We run you through what to look out for when buying a GPU (graphics processing unit) and recommend our top choices for each budget and gaming scenario, from 1080p eSports to 4K AAA gaming.
Some folk like to overcomplicate the process of buying a graphics card, but in today’s highly competitive world, it’s hard to pick a complete lemon. The only two things you need to know before we begin are your budget, and the games you intend on playing. Take a look at our Best Gaming PC at the link below to get an idea of the type of PC you can buy for your budget, then come back here to look at the GPUs that fit into that range.
It’s rare that a modern GPU simply won’t play any of the latest games, it’s purely a matter of resolution and graphics settings. If you’re playing the latest AAA games at High settings in Full HD, you’ll normally want to spend at least £250 to get excellent performance. But you can spend less, and your graphics card provider’s software (AMD Crimson or Nvidia GeForce Experience) will tune your games to ensure they run smoothly.
Related: The best graphics card deals
We’ve updated this piece to reflect huge market instability caused by increased GPU demands caused by the rise of crypto-currency mining. Mid-range cards have suffered massively, and it’s not clear when the crazy pricing will end.
Related: Best gaming PC
In this guide, we provide a top-line look at which cards to consider. That is to say, we’re choosing the model numbers from the two big GPU manufacturers: Nvidia and AMD (GTX 1080, RX 570, and so on).
Also part of the decision will be the custom cooler design. Common brand names include EVGA, Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, XFX, Zotac and many more. Together, you get a combined name that includes the brand name, GPU part number and cooler design. For example: Asus ROG Strix GTX 1080 Gaming, Zotac GTX 1080 Amp Extreme, XFX Radeon RX 480 GTR Black Edition.
Nvidia’s latest 10-series cards also include so-called ‘Founders Edition’ designs, which are the models we review. Third-party models tend to be more expensive and perform slightly better.
With prices constantly shifting and special offers appearing daily, recommending a specific model purely on its price is hard, so this guide will offer each card’s usual price range and the sort of performance you can expect.
Related: The best CPUs for gaming
Manufacturer’s cooler designs will also affect performance, but only by single-digit percentage points – this is especially true of cheaper cards. With more expensive GPUs card manufacturers push the boat out, throwing clever fans and software into the mix and offering up higher clock speeds, which can make a difference.
Things to look out for on each card include (in order of importance):
- Length of warranty
- Fan noise
- Visual flare
- Extra cooling fans
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There’s one more thing to consider, and something we’ll discuss in the later entries in this round-up: AMD RX Vega. AMD’s top-spec cards have arrived very late to the scene, and look to undercut the Nvidia competition in terms of pricing, while still offering 1440p and 4K gaming performance. The jury’s still out on whether these will meet expectations; we wouldn’t hold off on buying a different GPU unless there’s something about AMD’s other technologies (such as FreeSync) that get your juices flowing.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the best graphics card at each price and performance point to discover which one is best for you.