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How to Buy the Right Graphics Card: A Guide for 2019

If you're buying or building a gaming PC, the graphics card is even more important than the CPU. Unfortunately, the process of picking a GPU can be intimidating, because there's so much to consider, from the type of monitor you're using to the size of your chassis to the game settings you're playing at.

Below are list of things you need to keep in mind when shopping for your next GPU. For specific recommendations, see our list of the best graphics cards and the GPU Performance Hierarchy.

If you're shopping for a graphics card, you'll want to check out our feature: How to Tell a Graphics Card Deal From a Dud. And if you keep an eye on our Graphics Card Deals page, you might snag a sweet price on an AMD RX 580 or an older Nvidia 10-series card as companies try to clear out older stock. Deals on Nvidia's newer 20-series cards are still pretty scarce.

Quick tips

AMD or Nvidia?

There are hundreds of graphics cards from dozens of manufacturers, but only two companies actually make the GPUs that power these components: Nvidia and AMD--although Intel intends to be in the game by 2020. AMD has competitive upper-mid-range and budget GPUs, but these chips tend to be less power-efficient than Nvidia's latest offerings. On the very high-end of the market, Nvidia is uncontested as nothing from AMD can outperform the company's top-end RTX cards today. That could change later in 2019 with the Radeon Vega VII and AMD's next-generation graphics architecture, Navi.

Unless you have a preference for a particular company, the best reason to choose one over the other is whether your monitor supports AMD FreeSync or Nvidia G-Sync. Both of these technologies synchronize the refresh rate between the video card and the display to eliminate tearing. If your monitor supports neither technology, then you can go with either GPU brand. But even this decision is more complicated lately, with Nvidia now certifying some FreeSync monitors to variable refresh using Nvidia cards.

How Much Can You Spend?

The price of video cards varies greatly, with super low-end cards starting under $100 (£100) and high-end models going for more than $1,200 (£1,400)--or $2,500 (£2,350) if you count the Titan RTX. Unless you're on a super tight budget, expect to spend at least a couple hundred dollars for a mainstream card, several hundred for a mid-range model and $1,000 (£850) or more for a high-end monster card.

Which GPUs are budget, mid-range and high-end?

Here's a breakdown of the major current GPUs and where they stand. Remember that not all cards with a given GPU will perform exactly the same. For more detail, check out the GPU Performance Hierarchy page.

Nvidia GTX 1030, AMD Radeon RX 550

Super cheap

Only buy these if you don't game (or you don't game much) and your CPU doesn't have integrated graphics.

Nvidia GTX 1050, AMD Radeon RX 560 Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti

Budget cards

Decent for playing games at 1080p or lower res at medium-to-low settings

AMD Radeon RX 570, Nvidia GTX 1060, AMD Radeon RX 580, AMD Radeon RX 590, Nvidia GTX 1070

Mid-range cards

Good for 1080p gaming, compatible with VR headsets

Nvidia RTX 2060, AMD Radeon RX Vega 56, Nvidia GTX 1070 Ti, AMD Radeon RX Vega 64, Nvidia GTX 1080, Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti, Nvidia RTX 2080, Nvidia Titan XP

High-end

Good for VR headsets and gaming at resolutions at 1440p or high-refresh 1080p monitors.

Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti, Nvidia Titan V

Premium

These are best for 4K, and the RTX cards support new ray-tracing and A.I. tech.

Which specs matter and which don't?

Can it support VR?

If you want to use one of the two leading PC VR platforms, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, you need at least a mid-range card with optimal performance coming from high-end cards like the Nvidia GTX 1080 or higher. The lowest-end cards you can use with these headsets are the AMD Radeon RX 570 and Nvidia GTX 1060. And the card requirements of course increase with newer, higher-resolution headsets like the HTC Vive Pro or Pimax headsets.

What about ray tracing and AI?

Nvidia made a big deal of its stand-out new features with the launch of its Turing-based RTX cards, including RT cores for real-time ray tracing, and Tensor cores that aid in AI-assisted super sampling. We've discussed the potential of these features at length here--and there is plenty of potential to be sure. But these features (and games that support them) are just in their infancy.

It's tough to tell how many future games will support a given feature. And plenty of promising graphics tech has failed to gain widespread adoption in the past (see Nvidia's PhysX). You should make your buying decisions based primarily on the performance and features a card can deliver to you today, but it never hurts to be future-proof especially when you're spending several hundred dollars (or more) on a high-end card.

Reference Card or Third Party Design?

Even after you decide what GPU you're after (say, for example, an AMD Radeon RX Vega 64 like the cards in the image above), you'll usually be faced with plenty of options in terms of cooler design and brand or manufacturer. Nvidia makes and sells its own cards under the Founders Edition moniker, but AMD licenses its reference design to other manufacturers. Both company's GPUs appear in third-party cards from several different vendors.

More expensive third-party cards will have elaborate coolers, extra fans, and often higher clock speeds, but they can also be more expensive than the reference card. And overclocking gains are often minimal (with gains of just a few FPS, particularly at higher resolutions). That said, beefier cooling can often translate to cooler, quieter operation, which can be important given that high-end graphics cards are usually the noisiest, most heat-generating parts in a PC build. For much more on this discussion, see our Graphics Card Face-Off: Founders Edition or Reference GPUs vs 3rd-Party Design feature.

Card Recommendations by Resolution / Use Case

Once you've considered all the above and are ready to narrow down your choices, you can head to our GPU Performance Hierarchy page and our Graphics Card Best Picks page to help finalize your buying decision. But for we'll include a condensed version of our current favorite cards for common resolutions below and gaming scenarios below. Keep in mind that there are third-party options for all of these cards, so you may want to use these picks as a jumping off point to finding, say, the best AMD Radeon RX 580 model for your 1080p particular gaming build.

Best Budget Pick: Radeon RX 570

The Radeon RX 570 appeals specifically to folks gunning for high-detail gaming at 1920x1080 (1080p), who don't have the budget to step up to an RX 580. That said, with 8GB RX 580s often dipping below the $200 mark these days, AMD's stepped-up card is arguably a better buy. That's particularly true for those looking for long-term gaming performance at 1080p or interested in experimenting with high-resolution texture packs. The additional 4GB of memory will likely become increasingly important in future memory-hungry titles, making the RX 580 a card with more gaming performance longevity.

Best For 1080p (FHD): AMD Radeon RX 580

Radeon RX 580 is based on the same Polaris 10 GPU as the Radeon RX 480 that preceded it. AMD simply dialed in higher clock rates to improve performance. While we're always appreciative of higher frame rates, this also had the side-effect of increasing power consumption. Still, Radeon RX 580 generally outperforms the similarly-priced GeForce GTX 1060 6GB, particularly in DirectX 12 games, earning it a spot on our list.

Best For 1440p (QHD): Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti

Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1660 Ti is the card to beat for high-refresh gaming at 1920 x 1080 and solid performance at 2560 x 1440 (1440p), delivering frame rates similar to the previous-generation GeForce GTX 1070, while costing significantly less than the RTX 2060. The latter card performs better, but its dedicated ray tracing and Tensor Cores are currently only supported in a tiny number of games.

Best for VR: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070

Enthusiasts with VR headsets need to achieve a certain level of performance to avoid jarring artifacts. An Nvidia GeForce GTX 2070 is fast enough to keep up with the 90 Hz refresh rates of modern head-mounted displays (HMDs). Moreover, it includes a VirtualLink port for connecting next-generation headsets with a single cable. That's not really a useful feature today, but it will likely come in handy the next time you consider upgrading your VR headset. With more than enough pixel punch to handle smooth VR and prices generally below that of the older GTX 1080, the GeForce RTX 2070 is our new pick for VR.

Best For 4K: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti

Nvidia's GeForce RTX 2080 Ti is the first card we've tested able to deliver smooth frame rates at 4K with detail settings maxed out. Its halo features aren't used in any games yet, but as those come online, the Turing architecture is expected to shine even brighter.

MORE:Best Graphics Cards MORE:Desktop GPU Performance Hierarchy Table MORE:All Graphics Content

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