“What graphics card within my budget gives me the best bang for my buck?”
That simple question cuts to the core of what people hunting for a new graphics card look for: the most oomph they can afford. Sure, the technological leaps behind each new GPU can be interesting on their own, but most everyone just wants to crank up the detail settings on Battlefield and get right to playing.
Updated October 19, 2020 to update the news, 1440p, and 4K sections with information about AMD’s Radeon RX 6000 performance preview. We also included information about the RTX 3070’s delay and new Nvidia drivers fixing early crashes in the news section.
Answering the question can be a bit trickier than it seems. Raw performance is a big part of it, but factors like noise, the driver experience, and supplemental software also play a role in determining which graphics card to buy. And do you want to pay Nvidia’s RTX premium to get in on the bleeding edge of real-time ray tracing?
Let us make it easy for you. We’ve tested nearly every major GPU that’s hit the streets over the past couple of years, from $100 budget cards to $1,200 luxury models. Our knowledge has been distilled into this article—a buying guide with recommendations on which graphics card to buy, no matter what sort of experience you’re looking for.
Note: There are customized versions of every graphics card from a slew of vendors. For example, you can buy different GeForce GTX 1660 models from EVGA, Asus, MSI, and Zotac, among others.
We’ve linked to our formal review for each recommendation, but the buying links lead to models that stick closely to each graphics card’s MSRP. Spending extra can get you hefty out-of-the-box overclocks, beefier cooling systems, and more. Check out our “What to look for in a custom card” section below for tips on how to choose a customized card that’s right for you.
Graphics card news
- Nvidia’s hotly anticipated GeForce RTX 30-series is here, powered by a new-look “Ampere” GPU architecture and Samsung’s 8nm transistor process. The $700 GeForce RTX 3080 is staggeringly powerful and instantly became the 4K or high refresh rate 1440p graphics card to buy, trouncing even the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, last generation’s $1,200 flagship. The more powerful $1,500 RTX 3090 launched September 24, and while it’s the most power gaming graphics card available, it’s not much faster than the 3080 for the price. It’s a stunning value for creators, though. Nvidia delayed the $500 GeForce RTX 3070’s launch to October 29 after suffering from shortages with the other GPUs.
- Some early RTX 30-series buyers reported stability issues at ultra-high clock speeds, but a new Nvidia driver fixed the problems. Download it ASAP if you’ve found yourself affected.
- But Nvidia isn’t the only GPU maker making moves. AMD will reveal its Radeon RX 6000 graphics cards on October 28. “Big Navi” will target the high-end to start, powered by AMD’s next-gen RDNA 2 architecture. They’ll include real-time ray tracing abilities in a first for Radeon, along with other DirectX 12 Ultimate capabilities like variable rate shading and mesh shading. AMD provided a Radeon RX 6000 performance teaser during the Ryzen 5000 announcement that showed an unspecified Big Navi GPU hanging tough with the RTX 3080’s frame rates in a handful of games.
- All these high-end announcements have rendered several former flagships obsolete, but those older cards are still selling for full price at retailers. Don’t be a sucker. Here are seven GPUs you absolutely shouldn’t buy right now.
- Intel’s highly anticipated “Xe” graphics architecture will debut in 2020 as promised, but not in desktop form. Expect to see Xe “LP” integrated onto ”Tiger Lake” mobile laptop chips and offered as a discrete option for notebooks. The first desktop discrete Intel graphics card is planned for 2021, packing a beefed-up Xe “HPG” architecture and real-time ray tracing. Xe LP options will not support ray tracing, Intel says.
Best budget graphics card
For the first time in a long time, there’s a new budget gaming champion. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super is a superb 1080p graphics card that can hit the hallowed 60 frames per second mark at High or Ultra settings in virtually all modern games—a hell of a feat for just $160, or $170 for the feature-loaded ROG Strix model we evaluated. It comes packed with 4GB of ultra-fast GDDR6 memory, and Nvidia’s latest and greatest Turing NVENC video encoder, something the original GTX 1650 lacked. Better yet, Nvidia’s GPU is incredibly power efficient, and that means these graphics cards run cool and quiet, too.
You’ll need a six-pin power connector to run the card, which is much more potent than its non-Super cousin, the $150 GeForce GTX 1650. The only reason to consider the non-Super version is if you’re upgrading a big-box office PC into a gaming rig and have no extra power cabling available, since the vanilla GTX 1650 can draw all its more from your motherboard. Otherwise, the GeForce GTX 1650 Super is far superior, especially for just $10 more.
Unfortunately, the ROG Strix isn’t available at retail at the time of publication. Two other Asus GPUS—the $165 GeForce GTX 1650 Super Phoenix Fan Edition and $160 Asus TUF GTX 1650 Super—are, and you should expect similar bottom-line gaming performance out of them, though these alternatives don’t pack all the same extras as the Strix.
AMD’s counter to the GTX 1650 Super, the Radeon RX 5500 XT, launched shortly after in two versions: $170 for 4GB of RAM, and $200 for 8GB. It’s built using AMD’s next-gen “Navi” RDNA architecture, complete with cutting-edge PCIe 4.0 support and best-in-class power efficiency, as well as GDDR6 memory. Nonetheless, its performance hasn’t moved much beyond its Radeon RX 500-series predecessors, and it’s both slightly slower and slightly more expensive than Nvidia’s graphics card.
For that reason, we give the GTX 1650 Super the nod here, though AMD’s bundling of a free copy of Monster Hunter World: Iceborne Edition and three free months of Microsoft’s awesome Xbox Game Pass for PC could tip the scales if you’re interested in those. It’s a good graphics card capable of satisfying 1080p gaming with some settings tweaks, but not quite as good as the competition. Sapphire’s superb Pulse Radeon RX 5500 XT is a killer custom variant with a mere $10 premium if you go for Team Red.
If you’re willing to dial graphics settings down a bit, the last-generation Radeon RX 570, built on AMD’s ancient Polaris GPU architecture, is still a compelling option at roughly $130 on sale. We’ve even seen it as low as $100, and that includes three free months of Microsoft’s superb Xbox Game Pass for PC, as well as your choice of either Borderlands 3 or Ghost Recon Breakpoint—a wildly good deal. The Radeon RX 570 isn’t nearly as fast as the GeForce GTX 1650 or Radeon RX 5500 XT, but you’ll be able to play modern games at Medium to High settings and get near the hallowed 60 frames per second mark. AMD’s aging Polaris GPU absolutely sucks down power compared to the modern alternatives, though. In addition to requiring much more energy from the wall, that also means these cards tend to run a bit louder and hotter, and the card designs tend to be larger to shove in more cooling capacity.
Best 1080p graphics card
Many PC gamers play on basic 1080p, 60Hz monitors, thanks to their compelling blend of resolution, speed, and affordable pricing. While the GeForce GTX 1650 Super and Radeon RX 5500 XT mentioned in the budget section are solid low-cost options for 1080p gaming, the best graphics card for feeding those displays is Nvidia’s $230-and-up GeForce GTX 1660 Super, which usurped the sweet spot crown from its non-Super sibling by swapping in ultra-fast 14Mbps GGDR6 memory. It’s your best option for 1080p gaming on a standard 60Hz monitor with little-to-no visual compromises.
The GTX 1660 Super sticks to the same core specs as its vanilla GTX 1660 counterpart, but the GDDR6 upgrade speeds increase gaming performance anywhere from 7 percent to roughly 18 percent depending on the game, letting it soar well past 60 frames per second with all graphics options maxed out. It comes within 3 to 5 percent of the $280 GTX 1660 Ti, too. Not bad for a mere $10 premium over what came before. On top of the performance advantage, the GeForce GTX 1660 runs cool and is incredibly power-efficient compared to its Radeon rivals. Plus, modern GeForce GPUs now play nice with affordable FreeSync monitors as well as pricier G-Sync display option.
The original GTX 1660 will be sticking around with a price cut closer to $200, while the GTX 1660 Ti will also continue to live on at $280 or more. But the price-to-performance ratio of the GeForce GTX 1660 Super makes it a no-brainer over Nvidia’s other GTX 1660 options.
If you have a monitor that supports higher 120Hz or 144Hz refresh rates and want to put it to work, consider the $280 Radeon RX 5600 XT or one of the GeForce RTX 2060 models that dropped to $60 to combat AMD’s “Navi”-based GPU. The Radeon RX 5600 XT is faster than the identically priced GeForce GTX 1660 Ti across the board and can even go blow-for-blow with the pricier RTX 2060—sometimes.
In response to Nvidia’s RTX 2060 price cuts, AMD let its partners release last-second VBIOS upgrades that greatly enhanced the Radeon RX 5600 XT’s power draw, clock speeds, and memory speeds. The upgraded VBIOS achieves over 10 percent higher performance, thanks largely in part to the memory bump from 12Gbps to 14Gbps. But not every custom RX 5600 XT will receive an upgraded VBIOS, and some of the ones that do won’t get the crucial memory speed increase. Worse, since it was a eleventh-hour improvement, the first wave of Radeon RX 5600 XT stock on store shelves likely doesn’t come with the faster VBIOS preinstalled, requiring you to manually update your graphics card to get the performance increases.
It’s complicated. Because of all the confusion, we can only recommend the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT that we reviewed firsthand, but we recommend it highly. The whisper-quiet card received a new VBIOS that bumped up both clock and memory speeds, and Sapphire says most of its North American stock will come with the faster speeds out of the box, all for a mere $10 premium over MSRP. If you want to shop around, be sure to read our guide on why some Radeon RX 5600 XT models are faster than others, but really, just go buy the Sapphire Pulse.
Or, if you don’t want to deal with that mess, see if one of the $300 GeForce RTX 2060 cards are still available for $20 more. Nvidia’s own GeForce RTX 2060 Founders Edition dropped to that price, while EVGA released a new GeForce RTX 2060 KO that starts at $300, and we’ve seen other manufacturers use rebates and temporary deals to match the price. They’ll deliver roughly the same performance as an upgraded RX 5600 XT, as well as entry-level real-time ray tracing capabilities, but with none of the VBIOS hassle. The $300 options have been struggling with availability issues since they’ve launched, however, and if you move up much beyond $300, the Radeon RX 5600 XT is a much better value.
Moving back down the stack, AMD’s older Radeon RX 500-series GPUs aren’t quite dead yet, though they’re showing their age. The GTX 1660 Super beats the snot out of the Radeon RX 580 across the board, as well as the faster Radeon RX 590. Even the affordable GTX 1650 Super beats the RX 580.
Well, at least in pure performance. In price to performance, near-constant deals for the Radeon RX 590 bring it down to the $170 to $180 range, with three free months of Microsoft’s superb Xbox Game Pass for PC thrown in. You can find the Radeon RX 590 on sale for around $200 with the same game bundles. Unless you already planned on buying one of those two games, opt for Nvidia’s GTX 1650 Super or one of the GTX 1660 options. We’d like to see the sale prices on Radeon cards drop another $30 or so to better compete against the $160 GTX 1650. Keep an eye out for steeper deals during the holiday season.
Best 1440p graphics card
With the GeForce RTX 30-series slowly arriving and AMD’s Radeon RX 6000 cards set to debut in October, it’s a bad time to buy most of the higher-end graphics cards that best feed a 1080p monitor. The Radeon RX 5700 remains a decent choice with its 8GB on onboard memory if you absolutely must buy right now, but only if you can find a model for near $350, like this MSI Mech. Unfortunately, the vast majority of RX 5700s we can find cost $400 or more on the street.
You’ll want to avoid those if you can help it because much more powerful cards will soon be here that offer much more bang for your buck. Nvidia says the GeForce RTX 3070 will offer performance on par with the last-gen $1,200 GeForce RTX 2080 Ti flagship when it arrives on October 29. AMD is also preparing to show its own ”Big Navi” Radeon RX 6000 graphics cards on October 29. Spending $400-plus on a last-gen graphics card that offers a fraction of that performance with that on the horizon doesn’t make sense if you can help it.
Yes, the GeForce RTX 30-series instantly rendered seven high-end GPUs obsolete, and unfortunately they’re all the ones you’d normally buy for 1440p gaming. If you need to buy now, the $400 GeForce RTX 2060 Super, $400 Radeon RX 5700 XT, $500 GeForce RTX 2070 and 2070 Super, and $700 GeForce RTX 2080 and 2080 Super all remain very capable, and moreso the more you spend—but they’re still being sold at full price even after the RTX 30-series arrival. The impending RTX 3070 will likely obliterate their value in very short order, and we’re already hearing whispers of RTX 3060 variants. Consider yourself warned.
That said, if you’re looking to max out a high refresh-rate 1440p monitor, or drive a 3440×1440 ultrawide monitor, Nvidia’s $800 GeForce RTX 3080 is a stellar option. Even with all the visual settings cranked to Ultra, the monstrous card delivered above 100fps at 1440p resolution across the 10 games we tested, and often well above. It’s also fast enough to play ray traced games at a smooth clip at 1440p if you enable Nvidia’s DLSS technology—something you couldn’t say with older RTX 20-series cards. The RTX 3080 delivers over 50 percent more performance than the RTX 2080 as a baseline across the board, and solidly beats even the RTX 2080 Ti by a healthy margin. You may need a new power supply for it, however.
Don’t buy the RTX 3080 if you only have a 60Hz 1440p monitor though. It’s expensive overkill unless you have a 120Hz-plus 1440p monitor that can put it ludicrous speeds to good use. It’s a fine pairing with a 60Hz 3440×1440 ultrawide display, though, as that higher resolution is more demanding.
Next page: 4K graphics cards, what to look for in a graphics cards