Take one look at the guts of one of the best gaming PCs, and you’ll quickly discover that the graphics card – or the GPU, as it’s often abbreviated – is at the heart of it all. Usually one of the beefier components housed in your computer’s chassis (if it has one at all), the best GPUs are powerful and discrete. It has its own set of memory (VRAM), stream processors, video ports and even its own cooler whose quality varies depending on the manufacturer.
For PC gamers and high-end video editors, the graphics card is one of the most integral pieces of kit in your system. In many cases, having the best graphics card can be the difference between barely scraping by at 30 frames per second in League of Legends to running The Witcher 3 on your machine at 4K on Ultra graphics settings. Sporting one of the top graphics cards can also swiftly accelerate video rendering in the likes of Adobe Premiere Pro.
That said, there are a lot of graphics cards to choose from, all of which derive from AMD and Nvidia’s architectural specifications at this point. As both companies offer their fair share in budget, mid-range and high-end top GPU options, we’ve made it our duty to cover all factions. From the beastly (and not ludicrously expensive) Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti to the atypically affordable AMD Radeon RX 460, these are the best graphics cards to amp up your PC.
Best high-end GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti
Titan X performance without the Titan X cost
Stream Processors: 3,584 | Core Clock: 1,480MHz | Memory: 11GB GDDR5X | Memory Clock: 11GHz | Power Connectors: 1 x 6-pin; 1 x 8-pin | Outputs: 3 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI
The GTX 1080 Ti is, if we’re being honest, exactly what the Titan X Pascal should have been. It’s lavish, but not egregiously priced, and it’s powerful enough to move mountains, even at Ultra HD resolutions. Don’t expect 4K 60 fps in every game that releases at the highest settings, but at this price point, nothing else compares. Compared to any of the other Pascal-series graphics cards, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti is hardly distinguishable looks-wise, aside from the mysterious absence of a DVI port. Take a gander inside, however, and you’ll notice a sophisticated cooling system needed to keep that 11GB of VRAM from catching fire.
Read the full review: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti
Best mid-range GPU: AMD Radeon RX 580
Polaris at its finest, even if it's just a tweaked RX 480
Stream Processors: 2,304 | Core Clock: 1,340MHz | Memory: 8GB GDDR5 | Memory Clock: 8GHz | Power Connectors: 1 x 8-pin | Outputs: 1 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DV-I
More of a souped up version of last year’s Radeon RX 480 than a brand-new graphics card, the Radeon RX 580 takes the Polaris architecture and amps it up to new levels of performance. Sporting the same modest price tag of the RX 480, the AMD Radeon RX 580 offers a 1,441MHz boost clock (compared to the 1,266MHz boost clock of the 480). It still hangs on to the same 8GB of DDR5 memory, but overall it delivers better 1080p and 1440p gaming performance for the same reasonable price, even if you can (without guaranteed success) flash your BIOS and get the same performance from an RX 480.
Read the full review: AMD Radeon RX 580
Best entry-level GPU: AMD Radeon RX 460
Proof that Polaris pushes the envelope for budget GPUs
Stream Processors: 896 | Core Clock: 1,210; 1,250MHz | Memory: 2GB; 4GB GDDR5 | Memory Clock: 7,000MHz | Power Connectors: None | 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