On PC, the graphics card will make or break your gaming experience. Sure, your monitor and your mouse matter, but a decent GPU is the difference between barely managing 30fps at the lowest settings and pulling off the glorious 4K 60fps gold standard. Unfortunately, with so many cards to choose from, each aspiring to be the best at your budget range, the decision alone can be taxing.
The simple solution then is to go for the best of the best, the cream of the crop. In other words, the most expensive. For those of us who don't want to shell out the cost of a car on AMD's 8K-capable Radeon Pro SSG, the solution is to aim for the best bang-for-buck deal on a set budget, though it's important to consider the software advantages of a particular GPU too.
Keep in mind, however, that you'll need to choose the rest of your parts wisely once you've found your perfect-match GPU. There's no point in going all-in on the latest Titan X if it's being bottlenecked by an old CPU or feeding a feeble screen when you'd be better off with one of AMD's low-cost GPUs or even Nvidia's upcoming GTX 1050.
With an ever-present VR future looming, virtual reality could also play a factor in your next graphics card purchase. That said, here are our picks for the best graphics cards around, VR-ready or otherwise.
1. EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition
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
EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition
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 perfect. 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.
2. 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
Zotac GeForce GTX 980Ti AMP Extreme Edition
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.
3. 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
Gigabyte Radeon R9 Fury X
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.
4. 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
5. 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
6. Sapphire Radeon R9 Tri-X 390X
AMD's card has the GTX 980 in its sights
Stream Processors: 2816 | Core Clock: 1055MHz | Memory: 8GB | Memory Clock: 6000MHz | Power Connectors: 2 x 8-pin | Length: 308mm | Outputs: 1 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 2 x DVI
Sapphire Radeon R9 Tri-X 390X
When it comes to cost, the Radeon R9 Tri-X 390X sits somewhere between Nvidia's GTX 970 and 980 cards. It often gets the better of the former card, though the 970 performs better in some games. The Tri-X 390X produces blistering frame rates at resolutions up to 2,560 x 1,440 with all graphic details dialled up to 10. Featuring 2,816 stream processors and a core clock speed of 1,055MHz, it doesn't quite pack the muscle required for 4K gaming unless you're playing lesser demanding titles.
7. MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming Edition
Value meets performance in Nvidia's capable card
Stream Processors: 1664 | Core Clock: 1140MHz | Memory: 4GB | Memory Clock: 7010MHz | Power Connectors: 1 x 6-pin, 1 x 8-pin | Length: 269mm | Outputs: 1 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 2 x DVI
MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming Edition
A variant of one of the most popular graphics cards around, the GTX 970 Gaming edition is a 1080p monster. You could even get away with gaming at 2,560 x 1,440, though you'll have to temper expectations when it comes to 4K. Featuring 1,664 stream processors, a core clock of 1,140MHz and 4GB of memory, the GTX 970 offers the mainstream performance you may be looking for without breaking the bank.
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. Considering its low 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 might bear resemblance to the GTX 1070 and 1080, the £275/$300 GTX 1060 Founder's Edition is more aligned with Nvidia's more expensive GeForce 980. Thanks to AMD's competitively priced RX 480, which promises both 1080p and VR gaming at an aggressive price point, Nvidia was hurried into launching a similar offering. Enter the GTX 1060: a mid-range graphics card that can handle just about anything at a full HD resolution and even some titles at 1440p without too much of an impact on the frame rate. With most of us still clinging onto sub-4K resolution TVs and monitors, the GTX 1060 gives PC gamers a sweet spot absent the need to upgrade your displays.
Read the full review: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060
10. EVGA GeForce GTX 750Ti SC
A graphics chip that's super (and super cheap)
Stream Processors: 640 | Core Clock: 1176MHz | Memory: 2GB | Memory Clock: 5400MHz | Power Connectors: None | Length: 170mm | Outputs: 1 x HDMI, 1 x DVI, 1 x VGA
EVGA GeForce GTX 750Ti SC
Based on Nvidia's Maxwell architecture, the GTX 750Ti SC is an affordable card that still packs the latest technology. This entry-level offering is still up to the task of playing the latest games if you're happy with playing on Low or Medium quality settings at 1080p resolution, and because it's small it's easy to drop into a basic PC to give it some extra graphical grunt. Just don't expect it to work miracles.
Gabe Carey has also contributed to this article