The best graphics cards for PC gaming

It's a bad time to buy.

Best Graphics Card hub primary image Rob Schultz

“What graphics card within my budget gives me the best bang for my buck?”

The answer is pretty much “none” in today’s wildly inflated market, but that simple question cuts to the core of what people hunting for a new graphics card look for: the most oomph they can afford. Sure, the technological leaps behind each new GPU can be interesting on their own, but most everyone just wants to crank up the detail settings on Far Cry and get right to playing.

Last updated 1/23/2018 to address astronomical graphics card prices and link to PCWorld’s guide on how to keep gaming in the coin mining era.

Answering the question can be a bit trickier than it seems. Raw performance is a big part of it, but factors like noise, the driver experience, and supplemental software all play a role in determining which graphics card to buy, too.

Let us make it easy for you. We’ve tested damned near every major GPU that has hit the streets over the past couple of years, from $100 budget cards to $1,200 luxury models. Our knowledge has been distilled down into this article—a buying guide with recommendations on which graphics card to buy, no matter what sort of experience you’re looking for.

Note: There are customized versions of every graphics card from a slew of vendors. For example, you can buy different Radeon RX 570 models from Sapphire, XFX, Asus, MSI, and PowerColor.

We’ve linked to our formal review for each recommendation, but the buying links lead to models that stick closely to each graphics card’s MSRP. Spending extra can get you hefty out-of-the-box overclocks, beefier cooling systems, and more. Check out our “What to look for in a custom card” section below for tips on how to choose a customized card that’s right for you.

Cryptocurrency and sky-high graphics card prices

Graphics card prices are downright ludicrous right now.

Even though most of today’s GPUs are going on two years old, all of them are suffering from price inflation and stock shortages, with most models selling for nearly double their suggested retail price. That’s because Bitcoin-like cryptocurrencies that pay users for their graphics processing power are booming right now. Pair that with rising memory costs and seasonal supply volatility, and there’s a major crunch in graphics card availability. It’s a major bummer if you’re just looking to game.

sapphire mining card Sapphire

Mining-specialized graphics cards like this Sapphire Nitro model often lack display outputs.

Hardware makers rolled out mining-specialized graphics cards to combat the spiking demand, but that hasn’t stopped miners from gobbling up every consumer card they can lay hands on, too. 

We advise against buying a graphics card while prices are so extreme. The exception is budget-class graphics cards: They’re still selling for more than they should, but won’t bankrupt you. More creative solutions are available as well, which we cover in depth in PCWorld’s guide on how to keep gaming in the coin mining era.

Best budget graphics card

If you want to dip your toes into the PC gaming waters without getting dunked by today’s astronomical graphics card prices, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 ($135 and up on Amazon) is the clear choice for entry-level gaming. 

Nvidia’s pitching the GeForce GTX 1050 as a superb upgrade option for e-sports enthusiasts and PC gamers on a budget. The card delivers on that mission in spades. You can crank in-game graphics to High and blow past 100 frames per second in Dota 2OverwatchCounter-Strike: Global Offensive, and more. (That’s a huge step up from integrated graphics.) The GTX 1050 hovers around the 60-frames-per-second gold standard in most games at Medium graphics settings at 1080p, or can pump out Ultra-quality visuals if you don’t mind a more console-esque 30 fps.

dsc01066 Brad Chacos

The EVGA GTX 1050 Ti SC Gaming and MSI GTX 1050 2G OC.

The GeForce GTX 1050’s small size and sub-75-watt power requirement means it’ll fit in tight places, and without additional power connections. That makes it an ideal option for upgrading prebuilt “big box” systems from the likes of HP and Dell—most of which lack extra power connectors and extra space—into gaming machines with minimum hassle. When you combine those advantages with the card’s HDMI 2.0b and high-dynamic-range video support, the GTX 1050 also becomes an enticing prospect for home-theater PCs. Be careful while you shop, though, as some overclocked models of the GTX 1050 require an extra six-pin power connector, which prebuilt PCs may not have available.

If a bit more graphical oomph is what you seek, Nvidia also offers the step-up GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, but this ostensibly $140 graphics card is selling for $300 or more in today’s market, ruining its value proposition. The GTX 1050 Ti doubles the onboard RAM to 4GB and offers more under-the-hood firepower than the GTX 1050, while often running off motherboard power alone in some versions. The GTX 1050 Ti allows you to hit nearly 60 fps at High graphics settings in most modern games, and its 4GB of memory is much more future-proof than the GTX 1050’s 2GB.

dsc01710 Brad Chacos/IDG

The Radeon RX 550.

AMD’s rival to the Nvidia duo is the Radeon RX 560, at $140 and up on Newegg when you can find stock available. The Radeon graphics cards are slower, hotter, and more power-hungry than the GeForce GTX 1050s, however. AMD also muddied the waters by quietly releasing slower, less powerful Radeon RX 560s under the same name months after the card launched. The GeForce cards are the obvious pick unless you need to pair a Radeon RX 560 with a FreeSync monitor.

People interested only in e-sports or bolstering a home theater PC’s media chops might want to check out the Radeon RX 550 ($100 and up on Newegg). It’s stellar for those use cases, but it struggles in traditional AAA games. Most people would probably be better off with a GTX 1050.

Best 1080p graphics card

Editor’s note: We don’t recommend any of these cards at the moment, as they’re all selling for nearly twice suggested pricing in today’s wildly astronomical graphics card market. Consider a holdover budget graphics card instead, or read PCWorld’s guide on how to keep gaming in the coin mining era.

Things bunch up a bit more in the $200 to $300 range, though pricing inflation has ravaged the so-called PC gaming sweet spot. Here, you’ll find a slew of contenders for the title of “Best 1080p graphics card”: the Radeon RX 570, the 4GB Radeon RX 580, the 8GB Radeon RX 580, and both the 3GB GeForce GTX 1060 and the standard 6GB GeForce GTX 1060, which feature different innards despite sporting the same name.

You can’t go wrong with any of these cards. They’re all excellent gaming options. Using the Radeon RX 580 (4GB) as a baseline, the RX 570 and 3GB GTX 1060 perform a little bit worse, while the cooler, much more power-efficient 6GB GeForce GTX 1060 performs a little better.

aorus 3 Brad Chacos/IDG

The Gigabyte Aorus RX 570.

The Radeon RX 570 is the card to get if you’re interested only in pure 1080p gaming. It can hit 60fps with all graphical options cranked to maximum levels in most games, delivering no-compromise performance at a damned fine price. With the most affordable models selling for around $240 on Newegg, the card’s still selling for considerably more than AMD’s $170 suggested price, but it’s the best option for 1080p gaming in today’s market (unless you find a more-potent 4GB RX 580 or 6GB GTX 1060 for a similar price).

The Radeon RX 570’s ace in the hole is the 4GB of onboard RAM, which is the minimum needed for flawless 1080p gaming these days. The 3GB GeForce GTX 1060’s smaller memory capacity can already be exceeded in some games—that affects performance and causes stuttering unless you turn down graphics settings such as anti-aliasing. Nonetheless, the 3GB GTX 1060 is the only solid 1080p graphics card selling for $200 these days, and it’s still a good option if you’re working on a strict budget.

But if you have an extra $30 to $40 to spare over the Radeon RX 570’s pricing, we’d highly recommend picking up the 4GB Radeon RX 580 or the 6GB GTX 1060. Both deliver even better 1080p gameplay at 60fps with all the bells and whistles cranked to 11, damned fine 2560x1440-resolution play at High settings (especially with a FreeSync/G-Sync monitor), and even the ability to play VR games on the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. That’s a tremendous amount of value for your money. Consider spending extra for the bigger memory capacities of the 6GB GTX 1060 or 8GB Radeon RX 580 if you’re planning to play at 1440p or in VR, though.

Best 1440p graphics card

Editor’s note: We don’t recommend any of these cards at the moment, as they’re all selling for nearly twice suggested pricing in today’s wildly astronomical graphics card market. Consider a holdover budget graphics card instead, or read PCWorld’s guide on how to keep gaming in the coin mining era.

As we said in the previous section, the Radeon RX 580 and 6GB GTX 1060 are fine options for a decent 1440p/High gaming experience, but you won’t be able to crank graphics options to the max and still hit 60fps in many games. That’s where these cards come in.

There’s a massive price gulf between the 1080p gaming options and the $380 GeForce GTX 1070 or the $400 Radeon RX Vega 56, but the performance difference is just as immense. Those prices are somewhat theoretical though, as cryptocurrency mining has driven most GTX 1070 prices to $420 or more, though you can occasionally find $400 models.

The Radeon RX Vega 56 suffered from extremely limited stock and extremely high prices for months after its launch. AMD’s card started appearing at suggested pricing the same day Nvidia’s $450 GeForce GTX 1070 Ti launched, but it only lasted four days, after which Radeon Vega 56 prices leaped up by over $100 across the board, and they appear out of stock at Newegg again ahead of Black Friday. Wild times. 

dsc02033 Brad Chacos/IDG

The Radeon RX Vega 56.

That said, you get a tremendous amount of performance for your money. Both of these graphics cards can hit 60fps with everything cranked at Ultra settings at 1440p resolution. You’ll also be able to play many games at 4K resolution at High settings, if you don’t mind a lower 40fps-plus rate.

If you’re interested in 4K gaming, an adaptive sync monitor can help smooth out the visual hitches—but 4K G-Sync displays cost a pretty penny. One of the Radeon RX Vega 56’s strengths is its access to affordable FreeSync monitors. On the flip side, the Radeon RX 56 demands considerably more power than the GTX 1070, and the blower-style fan on the reference model gets loud. Pick your poison; both of these cards perform like champs. In reality, the one you choose will likely be whichever one is available for purchase at a better price.

Don’t even think of buying the GTX 1070 or Vega 56 for 1080p resolution unless you’re looking to max out a 144Hz monitor in the latest, greatest games—though 144Hz enthusiasts with 1440p monitors may want to move up to the GTX 1070 Ti or GTX 1080 for even more performance.

Next page: High-end graphics cards, what to look for

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