AMD and Nvidia have offered up their best graphics cards of 2016, so now is time to choose which one’s going to find a place in your rig.
The graphics card is the single most important component in your PC if you’re a gamer. You can get by with a budget processor and memory if you must, but a GPU defines how well your games play. That’s why we always recommend centering a given PC build around the GPU, and filling the gaps with whatever else you can manage on your budget.
We’ve ordered the best graphics cards in order of their performance. We’ve started with cheap cards for 1080p gaming, and then move up through 1440p and 4K, and also give a nod to VR as well, since many people are now considering GPUs that will handle VR gaming in the future.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Not only do you have to consider the types of games you play, but also what sort of monitor you play them on. If you only play low-impact games such as CounterStrike or League of Legends, you don’t need to spend much money on a GPU. Conversely, if you’re a fan of VR or have a 4K monitor, you’ll need a pricey GPU to keep up with them.
With the recent release of the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 and AMD’s Radeon RX 480, the choice for gamers of all types has never been better.
An even bigger development in recent weeks is the news that all of Nvidia’s 10-series will find their way into gaming laptops without any performance compromise. This means you can get desktop-level performance from all Nvidia-powered laptops. It’s a big deal, although you’ll still pay more than the equivalent desktop PC specification, so it’s not a silver bullet.
Over the next few pages we’re going to tell you everything you need to know when choosing your next GPU and exactly which cards are the best of the bunch right now.
Do I Need a Graphics Card?
The first thing you need to consider is whether you do actually need a graphics card or whether the built-in graphics of your machine will suffice.
Both AMD and Intel now make CPUs that include decent graphics chips built right into them. The vast majority of laptops and PCs can run all the usual desktop stuff without a separate graphics card and can play some games too.
Indeed, Intel’s latest Skylake desktop processors can play the likes of Battlefield 4 and Bioshock Infinite (1080p, medium detail settings) at around 20fps – just about bearable.
For more basic games like Minecraft, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and World of Warcraft that’s enough power for a reasonable experience.
For reference, even ultra-slim and light laptops such as the Toshiba Kira can score 752 in 3DMark FireStrike (Skylake scores 1,112) so you technically can play most games, it’s just that you’ll really have to lower the resolution and detail settings, and still only just hit a satisfactory 30fps.
But if you’ve just invested in a nice 1080p or even 2560p monitor and want to play serious games at their best and running at as smooth a frame rate as possible (consistently above 60fps is the ideal) then you’ll need to splash the cash on a graphics card.
Can I Install a Graphics Card?
Another key consideration if you’re looking to get a boost in gaming performance is if your system can actually accommodate a graphics card.
If you’re using a laptop then you can’t just upgrade your graphics, but will instead have to buy a whole new system with a better graphics chip built into it.
Likewise, if you’re running an iMac or Mac mini, or any other all-in-one or mini PC. Nearly all these machines are not upgradable when it comes to graphics, though there are a few exceptions.
Instead we’re talking about full-size PCs that you can get inside and tinker around with.
You’ll need your PC to have at least one free PCI-E x16 expansion card slot, as pictured below.
For some graphics cards that’s all you’ll need but for larger, more powerful ones you’ll also need to make sure your PC’s power supply has enough extra cables to power the card. As you move up the performance ladder, cards will require up to two extra eight-pin cables to power them fully.
You also need to make sure your case is big enough. Some smaller cases may struggle to fit larger, more powerful cards however we’ve got a couple of options for you in the best graphics card list.
Beyond that the world is your oyster – it just comes down to how much you are able or willing to spend.
Which Brand of GPU Should you Buy?
AMD and Nvidia are the companies that make the chips that power the graphics cards you’ll be looking to buy. These are then incorporated into graphics cards by a number of other ‘board partners’, and it’s these that you buy.
Most offer identical specs to the ‘reference design’ that AMD or Nvidia specifies, but some include alternative cooling solutions, video output options and some are overclocked (the speed and voltage of the chip is increased) for better performance.
Graphics cards for Virtual Reality
A new element that you should factor into your graphics card purchase is whether it’s ready to run the latest virtual reality (VR) games. This never used to be a problem because the technology was such a niche prospect, but with the likes of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR all launching this year, we’re expecting a huge surge in the number of titles available with some kind of VR element.
Both AMD and Nvidia have their own VR certification badges, although these should be taken with a pinch of salt because they don’t appear to take much into account other than the official minimum specifications for the various headsets about to go to market. Still, it’s worth considering.
Nvidia’s VR scheme is called GeForce GTX VR Ready, and the following cards currently get the seal of approval: the GTX 970, GTX 980 GTX 980Ti, Titan X, GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 are all listed.
AMD one-ups Nvidia when it comes to the name of its certification scheme, calling itself Radeon VR Ready Premium. Not catchy, but it’s at least a clear piece of marketing that up until recently the firm did not have. Of its current rage, the R9 290, 290X, 390, 390X, Fury, Fury X and Nano and Radeon RX 480 are all stickered up and ready to go with the latest VR challenges.
The graphics card isn’t he only resource a VR headset will hammer, so you should pay special attention to each piece of hardware’s minimum system requirements, too. For example, the HTC Vive’s overall system requirements include a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB system RAM in addition to the high-end graphics card you’ll also need.
Your best resource, however, will be to look at individual games’ system requirements as they will explicitly say what’s required.
AMD or Nvidia?
Perhaps the biggest decision to make when buying a graphics card is whether to opt for one made by AMD or Nvidia.
We’re currently in a state of transition where the latest generation of cards don’t actually compete directly with each other. Nvidia has the high-end and AMD dominates the mid-range.
When the market shakes itself out, it’s likely one card or the other that will narrowly grabthe performance crown or offers the best balance of features, performance and power consumption and of course it’s these cards that we’ll be picking out as our top choices at each price level.
Nonetheless, as a general point there are a number of key features that may swing the decision for you.
The first thing is that generally Nvidia’s cards use less power to get their results – its current GPU architecture, Pascal, is just more efficient. The real world consequence of the extra power consumption of the AMD cards will be minimal for most users – a handful of pounds a year on your electricity bill at most – but it’s worth bearing in mind. Also worth considering is your choice of power supply inside your gaming rig, although if you’re buying per-built you won’t have to worry.
Features wise both companies offer comprehensive DirectX 12 support, which is the new standard used in Windows 10 and the Xbox One. There are some slight differences in exactly what level of support they offer, but nothing that will really affect your experience.
Both also offer a means of getting the smoothest possible gameplay even at low framerates via a technique for syncing the framerate of your monitor to the output of the graphics card. These are called AMD Freesync and Nvidia G-Sync, and although both offer essentially the same experience, we do prefer the former. This is because it’s an open standard and is available on a greater range of monitors. However, it really depends if you’re in the market for a new monitor any time soon as to whether this will be a concern.
Another consideration may be the free games that you can get with a new graphics card. For a while AMD had the clear advantage here as it offered a range of games depending on the price of card you bought, but Nvidia also occasionally has a decent special offer.
These deals vary from country to country to, so there’s no reliable way to say which offers the best deal. Plus, in only matters if it’s a game you actually want to play.