It's not rocket science, but purchasing a GPU can be a rather daunting task. Here's our buyer's guide to help you make the perfect choice.
Should you wish to not only work but play on your PC, you'll need to look at investing in a capable GPU. The Graphics Processing Unit is responsible for rendering everything you see on-screen, as well as taking work loads off the CPU when working through calculations. The last thing you want to do when purchasing a new GPU is to waste your money on an old one or one that's not powerful enough to do what you need!
Update for March 2017: The mighty and vicious GTX 1080 Ti has joined its older sibling — the GTX 1080 — as our top picks for absolute power. Just waiting on AMD now.
In this buyer's guide we'll help you get the best GPU for your money. Here's what you need to know:
Check what you have
Whenever you look at investing in a new component for your PC, it's good practice to run a piece of software to have a gander at what you have already. This will help determine just how recent other components are and whether or not they will become a bottleneck for your upcoming GPU purchase. In order to have a look at what makes everything tick inside the PC case, there are a number of software options available; CPU-Z and Speccy are the two most popular.
These apps will tell you what motherboard you have, as well as CPU, RAM and other bits and pieces. We'll mainly need to see what CPU you have, and a good measurement to use in order to determine how good your CPU will be with a new GPU purchase is 3D Mark. The higher the 3D Mark score, the better a CPU generally is in gaming and other intensive applications. It shouldn't be used as a definitive value, but the 3D Mark of a specific chip will give you an idea as to how powerful it is.
As well as the score, one should also consider the age of the processor, the generation it's part of, the manufacturing process used, the cooler installed, whether or not it's overclocked, and how many cores you're rocking. Intel has its ARK platform available for conveniently searching its portfolio of CPUs. If you're on #TeamRed, AMD has a similar feature on its own website.
To accompany a decent, modern CPU, a capable gaming rig also needs to have a decent amount of RAM; 8GB is safe, but 16GB is the sweet spot. The power supply (PSU) is an important consideration when looking at a new GPU. Generally, a single graphics card will not require anything more than 500W, which is widely considered as the best option for consumers. Should you have a PSU that offers less, you'll need to double check if enough power will be available.
Lastly: cooling. Not only should you have ample cooling for your CPU, but the graphics card can also get hot when you put it under a heavy load. We recommend having solid negative airflow — fans pushing in cool air from the front and top of the case, and an exhaust fan pulling it out on the rear. This is less vital for rear exhaust-cooled cards that do not add to the already warm temperature readings from inside the case, but more cooling never hurt anyone.
Should you have a capable CPU, ample amounts of cooling and power available, we'll move on to see just what you will need from your next GPU.
Check what you need
Ask yourself: "What do I need a GPU for?" Are you an avid League of Legends summoner? Or do you wish to take full advantage of current-gen gaming and enjoy slaying ghouls in Witcher 3 at 1440p on highest graphics settings? If the answer is the former, you'll need to think about more affordable graphics cards that don't require advanced components to get the most out of the GPU. Something in the $150 region would do just fine with casual gaming and titles that don't require much power.
As for more demanding games, it's generally down to your budget and what your current PC has in terms of CPU, RAM and more. If you're rocking anything less than a recent Intel Core i5 or AMD FX-8, it's not worth forking out on top-of-the-line and most expensive options. The mid-range is ideal for you and these cards can even power the latest games at decent quality levels. With the latest GTX 10-series from NVIDIA, the 1060 will be more than enough.
AMD's RX line of GPUs are less powerful than the latest GTX family, but are much more affordable. It's possible to pick up an RX 480 that is more than capable of powering VR content for around $200. Another factor worth considering at this stage in the process is the resolution the PC will be outputting at. 1080p is great for smaller displays and less powerful hardware, 1440p is the sweet spot for gamers currently and 4K is still located at the end of the pilgrimage.
Jumping up from 1080p to 1440p will require a substantial boost in power, and even moreso with 4K. Just like graphics and detail levels, the higher the resolution, the more powerful your PC and GPU will need to be. Should you be leaping up in display resolutions on less capable hardware, you'll then need to resort to lowering quality levels to achieve stable frame rates (frames per-second or FPS). Generally speaking:
- Entry: 1080p / ~$250 — Perfect for less demanding titles
- Mid-range: 1080p, 1440p / $250-$500 — For those looking at stable FPS and VR
- High-end: 1440p, 4K / $500+ — If you have a money tree planted in the yard
The above is a rough estimation. Depending on sales and aggressive pricing, it's possible to bag a decent GPU for less, especially with competition heating up and latest families of GPUs driving down last-gen cards. As part of this guide, we'll offer some solid examples of certain requirements, be it 1440p gaming, virtual reality or the best bang-for-the-buck.
Pick a GPU
Now that you have a rough idea as to what you need a GPU for and how powerful your PC is, next comes to choice between AMD and NVIDIA. The latter continues to dominate the market, launching the new GTX 10 series that offers immense amount of power, though AMD has some very capable graphics cards at more affordable prices. Both companies have yet to bolster their line-ups with all cards to be released this generation so it's difficult to tell who will come out on top.
For now, however, we'd recommend NVIDIA unless you're tight on budget. The GTX 1060, GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 are astounding pieces of kit. As an added bonus with these new cards now on sale, older generation options are now priced lower, notably the GTX 900 series. That said, nothing really beats AMD on price, the company's RX 480, which is the current most powerful card in the family is available for just over $200. Need power? NVIDIA. Require a bargain or enjoy #TeamRed? Go AMD.
Another thing to note is FreeSync and G-Sync, which are technologies developed by AMD and NVIDIA, respectively. Purchasing a monitor supporting either feature will help with synchronizing the display with the attached graphics card to reduce input lag and screen tear. Say goodbye to V-Sync. AMD's tech is cheaper for screen manufacturers to include, so you'll be paying out slightly more for G-Sync displays.
We'll be sure to update this guide on upcoming hardware releases so if you're able to hold off for then, we'd recommend doing so. Taking into account the three tiers of GPU we explained above, here are some options you should look at, depending on your requirements.
Look, 4K gaming is still some way off. Sure, you can comfortably enjoy 4K gaming with good FPS after lowering quality settings slightly, but we're almost at a point where spending countless hundreds will ensure a smooth and incredible experience. A single GTX 1080 Ti will be able to play titles at this resolution, while two of them in paired SLI configuration will unlock insane amounts of power. That, and a super-high price tag.
We're still holding off for AMD's high-end competitor to the GTX 1080 and newly released Ti variant. Should you only own a 1440p or 1080p monitor and don't require a GPU for other demanding tasks like video editing, we would urge you to look at the next option down.
- 4K gaming
- Start from around $699
This mid-tier category of GPUs are perfect for 1080p and 1440p gaming on high-ultra settings. This is the more popular sector with the GTX 1070 and R9 Fury taking our spots for recommendation. While NVIDIA's new card is more efficient and requires less power but will set you back slightly more.
- 1440p gaming
- Start from around $300
This tier isn't necessarily bottom-line, nor are our two examples here cheap by any means. That said, the GTX 1060 and RX 480 are more than capable of 1080p gaming on ultra settings. You should be able to enjoy all games in your Steam library (even those titles you've still yet to download and install) without issue. But if you upgrade your monitor, you're going to need to invest in a new card or lower quality settings.
Both cards are superb options, and as an added bonus both even support VR gaming.
- 1080p gaming
- Start from around $200