There are almost too many top graphics cards to choose from, which is why this here article is all about identifying the single best GPU you can get for playing games at 1080p, 1440p and 4K. Read on for advice on what to pick and how to pick your next graphics card.
The plentiful supply comes after recent dark days for graphics. The explosion in cryptocurrency mining cleared out stockrooms, shunted prices skywards and made the process of buying a card for playing games an exercise in desperate Googling and unnecessary cash-wasting. Thankfully things do seem to be cooling down, with prices slowly returning to pre-boom levels and almost all of the factory-upgraded partner cards (from the likes of Asus, MSI, Zotac, Gigabyte etc) coming back into stock. That finally gives us a more-or-less full selection of cards to choose from.
Graphics card buying guide
To clarify what I mean by ‘best’, it won’t just be the card that can get the highest frame rate regardless of all other factors – otherwise it’d just be the Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti for every resolution. I’m more concerned, as I’m sure you are, with what cards can capably handle 60fps at each res for the least money.
At most price points and performance levels, you’ve essentially got a choice between Nvidia or AMD cards; these aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but generally, Nvidia’s tend to be more efficient (thanks to the current generation’s Pascal manufacturing architecture), while AMD’s tend to cost less. Less at the low- and high-end, anyway – mid-range Radeons got battered particularly hard by the aforementioned volatility.
That said, you should seldom actually buy one of the original reference cards. Partner cards are the way to go, especially if they come with an upgraded, open-air fan cooler. Nvidia and AMD’s designs use noisy, less efficient ‘blower style’ coolers. Partner cards also typically benefit from small, but factory-tested (and thus safe and stable) core speed overclocks, improving performance even if it’s just an extra few frames-per-second. Obviously, this raises internal temperatures, but that’s why it helps to have a good fan cooler.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the cards you should be considering for flawless 60fps gaming.
Best graphics card for 1080p: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti
This souped-up GTX 1050 (souped-up in the sense Nvidia didn’t intentionally disable any of its processor cores) is about as close as you’ll get to a perfect budget card. Will it smoothly run every single game at its best settings on Full HD? Heavens no, but that’s a pipe dream even for parts costing twice as much.
Besides, for less (far less) than £200, this is easily as good as it gets. The modest-sounding 768 CUDA cores put in a surprising amount of work, pushing the GTX 1050 Ti to visibly better performance levels than you’d see from a regular GTX 1050 or AMD’s Radeon RX 560. As long as you stick to 1080p, many games actually will achieve a certain silkiness with maxed-out quality, and even the tougher ones can be tamed with Medium settings.
It comes equipped with 4GB of memory (the same as some mid-range cards), though at 1080p this alone won’t make much of a difference compared to the 2GB of cheaper options. Then again, it might be wise to have that extra VRAM on hand for the future, what with AAA games getting sharper and shinier all the time.
In any case, it’s not just price or performance that makes the GTX 1050 Ti so good. It’s also incredibly efficient, only requiring a 300W power supply to run (again, good news for cash-strapped budget builders), and unlike any of the other cards in this article, can go without any six- or eight-pin power cable. Instead, it simply drinks all the juice it needs directly from the mobo’s PCIe slot.
Right now there’s a lovely little Zotac model, the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti Mini, going for £140. I’ve played with this specific card during my day job as a print hack, and it’s a fine component: only 145mm long and lightly overclocked, yet a brilliantly cool runner.
Read our full Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti review.
Best graphics card for 1440p: AMD Radeon RX 580
Had I written this a month ago, back when the only way to get a proper mid-range Radeon card was to break into a Bitcoin miner’s house and steal one from their collection, you’d be reading about how the GeForce GTX 1060 is the best-value choice for 1440p play.
Nvidia’s card is still a good piece of hardware, of course, but the 8GB RX 580 has at least returned to sane pricing levels – to the point where it’s pretty much dead on with the GTX 1060, in fact – and it’s just ever-so-slightly better overall. Not so much in power efficiency, but the extra 2GB of memory it has over the GeForce makes for a teeny performance advantage when playing at resolutions above 1080p (except in VR, where the GTX 1060 wins out). Frame rates are typically close enough that you couldn’t tell them apart by eyeballing, but other telltale signs of a struggling card – like micro-stuttering in The Witcher 3 – are slightly less prevalent on the RX 580.
That’s true for the 8GB model, anyway. You can get a 4GB version on the (relative) cheap, but you’d be costing yourself in 1440p performance as well as futureproofing potential. We’re starting to see games launch with Ultra-quality graphics settings (mainly textures) that require 8GB, such as in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, and unless you fancy dropping nearly twice as much on a GTX 1070, Vega RX 54 or better, this card is the cheapest way to get your hands on that particular spec.
The absolute wallet-friendliest 8GB RX 580 I’ve found is this £270 PowerColor model, though I’ve no experience with PowerColor hardware myself and the word online consists of qualified praise at best. This overclocked XFX GTS Black Edition is a good bet at £278, though, if you can live with the weird recessed positioning of the power connector.
Read our full AMD Radeon RX 580 review.
Best graphics card for 4K: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
Again, this is almost a toss-up between two cards: the GTX 1070 and the GTX 1080. It’s incredibly tempting to suggest the former; it’s cheaper, with even overclocked, custom-cooled versions starting just below £400, yet still manages to run most games at 4K with reasonably high settings. Indeed, the GTX 1070 actually uses the same GPU as the GTX 1080, the GP-104, just with a chunk of its cores disabled. Both have 8GB of memory, too.
Why, then, go for the GTX 1080? Fundamentally, it’s more powerful, and not by an insignificant amount – at 4K specifically, it can make the difference between a game chugging along and it just finding enough frames-per-second to feel sufficiently playable.
This isn’t remotely surprising given the GTX 1080’s additional cores, but there’s also the VRAM. These two cards might have an equal 8GB apiece, but some memory is more equal and others, as the GTX 1080 employs GDDR5X-type VRAM to the GTX 1070’s older GDDR5. Basically, GDDR5X memory works faster while using slightly less power, allowing the GTX 1080 to access all that juicy graphics data – and get the results on your monitor – a little bit faster.
Naturally, this will all cost more, but it might be less than you think. Largely thanks to the GTX 1080 Ti (which we’ll address in a minute), which arrived well after Nvidia’s main Pascal launch, GTX 1080 prices have plummeted far further than those of any other 10-series cards, so what previously cost close to £700 is now more like £500-£600, depending on what kind of cooling and overclocking has been added.
The best deal online looks to be this mildly OC’d Gigabyte model for £496, which is only about £95 more than its GTX 1070 equivalent. I haven’t given this particular card the benchmark treatment, but Gigabyte’s Windforce cooler design is usually pretty decent, and you do get a full three fans and backplate for both structural sturdiness and tastefully understated looks. If £95 does sound like an unreasonable premium, keep in mind that this is very much a card for high-end rigs, which will probably include a premium CPU and 4K monitor. Once you’ve already cleared a grand on the key components alone (never mind the case, system RAM, cooling and storage), £95 for an altogether better video card is hardly a proportionally ruinous amount.
Read our full Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 review.
Speaking of money, here’s why Nvidia’s other 4K-ready options (AMD’s Vega cards are, if you’ll forgive the bluntness, not as good) can be safely passed over: the GTX 1070Ti only offers tiny improvements on the GTX 1070 for more cash than they’re really worth, and the top-of-the-line GTX 1080 Ti is just silly expensive. Sure, it’s got what purists would say is more of true high-end GPU, the GP-102, but this only translates into – again – marginally better performance than that of the GTX 1080. With prices starting at £700 and pushing £960 for some models, it’s not really worth the initial sense of luxury.
Now you know which graphics card to buy, head over to our Black Friday graphics card hub where you can find all the latest deals on how to pick one up on the cheap. Also check out our main Black Friday article for deals on other bits of hardware over the next few weeks.