How to Choose the Best Gaming Video Card

August 2018 Updated Guide to Buying a Graphics Card, GPU Features Explained, AMD vs NVidia, & the Best Gaming Video Cards for the Money


Last Updated: August 15, 2018


Learn everything you need to know when choosing the best gaming video card for your new computer with our in-depth buying guide. We'll consider any noteworthy GPU features to be aware of when you're hunting for a new card and explain our thoughts on the current NVidia vs AMD situation.

We'll then finish the guide off with our current top recommended best gaming video cards for the money, which represent our objective top picks of the current best video cards for gaming (as of August 2018) for different resolutions and refresh-rates to take away some of the confusion about choosing the best gaming video card so you can more easily pick the optimal GPU for your specific needs and avoid overspending on something you don't need.

Choosing the best video card for gaming is often no simple task, as it's the single most important component in any gaming PC and they can cost you an arm and a leg should you be after the best gaming experience possible. Therefore, you want to make sure you make the right choice that makes the most of your hard-earned moolah and that will give you the gaming performance and frame-rate that you're after in your chosen resolution, games, and settings.

This can lead to confusion as to which 'darn card you should pull the trigger on, and rightly so as your choice of GPU will have a large say on your overall gaming experience for years to come (well, the "smoothness" and graphics-quality of your games). Fear not, gamer, as in this simplified buying guide we'll bring you what you need to know as a beginner, minus the fluff, so you can make a confident decision sooner rather than later, make the optimal choice without over or under-spending, and get back to what you do best - winning and grinnin' on the battlefield.

AUGUST 2018 NOTE:

Should you wait for the new NVidia GPUs? 

If you haven't heard, NVidia will likely be announcing details of their new GPUs around August 20, and these new models should be rolled out over the next few months or so and will replace the current 1060/1070/1080 cards which have long reigned supreme over the past few years. However, whether you should wait it out for the new cards is not is not a simple black and white yes or no, as the current generation cards can be had for very good prices at the moment with further price drops quite likely. So, if you've decided you're going with NVidia, then whether you wait or not will depend on how badly (or how soon) you need to upgrade your graphics.

If you don't want to wait until the new cards are both launched and available at a decent price, then getting a current-gen NVidia card is still a great buy IMO 'cause they'll last you through the entire next generation without needing to upgrade. But if you wish to wait it out for the new cards, I'd recommend waiting till Nov/Dec for the sales periods where you're probably more likely to get a great deal and once they've been benchmarked, reviewed and compared by the top sites in the industry. We'd benchmark 'em all, but we're a lean operation and not made of money ;) Perhaps one day, though...

CONTENTS

What is a Video Card? How Much Does it Affect Gaming?

GPU Arms Race: State of AMD vs NVIDIA in 2018

Which GPU Brand to Buy? What are the Differences?

How Much to Spend on a Video Card for Gaming?

Choosing the Right GPU for Specific Games and Refresh Rate

Video Card Features and Specs Explained

The Best Gaming Video Cards for the Money (August 2018)



What is a Video Card? How Much Does it Affect Gaming?

A video card, also known as the graphics card or GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is THE single most crucial component of all in regards to how well your games and other visually-demanding applications will run. Technically speaking, a video card is a PC expansion card that comes in a PCI-Express format (older video cards used to be PCI or AGP formats) and slots into your motherboard. Video cards are responsible for calculating and controlling visual images and outputting them to your display.

They're commonly advertised as either "dedicated" or "discrete" video cards, as a computer does not necessarily need one to output images as this functionality can be performed by a CPU (which is referred to as "integrated graphics" and an option to consider if you're really strapped for cash). However, getting a separate video card is an absolute must if you want a good modern gaming experience and without one you won't be getting very far in terms of gaming performance.


Many modern PC games can be extremely demanding on your graphics card


Modern PC games contain extensively complicated, thoroughly detailed, dynamic 3D scenes with tons of special effects, and the graphics card is responsible for processing and outputting all this action in the blink of an eye. Simply put, the better and more powerful your graphics card, the faster your games will run making for a smoother, more visually-appealing and overall more enjoyable experience.

If your graphics card isn’t up to scratch for the specific games you want to play (and for the resolution and in-game graphical settings you desire to run the game at) then in-game performance is going to suffer, which means a lower frame-rate. Once your frame-rate gets too low, the on-screen action will lag or stutter, which can hinder the experience at best and make the game completely unplayable at worst.


GPU Arms Race: State of AMD vs NVIDIA in 2018

Just like when choosing the best CPU for your new build, you've basically got two overarching choices when picking the best gaming video card; AMD or NVIdia. NVIDIA dominate the high-end GPU market but also provide great budget to mid-range cards. AMD (formerly ATI, but AMD bought them out) give NVidia a run for their money mainly in the budget and mid-range tier. 

These two ever-evolving tech companies have been neck and neck for a long, long time, and both continually push the envelope and strive to produce faster, more powerful, more efficient GPUs than the other. It seems that every time either AMD or Nvidia makes a new breakthrough in graphics technology; the other strikes back to outdo them yet again and the cycle continues making for healthy competition.

So, to the question likely on your mind as a beginner who's looking to buy the best gaming video card possible this year - should you choose AMD or NVidia?

As of right now, it's a simple decision if you're on the hunt for the best of the best as like we said before NVidia are king of the upper end of the market and have been for a long time. So for top of the range build, they're pretty much your only real option IMO. But if you're looking for value for money in the lower to mid tier, where most gamers spend their money, it's a tougher choice and will come down to the exact amount you want to spend and comparing specific models from both companies against each other for any specific period of time.

As well as logically comparing cards for your chosen price range, for some people it comes down to personal preference and I know many gamers who only buy AMD because they want to support the slight underdog. Each to their own, but both companies produce excellent GPUs.

Also keep in mind certain specific games may run better on either AMD or Nvidia cards due to better optimization etc. So if you're planning on building your PC for a specific game, you may want to consult benchmarks to see if there's a clear winner. For example, AMD cards run slightly better with CS:GO, however in the smash hit PUBG, NVidia takes the frame-rate cake. More on choosing the right video card for specific games below.


With a poor graphics card, hectic high-action scenes in your games will take their toll on your frame-rate

Which GPU Brand to Buy? What are the Differences?

Now let's talk a little about video cards brands - not AMD or NVidia, but the actual company that re-sells these cards, as AMD and NVidia don't directly sell GPUs to us as consumers. Whilst there's only 2 main manufacturers in the graphics card game, other companies re-sell/re-brand AMD and NVidia cards with their own unique design, cooling solution/fans, features, clock speeds, etc.

So when you're shopping around and choosing the best video card for gaming, you're not buying a plain vanilla AMD or NVidia card, but you're picking between all the re-branded editions of the main GPU from companies like EVGA, MSI, Gigabyte, ASUS, XFX, Sapphire, Zotac and PNY. They all produce excellent models, as not anyone can just re-sell an AMD or NVidia GPU and slap their brand on there to get in on the financial action.

Therefore, all the names I just mentioned are safe brands to go with for your video card. However, of course if you want to shop smart, do look into any specific models that you're considering from any brand you're considering buying. But yeah, whether you get an EVGA card, or an Asus card, or even a cheaper Zotac card - you can rest assured you're getting a quality product. Although, it must be said that just like most things in life, you get what you pay for, and the more expensive cards (usually from EVGA and Asus) will often have the best overall product, especially when it comes to buying a high-end card. 

The differences between all the different branded versions of a particular graphics card model are usually only quite minimal in terms of overall performance, but it can make a difference in terms of cooling effectiveness as some cards are going to be better cooled than others. Gaming performance will be very much the same, with only minor boosts in performance in models that are factory overclocked. Meaning, some cards are set to run a tad faster than the standard speed of that baseline graphics card model. These factory overclocked models are typically denoted by having "OC" (Overclocked) or "SC" (SuperClocked) in the model number, and usually sell for a little extra.


Who needs enemies when you can stare at mountains

How Much to Spend on a Video Card for Gaming?

As mentioned your video card is the most important component of a gaming computer, so choose wisely. Generally speaking, aim to get the best card you can afford. Whilst you should indeed aim to balance out a custom PC build as much as possible, as you could say a quality computer that's built to last is only as strong as its weakest link, however if gaming is important to you (and there's 99.9% chance that it is if you've read this far) then you'll want to allocate at least 20 - 30% of your total overall PC budget on your graphics card.

Long story short, when building a computer for modern gaming, to maximize gaming performance for your money as a general rule of thumb you’ll want to dedicate a minimum of 25 – 35 percent of your total spending budget to your discrete/dedicated graphics card selection. So, on a $1000 gaming PC build, you’ll be looking at a gaming GPU that's at least $250 to $350.

We've found this is a good percentage to allocate for graphics without skimping on your other still-important components, such as still getting a great CPU, RAM and other parts. Building a PC is a balancing act, and you could say your system is only as strong and reliable as your weakest link. That's why it's not practical to say throw 600 bucks down on a GPU for a 1K build and then scrap together a bunch of super-cheap parts to make up the rest of your parts-list. It'll come back to bite you later, as a good GPU needs good airflow/cooling, decent motherboard, decent RAM, a quality power supply, etc.

But generally speaking, get the most powerful graphics card you can afford whilst still being able to afford an overall good-quality, balanced parts-list. There is a point where you can overspend, though. For example, if you’ll be sticking to 1080p on a 60Hz screen (therefore you're only aiming for 60FPS), there’s no need splashing over 300 dollars on a high-end or extreme GPU as you'd only be using a fraction of total power of your GPU.

Although there is an argument to be made for buying a better video card than you actually need right now if you can afford it, as the stronger the card you purchase now the more future-proof your build will be (read: no need to upgrade for many years). If you buy a 100-200 dollar card now to scrape by with respectable 1080p performance in today’s titles, in a couple/few years you may want or need to upgrade to keep up that decent performance in the latest games. 

As well as resolution, choosing the best video card for your gaming PC build comes down to the types of games you'll be playing, the settings you'd ideally want to use, and also the refresh-rate of your monitor if you're looking to move away from the standard 60Hz screens and opt for a high-end 144Hz/240Hz screen. If you're building or upgrading with specific games in mind and you care about the performance you'll be getting, let's discuss these things further.


Choosing the Right GPU for Specific Games & Refresh Rate

Goes without saying, but not all games are created equally. Therefore, it's worth mentioning early on in this GPU guide that if you intend to buy the right graphics card for good performance in the specific games you'll be playing most, it's wise to know what that's going to take. You should find out what gaming video card and gaming CPU combination will get you a frame-rate that you're happy with, at the resolution that you'll be playing at and on the kind of in-game graphic settings that you ideally want, too. Your gaming resolution and the settings you choose for the game have a huge bearing on the amount of graphics card power you'll need.

Also, if you plan in investing in a high refresh-rate gaming monitor (such as 120Hz, 144Hz, or even 240Hz), your hardware requirements will be a lot higher than normal as those higher refresh rates (remember the common standard is 60Hz) will only be beneficial if you also get high frame-rates as well. For example, if you get a 144Hz monitor for gaming, you'll want to get as close to 144FPS (frames per second) as possible to make the most of your high-end screen (although keep in mind that even if you get 100FPS or so, it'll still be better than 60Hz).

We've created simplified guides to certain games and their requirements to help you pick the right graphics card if you're building for a certain performance level in specific games  (60FPS or 144FPS, etc):

More game requirement guides coming soon.


One of the most graphically demanding games of all time

Video Card Features and Specs Explained

You obviously don’t need to know each and every technical specification of a graphics card inside and out to be able to buy a good one, but a basic understanding of key features will help you be a smarter shopper. Let's take a look at some of the more relevant, important GPU specs that you may need to consider on your hunt for the right card. You don't need to know all the following details, but refer back here if there's ever a feature you're curious about.

Video Memory (VRAM). How Much Do You Need for Gaming?

Graphics cards have on-board memory, known as video memory (or VRAM) to help store and process data faster. The more memory your card has the better, but in reality it’s not as important a spec as you might think. The actual GPU model you choose is a lot more important, and better video cards will have more VRAM anyway.

For standard 1080p (Full HD) gaming, 2-4GB is all you need for maximum performance and anything more is just a nice luxury. Higher resolutions such as 1440p and 4K do benefit more from higher VRAM counts, but as mentioned if you're buying a higher-end GPU for these resolutions then the card will naturally have higher VRAM anyway (such as 6GB, 8GB, or even 11GB with the GTX 1080 Ti).

The point is not to worry about video memory too much, as it's not a huge indicator of overall gaming performance. Case in point is NVidia's GTX 1060, which comes in either 3GB and 6GB versions. The performance difference between the two isn't huge (roughly 10% in 1080p and 15% in 1440p), so you're not getting double the performance with double the VRAM as some newbies may wrongly assume.

GPU Clock Speed Explained

Just like processors, graphics cards have a clock speed specification too, which is one indicator of how fast the GPU can work for you. Some lower-end cards can have faster clock speeds than higher ranked cards though to make up for their lack of power in other areas, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will perform better in reality. To be honest, GPU clock speed isn’t something you should concern yourself with when choosing a graphics card, but it can be one way of comparing the performance of 2 similar GPUs from the same model, such as comparing a Gigabyte GTX 1080 vs an EVGA GTX 1080, or comparing standard vs superclocked versions of the same card. Speaking of which:

Are SC (SuperClocked) or OC (OverClocked) GPUs Worth It?

Firstly, you may wonder what it means when a graphics card is "SuperClocked" or "OverClocked" (if it is, it'll have either an "SC" or "OC" in the model number). It simply means that the card is factory overclocked, so the manufacturer has increased the standard clock speed of the base model and sells it at that faster speed without you having to do any overclocking yourself

So, what's the lowdown on normal vs superclocked graphics cards? Are these factory overclocked GPUs worth the extra money? Well, first of all if you can find one on special at the same or very similar price to a standard speed model, then you can't really go wrong with buying one if you're willing to throw down a little extra cash for a slight performance boost.

However, if they're clearly more expensive than a base model, whether an OC or SC graphics card is worth it will all depend on just how much more it is relative to the added performance gains you'll get. Therefore, it all depends on the specific model in question, how much better performance you'll get in the specific games you'll be running with a SC/OC model compared to the normal edition, and of course current pricing. 

SLI and CrossFire Support

For the more hardcore gamers and power users who want to splurge on some serious graphics power, a multiple graphics card setup may be an option. AMD and Nvidia both have their own technologies, namely AMD CrossFire and NVidia SLI (stands for Scalable Link Interface) respectively, to link up more than one card so that your computer recognizes them as the one card.

If you do plan on a multiple card setup you’ll generally want all your cards to be the same manufacturer and GPU. You will also need to make sure your motherboard has enough PCI-Express ports for your graphics cards, and your power supply will need to be powerful enough to support multiple cards.

We don’t generally recommend it though, as having 2 cards doesn’t mean you’ll get twice the performance. In fact, it’s more like 30 – 50 percent more, and there are other issues that come with it as well. For 98% of gamers (and especially if you’re new) just stuck with the single GPU.

GPU Output/Connection Ports

When choosing a graphics card the output ports may be an important factor for you. Most cards these days will have a DVI port which is the common way to connect to your monitor, but depending on your individual needs you may want other output ports such as HDMI, mini HDMI or the latest technology “DisplayPort” and “Mini DisplayPort” to connect to a TV or other device. If you want to output your display to 2 monitors then you will need a video card with 2 DVI ports.

Dual Monitor Support

If you want to split your video output across two monitors, you will need dual monitor support on your graphics card. This feature is useful for developers, engineers, designers, and multi-taskers who wish to view many different windows on their desktop at once. Sometimes, one output will be VGA and the other DVI. 

GPU Power Requirements

You’ll need to be aware of how much power your new video card will require to run, AKA the minimum recommended power supply (which should be stated clearly somewhere). This is especially important if you choose a monster high-end card that will suck a ton of power, so you can pick an adequate PSU. 

Do keep in mind that GPU power recommendations are usually a little higher than you actually need though, due to the fact that they take into account things like low quality power supplies which actually produce less power than they say (yet another reason you should never get a cheap power supply which is a common beginner mistake). If you’ll be running dual GPUs in SLI or CrossFire, then obviously that’ll require a lot more power so adjust accordingly and plan ahead if you think you might add a second graphics card at a later date.

Video Card Size

Then there's the actual physical size of your video card, which may be an issue when it comes to compatibility with your other components, especially if it's a large/long GPU with dual or triple fans, or if you're using a small case and you have very limited space (in which case you may need to get a single-fan/low-profile video card). Check that your computer case will fit your new beast by checking the specs of your case which will list somewhere the maximum supported GPU sizes. PCPartPicker is also handy to check compatibility with your case, GPU and any other parts that might get in the way of larger video cards.

Single vs Dual Fan Video Cards

Discrete/dedicated video cards may come in single, dual or tri fan models which begs the question of which is the better buy? Single vs dual vs triple fan cards? As with many hardware related things, the answer is of course one and the same: it depends.

In theory, with more fans they won't have to work as hard and spin as fast all the time, which means quieter operation. So is it always better having 2 or 3 fans? In general, yes, but not always because with lower-tiered or even mid-grade cards that don't produce too much heat, a single fan will suffice. Even on a mid-tier card like the GTX 1060, a single fan model has no issues and is totally fine. Heck, even a single fan GTX 1070 would be fine in most cases, pun intended, assuming that if it gets real hot you have solid airflow within your case. As for the GTX 1080, I remember Gigabyte releasing a single-fan version a while ago, but that's the only one I ever saw, but I would not recommend it.

Plus, you may even need to get a single fan model if you're building a tight build in a small mITX/mATX case, as dual fan models may not fit in your particular setup. But for higher-end cards and builds, you'll need a dual-fan card minimum, although good luck finding a top of the range model with only the fan single fan. Single fan 1080 Ti? Not gonna happen.

DirectX 12: What Is It & Do You Need a DirectX 12 GPU?

DirectX 12 is the latest version of Microsoft's API (Application Programming Interface) which, without getting too technical here as it doesn't matter when buying a GPU, is a software interface that game developers use in their source code to communicate with your hardware. A card comes with support for a particular DirectX version out of the box, such as 12 or the previous DirectX 11 in slightly older cards.

So do you need to confirm that a GPU supports DirectX 12 when buying a card? No, because if your card only comes with DirectX 11 you can always just upgrade to DirectX 12 by downloading it online. However, chances are you won't need to do this as all modern cards will come with support for the latest version of DirectX out of the box anyway.

Speaking of DirectX though, not many games support it right now so it's not even important anyway. Most games still use DirectX 11 and will probably do so for the foreseeable future. On top of that, sometimes you'll even see a performance drop using DirectX 12 vs Direct 11, so even if you could use DirectX 12 in a certain game, you might not even want to if you find out through research that the game runs worse with your particular GPU. Yep, the world of gaming technology can be confusing stuff.


The Best Gaming Video Cards for the Money (August 2018)

If you're buying a new GPU in 2018, this periodically-updated section is here to aid you in your research. As mentioned above in this buying guide, choosing the best gaming video card for your money will depend majorly on the resolution you'll be playing in, as larger resolutions like 1440p and 4K require a ton of on-screen pixels to be rendered and therefore really test your GPU. That's why we've broken up our below picks of the current best video cards for gaming in 2018 into different resolution recommendations.

We've also included general GPU recommendations for different refresh rates of 60Hz (standard), 144Hz (high-end monitors), and 240Hz (extreme monitors). Keep in mind the following GPU guidelines are just general guidelines, and aimed at MOST games and most gaming situations, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Some games with above-average GPU demands may not get the performance listed below (such as Witcher 3, PUBG, GTA 5, Tomb Raider), and certain games will require more/less GPU power for high refresh-rates like 144FPS or 240FPS.

Disclaimer for the Recommended 2018 Gaming GPUs

  • The below recommendations assume that you have a CPU and RAM that won't bottleneck your performance. Higher than average frame-rates (ie for high refresh-rate screens like 144Hz/240Hz) will require very solid CPUs, especially if a game is quite reliant on the CPU.
  • The below recommendations are only general guidelines for most games and most situations.
  • Below we recommend GPU base models (ie AMD or NVidia cards), so if you want to know what our current recommended specific GPU models are then see our monthly-updated Gaming Desktop Computer Builds which always includes our current top GPU picks of the month.


Best 720p Video Cards for 60Hz, 144Hz or 240Hz (August 2018)

Optimal GPUs for Smooth 720p at 60Hz:

  • NVidia GeForce GT 1030 2GB
  • AMD Radeon RX 550 2GB
  • AMD Ryzen 3 2200G (Vega integrated GPU)
  • AMD Ryzen 5 2400G (Vega integrated GPU)

Optimal GPUS for Flawless 720p at 60Hz (60FPS High/Ultra):

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1050 2GB
  • AMD Radeon RX 560 2GB

Optimal GPUs for Flawless 720p at 144Hz (144FPS High/Ultra):

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB
  • AMD Radeon RX 570 4GB

Optimal GPUs for Flawless 720p at 240Hz (240FPS High/Ultra):

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1060 6GB
  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1070 8GB
  • AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB


Best 1080p Video Cards for 60Hz, 144Hz or 240Hz (August 2018)

Optimal GPUs for Smooth 1080p at 60Hz:

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1050 2GB
  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB
  • AMD Radeon RX 560 4GB
  • AMD Radeon RX 570 4GB

Optimal GPUS for Flawless 1080p at 60Hz (60FPS High/Ultra):

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1060 3GB/6GB
  • AMD Radeon RX 580 4GB

Optimal GPUs for Flawless 1080p at 144Hz (144FPS High/Ultra):

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1070 8GB
  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1070 Ti 8GB
  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1080 8GB

Optimal GPUs for Flawless 1080p at 240Hz (240FPS High/Ultra):

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti 11GB
  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1080 8GB x 2 (SLI)


Best 1440p Video Cards for 60Hz, 144Hz or 240Hz (August 2018)

Optimal GPUs for Smooth 1440p at 60Hz:

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1060 6GB
  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1070 8GB
  • AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB

Optimal GPUS for Flawless 1440p at 60Hz (60FPS High/Ultra):

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1080 8GB
  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti 11GB

Optimal GPUs for Flawless 1440p at 144Hz (144FPS High/Ultra):

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti 11GB
  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti 11GB x 2 (SLI)

Optimal GPUs for Flawless 1440p at 240Hz (240FPS High/Ultra):

  • Above GPUs with settings turned down (maybe)


Best 4K Video Cards for 60Hz, 144Hz or 240Hz (August 2018)

Optimal GPUs for Smooth 4K at 60Hz:

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti 11GB

Optimal GPUS for Flawless 4K at 60Hz (60FPS High/Ultra):

  • NVidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti 11GB x 2 (SLI)

Optimal GPUs for Flawless 4K at 144Hz (144FPS High/Ultra):

  • Good luck with that ;)

Optimal GPUs for Flawless 4K at 240Hz (240FPS High/Ultra):

  • Good luck with that ;) ;)



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