The trick is, graphics cards are inherently hard to recommend because user needs vary so wildly. Everything from monitor resolution, power and thermal requirements, and even game preference will dictate how much you spend, and what you spend it on.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for GPUs, but we hope this guide will push you in the right direction
Why should you buy this: The GTX 1060 3GB strikes the perfect balance between price and performance.
Who’s it for: Gamers looking to improve their gaming quality without breaking the bank.
How much will it cost: $200-$300
Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1060:
The GTX 1060 might not be the cheapest card, and it might not be the most powerful, but it offers a solid balance of the two that will appeal to most PC gamers.
It also hits the sweet spot for graphical memory. The GTX 1060’s 3GB of GDDR5 should be just the right amount for 1080p gaming, although higher-resolution textures may push up against that limit. It’s also tied for the least expensive card certified for virtual reality, at least until Oculus’ minimum specification program starts.
The result is a card that has no trouble playing well optimized games like Battlefield 1 or Fallout 4 with the settings cranked. Even at 2,560 x 1,440, we saw average performance of 60 frames per second, or higher. It’s a tough battle between the GTX 1060 and AMD’s similarly priced RX 480, but ultimately we gave the Nvidia option the nod for beating the Radeon in terms of performance at the $200 price point.
That said, it isn’t going to deliver top performance in every game. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is by far the most demanding game we’ve tested, and the GTX 1060 delivered just 37 frames per second on average while running at ultra settings in 1080p. This video card is great in most situations, but at $200 to start and no more than $280 for the fastest incarnations, it’s not the most powerful available. If you want that – read on.
The best graphics card for 4K
Why should you buy this: You want to play the latest games at the highest frame rate and resolution.
Who’s it for: 4K monitor owners and PC gaming enthusiasts.
How much will it cost: $500+
Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti:
Unlike the GTX 1060, there’s nothing budget-friendly about the massive GTX 1080 Ti. Aside from the Nvidia GTX Titan, which is absurdly expensive and not that much faster, the GTX 1080 Ti is the most powerful consumer offering in Nvidia’s arsenal, and it shows in its gaming performance.
This card can hit an average of 60 frames per second in many games, even in 4K. While there were similarly priced cards in the previous generation, such as the AMD R9 Fury series and the GTX 980 Ti, even they couldn’t capably handle 4K gaming on their own.
Without a serious competitor from AMD in this generation, the GTX 1080 Ti is an easy choice for anyone with deep pockets and a need for speed. Basic cards start at $700, and reach over $800 when packed with high-end features like liquid cooling loops and impressive overclocks.
The best entry-level graphics card
Why should you buy this: You want to turn a PC without a GPU into a certified gaming rig.
Who’s it for: Casual and occasional gamers.
How much will it cost: $100+
Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1050:
If you’re looking to buy a current generation graphics card (and you should) there are only two options at the $100-ish price point: the AMD RX 560 and the GTX 1050. The latter takes home our recommendation for best entry-level card by providing the best performance at that price point. Simple enough.
Like the GTX 950 we reviewed last year, the GTX 1050 pumps out 60 frames per second, or close enough to it, at 1,920 x 1,080, even with the settings turned up. Most models will also feature a shortened PCB and simple cooling, typically without an external power connection. That means the slim card will fit into compact cases, as well as pre-built systems with total power as low as 300 Watts.
Of course, the tradeoff for the GTX 1050’s bargain price means it likely won’t last as long as other GPUs. While that GTX 1080 is still firing on all cylinders a few years down the road, the GTX 1050 might start looking a little sad. At least at $110, your wallet won’t hurt too much having to pick up the tab.
What about AMD?
Fans of the red team will not doubt notice we didn’t include any AMD picks in this best-of list.
That’s a problem with best-of lists: they’re about what is the very best, and don’t leave room for second place, even if it’s a very close second. And AMD’s offers are indeed very, very close. The Radeon RX 580 and Radeon RX 570 are highly competitive with the GTX 1060.
Why would you choose them instead of the Nvidia card? FreeSync is one good reason. AMD’s version of adaptive monitor sync is available in a wide selection of affordable monitor. If you’re not familiar with it, read up on the technology here.
The AMD cards also tend to perform better in games built specifically for DirectX 12. There’s not many games like that so far, but if you’re playing such a title — like Ashes of the Singularity — you’re better off with a Radeon.
How we test
When we test graphics cards, we tend to focus on three major factors: feature set, performance, and price.
Feature set is often determined by brand and platform, which we always consider as we review a card. It’s not just about whether it can handle a virtual reality headset, or how many monitors it supports. We check out graphical standard and API support, and special features like Nvidia’s Ansel, or AMD’s WattMan overclocking software.
Of course, performance is key. We run review units through a series of synthetic and real-world benchmarks, even beyond those we report. We keep detailed records of frame rate trends, frame times, and any anomalous activities, like noise, heat, or artifacts.
Ultimately, it all comes down to cash. With so many GPUs, board partners, and differences in clock speed and memory, there’s no shortage of options, and it’s all too easy to overpay. We check the price of each individual card, and even help determine availability at launch.
Updated 5-22-2017 by Jayce Wagner: Added Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti as the best card for 4K.