2016's graphics cards have redefined what we can expect from both AMD and Nvidia, with something extremely attractive available for every budget. We'll take you through how to pick a GPU and which we reckon offer the best value .
The best piece of advice you can give to any novice gaming PC builder is to centre the spec around a graphics card. No single component can alter performance so significantly, it's the one component you shouldn't compromise on. 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 hundreds of pounds 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.
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.
Use the dropdown menu above to navigate the list, or read on for more advice for buying the best graphics card for you.
Watch: Your graphics card questions answered – #AskTrusted
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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.
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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.
If you only play Minecraft you probably don't need a graphics card
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 framerate as possible (consistently above 60fps is the ideal) then you’ll need to splash the cash on 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.
Games like Hitman on PC require a powerful graphics card
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.
Nearly all modern motherboards will have at least one PCI-E x16 slot
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.
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.
The likes of the AMD Radeon R9 290X require two extra cables to get enough power
With the explosion of large, widescreen monitors in the last few years, the demands on graphics cards have increased, but you can still get ample performance at decent resolutions for not too much money.
If your budget is less than £75 / $100 you really should do a little more saving as the performance you get from cards this low down the pack is not much better (if at all) than modern integrated graphics. Only consider these cards if you’re running an older system with very slow integrated graphics (or none at all) and if you need the extra video output options they provide.
At around £100 / $130 you can get a card that will allow you to game at 720p (1,280 x 720) at a decent framerate and reasonably high detail settings – around 40fps (frames per second) is a good minimum. You’ll even be able to play some less graphically-intense games like Minecraft and CS:GO at 1080p, though most titles will be unplayable at this resolution, without turning down the detail settings, as performance will be 20fps or below.
At around £150 / $190 you can comfortably game at 1080p (1,920 x 1,080) at around 40fps, which is fine for single-player games and slower paced titles but may still not be enough for competitive games. For those you’ll have to drop in-game details settings to reach the desired 60fps and over you’ll need to compete. The likes of the Nvidia GTX 960 and AMD R9 380 will get you this sort of performance.The AMD Radeon RX 480 is a good, compact card for budget buyers
For around between £200 and £260 / $220 and $300 you’ll get the likes of the Nvidia GTX 970 and AMD Radeon RX 480, which will give you around 60fps performance in many games at 1440p (2,560 x 1,440) at high detail settings. This is also the price point we'd expect Nvidia's yet-to-be-announced GTX 1060 to appear in.
In many ways this is the sweet spot where you're getting plenty of performance to play competitive games at over 100fps but still have the option to crank up the resolution and detail settings for slower paced games where you want to take in the view a bit more. It's also the point where you get the most performance for your money, before you start to get diminishing returns on the more expensive cards.
Next we’re looking at spending another £150, which will get you the likes of the AMD Radeon R9 Nano Fury and the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 and enough performance to start gaming at 4K resolutions – that’s 3,830 x 2,160 pixels. You won’t hit 60fps at this resolution, but comfortably get over 40fps in most titles.The GTX 1070 is a large card, but it's the best card for 1440p
Next is the over £550 / $700 zone in which the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 is the all-dominant force. Here, you'll get performance of 60fps in most games at 4K at High or Ultra settings, and you'll also get the best VR performance (see below) currently available.
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.
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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.
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Your best resource, however, will be to look at individual games' system requirements as they will explicitly say what's required.
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 pre-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.
All the cards mentioned here have been run through the same set of tests, with performance measured during a short section of the game that demonstrates typical performance. Measurements are taken either with Fraps or using an inbuilt benchmark with the minimum and average framerates noted down.
Aside from the canned benchmarks, 3DMark and Unigine Heaven, all the games are run at very high details settings to give the cards the maximum stress. As such this is the worst case scenario for these games run at these resolutions – you can easily get 50% or more performance by reducing the detail settings.
Our test system is consists of an Asus Z170-Deluxe motherboard, an Intel Core i5-6600K processor, Corsair H60 water cooling, 16GB of Corsair Vengeance DDR4 memory, a Corsair 750W power supply and a 256GB Samsung 850 Evo SSD.