Best 4K graphics card
The same concerns we listed about last-gen cards in our 1440p section continue here. The arrival of the new generation of Radeon and GeForce GPUs immediately turned most high-end cards from before into horrible values, but you have more options up here on the high-end.
Editor’s note: Demand is through the roof for graphics cards right now. Newer models sell out instantly and often cost hundreds of dollars more than MSRP. Even older-generation graphics cards are selling for more than what they cost new, years ago. We can’t recommend people buy graphics cards at those markups, but if you’re lucky enough to find stock at MSRP, this guide should help. Note that prices below discuss MSRP, as it’s impossible to stay current with today’s volatile pricing.
The biggest considerations between AMD and Nvidia up here in the high end? Ray tracing and memory capacity. AMD’s Radeon 6000-series GPUs come with massive 16GB memory pools that should handle everything games throw at them for the foreseeable future. By contrast, Nvidia wasn’t quite as generous with the memory in its RTX lineup, and some rare, especially strenuous games are already pushing GeForce VRAM limits. But the RTX 30-series offer vastly superior ray tracing performance, both in raw horsepower and with the huge uplift provided by DLSS 2.0 supersampling, which AMD currently has no answer for. Ray tracing is picking up steam now that it’s in the next-gen consoles but remains relatively rare in today’s games, however.
Pick your poison; these are all great graphics cards.
If you’re on a $500 budget, or trying to power a 60Hz 4K monitor, the $500 GeForce RTX 3070 is worth considering. It’s just as fast as the former $1,200 RTX 2080 Ti flagship and exceeds or flirts with the 60fps mark in most—but not all—games at 4K resolution with graphics settings maxed out. Be warned that you’ll need to dial the visuals in some games back to hit 60fps, though, and the card can struggle if you turn on ray tracing in games that support it.
The RTX 3070’s modest 8GB memory buffer isn’t likely to be very future-proof either, as some games already exceed that capacity at 4K, so we consider Nvidia’s $500 card better for high refresh rate 1440p gaming, or 4K gaming with some small potential quality compromises. High graphics settings still look great at 4K, though the 8GB of VRAM would make me leery about buying the RTX 3070 as a long-term 4K gaming solution.
If you don’t want to make those occasional graphics quality tweaks or worry about whether 8GB of memory will be enough for 4K gaming in a year or two, consider AMD’s $580 Radeon RX 6800 instead. It’s a bit faster than the RTX 3070 and comes with a generous 16GB of GDDR6 memory. AMD’s Smart Access Memory technology also gives Radeon RX 6000-series graphics cards an additional speed boost when paired with a Ryzen 5000 processor in an X570 motherboard.
If you want even faster performance, or have a high refresh rate 4K monitor, step up to the $650 Radeon RX 6800 XT or $700 GeForce RTX 3080. They kick ass, take names, and trade performance blows. There are no games in our test suite that fail to clear a 60-frames-per-second average at 4K resolution with all possible visuals effects enabled on these cards, and they often exceeds that mark by far.
The GeForce RTX 3080 and Radeon RX 6800 XT spit out frames up to 80 percent faster than the RTX 2080 in several games at 4K, and 60 percent higher in the others. They’re roughly 30 percent faster than the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, the $1,200 previous-gen flagship, and a ridonkulous 100 to 160 percent faster than the older GeForce GTX 1080. The overwhelming horsepower makes these excellent options for 3440x1440 ultrawide gaming, too.
The feature differences are especially key here. The Radeon RX 6800 XT packs a future-proof 16GB of GDDR6 memory, versus 10GB of faster GDDR6X memory in the RTX 3080. But Nvidia’s ray tracing advantage shines even brighter on the high-end, as its second-gen RT cores and DLSS technology enable 4K gaming with ray tracing enabled. AMD’s cards simply can’t play ray traced games beyond 1440p without frame rates slowing to a crawl.
Moving up yet higher, the even more monstrous GeForce RTX 3090 “BFGPU” wields 10,496 CUDA cores, SLI connectors, and a massive 24GB of that speedy GDDR6X memory. It’s a stunning value for creators who can tap into all that VRAM, and can achieve 60fps gaming at a ludicrous 8K resolution in a handful of games, but it’s only about 10 to 15 percent faster than the RTX 3080 at 4K for over twice the price. Most people should get the RTX 3080 instead for a still-superb 4K experience, but there’s no denying the GeForce RTX 3090 is the fastest gaming card on the planet—though AMD’s $999 Radeon RX 6900 XT hopes to challenge that claim when it releases on December 8.
In a surprise twist, Nvidia’s own Founders Edition cooler is phenomenal, which makes it a better buy than custom cards since the FE model sells at the card’s $1,499 MSRP, rather than coming with a steep premium. We’ve got 3440x1440 ultrawide benchmarks for the RTX 3090, too.
For the first time in a long time, AMD offers a rival to Nvidia’s flagship GeForce GPU, but it’s hard to recommend the $1,000 Radeon RX 6900 XT despite its steep discount against the RTX 3090. It’s only two percent slower than the RTX 3090 at 1440p gaming, so it could be worth considering for a high-refresh rate 1440p monitor, or for powering a 3440x1440 ultrawide experience, where it performs very well. It could also be a solid option for Linux users, since AMD drivers perform with much less headache there. And this card also offers much more overclocking headroom than rival GeForce GPUs if you’re into hardcore tweaking.
But the Radeon RX 6900 XT loses to the RTX 3090 by over 9 percent at 4K gaming, and since AMD doesn’t offer a DLSS rival, ray traced games are limited to 1440p resolution—a bummer in a four-figure graphics card. And the $650 Radeon RX 6800 XT is almost as fast for $350 less, while the $700 RTX 3080 is essentially as fast at 4K with much better ray tracing performance. This is a fantastic graphics card, and it’s wonderful to see AMD competing against Nvidia at the high end after a long absence, but the Radeon RX 6900 XT doesn’t carve out a strong niche for itself. Hot-rodded custom versions of this GPU could hold a lot of potential when they hit the streets, though.
What to look for in a custom card
If you want to shop beyond the scope of our picks, know that finding the right graphics card can be tricky. Various vendors offer customized versions of every GPU. For example, you can buy different Radeon RX 5700 models from Sapphire, XFX, Asus, MSI, and PowerColor.
To help narrow down the options and find the right card for you, you should consider the following things when doing your research:
Overclocks: Higher-priced custom models are often overclocked out-of-the-box to varying degrees, which can lead to higher performance. Most modern custom cards offer the same essential level of performance,however.
Cooling solutions: Many graphics cards are available with custom coolers that lower temperatures and fan noise. The vast majority perform well. Liquid-cooled graphics cards run even cooler, but require extra room inside your case for the tubing and radiator. Avoid graphics cards with single-fan, blower-style cooling systems if you can help it, unless you have a small-form-factor PC or plan on using custom water-cooling blocks.
Size: Many graphics cards are of a similar size, but longer and shorter models of many GPUs exist. High-end graphics cards are starting to sport especially massive custom cooling solutions to tame their enthusiast-class GPUs. Double-check that your chosen graphics card will fit in your case before you buy.
Compatibility: Not all hardware supports a wide range of connectivity options. Higher-end graphics cards may lack DVI ports, while lower-end monitors may lack DisplayPorts. Only the most modern Radeon and GeForce graphics cards support HDMI 2.1 outputs. Ensure your graphics card and monitor can connect to each other. Likewise, make sure your power supply meets the recommended wattage for the graphics card you choose.
Real-time ray tracing and DLSS: AMD’s Radeon RX 6000-sereis graphics cards and all of Nvidia’s RTX offerings can play games with real-time ray tracing effects active. Nvidia’s RTX 30-series GPUs hold a massive advantage over everything else though, propelled even further by dedicated tensor cores for processing machine learning tasks such as Deep Learning Super Sampling, which uses AI to speed up the performance of your games with minimal hit to visual fidelity. GeForce RTX 20-series GPUs also support DLSS, but AMD has no answer for it yet, though the company is teasing a more open “FidelityFX Super Resolution” feature to rival it in the coming months.
Check out our recent reviews
Below is a list of our most recent reviews for individual graphics cards. We’ve kept it to the most current GPUs.