If Intel, AMD and Nvidia's statistics are correct, you're probably using a computer and graphics card that are several years old. For PC gaming, video editing, animation and other heavyweight graphics-intensive activities, that's just about forever. A lot's changed in the last several years, so chances are you're no longer using a modern card — much less the best graphics card out there — with new technologies like smart resolution upscaling or ray-tracing acceleration. And software used by a gamer to boost their gaming performance or by creative folks for applications like 3D tools and video editors hasn't gotten any less demanding.
Even if you just need the basics for streaming video or surfing the web, the best graphics card can make your system feel snappier by improving the acceleration of video decoding or redrawing your screens faster, especially if you had previously used a budget GPU. With a Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptop or iMac, you can even upgrade the graphics using an external graphics processing unit (an eGPU) or a dedicated graphics card.
For color work, however, Nvidia finally made your old GeForce card a little more useful: As of version 431.70 (released July 29, 2019), the Studio branch of its drivers opened up true 30-bit color support for Photoshop and other Adobe applications. So no more shelling out megabucks for a Quadro workstation card just for the extra bit depth.
The hardware landscape is constantly in flux. As an example, the latest graphics card options in the $500-or-less price range have completely changed over the past six months or so, with AMD and Nvidia overhauling their lineups for the popular 1080p and growing 1440p gaming markets. And these biannual shufflings are pretty typical in an era of the ever-improving refresh rate and expanding memory bandwidth.
Most recently, AMD rolled out its Navi 7nm-generation replacements to its popular Polaris-generation RX 570, RX 580 and RX 590 class of cards in the $325 or less price range (roughly) targeted at basic and high-quality 1080p gaming: the RX 5500 XT and RX 5600 XT.
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One of the big differentiators between Nvidia and AMD's GPUs these days is real-time ray-tracing acceleration — not who has it and who doesn't, but how it's implemented. Nvidia uses dedicated silicon RT, or ray-tracing cores, with a proprietary programming interface that takes more work for developers to support. AMD takes a less hardware-dependent approach, which is easier to incorporate — and which will be used by upcoming Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles — but arguably not as effective.
The new architectures for ray-tracing acceleration are accompanied by a larger set of technologies which tend to be lumped in with them because they also improve or accelerate rendering in general. These include upscaling algorithms, for example, which render for a higher resolution screen using native-resolution textures (while maintaining frame rates); in other words, using textures for 1080p to render for 1440p. Nvidia's Deep Learning Super Sampling and AMD's Radeon Image Sharpening do this.
The result is it can seem like there's more game support for it than there actually is — for example, if a game supports any piece of the new RTX architecture, like DLSS, it earns the whole "We support it!" checkbox. So deciding whether you need the pricey RTX card or can live with a lower-end GTX 1660 Ti requires figuring out if your favorite games take advantage of the "right" features.
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Ready to throw down some cash for a new graphics card for your gaming rig? Don't spend a single cent on a graphics card for gaming until you read this buying guide of the best graphics card, wherein we considered everything from video memory and refresh rate to power consumption and gaming performance. Plus, our general GPU shopping tips at the end to help you make your choice.
$100: Replace an integrated GPU
Nvidia GeForce GT 1030
Sure, it's a reasonable price. But if you're planning to spend around $100 on a budget graphics card, don't expect to game with the GeForce GT at 1080p — 720p at best unless a game is very lightweight. Many games may simply go from unplayable to a little less unplayable. This Nvidia graphics card does for a gaming PC what Nvidia's MX250 does for laptops. In other words, plenty of the latest games will run on it, but many users won't benefit. Cards can come with the chip overclocked, which gives it a little extra oomph as well.
If you've got an old desktop with integrated graphics that don't support the current versions of graphics programming interfaces such as DirectX 12 or Vulkan, or if you just want to make your Windows experience feel a little more snappy or smooth, a GT 1030-based card can help. The GT line is designed with lower power requirements than the more popular GeForce GTX models, so it can fit in systems with lesser power supplies and compact designs. Unlike most gaming graphics cards, 1030-based cards can be low-profile and take up just a single slot for connectivity, and are quieter because they only require a single fan.
$100-$150: A big boost for a little more
AMD Radeon RX 560 1295 MHz
Because AMD has replaced the RX 500 series with the RX 5000 series GPU, you'll start to see bigger price drops on the older AMD graphics cards like this XFX, a 1080p gameworthy alternative to the cheap Nvidia GT cards for only about $20 more. The one caveat is that your PC may not be able to handle a full-fat card because of the power, cooling and size requirements.
$100-$200: 1080p gaming, photo editing
AMD Radeon RX 580
It's not the fastest GPU in its class, but the last-generation RX 580 is still one of the best values in graphics cards, at least for the moment. It's fast enough to deliver solid 1080p play in all but the most demanding games. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 is its closest competitor but costs a lot more. That said, if you can afford just a little more, AMD's lateral move to the current RX 5500 XT may be worth it — if not for the performance, than at least for the futureproofing.
And if you need a relatively inexpensive speed boost for your old (but still Thunderbolt 3-enabled) MacBook Pro, an external graphics card (eGPU) equipped with the RX 580 or RX 5500 XT should do the trick. It's the same class of GPU that's in some 2018 MacBook Pros, so first check what you already have to make sure the upgrade makes sense.
$200-$300: Basic 1440p, quality 1080p, photo editing
AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT
AMD's new Radeon RX 5600 XT delivers the best graphics car performance for the this price tier, but it's still a little too young to make a definitive judgment about recommendations, and there aren't a lot of cards out yet at the promised $280 mark; most are at or slightly above $300. So I'm hitting "pause" on this one for a little while until it's attained a critical mass of complaints and kudos beyond the numbers.
$300-$400: 1440p gaming
Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Super (2060S)
The 2060S' competitor, the RX 5700 XT delivers similar performance, but the 2060S is more of a known quantity with a lower percentage of glitch reports. But if you're looking for the best graphics card for a Mac eGPU, the RX 5700 XT is still your best bet.
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$500-$1,000: Great 1440p, basic 4K gaming
Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080S
The RTX 2070 Super starts at the lower end of the range, and the RTX 2080 Super starts at the top, offering only a modest increase in performance for the same 8GB of video memory. But the 2080S gives you more of a boost over the 2060S, so unless your particular game will show a notable bump, you're probably better off going with an overclocked version of the 2060S than an inexpensive 2070S or go for the bigger performance jump and gaming experience of the 2080S.
Over $1,000: 4K gaming, RTX-specific games, video editing in Windows
Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti
Though the RTX 2080 Ti isn't the fastest gaming card available today — the Titan RTX takes that prize — it's half the price of its more-powerful sibling and can certainly deliver top frame rates. While all the RTX series cards support acceleration for Nvidia's proprietary ray tracing and illumination-programming interface, most of the time you'll see a performance hit unless you go with the high-end card or drop back on other quality features and resolution.
One of the advantages of the Ti version over the non-Ti model is memory: It has 11GB compared to 8GB. That's important when you're running higher resolutions on gaming laptops. For game development or video editing, you'll see a lot more gains from the 2080 Ti than gamers will, in part thanks to the extra video memory. It's also designed for multi-GPU configurations, important for working with high-res video or 3D rendering, though I've found they can be finicky.
Things to keep in mind when looking for the best graphics card:
- Once you've narrowed down your choice to a few options, searching for people's complaints about a product is critical to discovering important information — like how many slots a card really requires as opposed to the manufacturer's claims. It may take two slots, for example, but be just thick enough to make it impossible to put another card in a slot next to it, or just a little too long to handle a motherboard because of obstructions.
- Power consumption: Always check the power capabilities of a card against your power supply's output. Don't forget to take the other cards and devices in your system into account concerning power usage and the possible effect on battery life.
- Most of the negative reviews of graphics describe artifacts and failures that are usually the symptoms of overheating. If this worries you, then don't buy an overclocked card (usually indicated by "OC" in the name). When buying cards, make sure that it not only has sufficient cooling but that your case's airflow and the positions of your other cards will allow for optimal heat dissipation. That may mean, for example, moving another PCI card into a different slot.
- GTX models may be a little smaller than the RTX models and may generate less heat.
- The most powerful GPU on the planet won't make a difference if your CPU is the bottleneck (and vice versa) — think overkill.
- You'll see a lot of price variation across cards using the same GPU. That's for features such as overclocking, better cooling systems or flashy (literally) designs.
- All Nvidia GTX and RTX cards support the various flavors of G-Sync, and all AMD Radeon cards RX 400 or later support FreeSync adaptive refresh technologies. These sync with your monitor to reduce artifacts caused by a mismatch between screen refresh rate and frame rate — so if you're keeping your monitor, you may want to get a card that supports the right tech.
- Performance generalizations are just that — generalizations. If you're looking to boost performance in a particular game, run a search on, say, "Fortnite benchmarks" and "best cards for Fortnite."
- Don't assume that replacing an old card will automatically give you noticeably better or smoother performance.
- Don't assume that the newer Nvidia RTX 20-series cards will be faster than the 10-series cards they replace.
- Dual cards are usually more of a pain than they're worth. Video editing is usually the exception, depending upon application support.
- If you want a card for content creation, game benchmarks aren't usually representative. To research those, start by running a search on "workstation GPUs" or, for example, "best GPU for Premiere." It's important to match the GPU to the application, because, for instance, Nvidia Quadro GPUs are generally more powerful than their AMD Radeon Pro or WX series equivalents, but application developers who are tight with Apple — which doesn't support Nvidia GPUs — optimize their applications for AMD GPUs. The biggest example of this is Blackmagic Design's DaVinci Resolve video editor.
- Photo editing is still, for the most part, CPU-bound, so a midrange graphics card is fine. Video editing and 3D-based tools take more advantage of the GPU. Note that Adobe recently announced enhanced GPU support for Lightroom, but it doesn't make anything render to the screen faster; it's strictly for making the sliders feel more responsive when you're working on high-resolution (i.e., 4K or more) displays. So for the moment, that midrange GPU should still be fine.
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Originally published in 2019.