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 workloads 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 older model or one that's not powerful enough to do what you need.
- Check what GPU you have
- Check what GPU you need
- Best GPU for 1080p
- Best GPU for 1440p
- Best GPU for 4k
Check what GPU 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 two we would recommend.
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 score 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 GPU 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 Ryzen 5, 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 line of GPUs are generally less powerful than the latest RTX family, but are more affordable (if you can pick one up). It's possible to pick up an RX 580 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.
How to pick the best GPU for PC gaming
1080p, 1440p and 4K are all different resolutions with each subsequent one requiring considerably more graphics processing power to handle millions of additional pixels on a display. Deciding on which resolution to play games at can be a little confusing in of itself, so this guide will provide some examples depending on which resolution you aim to use.
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.
Best GPU for 1080p
The RTX 2060 is an excellent GPU, simply because it shows how far we've come in just a few years. The card replaces the older GTX 1060 but actually beats the more powerful GTX 1070 in benchmarks, making it great value. The only drawback is it's more of a leap in cost for those who enjoy budget-friendly GPUs.
- Ample cooling
- Excellent performance
- Beats GTX 1070 in value
- No 8GB VRAM
The RTX 2060 offers excellent mid-tier gaming performance
The RTX 2060 is the better GPU. Not only are the aftermarket cards of higher quality with better cooling solutions, but you're also getting faster memory, more CUDA cores, and better overall performance. Add on top of all this support for ray tracing and NVIDIA's DLSS and you've got quite the GPU.
Best GPU for 1440p
When moving into 1440p territory, you'll need to bring with you some serious horsepower to maintain strong frame rates in demanding games. This RTX 2080 from EVGA does just that with excellent cooling to keep the card operating well within temperature limits and without sounding like a jet engine.
- Quiet cooling
- Great performance
- Matches GTX 1080 Ti
- Stylish design
- Can be fiddly to overclock
RTX 2080 is a showcase in value-driven performance
NVIDIA's RTX 2080 GPU is an excellent addition to any gaming rig, allowing one to max out all visual settings in games at 1440p and even dabble into a bit of 4K gaming too. This EVGA offering with 8GB of VRAM and ample cooling allows you to play all your favorite games without issue.
Best GPU for 4K
Should you own a money tree in the backyard or happen to have enough budget for a high-end GPU, you'll be able to comfortably enjoy PC gaming at 4K. The RTX 2080 Ti is both ridiculously expensive and capable. You'll be blown away by the EVGA RTX 2080 Ti FTW3, but you probably don't need one.
- Insane performance
- Capable of stable 4K gaming
- Quiet cooling
- Solid overclocking
You probably don't need an RTX 2080 Ti GPU, but it would be awesome to have one
The RTX 2080 Ti is an insane GPU, offering incredible amounts of performance and gaming power for the price. You likely won't need an RTX 2080 Ti unless you plan on gaming on a 4K monitor and have the available budget, but it's a card that every PC gamer dreams of owning.
Picking the right GPU
Deciding on what GPU you need is relatively simple. Having a resolution in mind for PC gaming is a great place to start. The more you spend on the GPU, the better it'll be for gaming and other intensive applications. It's always best to spend as much as your budget allows on the GPU to avoid having to upgrade once again sooner, saving you money in the long term.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Rich Edmonds is a word conjurer at Windows Central, covering everything related to Windows, gaming, and hardware. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a device chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.
Cale Hunt is a staff writer at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on PC, laptop, and accessory coverage, as well as the emerging world of VR. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.
Richard Devine is a Reviews Editor at Windows Central. You'll usually find him deep in hardware, gaming, both or drinking root beer for which he openly has a mild addiction.
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