Autumn is always a trying time for today’s best graphics cards. ‘Tis the season for big games with even bigger graphics budgets, and what was once a mighty card for 60fps at one resolution can suddenly start to feel a bit creaky and long in the tooth – especially now most of Nvidia’s new Turing RTX cards have arrived on scene, which, for the most part, completely re-write the 4K rulebook.
With graphics card prices having largely settled down as well, I thought it was high time to reassess our Best graphics card list and give it an autumnal (spring?) clean. Below, you’ll find everything you need to know about buying your next graphics card, whether it’s for playing games at 1920×1080, 2560×1440 or 4K. Whatever your budget is, we’ve got a card recommendation for you.
Best graphics card guide
I’ve changed the rules slightly this time round, as you’ll now find two recommendations for each resolution category: the best graphics card for playing games at 60fps on max settings at said resolution, plus the card you should actually buy if you’re not that fussed about having the bestest best graphics. This way, the list caters for both the budget conscious among you, and those who’d rather spend a little extra to max out their current monitor setup.
I’d recommend buying a graphics card from a third-party manufacturer like Asus, MSI, Zotac, Gigabyte or EVGA if you can possibly help it, as cards made by Nvidia and AMD often don’t benefit from the superior, custom cooling mechanisms or factory overclock speeds available elsewhere. Nvidia’s new RTX cards are the exception to this rule, but generally, Nvidia and AMD’s reference designs use noisy, less efficient ‘blower style’ coolers which aren’t nearly as efficient as the double, or even triple fan setups you get on third-party partner cards.
This can often bump up the price certain cards, which is why you’ll see some models of the same graphics card costing a lot more than others, but in terms of performance increase, you’re only looking at a couple of frames per second at most. In the vast majority of cases, the cheapest third party card will do you just fine. You may also see ‘mini’ versions of some cards, too. These often have smaller fans or only one as opposed to two, making them slightly less efficient than a normal sized-model, but they’re a great alternative for smaller PC cases, or those looking to save a bit of money.
Best graphics card for 1080p: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 580
What you should actually buy: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti
If you want to play games at maximum settings at 1920×1080, the 6GB version of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1060 or the 8GB AMD Radeon RX 580 is definitely the way to go. Sure, there are cheaper 3GB versions of the GTX 1060 and 4GB models of the RX 580 out there, but in terms of giving yourself a bit of future-proofing against the ever-increasing memory demands of today’s big blockbusters, 6GB / 8GB will put you in much better stead in the years to come. Both cards can capably handle almost every game available today at max or very high settings at this resolution, making them our top picks for flawless 1080p gaming.
However, for those who’d rather not spend the better part of 250 big ones on a graphics card, the 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti will do you just fine. This is as good as it gets under £200 / $200, and is about as close as you’ll get to a perfect budget graphics card. The card’s modest-sounding 768 cores put in a surprising amount of work, pushing the GTX 1050Ti 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 will achieve a certain silkiness with maxed-out quality, while the tougher ones can usually be tamed with Medium settings.
It’s not just price or performance that makes the GTX 1050Ti so good, either. 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 your motherboard’s PCIe slot.
Read more in our Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti review.
Best graphics card for 1440p: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070Ti
What you should actually buy: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 580
For the best experience at 2560×1440, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070Ti is the card for you. You can pick one up for practically the same price as a regular Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 at the moment (otherwise I’d be recommending the latter), and its 2432 CUDA cores will give you get a lot more oomph than the 1920 you’ll find on its non-Ti sibling.
The only problem, of course, is that it’s still so gosh-darned expensive. The GTX 1070Ti is probably a decent investment if you’re thinking about upgrading to a 4K monitor some time soon, as it can just about do the very tiniest bit of 4K gaming without falling over, but really, those of you who aren’t that fussed about having maxed out quality should just go for Nvidia’s 6GB GTX 1060 – or, if you can find it cheaper, the 8GB version of AMD’s Radeon RX 580 (you also get three free games with the RX 580 right now, which may negate any difference in price). Both of these cards make excellent companions for playing games at 1440p, as well as maxed out 1080p, and will only set you back half as much as a GTX 1070Ti.
Disregarding price for a second, the RX 580 just edges ahead of the GTX 1060 in our books. It not only has an extra 2GB of memory that gives it a teeny performance boost and makes it better-equipped to deal with games like Middle-earth: Shadow of War that now require 8GB of memory for Ultra graphics settings, but other telltale signs of a struggling card like micro-stuttering are also slightly less prevalent on the RX 580 compared to the GTX 1060. The GTX 1060 wins out as the best card for VR, we’ve found, but both cards should serve you very well indeed. It’s just a matter of finding one for the least amount of money.
Best graphics card for 4K: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080Ti
What you should actually buy: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 or AMD Radeon Vega 64
It’s ludicrously expensive, but if you’ve got the cash and are after the best of the best that 4K has to offer, then the new Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080Ti is the only card around right now that can do a silky smooth 60fps at 4K on max settings without compromise. You’ll also benefit from all of Nvidia’s best Turing features as and when developers eventually patch in support for all the confirmed RTX and DLSS-enabled games, and you probably won’t have to upgrade your graphics card again for a considerable number of years.
The thing is, the GTX 1080 is still a perfectly decent 4K graphics card for less than half the cost of an RTX 2080Ti, and provides a significant leg-up over the GTX 1070Ti at this resolution to make it worth the extra cash. Some games might require settling for Medium to High settings at 4K, but there are still plenty of others that can hit 60fps on max quality with this card, making it much better value for money than its RTX cousin. What’s more, AMD’s top graphics card, the Radeon Vega 64, has finally come down in price now as well, giving you another top-quality card that currently costs even less than the GTX 1080 (at least in the UK). The same three free games deal available with the RX 580 also applies to the Vega 64 for those buying in the UK, making it even better value for money.
Yes, we know Final Fantasy XV recommends you get an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080Ti for playing at 4K, but unless you’ve got a spare £700-800 / $700-800 lying under your mattress, then the GTX 1080 or Vega 64 are by far and away the best value options for 4K chasers right now.
And the rest…
The graphics cards I’ve listed above may be my top choices across our chosen three resolutions, but that’s not to say they’re the only graphics cards out there. As such, here’s a small bit on why, in my eyes, they don’t quite make the cut compared to the cards listed above. I’ve ordered them in rough resolution order, so you know which cards are capable of what kind of power as well.
AMD Radeon RX 570 review: The slightly less powerful sibling of the RX 580, this card is a great all-round option for 1080p gaming that offers a little more horsepower than the GTX 1050Ti, but really, it’s just too expensive for what it is. When most cards will set you back somewhere in the region of £260 / $240, you might as well go for the RX 580 or GTX 1060 instead.
1440p alternatives (and a teensy bit of 4K):
AMD Radeon RX Vega 56 review: As powerful as AMD’s RX Vega 56 is, this is also far too expensive right now to consider as a viable alternative, whether it’s at 1440p or knocking on the door of 4K. Prices have come down a lot over the last few months, with the very cheapest cards now in the region of £380 / $425, but at that price you’d be better off with the superior GTX 1070Ti.
Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 review: Yet another card that’s far too expensive right now, the RTX 2080 may have all the same ray-tracing and clever performance boosting DLSS features as the RTX 2080Ti, but in terms of raw speed, you’re looking at pretty much identical frame rates to the GTX 1080Ti at the moment, the latter of which is just a smidge cheaper than the RTX 2080’s asking price of £715 / $750. This may change, but right now the GTX 1080 or Vega 64 are much better uses of your money for gaming at 4K.
Is now a good time to buy a new graphics card?
There are a few things to bear in mind for those buying graphics cards today. You needn’t worry if you’re shopping for a 1920×1080-capable graphics card – there are loads of options here and none of them are about to be replaced by something bigger and better any time soon.
However, those after something higher up the resolution scale, such as a 2560×1440 or 4K graphics card, may want to wait a few weeks until we’ve seen what Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2070 card can do. This comes out on October 17. Otherwise, you’re probably good to go, for while AMD’s Navi next gen cards are very much in production, it’s currently looking like they’ll take at least another year or two before they land on shop shelves, giving you plenty of time to enjoy what’s currently on offer without feeling like you’re wasting money.
How we test:
Whenever a new graphics card comes in for testing, I put it through a number of gaming tests using both in-game benchmarking tools and real-world gameplay, where the aid of frame rate counters help me determine what kind of average frame rate you can expect at various different quality settings. Currently, wI test each graphics card with the following games:
- Rise of the Tomb Raider
- Total War: Warhammer II
- The Witcher III
- Middle-earth: Shadow of War
- Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
- Assassin’s Creed Origins
- Final Fantasy XV
In each case, I see what’s possible at the highest graphics setting at 1920×1080, 2560×1440 and, if it can handle it, 3840×2160 (4K). I then aim to get each game running at 60fps at each resolution, giving you the best case scenario for each one and an idea of what kind of compromises you’ll have to make.