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Last Updated: Sep 22, 2019
Choosing the right graphics card is an important part of building a gaming PC. No other hardware component has more direct impact on the gaming performance your new computer will provide, so if you're looking to get the best performance and highest frame rate that you can from your PC, you want to allocate a healthy portion of your overall PC build budget to your graphics card purchase. But what makes a good graphics card for gaming? Which specs and features should you look for when selecting your GPU?
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In this guide we'll break down everything you need to know in our typical beginner-friendly way, so if you're new to hardware and perhaps don't know what GPU stands for - you'll be just fine. Graphics Processing Unit if you were wondering, which is just one of the many words you could use to refer to the graphics card. Video card, GPU, display adapter, graphics adapter, display card, beast...it's all the same.
For discerning readers, yes, you're right; technically the GPU refers to the actual electronic part of a graphics card that does all the complicated calculations in order to then render the on-screen images, and so is indeed technically different than the term graphics card (which refers to the card as a whole including the cooling fans). But the reality is, people commonly use the term GPU to describe the card as a whole, so it doesn't matter. Trivialities aside, let's get to what does matter, and everything you need to know to choose a graphics card for PC gaming. Let's go!
Technically speaking, no, you don't need to buy a discrete/dedicated graphics card when you build a computer. Say what? Let me explain.
Some CPUs come with built-in integrated graphics capability, which are called APUs (Accelerated Processing Unit) if it's an AMD processor and iGPU (integrated Graphics Processing Unit) for Intel processors. That means the CPU can play the role of both a processor and a graphics card, taking responsibility for doing all the rendering calculations and outputting the display to your monitor.
However, as you're probably aware, integrated graphics is no match for a standalone graphics card. Using integrated graphics for gaming is only realistic if you're building a cheap gaming PC and understand you're not going to get crazy-good performance with crazy-high framerates. They can be a good value option for casual gamers though, and especially AMD's recent APU offerings (the 2200G and 2400G, and newer 3200G and 3400G) which provide very respectable gaming performance in many popular games, and even in full HD (1080p).
Unless you're building a system on a very tight budget, you're absolutely going to want to buy a graphics card, technically called a "discrete" graphics card though I think the term "dedicated" is more accurately descriptive (surely I can't be the only one who's had that thought..). So technically, you don't need a video card for your gaming PC if you get a good APU/iGPU to save money on your PC build, but without one you'll be limiting gaming performance greatly and the best integrated graphics solution is no match for even fairly cheap graphics card like the RX 560, RX 570 and GTX 1050.
As mentioned, the video card is THE single most crucial component of all in regards to how fast and smooth your games will run (and what graphical quality). Modern games contain complicated, thoroughly-detailed dynamic 3D scenes with all sorts of special effects and advanced lighting/rendering features. The better your graphics card is, the faster your computer will be able to handle all of these computations on the fly and output them on-screen, making for a smoother, higher-quality visual experience.
If your graphics card isn’t good enough for the specific games you want to play (and for the resolution and in-game graphical settings you desire to run the game at) the in-game performance is going to suffer. In other words, your frame rate will be low, which results in the on-screen action appearing to lag/stutter. At best, this slowdown can hinder your enjoyment a little, and at worst the game becomes straight-up unplayable if your frame rate dips below 20-30FPS too often so (or doesn't even run to begin with).
But how powerful of a GPU you'll be needing to buy to avoid lame lag getting in the way of your fun will differ from gamer to gamer. Factors such as the resolution and refresh rate of your monitor play a part in how much graphical grunt you'll need, but a huge determining factor as well is the types and specific games you'll be playing. Different games can vary massively in their hardware requirements.
Also, if you buy a more expensive high refresh-rate gaming monitor (such as 120Hz, 144Hz, or even 240Hz), your hardware requirements will be increased further. For example, if you get a 144Hz gaming monitor, to take full advantage of that screen you'll want to aim to get around 144FPS (frames per second) which requires a more powerful GPU. Though do keep in mind that even if you get a 144Hz monitor, even getting 100FPS or so is still fine as you'll still see those extra frames. In other words, you don't need to get 144FPS if using a 144Hz screen.
Generally speaking, as a gamer you want to buy the best graphics card you can afford, as you'll not only get the fastest performance now but the card will last you longer without having to upgrade. But there is also the other side of the argument of overspending, as you don't want to spend money on a card that's totally overkill for your particular usage - especially if you're trying to be cost-effective like many gamers.
As a real world example of overspending, if you’ll be sticking to a standard 1080p monitor that has a 60Hz refresh rate, all you need to make the most of that screen is to get 60FPS performance. So if you spend the extra money on a GPU that's capable of getting a much higher frame rate of 150FPS, you could have gotten away with a much cheaper card.
Here's what sort of ballpark gaming performance you can expect from different GPU price segments:
If you're wondering how much you should spend on a graphics card compared to the other components you need to build a gaming PC, check out the below chart we've compiled for you. It shows roughly how much of your overall PC build budget you should look to spend on the GPU if your aim is to fully maximize the gaming performance of your new PC. So for example, on a $1000 gaming computer build, you should look to choose a graphics card around $350 (and no less than $250, probably no more than $400).
Keep in mind we're only talking in terms of the core hardware components here, and not accessories like your monitor, because if we included the monitor in our chart it would be too difficult to give a rough estimate percentage (as monitor purchases can vary wildly from a cheap $100 1080p 60Hz display to a high-end $1000 4K display).
Shooting for this 25 - 40% range allows you to maximize gaming performance but avoid having to sacrifice too much on your other still-important components, such as still getting a good CPU, RAM and so on. Building a PC is a balancing act, and you could say your system is only as strong and reliable as your weakest link (so don't go too cheap on your power supply selection). That's why it's not practical to throw too much more than 35 to 40 percent on your graphics card choice, such as getting a 600 dollar GPU for a $1000 build, as you'd be very limited in what other parts you get.
Just like when choosing a CPU for gaming, when it comes to choosing a graphics card there's only two overall choices: NVidia graphics cards vs AMD graphics cards. However, what we're talking about here is the actual GPU model/chipset, not to be confused with the manufacturers who actually sell the graphics card after adding their own cooling, design and other features to it (of which you have many choices such as EVGA, Sapphire, MSI, Gigabyte, and the list goes on; see the next section for more on this).
AMD and NVidia 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. Just like with Intel and AMD in the processor market.
So, which should you buy? NVidia or AMD? Generally speaking, past history has seen AMD graphics cards (which were formerly ATI but AMD bought them out) only competing with big boys NVidia in the budget and mid-range gaming graphics card space, with NVidia dominating the high-end gaming GPU market and being the only real choice for gamers wanting the very best GPUs money can buy (and with NVidia also competing well in the budget and mid-range).
But in 2019, is it still the same story? Do AMD GPUs compete with NVidia GPUs? Generally speaking - yes. Both AMD and NVidia have good gaming graphics cards at the budget and mid-range level, but for high-end gaming graphics cards, the fact is NVidia still reigns as king with their latest and currently unbeatable range of RTX cards. But do keep in mind AMD have recently released some killer mid-range GPUs that could be seen as "high end" cards from your perspective. Yes, we speak of the awesome RX 5700 and RX 5700 XT cards, though technically I'd personally consider them as mid-range models because GPUs can go much higher in expense and power than this (think RTX 2080 Super and RTX 2080 Ti which you could consider the true "high end").
You can't go wrong with either an AMD or NVidia graphics card for a gaming PC in 2019. Choosing between them will depend on various factors including the specific GPUs you're comparing, current pricing, and the specific games you play (sometimes a certain title will run slightly faster on one or the other such as CSGO historically running better on AMD and PUBG favoring NVidia). But if your budget for a GPU is over $500 and you're gunning to build an extreme PC for 4K gaming, a NVidia RTX graphics card is your only option as AMD doesn't currently compete at this level. For specific GPU recommendations see our sample PC builds.
Now let's talk a little about video cards brands - not the actual GPU chipset manufacturers (AMD and NVidia), but the third-party manufacturer/company that actually sells the card after adding their own cooling, design and other features to the base GPU. When you go out there to select a graphics card to buy, chances are you won't be buying a vanilla AMD or NVidia card.
They do exist though, and are called "reference" cards, but for most people you'll want to avoid a plain AMD/NVidia card as the best graphics cards to buy are almost always going to be the third-party models from top graphics card brands like EVGA, Asus, MSI, Sapphire and Gigabyte. XFX, Zotac and PNY are usually fine, too, but it depends on the model in question.
Speaking of which, while the general brand of a graphics card does matter, what's just as (if not more) important when selecting the right video card for your PC is looking into the specific model you're considering from any given brand and comparing that with competing models from other good GPU brands.
Price will obviously play a big part in choosing between different models, but making a good purchase isn't always as cut and dry as simply buying the cheapest model you can find from a reliable brand. Though yes, sometimes that can work out well, especially because the difference between different branded versions of the same base AMD/NVidia GPU isn't going to be huge, and often hardly noticeable unless you're a picky gamer who cares about an extra 3-10FPS (which can matter in some situations such as going from an unplayable 25FPS to say a playable 33FPS).
But yeah, always do your research on specific models as they will vary in how cool they run, how much noise they produce (some cards produce an annoying coil whine sound), their construction quality, their design, their clock speed (some cards are factory overclocked meaning they run a tad faster), and other features.
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.
What is VRAM? Is 4GB VRAM Enough for Gaming in 2019?
Graphics cards have on-board memory known as VRAM (Video Random Access Memory) 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 still all you need for great 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 monster GPUs like the GTX 1080 Ti and RTX 2080 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 it's not like you're getting anywhere near double the performance by having double the VRAM.
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 MSI GTX 1660 vs a EVGA GTX 1660, 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.
Related: How to Overclock a GPU for Beginners
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 it includes may be an important factor to you, so you might want to check what's included. Especially if you have a monitor that only has the one type of connection. Any decent modern GPU these days will support HDMI, DisplayPort and DVI, but some cheaper cards may not.
Dual Monitor Support
If you want to split your video output across two monitors, you will need dual monitor support on your graphics card as not all GPUs support this (most will, though). This feature is useful for developers, engineers, designers, and multi-taskers who wish to view many different windows on their desktop at once, but in modern times dual monitors is becoming an increasingly popular option for gamers too.
GPU Wattage Requirements
You’ll need to be aware of how much power your new video card will require to run, which means checking the minimum recommended power supply that should be listed in the GPU specs somewhere and picking a PSU with enough power. This is especially important if you choose a monster high-end card that will suck a ton of power, though even more mid-range cards can require a decent amount of power.
Case in point is the RX 580, a popular budget/mid-range option for 1080p gaming, which will require a 500 watt power supply as a minimum. 500 watts may seem more on the lower end of things when it comes to power supplies, but it's not uncommon for cheap builds that would be a good fit for a card like the RX 580 to include a power supply with less than 500w.
If you’ll be running multiple GPUs in SLI or CrossFire either now or later in future (not recommended for most people), then you'll either need a lot more power now or later on so plan accordingly by getting a more powerful power supply.
GPU Power Connector/s
As well as making sure you choose a power supply with enough wattage for your selected graphics card, you might also want to check that your power supply has compatible power cables for your shiny new card. Some lower-powered GPUs don't require a direct connection to the power supply, and can be solely powered through the PCI-Express slot on the motherboard (such as the GTX 1050 Ti), but if your gaming GPU is at the mid-range level or beyond then it's going to require dedicated power.
The thing is that different cards will require different power connections, such as either one 6 or 8 pin PSU connector, or 2 connectors, but most modern power supplies will be able to cover this as they should contain 2 PCIe 6+2 pin power connectors (that is flexible and can plug in to either 6 or 8 pin GPU connectors). Double check though if you want to be safe, especially if you're perhaps using an older power supply with a high-powered GPU and you're not sure if you'll have enough power connections.
Graphics Card Size Differences
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 the maximum supported GPU sizes.
GPUs also vary in both how many PCIe slots they take up on the motherboard (they only plug into one but can hover over other PCIe slots) as well as how many rear metal brackets they take up in your case. These may be worth checking if you either have an extra large or wide GPU and are worried about compatibility, or if you're building in a small case and want to ensure your GPU will fit both your motherboard and case. See our guide to graphics card slot sizes for more on this.
Note on GPU Compatibility: PCPartPicker is also handy to quickly and easily check compatibility with your case, GPU and any other parts that might get in the way of larger video cards (but do manual checks if you want to be extra safe).
Single vs Dual Fan Graphics 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 or GTX 1660 Ti, a single fan model has no issues and is totally fine. Heck, even a single fan GTX 1070 or RTX 2060 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 RTX 2080 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.
That wraps our guide to choosing a GPU for gaming, and hope it comes in handy on your quest for the perfect new card. Liked the guide? Disagree with something? Think we missed a certain detail? Let us know in the comments, and happy gaming.
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Anyway, hope this guide helped and good luck with your system build or upgrade!