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.
Updates - April 2016
This month's Best Graphics Cards for the Money puts us in a strange place. On one hand, every enthusiast out there knows we're about to see new architectures from AMD (Polaris) and Nvidia (Pascal). On the other, that's often when you find the best prices on older models.
Indeed, the flagship Radeon R9 Fury X (~$620) and GeForce GTX 980 Ti (~$600) are both a little less expensive than in months past. It remains difficult to choose between them for playable Ultra HD performance, though. AMD's Fiji GPU complemented by HBM is typically a bit faster at 3840x2160, while the 980 Ti costs a little less and occupies an easier-to-accommodate form factor.
Incidentally, that last factor is why we recommend two 980 Tis in SLI for maxing out quality settings at 4K. If your chassis can accommodate two Fury X cards, their radiators and whatever cooling solution tops your host processor, by all means go that route. Most enthusiasts will struggle to make Fury X in CrossFire fit nicely, though.
A step down, AMD cleans house at 2560x1440. The Radeon R9 390X is quite a bit cheaper than the GeForce GTX 980. We'll add that the Radeon R9 Nano can be found for less than $500, making it an attractive piece of hardware in space-constrained enclosures. But we wouldn't necessarily suggest it over the 390X, which is plenty powerful for high-quality QHD gaming. And although the Radeon R9 390 is a little pricier than a GeForce GTX 970, we like its 8GB of GDDR5 for playable framerates at 2560x1440 with the detail settings turned down some.
It might seem strange, then, that the GeForce GTX 970 gets a recommendation at 1920x1080 with details maxed out. Again, though, the GM104-based board costs less, uses far less power and even outmaneuvers the 390 in many games. For FHD, it's a good card.
If you're looking to game at 1920x1080 but don't have the cash for a $300 graphics card, the GeForce GTX 950 2GB will get you there for $140 (down $10 from last month). Two-gigabyte Radeon R7 370s are about $10 cheaper, though they're also not as fast. For that, you'd want a Radeon R9 380, and that would put you closer to $190.
What about virtual reality? Multiple Tom's Hardware editors have had their hands on Oculus' Rift and HTC's Vive at this point, and we have a better idea of what it takes to play current-gen VR games smoothly. Unanimously, we agree that the GeForce GTX 970/Radeon R9 290 recommended specs shared by both HMDs are perhaps one tier lower than they should be. Most games run fine at that level. However, a handful can be made to exhibit artifacts with quality presets pushed too high.
The better place to start, in our opinion, would be a Radeon R9 390X or GeForce GTX 980. Those cards make it through taxing scenarios like the opening scene from Chronos without stuttering. We're picking both boards as our first VR-specific recommendations, but caution that they may not last long depending on what AMD and Nvidia announce in the weeks to come. More than anything, we want to set realistic expectations of how much PC to own before you think about sinking several hundred dollars into a virtual reality headset.
Graphics Card Top Picks
Some Notes About Our Recommendations
A few simple guidelines to keep in mind when reading this list:
- 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)
Playable: Nvidia GeForce GT 730 64-bit GDDR5
Our entry-level recommendation is Nvidia's GeForce GT 730 64-bit GDDR5. This card is essentially a GeForce GT 630 with more memory bandwidth. As a result, it lands between its predecessor and the GeForce GTX 650. That's a great starting point for gamers on a tight budget. If you're in the market for a solid sub-$100 discrete board, just be sure you have the 64-bit GDDR5 version in your shopping cart; the 128-bit model is actually slower due to a less powerful GPU.
Maxed-Out: 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.
Best @ FHD (1080p)
Playable: Nvidia GeForce GTX 950
Although the GTX 950 isn’t as fast as our previous pick, AMD’s Radeon R9 380, the purpose of this category is playable performance at 1920x1080, and our benchmark numbers show the 950 easily capable of that. Best of all, you’ll save at least $50—money that can be spent on a larger SSD or an 8GB memory kit.
The GeForce GTX 950 is a potent little thing thanks to its efficient GM206 processor. Particularly at this resolution, we’re really not bothered by the 2GB of GDDR5 you get, but rather we appreciate the 90W TDP and single 6-pin power connector.
Maxed-Out: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970
Introduced at a price point under $350, the GeForce GTX 970 is a disruptive force in the graphics card market. It enabled Radeon R9 290X-class frame rates for less money, forcing AMD to drop the prices on its single-GPU flagship. There's been some kickback from the community as Nvidia originally released some incorrect specifications regarding the card's memory bandwidth, ROPs and L2 cache, but this doesn't change the fact that, more often than not, the GeForce GTX 970 will beat the Radeon R9 290X at similar graphics settings.
Best @ QHD (1440p)
Playable: AMD Radeon R9 390
AMD’s Radeon R9 390 now sells for less than the outgoing 290X. Although the 390 features fewer shaders than its predecessor, higher core and memory clock rates, in addition to an extra 4GB of GDDR5, create a situation where the 290X is edged out. Sounds like a win-win for gamers.
The extra performance is good for cranking up the detail settings in the latest games at 1920x1080. And because it comes with plenty of on-board memory, we’re also calling AMD’s 390 our recommendation for playable performance at 2560x1440 (so long as you’re willing to dial-back graphics quality a bit).
Maxed-Out: AMD Radeon R9 390X
AMD’s Radeon 390X wields the same 2816 Stream processors, 176 texture units and 64 ROPs as the 290X before it. But its core clock rate is up to 50MHz higher, its memory frequency receives a 250MHz bump and it boasts 8GB of GDDR5.
That’s enough of an improvement to battle Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980. Except the 980 sells for quite a bit more, leaving AMD to claim our recommendation for 2560x1440 in the latest games with detail settings maxed out.
Best @ UHD (2160p)
Playable: AMD Radeon R9 Fury X
A single Radeon R9 Fury X is fast enough to post playable frame rates at 3840x2160 in most modern games using carefully chosen quality settings. It’s actually quicker than Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980 Ti by virtue of its HBM, too. But you’ll need to place the liquid-cooled card’s 120mm radiator in your chassis, making it a little unwieldy. Again, the two boards are equally impressive, compelling us to call this a tie.
We can’t shake the feeling, though, that any gamer willing to drop the cash on one Fury X and a 4K screen has aspirations to experience the latest titles cranked up to their Ultra presets, necessitating even more graphics muscle.
Playable: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti
In the month since our last Best Graphics Cards update, select GeForce GTX 980 Ti partner cards fell to $600, matching the cheapest Radeon R9 Fury X. We’re calling both flagships playable at 3840x2160, provided you’re willing to dial back detail settings on a game-by-game basis.
AMD does claim a slight performance advantage at 4K. However, the 980 Ti tends to be cooler, quieter and more self-contained. It’d be hard to go wrong either way.
Maxed-Out: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti in SLI
A GeForce GTX 980 Ti or Radeon R9 Fury X is great for getting playable frame rates out of modern games using relaxed settings. But if you really want a smooth experience at 4K, you’ll want the cooperative rendering power of CrossFire or SLI. While we favor single-GPU solutions wherever possible, there simply is no processor fast enough to sustain smooth frame rates in all of today’s games at 3840x2160 and ultra-quality.
Our Radeon R9 Fury X review demonstrated that a card with 4GB of memory can handle UHD without running out of room for texture data. Thus, two GeForce GTX 980s in SLI would likely get the job done. That’s more than 4000 CUDA cores for less than the price of a GeForce GTX Titan X.
Radeon R9 Fury cards are even faster, though now you’re talking about an outlay of ~$1100. Those are the quickest boards from AMD that we’d pair up—Fury X is nice and short, but a pair of radiators is just too unwieldy.
The better option is two GeForce GTX 980 Tis pumping all of their waste heat out of your case in a simpler dual-slot form factor. For the ultimate in 4K with maxed-out quality, two 980 Tis are the way we’d go. Just be ready to drop $1200 on graphics and a platform powerful enough to prevent bottlenecks.
Best @ VR
Maxed-Out: AMD Radeon R9 390X
When Oculus' Rift launched, the AMD GPUs we tested had trouble in a couple of titles (most notably, Chronos). We're hoping those early issues were ironed out by drivers. Even so, we'd suggest the Radeon R9 390X as a better alternative to the R9 290 that Oculus and HTC recommend for a smooth VR experience. Lower-end cards may necessitate dialing back certain detail settings in today's taxing games, while the 390X delivers a satisfying experience in all of the software we've thrown at it thus far.
Maxed-Out: Nvidia GeForce GTX 980
Although HTC and Oculus both call out Nvidia's GeForce GTX 970 as their minimum recommended graphics card, we feel safer taking one step up to the GeForce GTX 980. Yes, we realize that's an extra $160 or so. But the editors with experience gaming on the Rift and Vive independently ran into scenarios where the 970 just isn't smooth 100 percent of the time.