from zero to hero in the high-end, and its latest RX 6000-series graphics cards are more than a match for those pesky eight million or so pixels required every frame at 4K.