Detailed graphics card specifications and reviews are great, assuming you have the time to do the research. But at the end of the day, a gamer needs to know what the best graphics card is for their money. So, if you don’t have the time to research the benchmarks, or if you don’t feel confident enough in your ability to pick the right card, then fear not. We've compiled a simple list of the best gaming cards offered in any given price range.
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July 2016 Updates
May, June, and July were all busy months in the world of PC graphics. Nvidia led off by announcing a new gaming flagship, which we covered in Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Pascal Review. It followed up a couple of weeks later with the GeForce GTX 1070 (Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 8GB Pascal Performance Review). The 1080 is significantly faster than anything we’ve seen before. The 1070 beats all of Nvidia’s previous-gen offerings, and generally bests AMD’s Radeon R9 Fury X at a much lower price.
Not to be left out, AMD introduced its Radeon RX 480 (AMD Radeon RX 480 8GB Review), which essentially offers better performance than the Radeon R9 290 and GeForce GTX 970, satisfying the minimum requirements for HTC’s Vive and Oculus’ Rift. Although we tested AMD’s $240 8GB card, the company’s 4GB version is only a bit slower. That one sells for as low as $200.
Finally, Nvidia introduced its GeForce GTX 1060 (Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 6GB Review). The third Pascal-based board in as many months gave us performance just shy of the once-flagship GeForce GTX 980. We weren’t fans of the Founders Edition at $300, but partner cards for as little as $250 might turn heads.
Unfortunately, none of the unveilings were accompanied by enough supply to satisfy demand. The GeForce GTX 1080 is just now rolling out in limited quantities. But despite its $700 price tag, most Founders Edition and partner cards are still out of stock. GTX 1070s are a little easier to find these days, though that model was extremely rare for a while too. Newegg doesn’t have a single Radeon RX 480 available. And GeForce GTX 1060s are completely sold out as well.
Which is to say that availability of graphics hardware based on the latest 14/16nm GPUs is still sparse, so if you’re ready for an upgrade, be prepared to spend some time camping out online. Moreover, be aware that many vendors are exploiting the shortages to charge big mark-ups. Our recommendations are exclusively based on the prices given by AMD, Nvidia, and their respective partners.
The High-Tech Low-Down
If you began your summer on a tropical island and missed the excitement, allow us to fill you in on some of the specifics.
GeForce GTX 1080 is based on Nvidia’s GP104 processor. That GPU employs the Pascal architecture, which is similar to Maxwell in many ways, but is manufactured using TSMC’s 16nm FinFET Plus process and incorporates several new features to improve virtual reality experiences, should software developers exploit them. Thanks to an emphasis on cleaning up timings, Nvidia can push GP104 beyond a base clock of 1.6 GHz. Multiply that by the GPU’s 2560 CUDA cores and you get single-precision compute performance of up to 8.2 TFLOPs compared to GTX 980’s 4.6. The use of 10 Gb/s GDDR5X memory on a 256-bit bus bumps bandwidth to 320 GB/s, up from 980’s 224 GB/s. Those specs are substantial enough to give GeForce GTX 1080 a 34% average frame rate advantage over the GTX 980 Ti at 3840x2160 across our benchmark suite. Nvidia caused a bit of controversy by announcing that its reference GeForce GTX 1080, branded the Founders Edition, would sell for $700. Meanwhile, boards built by the company’s partners would start at $600, presumably incorporating fewer premium elements.
The GeForce GTX 1070 is derived from the same GP104 GPU with one of its four Graphics Processing Clusters disabled. What remains are 1920 CUDA cores and 120 texture units. The loss of compute resources, coupled with less aggressive clock rates and a step back to 8 Gb/s GDDR5 memory, pulls performance down to GeForce GTX Titan X levels, more or less. But Nvidia differentiates by selling its reference Founders Edition card for $450, while partner boards start at $380.
AMD’s Radeon RX 480 features a Polaris-based GPU with 36 Compute Units capable of greater-than 5 TFLOPs of single-precision compute performance, while up to 8GB of 8 Gb/s GDDR5 memory drives throughput as high as 256 GB/s. The GPU is manufactured using GlobalFoundries’ 14nm FinFET process. Further, typical board power lands in the same neighborhood as Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1070, around 150 W. AMD’s pitch is that the RX 480 makes VR accessible to a broader audience than previous-gen boards selling for $300+, and which barely satisfy the minimum requirements of popular HMDs. The RX 480 $200 price tag targets volume rather than prestige. We were disappointed when AMD sent over its $240 8GB card for review after beating the drum about a $200 part so aggressively. But the cheaper 4GB version should only be a little slower owning to its 7 Gb/s memory, which pares bandwidth back to 224 GB/s.
Finally, there’s GeForce GTX 1060, based on Nvidia’s GP106 processor. Its 1280 CUDA cores at 1506 MHz, 192-bit memory bus, and 6GB of GDDR5 memory are fast enough to eclipse the Radeon RX 480. But expect to pay a premium for that distinction. Partner boards start at $250, while the Founders Edition sells for $300. We saw the GTX 1060 cut through taxing games at 1920x1080 with details cranked up. It’s also quite capable at 2560x1440. Then again, the same applies to AMD’s cheaper alternative.
14/16nm Changes Everything
As everyone gnashes their teeth, waiting for access to all of this cool new hardware that AMD and Nvidia are trying to crank out, our list of recommendations must evolve to take those absentee models into consideration. This month’s recommendations consequently seek a compromise between availability and the price you’ll pay for better hardware once supply catches up.
For maxed-out virtual reality, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 takes the win. We previously recommended two cards for playable performance—Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980 and AMD’s Radeon R9 390X. But even then, we heard complaints that the most taxing titles stuttered. Now we can suggest a GeForce GTX 1080 for cranking the dial on quality, while the GeForce GTX 1070 gives you more performance than either old endorsement, and for less money.
The recommendations at 4K are more challenging. Although we know a couple of GeForce GTX 1070s would be faster than a single GTX 1080, SLI’s future seems far from certain in a development environment less accommodating of multi-GPU optimizations. As such, we’re going the 1080 route, favoring the compatibility benefits of one faster card. Choose the 1070 if you’re not as worried about cranking the quality. Offering higher-than-Titan X frame rates, the 1080’s baby brother almost makes UHD an affordable proposition.
Our guidance for QHD is conflicted, too. Once upon a time, we recommended the Radeon R9 390X for maxing-out your quality settings at a price point just under $400. Now the GeForce GTX 1070 is a bit more expensive, but it’s a lot faster. Given the 390X’s sub-60 FPS averages in our GTX 1070 coverage, we’re compelled to spend a little extra on a vastly superior experience. Although remaining 390X cards dropped to as little as $330, the added horsepower of a 1070 goes a long way. On the other hand, a Radeon RX 480 lets you run at 2560x1440 with dialed-back detail settings for $200, no problem. We’re not worried about 4GB of GDDR5 at this resolution, and less memory gets you a better price.
The RX 480 upsets our selection for maxed-out 1920x1080, too. Who wants a GeForce GTX 970 for $300+ when AMD’s $200 card is generally faster? Not this guy. And while it’s tempting to snag a $140 GeForce GTX 950 for playable performance at FHD, the RX 480 is so much faster that it’d be silly to not enjoy its advantages for $60 more. This will likely change once AMD launches the Radeon RX 470, so hold tight if $200 is out of your budget.
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Some Notes About Our Recommendations
- This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money. If you don’t play games, the cards on this list are more expensive than what you really need.
- Recommendations for multiple video cards, such as two Radeon cards in CrossFire mode or two GeForce cards in SLI, typically require a motherboard that supports CrossFire/SLI and possibly a chassis with plenty of space to install multiple graphics cards. These setups also usually call for a beefier power supply than what a single card needs, and will almost certainly produce more heat than a single card. Keep these factors in mind when making your purchasing decision.
- Prices and availability change on a daily basis. We can’t base our decisions on always-changing pricing information, but we can list some good cards that you probably won’t regret buying at the price ranges we suggest, along with real-time prices for your reference.
- The list is based on some of the best U.S. prices from online retailers. In other countries or at retail stores, your mileage will almost certainly vary.
- These are new card prices. No used or open-box cards are in the list. While these offers might represent a good deal, it’s simply outside the scope of what we’re trying to do.
Best @ HD (720p) & eSports
AMD Radeon R7 360
Based on the same Bonaire GPU as Radeon R7 260, the Radeon R7 360 is just a bit faster thanks to a more aggressive core and GDDR5 memory clock rate. We wouldn’t expect the 360 to catch AMD’s venerable R7 260X, though, which featured a few extra shader cores and texture units.
Still, resourceful gamers should be able to coax playable frame rates from this card at 1920x1080. If you really want to play it safe, consider the Radeon R7 360 a solid bet for resolutions below FHD, such as 1680x1050.
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Best @ FHD (1080p) & Playable @ QHD (1440p)
AMD Radeon RX 480 4GB
Serving up performance that sometimes exceeds a Radeon R9 290, sometimes beats a GeForce GTX 970, and sometimes leads both cards in our benchmark suite, the Radeon RX 480 successfully satisfies AMD’s goal of enabling VR on the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. In a more conventional gaming PC, the card manages playable frame rates at 2560x1440 with some detail settings dialed back, and great performance at 1920x1080 maxed-out. It does all of those things for $200, if you snag the 4GB version.
AMD’s mainstream masterpiece sports 2304 Stream processors, 144 texture units, and a 256-bit memory bus. The company sells an 8GB model for $40 more, but we don’t think it makes as much sense with faster GeForce GTX 1060s available $10 higher.
For now, we even have Radeon RX 480 taking the place of GeForce GTX 950 as our entry-level FHD card. We just can’t bring ourselves to drop that much performance for $60. If you really can’t spent $200 on a 4GB 480, wait for more information on the Radeon RX 470—it’s just around the corner, we promise.
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Maxed-Out @ QHD (1440p) & Playable @ UHD (2160p) & VR
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070
Offering performance in excess of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX Titan X, the GTX 1070 is a true high-end graphics card armed with 1920 CUDA cores, 120 texture units, and 8GB of GDDR5 memory on a 256-bit bus. What’s more, a 150W TDP keeps the 1070’s power requirements conservative: Nvidia recommends a 500W PSU with one eight-pin connector.
Tune it to deliver playable Ultra HD performance, enjoy smooth frame rates in virtual reality, or crank up your detail settings at 2560x1440. This is a very flexible model that’s well-suited to a number of demanding applications. The reference Founders Edition card is available for $450, while partner-designed boards currently start around $410.
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Maxed-Out @ UHD (2160p) & VR
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
Originally, we were leaning toward two GeForce GTX 1070s in SLI as our top choice for maxed-out quality at 3840x2160. But we’re just not confident in that technology’s future universality. It seems like a safer bet to go with one fast GPU for 4K gaming. The same logic applies to VR, where multi-GPU configurations have to be optimized for by developers.
As a result, we’re tapping Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 for both environments. The GP104-based card wields 2560 CUDA cores, 160 texture units, and 8GB of GDDR5X on a 256-bit bus. Its performance is unmatched, and yet it’s only rated for a 180W TDP.
If you think a $650 starting price is steep, remember that’s what you would have paid for a GeForce GTX 980 Ti a few weeks ago, and this card is way faster.
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