“What graphics card within my budget gives me the best bang for my buck?”
That simple question cuts to the core of what people hunting for a new graphics card look for: the most oomph they can afford. Sure, the technological leaps behind each new GPU can be interesting on their own, but most everyone just wants to crank up the detail settings on Battlefield and get right to playing.
Updated August 17, 2020 to update the news section with information about Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 30-series tease and info about Intel’s Xe graphics options in 2020.
Answering the question can be a bit trickier than it seems. Raw performance is a big part of it, but factors like noise, the driver experience, and supplemental software also play a role in determining which graphics card to buy. And do you want to pay Nvidia’s RTX premium to get in on the bleeding edge of real-time ray tracing?
Let us make it easy for you. We’ve tested nearly every major GPU that’s hit the streets over the past couple of years, from $100 budget cards to $1,200 luxury models. Our knowledge has been distilled into this article—a buying guide with recommendations on which graphics card to buy, no matter what sort of experience you’re looking for.
Note: There are customized versions of every graphics card from a slew of vendors. For example, you can buy different GeForce GTX 1660 models from EVGA, Asus, MSI, and Zotac, among others.
We’ve linked to our formal review for each recommendation, but the buying links lead to models that stick closely to each graphics card’s MSRP. Spending extra can get you hefty out-of-the-box overclocks, beefier cooling systems, and more. Check out our “What to look for in a custom card” section below for tips on how to choose a customized card that’s right for you.
Graphics card news
- It’s a terrible time to buy a high-end graphics card, for all the reasons highlighted below. Don’t spend more than $250 to $300 on a GPU right now unless you absolutely need to, and if you can put off buying any graphics card right now, consider it. Graphics prices are also slightly inflated right now, partially thanks to new interest in cryptocurrency as world economies falter.
- The long wait for a new Nvidia graphics architecture is over, two years after the GeForce RTX debut. First launched in data center form, Nvidia’s next-gen “Ampere” architecture will be inside both A100 data center GPUs and future GeForce cards alike, built using the 7nm manufacturing process, PCIe 4.0 technology, and amped-up tensor cores for AI smarts. Nvidia recently began teasing a big announcement on September 1, where the next-gen GeForce cards are expected to be revealed. 21 years after the first “GPU” launched on August 31, 1999, Nvidia’s billing the announcement as “what comes next.” Here’s what PC gamers need to know about Ampere.
AMD also revealed scads of details about its next-gen “Big Navi” Radeon graphics cards in recent months. Xbox Series X announcements and information revealed during AMD’s Financial Analyst Day show that “RDNA2” GPUs will include real-time ray tracing, variable rate shading, a massive 50 percent jump in performance-per-watt efficiency, and more. The introduction of a new, compute-focused “CDNA” architecture could portend big changes for Radeon’s gamer DNA as well. The reference designs for RDNA2 graphics cards will also ditch AMD’s traditional blower-style cooler for an axial fan design.
- Intel’s highly anticipated “Xe” graphics architecture will debut in 2020 as promised, but not in desktop form. Expect to see Xe “LP” integrated onto ”Tiger Lake” mobile laptop chips and offered as a discrete option for notebooks. The first desktop discrete Intel graphics card is planned for 2021, packing a beefed-up Xe “HPG” architecture and real-time ray tracing. Xe LP options will not support ray tracing, Intel says.
Best budget graphics card
For the first time in a long time, there’s a new budget gaming champion. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super is a superb 1080p graphics card that can hit the hallowed 60 frames per second mark at High or Ultra settings in virtually all modern games—a hell of a feat for just $160, or $170 for the feature-loaded ROG Strix model we evaluated. It comes packed with 4GB of ultra-fast GDDR6 memory, and Nvidia’s latest and greatest Turing NVENC video encoder, something the original GTX 1650 lacked. Better yet, Nvidia’s GPU is incredibly power efficient, and that means these graphics cards run cool and quiet, too.
You’ll need a six-pin power connector to run the card, which is much more potent than its non-Super cousin, the $150 GeForce GTX 1650. The only reason to consider the non-Super version is if you’re upgrading a big-box office PC into a gaming rig and have no extra power cabling available, since the vanilla GTX 1650 can draw all its more from your motherboard. Otherwise, the GeForce GTX 1650 Super is far superior, especially for just $10 more.
Unfortunately, the ROG Strix isn’t available at retail at the time of publication. Two other Asus GPUS—the $165 GeForce GTX 1650 Super Phoenix Fan Edition and $160 Asus TUF GTX 1650 Super—are, and you should expect similar bottom-line gaming performance out of them, though these alternatives don’t pack all the same extras as the Strix.
AMD’s counter to the GTX 1650 Super, the Radeon RX 5500 XT, launched shortly after in two versions: $170 for 4GB of RAM, and $200 for 8GB. It’s built using AMD’s next-gen “Navi” RDNA architecture, complete with cutting-edge PCIe 4.0 support and best-in-class power efficiency, as well as GDDR6 memory. Nonetheless, its performance hasn’t moved much beyond its Radeon RX 500-series predecessors, and it’s both slightly slower and slightly more expensive than Nvidia’s graphics card.
For that reason, we give the GTX 1650 Super the nod here, though AMD’s bundling of a free copy of Monster Hunter World: Iceborne Edition and three free months of Microsoft’s awesome Xbox Game Pass for PC could tip the scales if you’re interested in those. It’s a good graphics card capable of satisfying 1080p gaming with some settings tweaks, but not quite as good as the competition. Sapphire’s superb Pulse Radeon RX 5500 XT is a killer custom variant with a mere $10 premium if you go for Team Red.
If you’re willing to dial graphics settings down a bit, the last-generation Radeon RX 570, built on AMD’s ancient Polaris GPU architecture, is still a compelling option at roughly $130 on sale. We’ve even seen it as low as $100, and that includes three free months of Microsoft’s superb Xbox Game Pass for PC, as well as your choice of either Borderlands 3 or Ghost Recon Breakpoint—a wildly good deal. The Radeon RX 570 isn’t nearly as fast as the GeForce GTX 1650 or Radeon RX 5500 XT, but you’ll be able to play modern games at Medium to High settings and get near the hallowed 60 frames per second mark. AMD’s aging Polaris GPU absolutely sucks down power compared to the modern alternatives, though. In addition to requiring much more energy from the wall, that also means these cards tend to run a bit louder and hotter, and the card designs tend to be larger to shove in more cooling capacity.
Best 1080p graphics card
Many PC gamers play on basic 1080p, 60Hz monitors, thanks to their compelling blend of resolution, speed, and affordable pricing. While the GeForce GTX 1650 Super and Radeon RX 5500 XT mentioned in the budget section are solid low-cost options for 1080p gaming, the best graphics card for feeding those displays is Nvidia’s $230-and-up GeForce GTX 1660 Super, which usurped the sweet spot crown from its non-Super sibling by swapping in ultra-fast 14Mbps GGDR6 memory. It’s your best option for 1080p gaming on a standard 60Hz monitor with little-to-no visual compromises.
The GTX 1660 Super sticks to the same core specs as its vanilla GTX 1660 counterpart, but the GDDR6 upgrade speeds increase gaming performance anywhere from 7 percent to roughly 18 percent depending on the game, letting it soar well past 60 frames per second with all graphics options maxed out. It comes within 3 to 5 percent of the $280 GTX 1660 Ti, too. Not bad for a mere $10 premium over what came before. On top of the performance advantage, the GeForce GTX 1660 runs cool and is incredibly power-efficient compared to its Radeon rivals. Plus, modern GeForce GPUs now play nice with affordable FreeSync monitors as well as pricier G-Sync display option.
The original GTX 1660 will be sticking around with a price cut closer to $200, while the GTX 1660 Ti will also continue to live on at $280 or more. But the price-to-performance ratio of the GeForce GTX 1660 Super makes it a no-brainer over Nvidia’s other GTX 1660 options.
If you have a monitor that supports higher 120Hz or 144Hz refresh rates and want to put it to work, consider the $280 Radeon RX 5600 XT or one of the GeForce RTX 2060 models that dropped to $60 to combat AMD’s “Navi”-based GPU. The Radeon RX 5600 XT is faster than the identically priced GeForce GTX 1660 Ti across the board and can even go blow-for-blow with the pricier RTX 2060—sometimes.
In response to Nvidia’s RTX 2060 price cuts, AMD let its partners release last-second VBIOS upgrades that greatly enhanced the Radeon RX 5600 XT’s power draw, clock speeds, and memory speeds. The upgraded VBIOS achieves over 10 percent higher performance, thanks largely in part to the memory bump from 12Gbps to 14Gbps. But not every custom RX 5600 XT will receive an upgraded VBIOS, and some of the ones that do won’t get the crucial memory speed increase. Worse, since it was a eleventh-hour improvement, the first wave of Radeon RX 5600 XT stock on store shelves likely doesn’t come with the faster VBIOS preinstalled, requiring you to manually update your graphics card to get the performance increases.
It’s complicated. Because of all the confusion, we can only recommend the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT that we reviewed firsthand, but we recommend it highly. The whisper-quiet card received a new VBIOS that bumped up both clock and memory speeds, and Sapphire says most of its North American stock will come with the faster speeds out of the box, all for a mere $10 premium over MSRP. If you want to shop around, be sure to read our guide on why some Radeon RX 5600 XT models are faster than others, but really, just go buy the Sapphire Pulse.
Or, if you don’t want to deal with that mess, see if one of the $300 GeForce RTX 2060 cards are still available for $20 more. Nvidia’s own GeForce RTX 2060 Founders Edition dropped to that price, while EVGA released a new GeForce RTX 2060 KO that starts at $300, and we’ve seen other manufacturers use rebates and temporary deals to match the price. They’ll deliver roughly the same performance as an upgraded RX 5600 XT, as well as entry-level real-time ray tracing capabilities, but with none of the VBIOS hassle. The $300 options have been struggling with availability issues since they’ve launched, however, and if you move up much beyond $300, the Radeon RX 5600 XT is a much better value.
Moving back down the stack, AMD’s older Radeon RX 500-series GPUs aren’t quite dead yet, though they’re showing their age. The GTX 1660 Super beats the snot out of the Radeon RX 580 across the board, as well as the faster Radeon RX 590. Even the affordable GTX 1650 Super beats the RX 580.
Well, at least in pure performance. In price to performance, near-constant deals for the Radeon RX 590 bring it down to the $170 to $180 range, with your choice of either Borderlands 3 or Ghost Recon Breakpoint and three free months of Microsoft’s superb Xbox Game Pass for PC thrown in. You can find the Radeon RX 590 on sale for around $200 with the same game bundles. Unless you already planned on buying one of those two games, opt for Nvidia’s GTX 1650 Super or one of the GTX 1660 options. We’d like to see the sale prices on Radeon cards drop another $30 or so to better compete against the $160 GTX 1650. Keep an eye out for steeper deals during the holiday season.
Best 1440p graphics card
Now we’re getting into the futuristic stuff. The GeForce RTX 20-series graphics cards come rife with hardware dedicated to real-time ray tracing and AI enhancements, while the Radeon RX 5700 series are the first graphics cards with 7nm process technology, PCIe 4.0 support, and AMD’s all-new and vastly improved RDNA graphics architecture. But beyond those bleeding-edge extras, these can just plain game.
The GeForce GTX 1660, GTX 1660 Super, and Radeon RX 5600 XT are acceptable options for a decent 1440p/High gaming experience, but you won’t be able to crank graphics options to the max and still hit 60 fps in many games. The $300 to $350 GeForce RTX 2060 is another a solid 1440p option. Moving beyond the graphics cards mentioned in our 1080p graphics card section, however, AMD’s $350 Radeon RX 5700 and $400 Radeon RX 5700 XT and Nvidia’s $400 GeForce RTX 2060 Super and $500 RTX 2070 Super were made specifically for 1440p gaming. All of these graphics cards kick ass, and they have 8GB of VRAM that should hold up better over the long run at this higher resolution.
The AMD duo is the best of the bunch, though. The Radeon RX 5700 competes directly in price with the original 6GB RTX 2060, while the Radeon RX 5700 XT competes directly in price with the new 8GB RTX 2060 Super, and both AMD GPUs offer noticeably faster performance than their Nvidia rivals in many games. In some games, the Radeon RX 5700 XT even goes toe-to-toe with the GeForce RTX 2070 Super, which costs $100 more!
AMD’s next-gen GPUs switched to GDDR6 memory, giving them the same blistering speeds as Nvidia’s cards, while the new RDNA architecture is much more power efficient than previous-generation Radeon options and on par with the RTX 20-series. Great stuff. The Radeon RX 5700 is our pick for the best 1440p graphics card overall, especially if you’re using a 60Hz display, but the Radeon RX 5700 XT is another excellent value if you want even higher framerates for just $50 more.
Spend the extra money on a custom version if you can, however. The excellent Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5700 delivers vastly improved cooling, nice extras, and much better performance with the help of clever software tricks for a mere $10 more than the reference RX 5700.
The Sapphire Nitro+ and the XFX Thicc III Ultra are more powerful. They’re both loaded with custom cooling designs, some nice extras, and the best out-of-the-box Radeon RX 5700 XT performance you can buy. The XFX Thicc III resembles a muscle car in both its gorgeous, chrome-accented design and slightly finicky nature, while the Sapphire Nitro+ is virtually flawless. Both are well worth your money, but opt for the Nitro+ if you can find it.
Only Nvidia’s GeForce RTX graphics cards perform real-time ray tracing though. The futuristic technology has been slow to gain steam, but began seeing more traction at E3 2019, where several hotly anticipated games announced support plans. If you don’t want to miss out, and don’t mind leaving the faster overall speeds of the Radeon RX 5700 series on the table to get it, the $400 RTX 2060 Super is a good option, delivering performance on par with the original $500 RTX 2070.
Finally, the new $500 GeForce RTX 2070 Super is a stellar option of its own if you want to feed a high refresh rate 1440p gaming monitor and even better ray tracing performance. It’s only slightly behind the original RTX 2080 in performance, and that costs $700 or more. But if you don’t care about ray tracing and don’t need to max out frames, the Radeon RX 5700 XT is only a step behind the Nvidia option for $100 less.
Don’t buy Radeon Vega graphics cards or the original RTX 2070 at this point unless you find them at spectacular discounts. This new wave of GPUs blows their value proposition out of the water.
Next page: 4K graphics cards at 60Hz and 144Hz, what to look for in a graphics cards