Best graphics card

Best graphics card

So, you're after the best graphics card to build your gaming rig around, eh? Well, it’s that hyper-expensive Nvidia GTX Titan X, obvs. Until we know exactly how the top-end AMD Vega cards are specced, the beefy GeForce GPU is the one with all the transistors, all the shaders, all the ROPs and all the FLOPs, which means it's the best. Job done. We can all go on to live rich, full lives safe in the knowledge the big questions are all taken care of.

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Except that’s not really how it works. It may be an incredibly powerful slice of graphical silicon, but performance alone does not make one great, young padawan. The Pascal-based GTX Titan X is almost entirely out of reach for pretty much anyone with a penchant for PC gaming or the need to ask exactly how much a GPU costs. It's a luxury chip, the McLaren 650S of graphics cards, an aspirational component. Few will have been made, the cost is insanely prohibitive and I bet there are only a handful of gamers who've bought a Titan and thought ‘I’m glad I dropped a grand on that’ a year down the line.

To us, what makes the best graphics card for you to buy right now is that heady mix of architectural elegance, impeccable gaming performance and excellent value. An expensive card isn’t necessarily bad value if it blazes a trail none can follow, nor is a cheap GPU inherently good value - as with all things PC gaming the best graphics card is all about striking the perfect balance.

There are so many questions that need answering - what's the best graphics card, what graphics card do I have, do I want an Nvidia graphics card or an AMD one? Click on the quick links below to find out all the answers.

Best graphics card

Best graphics card

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 6GB

GPU: GP106 | CUDA cores: 1,280 | VRAM: 6GB GDDR5 | Memory bus: 192-bit

Approx. $235 / £229 

This is where the nexus point of price and performance lies: in the sub-$250 graphics card. Right now though the best graphics card race is pretty much a tie between the GTX 1060 and RX 480, with us only just about coming down on the side of the green team because we need to pick one.

The GTX 1060 is the direct replacement for the card I’ve long been recommending as the go-to GPU of the last generation: the GTX 970. Nvidia has jigged about its graphics stack this year, shifting each level of GPU up one rung on the performance ladder. As such the 1080 has stepped into the 980 Ti gap, the GTX 1070 into the 980 price point and subsequently the GTX 1060 finds itself in the rarified position the GTX 970 once occupied.

But while the GTX 1060 is effectively replacing the GTX 970 in Nvidia’s GPU stack, in terms of actual gaming performance it’s much closer to the last-generation GTX 980. The reference-clocked Founders Edition card is only ever a handful of frames per second on average slower than our seriously overclocked version of the GTX 980. That’s an impressive showing considering the 980 was the top Maxwell card for a long time, and a $550 GPU at launch. The GP106 GPU has also just been hailed the fastest graphics chip ever having hit the highest frequency ever recorded on retail silicon, a startling 2,885.5MHz. Of course you'll need some serious liquid nitrogen skills to hit those heights though.

Not only is it a record breaker, the GTX 1060 is also one of the most energy efficient cards around too. The TDP of just 120W is fantastic - lower than any of AMD’s competing Polaris 10-based cards - and delivers peak platform power draw of 204W in the PCGamesN test rig. The GTX 1060 is also a pretty epic overclocker too; even our reference card with Nvidia’s basic blower has a wealth of headroom in it, leading to some seriously speedy factory-overclocked versions like the MSI GTX 1060 Gaming X. That impressively low TDP is also the reason the latest 16nm architecture is being dropped directly into Nvidia's Pascal-based gaming laptops too.

The GTX 1060 doesn’t have everything its own way, however. The competing AMD Radeon RX 480 is generally a little off the pace by comparison, except when you start to throw new graphics APIs down its ample pipes. In the Hitman DX12 benchmark even the RX 470 is able to deliver gaming performance on par with the GTX 1060, while the RX 480 leaves it trailing in its volumetric dust. The same thing happens in Doom when using the Vulkan build, where the RX 480 is over 50% quicker than the GTX 1060.

On the whole though Nvidia’s GTX 1060 is a good-value card which will deliver fantastic performance in current-gen games even if its DirectX 12 and Vulkan performance could do with a little work.

Read the full Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 review.

The best GeForce GTX 1060 6GB prices we've found today: 

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Best graphics card runner-up

Best graphics card runner-up

AMD Radeon RX 480

GPU: Polaris 10 | GCN cores: 2,304 | VRAM: 8GB GDDR5 | Memory bus: 256-bit

Approx. $223 / £216 

The choice of best graphics card has become a lot tougher with the 8GB Radeon RX 480 now available for a good chunk less than the 6GB GTX 1060. The 8GB RX 480 is a great-value GPU, especially if you’re really into Doom and Hitman or just want to play Vulkan or DX12-based games at high frame rates. While the the RX 480 costs less than a GTX 1060 then we're be sorely tempted to opt for the Radeon instead because of its future-proofing for next-gen APIs.

The Polaris-based Radeon card also has  a superior memory setup too. Not only does it have an extra 2GB of VRAM at its disposal, useful for high-res textures and large open-world games, but the RX 480 has also got that running over a wider 256-bit aggregated memory bus.

We've rebenched a pair of Asus STRIX RX 480 and GTX  1060 cards and overall  the GTX 1060 still just about has the benchmark lead across our revised testing suite, but it's a mighty close run thing. The top-end Polaris GPU is now a seriously tempting option, especially now that pricing is more aggressive and the Catalyst Crimson ReLive software seriously improved.

Read the full AMD Radeon RX 480 review.

The best Radeon RX 480 prices we've found today:

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Best 4K graphics card

Best 4K graphics card

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080

GPU: GP104 | CUDA cores: 2,560 | VRAM: 8GB GDDR5X | Memory bus: 256-bit

Approx. $580 / £428

This is where things are going to get messy real quick. At the moment the GTX 1080 is arguably your best bet for 4K gaming without resorting to Titan X tactics, but with the GTX 1080 Ti likely to arrive soon and AMD getting ready to unleash a 4K AMD Vega GPU on the scene, that could all be set to change.

Nvidia’s inaugural Pascal-powered GPU was built to tackle gaming at 3840 x 2160 and is the first GeForce card to really be able to deliver on that promise. The Maxwell-powered GTX Titan X, and subsequent GTX 980 Ti, got close to delivering 4K gaming, but the GTX 1080 takes that just a little further. Though we’re still not talking about nailing 60fps in every modern game at the top settings here - that’s the purview of the new GTX Titan X in all its (stupidly expensive) glory.

If you want to be playing games at this Ultra HD 4K resolution then you’re going to need some serious graphics power to cope with the 8.3 million pixels you’ll be throwing around your screen. The step up from the 2 million pixels of 1080p, or even from the 3.7 million of 1440p, is massive, so you’re going to need something with the GPU juice of the GTX 1080 to smooth out the jagged edges of 4K gaming.

Across our testing suite the GTX 1080 is mostly operating in the range between 40fps and 60fps on average. Serious frame rate compulsives may baulk at such ‘low’ performance, but those results are with the post-processing and texture settings pushed pretty much as high as they’ll go in-game. When you’re paying this much for your graphics card the idea of compromising on image quality might be a painful one, but with some smart cuts here and there you’ll definitely be able to nail a solid 60fps. 

Gaming on a 4K monitor at native resolutions, especially on a sub 30-inch panel, means you can be a little more relaxed on such niceties as anti-aliasing. The tight pixel pitch of a 4K display means you shouldn’t experience too many obtrusive jaggies when running at 2x MSAA, as opposed to x4 or x8, for example.

Until the GTX 1080 Ti appears, rocking the same GP102 GPU as the latest Titan X, this is the go-to 4K graphics card of today. And even when the Ti does tip up it’s going to command an even more egregious price premium than the GTX 1080. Though I guess it all depends on how much you’re willing to spend in the pursuit of smooth Ultra HD gaming.

The best GeForce GTX 1080 prices we've found today:

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Best 4K graphics card runner-up

Best 4K graphics card runner-up

Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070

GPU: GP104 | CUDA cores: 1,920 | VRAM: 8GB GDDR5 | Memory bus: 256-bit

Approx. $388 / £379

The GTX 1070’s more reasonable cost makes it a much more wallet-friendly option for 4K gaming, though it still occupies the sort of price point the top end of graphics cards of yesterday used to call their own. Bemoaning Nvidia’s super-high pricing gets us nowhere though, so when this cheaper card is so close to the 4K performance of the GTX 1080 the GTX 1070 begins to look like the best Ultra HD value proposition. You still get very playable 4K frame rates from the GTX 1070 though you’ll have to be more aggressive about the fidelity cuts when it comes to dialling back the graphics settings in-game to hit 60fps.

The best GeForce GTX 1070 prices we've found today:

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Best budget graphics card

Best budget graphics card - Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti

Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti

GPU: GP107 | CUDA cores: 768 | VRAM: 4GB GDDR5 | Memory bus: 128-bit

Approx. $140 / £130 

The new Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti is a fantastic little card, slotting neatly in between the low-performance RX 460 and quicker RX 470 cards from AMD. That's maybe not a huge surprise given its relative pricing and specs, but what might be more of a surprise is just how capable the new GP107 GPU is when dealing with the latest games running at their highest 1080p settings.

With seriously GPU-taxing titles, like the DX12 variants of Hitman and Rise of the Tomb Raider, you'll need to knock back your in-game graphics settings a touch, but for something like Grand Theft Auto V you can hit just under 60fps comfortably. And it's pretty robust too, maintaining comparatively high minimum frame rates too.

Unfortunately we're not yet looking at the sort of pricing the previous GTX 750 Ti was retailing for. If the GTX 1050 Ti was selling for closer to $100 (£100) it would be an absolute no-brainer as the ultimate budget graphics card, unfortunately the pricing is a bit higher than we were hoping for. That's even more evident when you see the price premium many manufacturers are putting on it with their mostly unnecessary overclocked editions.

Interestingly we're also starting to see silent, passively-cooled versions of the GTX 1050 Ti, such as the one from Palit. For a noiseless gaming machine that would be a good shout. Though we did beat Palit to the punch making our own passively-cooled GTX 1050 Ti...

Where the GTX 1050 Ti really stands out though is in opening up PC gaming to a wider audience. Because its efficient GPU draws all its power from the PCIe bus, without needing an extra connection from the PSU, it can be an instant upgrade for any off-the-shelf office PC. For just $140 (£130) then you can turn pretty much any ropey old PC from the last five years or so into a 1080p gaming machine to be proud of. You can't ask much more than that.

The best Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti prices we've found today:

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Best budget graphics card runner-up

Best budget graphics card runner-up

AMD Radeon RX 470 4GB

GPU: Polaris 10 | GCN cores: 2,048 | VRAM: 4GB GDDR5 | Memory bus: 256-bit

Approx. $165 / £155 

This second-tier Polaris-based card was released as an opportunity for the board partners to show off, which meant the first card we tested was an overclocked Sapphire RX 470 which cost around the same amount as a 4GB RX 480. With the release of Nvidia's new GTX 1050 and GTX 1050 Ti cards though AMD is reportedly looking to cut the price of the RX 470

Prices haven't really dropped that much in the US and the AMD card is still more expensive than the base price of the GTX 1050 Ti. But we've seen some RX 470 cards in the UK for as little as £150-odd - and that makes it a budget no-brainer. The current RX 470 is quicker than Nvidia's latest and will nail top 1080p performance comfortably. It may be stretching the definition of 'budget' a little (hence not quite taking top budget spot), but at this price the RX 470 is fantastic value GPU.

The best Radeon RX 470 4GB prices we've found today:

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How to buy a graphics card

Graphics cards

As a PC gamer your graphics card is probably the single most important purchase you will make, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore all the other components in your rig and expect to get the most out of your new card. I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say pretty much the same thing again: balance is absolutely key to getting the best possible performance from your gaming PC.

There’s no point picking up a GTX 1080 if you’re only ever going to run it on a 1080p monitor and support it with a ropey AMD APU. Sure, you’ll still be able to nail 60fps, but you will have hobbled your expensive new GPU by saddling it with a poor processor and bottlenecking it at a low resolution. At 1080p your processor choice becomes very important -  we’re at a time now where certain games are becoming CPU-limited at that resolution, and sometimes even at 1440p.

Multiplayer Battlefield 4 is one such game and so is Total War: Attila - even with our test rig’s Core i7 6700K there is no difference in performance between a GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 because it’s the CPU holding things back. Switching to an 8-core 5960X though and frame rates push on much further. Intel processors are though still currently your best bet for getting the most out of your card. AMD’s CPUs and APUs cannot deliver enough single-threaded performance to keep your GPU fed and significantly hold back a graphics card’s frame rate capability. Though fingers crossed that will change once AMD's new Zen CPUs arrive in our rigs.

Your chosen display - or your next panel purchase - is also an important factor too. You’re not going to want to run your games on a 1080p monitor if you’ve just spent the best part of a grand on a new GPU. If you do only have a 1080p screen there’s little point spending more than £250 on a GPU unless you’re also looking to upgrade your monitor in the next 12 months.

What graphics card do I have?

Do you know exactly what graphics card you have in your system? Yes? Well done, gold star for you. But if you haven't had the side off your PC for an aeon then chances are you may not remember what make or model of GPU you have chewing through the pixels in your favourite games. It's quick and easy to find out though - all you need do is hit Win+R to bring up the run box and type 'dxdiag' then hit enter. That launches the DirectX Diagnostics Tool and, once it's gathered all the data it needs about your rig, you can click on the 'Display' tab at the top and get all the details you need about your current GPU.

Do I want an AMD or Nvidia graphics card?

That’s the age old question: do you buy from the red team or the green team? There are positives and negatives to each, but in general terms if you want the outright best gaming performance then you go for an Nvidia graphics card, but if it’s more about pricing and value, then AMD’s Radeons are normally a better bet.

Multi-GPU gaming

Each have their own technologies, with Nvidia leading the way in terms of frame synchronising. AMD though have FreeSync which is almost as effective as Nvidia’s G-Sync, but has the benefit of being an open standard and therefore cheaper when it comes to buying a compatible monitor. Both though are capable of creating an incredibly smooth, tearing-free gaming experience.

Nvidia also has the edge in terms of software. Their GeForce Experience program is incredibly useful and Shadowplay’s an impressively simple game-capture app. That said, AMD's new Radeon Settings software is greatly improved over the old Catalyst Control Centre and includes a powerful overclocking application, WattMan, as standard.

AMD and Nvidia have also made great strides in the efficiency stakes in their latest generations, with AMD making up for their poor showing of the last few years. Though with a bit of a head-start Nvidia are still rocking the performance per Watt game.

Last-gen cards

You'll notice we've only covered the latest graphics cards in this guide, while there are still many last-gen cards from both AMD and Nvidia available out there. We've approached this roundup as products we'd recommend for people to buy as a brand new card, or for their next PC build/purchase. For the sort of money we're talking about spending we'd always recommend going for the latest technology to give you at least a little bit of a chance at future-proofing your purchase. It also doesn't necessarily follow that last-gen cards will suddenly be super-cheap the moment a new generation gets released - as stock gets run down the availability drops, but so does demand and all that means prices generally stay unattractively high. There is going to be a quick drop in GTX 9-series prices, for example, but do you want to buy a GTX 980 Ti for the same price as a GTX 1070? You will though find ebay filled with older cards, but the second-hand market in components can be a bit of a minefield depending on how they've been treated previously.

That said, if you're already sitting on a GTX 970 - my pick of the last-gen cards - then picking up a second one, for a little less than the money you might drop on a new GTX 1060, could be a good way of boosting your gaming performance. Recommending an SLI setup isn't something I'm that comfortable with however. The vagaries of multi-GPU gaming mean that, while you ought to be treated to a significant performance uplift with a second card, sometimes you'll hit a new release which steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the existence of subsequent GPUs leaving one card twiddling its thumbs. There are also games which never get SLI or CrossFire support in their lifetimes. In short: multi-GPU gaming can be a gamble.

Video memory

How much VRAM do you need to have attached to your graphics card? It used to be a way for manufacturers to pretend their budget cards were better than they were, but these days having a hefty amount of video memory is becoming more and more important. As texture quality improves and resolutions creep ever higher more VRAM is a definite bonus.

In the mid-range the GTX 1060 and RX 480 are sporting 6GB and 8GB respectively. There are RX 480's with half the video memory incoming, though I’ve yet to see just how much difference there is between a 4GB and 8GB version. At the top you’ve got the GTX Titan X with a full 12GB of video memory, and for super high-resolution gaming that will come in handy, especially a little way down the line.

Lower down the order though it becomes a mite trickier choosing between 2GB and 4GB versions of a card. When it comes to a $100 (£100) budget GPU you can arguably get away with 2GB, especially considering the price premium that we've seen attached to the 4GB options.

Factory-overclocked cards

MSI GTX 1060 Gaming X temperature

These are my current bete noire, especially when it comes to lower order graphics cards. Factory-overclocked GPUs come with an out-of-the-box boost to their clockspeeds, sometimes as little as 10MHz, or as potentially high as 100MHz, but if you’re paying the price premium attached to such cards just for an immediate performance boost you might well be disappointed. Often factory-overclocked cards won’t deliver that much better performance than you'd get with a stock-clocked model.

What they do offer though is the option for an enthusiast to take the GPU further. If you’ve got a manufacturer boosted card then the likelihood is they will have picked the best chips for those pricier versions, the chips with the most overclocking headroom available. That means you’re potentially able to push them further than a reference-clocked version could go. 

But they still only really make sense if you’re serious about getting elbow deep in voltage tweaks and fan-profiles. If you’re more of a casual overclocker then you’ll probably get the little performance boost you crave from a standard version of a GPU. Overclocking is genuinely easier than it’s ever been and as close to risk-free as modifying a PC component could possibly be.

Factory-overclocked cards though quickly lose relevance the further down the price ladder you go. A budget GPU is unlikely to have a huge amount of overclocking headroom anyways, not that will make a tangible performance difference anyway, so their extra expense pushes them towards pointlessness. The latest RX 460 is a prime example. The extra 30% price premium for the overclocked version I’ve tested pushes it incredibly close to the cost of a 4GB RX 470, a GPU which is around twice as fast in-game, making it a tough card to love.

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0V3RKILL avatarDave James avatarpatelbrij99 avatarGsquat avatarStreetguru avatarvoidhelix avatar
0V3RKILL Avatar
252
3 Months ago

I'm gonna go with a furyx with a sealed water cooled system from XFX this time around. Performs amazing and it is the coolest card in the market. I had enough of cards hitting near or over 80c. Any kind of heat in your card creates stuttering and those air cooled ones like the twinfrozer don't have great fans. Give it a week and everything will be full of dust not being able to breath. Water cooled systems are easy to clean from the out side of the case. No need to take your video card apart to clean those thermal fins

1
Dave James Avatar
202
3 Months ago

You're right about water-cooled cards having excellent cooling, but I'd caution against the Fury X if you're talking about the original, Fiji-powered one.

It's only got the same gaming performance as an overclocked GTX 1060 these days, and because those GPUs run so hot the water-cooler can only keep it down to 64degreesC at peak operation - the same level as the TwinFrozr fans of the MSI GTX 1060 Gaming X.

But if you're waiting for XFX to rock out a Vega-powered RX Fury X, that could be one beast of a card!

1
0V3RKILL Avatar
252
3 Months ago

I'm planning on buying the regular R9-FURY-4QFA. It does I think 56c at full load which is still the coolest of them all and easy to clean. I hear ya about the 1060 but I am an amd fan. Turned my back on NVidia after the 295. Was an NVidia guy since the 5200 lol and only bought their best. I had very bad experience and none so far with amd. Been very happy, since the first one I had which was the 3870x2

1
Dave James Avatar
202
1 Month ago

Ouch, not surprised you turned your back on the green team after the GTX 295 nightmare... support, what support?

The RX 480 8GB is now a great price and it's a real close run thing between that and the GTX 1060 for my favourite card right now.

1
patelbrij99 Avatar
1
1 Month ago

Should I buy an i5 6600k and gtx 1070 now, or wait for zen?

1
Gsquat Avatar
1
1 Month ago

Depends. Is there something out or out soon that you really want to play but can't with your current setup? If not, definitely wait. AMD Ryzen/Vega will produce a better option for your money. I'm actually going to wait until I can get a Vega card used.

1
Streetguru Avatar
10
2 Weeks ago

Gotta update the shadowplay bit with AMD's ReLive competing now

Also given the results here I'd have to give it to the 480, Mostly on the back of Free-sync, but also for DX12/Vulkan in the future, and the fact that you can crossfire if you happen to have some spare cash and get a really good deal on a 480 or even a 470

Driver updates have put it on par in DX11 with the 1060, plus you get a bit of Extra VRAM which is just nice to have.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s12S74umruY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEw3CaNSbUo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiYQqNiqQKU

1
voidhelix Avatar
1
5 Days ago

Hi. I`m trying to upgrade the GPU in my Alienare M15X laptop. I`ve decided on either a Geforce GTX1050 TI, Firepro M6100 or Geforce GTX970M. But I can`t find any to buy. Can you direct me to place I can buy them, or give me some advice on a current gen card I should buy? Ty in advance.

1