Only a few weeks remain before Computex 2015 kicks off in Taipei, Taiwan. Is the gaming graphics card market poised to heat up? Based on the past month of silence from both AMD and Nvidia, it'd be fair to bet that both companies have imminent plans.
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.
The last update to this column was about four months ago. We realize that’s a long time in the world of gaming graphics cards, particularly when the Radeon R9 Fury X, Radeon R9 Fury, GeForce GTX 950, and Radeon R9 Nano all launched in the interim. But the brief respite gave us an opportunity to map out all of the cards out there, revisit our list of recommendations and really think about how enthusiasts buy graphics upgrades.
We’re sure many gamers do plan out what they pay for each component. And in reality, that’s still the easiest way for us to organize our picks. But there are at least two other considerations to weigh. First, you have a total budget, in which graphics is one variable. Balancing performance means you can “borrow” from one category to fund another. So, there may be situations where it’s worth stepping up a tier to cut elsewhere. Then you have your resolution target. Certain GPUs and memory configurations are clearly paired to service a specific monitor size. Other combinations (like entry-level processors with lots of memory) won’t benefit you much at all. Increasingly, we’d like to think about resolution and detail settings when we make some of these recommendations to better guide your purchase.
With that in mind, let’s start from the top and work our way down.
Back in June, we were still getting over the surprise of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980 Ti, which effectively took the $1000 GeForce GTX Titan X off of our radar with its $650 price tag. Today you’ll find the 980 Ti at around $640, joined in that same range by AMD’s Radeon R9 Fury X and R9 Nano. Now, the Nano is a special case in that it’s slower, but specifically intended for small form factor applications. If you need it, you need it. If not, there’s no reason to pay a premium for a card that underperforms the GeForce GTX 980 (vanilla, not Ti).
AMD’s Radeon R9 Fury X trades blows with the top-end GeForce, though. It tends to be slower than its principal competition at 2560x1440 and faster at 3840x2160. Our AMD Radeon R9 Fury X 4GB Review showed us that it’s certainly possible to get playable frame rates from both at 4K. However, if you’re serious about maximizing quality settings, there’s a good case to be made for a second GM200 or Fiji GPU, be that from a GeForce GTX 980 Ti, Radeon R9 Fury X or vanilla Fury. Even a couple of 980s should get you there. Between the flagships, we’d pick two reference GeForce GTX 980 Tis first and a pair of Radeon R9 Fury X cards second (with the stipulation that you’ll need a big case to accommodate multiple radiators). In fact, since you’re already looking at two cards, it makes more sense to save some money on a couple R9 Fury boards for $100 less (each), side-step the liquid cooling issue and lean on traditional heat sinks and fans.
If you’re willing to dial back your detail presets a couple of notches, a single GeForce GTX 980 Ti or Radeon R9 Fury X should still be good for 4K (that’s based on our experience testing at maxed-out settings for our Fury X review, where we saw mostly-playable frame rates). And of course, either solution cuts through 2560x1440 effortlessly, even at today’s games’ most taxing presets. Then again, you don’t need to spend $650 to enjoy fluid performance on a QHD monitor. A Radeon R9 Fury, GeForce GTX 980, or Radeon R9 390X should be plenty in most games. We’re even seeing a few Radeon R9 290X cards for sale still, and they’re going for as little as $350. Again, this is one of those situations where we favor the thermal performance of centrifugal fans versus third-party designs that almost exclusively employ axial coolers. As a result, Nvidia’s reference GeForce GTX 980 remains a favorite, though a $490 price tag is fairly steep when you consider a Radeon R9 390X comes close to its performance for ~$70 less.
In a great many cases, a Radeon R9 390 or GeForce GTX 970 should give you playable performance at 2560x1440 at maxed-out settings. However, there will be those games that necessitate running at something other than Ultra. Both models represent a reasonable compromise between performance and an upper-mid-range price, though. We like the few remaining 970s with reference coolers for their ability to exhaust heated air from your chassis. But there’s also something to be said for the 390’s 8GB frame buffer that’d handle an eventual upgrade to CrossFire on a 4K display much more gracefully than the 970’s 3.5+.5GB config.
The next step back lands us in 1920x1080 territory, where a Radeon R9 380, R9 285, or GeForce GTX 960 should handle business adeptly around the $200 mark. Back in June, we pulled the Radeon R9 280’s honorable mention and gave the nod to AMD’s Radeon R9 380. That sentiment remains valid, particularly with the Radeon R9 380 and GeForce GTX 960 selling for $10 less. Our only caveat is that AMD’s architecture remains less efficient than Nvidia’s, so for a bit of up-front savings and more performance, expect higher power consumption and increased heat output.
A GeForce GTX 950 or Radeon R7 370 both do 1920x1080 as well, though you may need to fine-tune detail settings for smooth performance, depending on the game you’re playing. The GeForce is faster and costs about $20 more, but provides some much-needed competition for the 370, which garnered an uncontested recommendation back in June.
Sliding below the $150 mark has a profound effect on the resolutions and settings at your disposal. Cards in this range are better for playing at 1680x1050 on older monitors. Still, we like the Radeon R7 260X—particularly the fact that you can find at least one model selling for $100. Others go for around $110. The Radeon R7 250X is still floating around out there just under $90, and you’ll continue to find GeForce GT 730 cards selling for $65, representing the entry point for our charts.
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. We've added a reference page at the end of the column covering integrated graphics processors, which is likely more apropos for home, office, and basic multimedia usage models.
- Be sure to check out our new performance per pound comparison page, where you can overlay the benchmark data we’ve generated with pricing, giving you a better idea where your ideal choice falls on the value curve. The criteria to get on this list are strictly price/performance.
- 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. In most cases, if we have recommended a multiple-card solution, we try to recommend a single-card honorable mention at a comparable price point for those who find multi-card setups undesirable.
- 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.