For PC builders, choosing the right graphics card (GPU) can be the difference between barely managing 30 frames-per-second (fps) at the lowest settings and pulling off the latest triple-A experiences at the 4K, 60 fps gold standard.
With that in mind, you may instinctively strive towards the most powerful gaming rig ever conceived – but of course we all know money doesn't grow on trees. For those of us working hard to avoid debt, the ideal solution is reach for the best bang-for-buck deal on a set budget.
- Don't settle: buy only the best motherboard for your PC
As a word of caution, however, you'll need to wisely select the rest of your parts once you've found your pixel-pushing soulmate. There's no use saving up for the imminent GTX 1080 Ti if it's being bottlenecked by an antiquated CPU or feeding a low-res screen that will fail to reap the benefits. In those cases, you would be better off with an AMD RX 480 or even the comparable Nvidia GTX 1060.
With an ever-present VR future looming, virtual reality might also play a role in your next graphics card purchase. If so, you'll want to carefully ensure that your rig meets, or even exceeds, the minimum specification requirements for the latest and greatest in head-mounted display technology as well.
Finally, without further ado, here are our picks for the best graphics cards around, VR-ready or otherwise.
1. Nvidia Titan X
4K 60fps in a single-card configuration
Stream Processors: 3,584 | Core Clock: 1,417MHz | Memory: 12GB GDDR5X | Memory Clock: 12,000MHz | Power Connectors: 1 x 8-pin, 1 x 16-pin | Length: 266.7mm | Outputs: 3 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DVI
Nvidia had to act quickly this year in fine-tuning the Maxwell GeForce GTX Titan X, bringing it more in line with the standards set by its 10-series GPUs. It’s still going to cost a lot. In fact, the new Nvidia Titan X costs even more than what you could expect to pay for last year's version of the same model, even when it initially launched. Even so, it's still the most powerful consumer graphics card on the market, beating out – within months – the vanilla 1080 for that title. Despite producing more noise than the GTX 1080, it’s also 30% – 40% faster, leading to higher frame rates across the board.
2. EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition
Major-league Pascal performance
Stream Processors: 2,560 | Core Clock: 1,607MHz | Memory: 8GB GDDR5X | Memory Clock: 7,010MHz | Power Connectors: 1 x 6-pin, 1 x 8-pin | Length: 266.7mm | Outputs: 3 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DVI
If you want proper entry into 4K gaming, you're looking at it. With the launch of Nvidia's Pascal architecture, you can get the performance of two 980 Tis for a fraction of what you'd spend on a Titan X. Of course, no graphics card is complete without its fair share of flaws. This GTX 1080 falls prey to an early adoption tax in what Nvidia calls the "Founders Edition" model, based on the reference set by the company and manufactured by EVGA. While there are plenty of other GTX 1080 variants on the market now just begging to be purchased, you may even just want to wait for the GTX 1080 Ti.
3. Zotac GeForce GTX 980Ti AMP Extreme Edition
Nearly 1080 power without the 1080 cost
Stream Processors: 2816 | Core Clock: 1253MHz | Memory: 6GB | Memory Clock: 7220MHz | Power Connectors: 2 x 8-pin | Length: 267mm | Outputs: 3 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DVI
Though it can't match the GTX 1080 in terms of video memory (6GB versus 8GB GDDR5X), the GTX 980Ti offers a higher clock speed. And, with the right amount of overclocking, it can even beat that card. Cards with the "AMP" moniker usually mean business, and this card lives up to its name. It'll let you game in resolutions up to 4K, even if can't reach that glorious 60 fps standard at that pixel count. The 980Ti AMP Extreme Edition may be better value than the GTX 1080 Founders Edition, but it's far from cheap, costing around the same as a budget (or entry level, mid-range) gaming PC.
4. Gigabyte Radeon R9 Fury X
Uses an all-in-one liquid cooling system and new High-Bandwidth Memory
Stream Processors: 4096 | Core Clock: 1050MHz | Memory: 4GB | Memory Clock: 1000MHz | Power Connectors: 2 x 8-pin | Length: 195mm | Outputs: 3 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI
If you're urging for a GPU that does it all, the R9 Fury X was once the best AMD had to offer, though it's now being challenged by the RX 400-series GPUs. On the upside, the Fury X can easily handle anything at 1080p and in most cases even 1440p.
Hauling an all-in-one liquid cooling system and the latest high-bandwidth memory technology may seem like a heavy workload, but Gigabyte's Radeon R9 Fury X pulls it off all the same. There is a catch, however, to what appears to be a future-proof gaming spectacle. Not only will you need space for an extra radiator-fan combo a la the liquid cooler, but 4GB of HBM memory is awfully limited compared to the 8GB of GDDR5X you can get with the GTX 1070 for a similar price.
5. Sapphire Radeon R9 Nano
Tiny graphics card packs a big punch
Stream Processors: 4096 | Core Clock: 1000MHz | Memory: 4GB | Memory Clock: 1000MHz | Power Connectors: 1 x 8-pin | Length: 152mm | Outputs: 1 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 2 x DVI
Building a small form-factor PC no longer requires a huge power sacrifice. In fact, the Fiji-based Sapphire Radeon R9 Nano is short enough to squeeze into the tiniest of mini-ITX cases – compromise be damned. And, for an AMD GPU of yesteryear, it's pretty efficient too, boasting 4GB of next-gen HBM memory with the same number of texture units and ROPs as the full-size Fury X. Sure, the clock speed is 5% lower, but because the power envelope drops to just 175W, you won't need a hardy power supply to boot.
Read the full review: Sapphire Radeon R9 Nano
6. MSI GeForce 1070 Gaming X
Titan X performance at a GTX 980 cost
Stream Processors: 1,920 | Core Clock: 1,607MHz | Memory: 8GB GDDR5 | Memory Clock: 8,108MHz | Power Connectors: 1 x 6-pin, 1 x 8-pin | Length: 279mm | Outputs: 3 x DisplayPort 1.4, 1 x HDMI 2.0, 1 x DVI
We all know that 1440p is the new 1080p, and so does Nvidia. That's why it's taken the new Pascal architecture and devised the GTX 1070, complete with a 1,607MHz base overclock and 8GB of 8,108MHz, GDDR5 RAM. What's more, this VR-ready card is more powerful than a Titan X for a fraction of the price. Still, while you'll be able to play everything at the highest settings at humblebrag-worthy frame rates at either 1080p or 1440p resolution, the £410 (around $584 or AUS$792) price tag of the MSI's 'Founders Edition' Gaming X card is notably more expensive than what we'll see in the coming months from AIBs, or add-in boards.
Read the full review: MSI GeForce 1070 Gaming X
7. Nvidia GeForce 1050 Ti
Full HD eSports on a budget with the potential for more
Stream Processors: 768 | Core Clock: 1,354MHz | Memory: 4GB GDDR5 | Memory Clock: 7,008MHz | Power Connectors: None | Length: 144.78mm | Outputs: 1 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DVI
With AMD targeting gamers on a budget, Nvidia has followed suit with the GeForce GTX 1050 and 1050 Ti, and it’s succeeded to the point where AMD has begun to discount its own cards as a response. Comparable most to the Radeon RX 470, the GTX 1050 Ti is Nvidia’s more capable budget offering, and, like AMD’s card, it’s focused primarily on less demanding “eSports” titles. Games like Overwatch and League of Legends are promised to run at full HD (1920 x 1080) resolutions without taking a hit to the frame rates. Unfortunately, for those looking to play the latest triple-A games, you shouldn't expect to reach the 60 fps mark consistently at Ultra settings in games like Battlefield 1 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
8. AMD Radeon RX 480
Virtual reality on a budget
Stream processors: 2,304 | Core Clock: 1,120MHz | Memory: 8GB GDDR5 | Memory Clock: 8,000MHz | Power connections: 1x 6-pin | Length: 241mm | Outputs: 1 x HDMI, 3 x DisplayPort
Think you need an expensive GTX 1080 to enjoy VR games on an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive? Think again. Featuring a delectable price point, AMD's Radeon RX 480 is an impressive performer at 1080p and, in some cases, even 1440p. While it may not reach 60fps, the holy grail of PC gaming, in every game at the highest settings, the RX 480 does manage to push out a few frames over 30 with the graphics cranked all the way up in games like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Ashes of the Singularity – both of which notably run using the latest DirectX 12 API from Microsoft. Moreover, if you're interested in overclocking with AMD's new Wattman utility, the RX 480 can move faster than a GTX 980. For the price, it's unparalleled.
Read the full review: AMD Radeon RX 480
9. Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060
One of Nvidia's best price-to-performance cards ever
Stream Processors: 1,280 | Core Clock: 1,506MHz | Memory: 8GB GDDR5 | Memory Clock: 8,000MHz | Power Connectors: 1 x 6-pin | Length: 249.5mm | Outputs: 1 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 1 x Dual Link-DVI
Though it bears resemblance to the GTX 1070 and 1080, the £275/$300 GTX 1060 Founder's Edition draws more parallels to Nvidia's more expensive GeForce 980. In an attempt to compete with the affordable RX 480, which promises 1080p, VR gaming at an aggressive price point, Nvidia was hurried into launching something similar. The GTX 1060, a mid-range graphics card with a firm grip on 1080p or even 1440p graphics, is just that. Given the ubiquity of full HD displays, the GTX 1060 is an inexpensive middle-ground solution for those in need of an energy-efficient GPU that demolishes in terms of performance.
Read the full review: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060
10. AMD Radeon RX 460
Polaris at its finest (and cheapest)
Stream Processors: 896 | Core Clock: 1,210MHz | Memory: 2GB GDDR5 | Memory Clock: 7,000MHz | Power Connectors: None | Length: 216mm | Outputs: 1 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DVI
Like the GTX 1050 and 1050 Ti from Nvidia, the latest in AMD’s Polaris catalog runs cheap, thanks to various takes on the Radeon RX 460 by XFX, Powercolor and others. The RX 460 proper is quite possibly the most affordable means of 1080p gaming outside of integrated CPU graphics. So long as you’re not looking to run The Witcher 3 at 60 fps on Ultra settings, the Radeon RX 460 is a capable, energy efficient piece of kit. Plus, by compromising on memory, it’s able to draw all its power straight from the motherboard, negating the need for any 6- or 8-pin connectors.
Gabe Carey has also contributed to this article