This article is part of the Hardware Buying Guide series:
- Buying an SSD: What to Look Out for
- Buying a Monitor: What to Look For
- Buying a Keyboard: For Work, Play, and Everything in Between
- Buying a Mouse: DPI, Sensors and More
- Buying a Graphics Card: FPS, Benchmarks and More
- Buying a Processor: What You Need to Know
- Buying a Case: Drive Bays, Form Factor and More
- Buying a Motherboard: Form Factor, Ports, More
- Buying Memory/RAM: What to Know
- Buying a Power Supply: Wattage, Efficiency and More
- Buying a Sound Card: Benefits, Pricing and More
Considered one of the most important parts of buying or building a computer, the graphics card is the priority of gamers everywhere. The reason behind this is simple. Since most modern games are designed to be heavily GPU-intensive (as opposed to CPU-intensive), the performance of your graphics card directly correlates with how high your framerates can be and how pretty your graphics can look. With the new generation of consoles off to its respective start, many people are looking toward the latest in PC hardware to see how it compares.
Price/Performance – What do I want, and how much am I willing to spend?
Despite some popular misconceptions, buying a high-performance graphics card is usually not as expensive as gaming on a console. Don’t walk into this article thinking you have to pay a thousand dollars to enjoy the latest and greatest gaming experiences on a PC. Instead, go ahead and decide on the price range you want to shop in. Good price ranges include the following:
- Low-End Tier (I just need a card.) – $50-100
- Low-Mid Tier (I want to play the newest titles!) – $100-$200
- Middle Tier (I want to play the newest titles with the best graphics!) – $200-$300
- Mid-High Tier (I want play the newest titles with higher frames/multi-monitor/VR/3D!) – $300-400
- High Tier (I WANT IT ALL!) – $400-500+
It’s important to note that once you start passing the middle tier, the price/performance ratio starts to drop off severely. The best and wisest ranges for graphics card purchases are in the Low-Mid and Middle Tiers, as those tend to have a great price/performance ratio without breaking the bank. Spending $500+ now may seem like a good idea if you want to keep your PC for a decade, but in truth the performance dropoff after around five years will have Low-Mid cards of that time already matching up to your own.
For instance, my GTX 760 performs about equally with the GTX 670, a previous generation card that cost in the $300 range during its reign, while mine cost me $250. However, not too long after I purchased my card, the GTX 960 came out, outperforming both my 760 and the 670 by a reasonable margin while being cheaper.
If you have the money to spare, you’re welcome to buy the best of the High Tier. However, if you want to use your money wisely, you’re better off buying in the Low-Mid and Middle Tiers, as those are the best value for the money and are still more than capable of outperforming the latest generation consoles. (At the time of writing in late 2015, the R7 265, a card selling for $120 and below, performs better than the PS4.)
If you need just a graphics card, shop in the Low Tier range. Those graphics cards should also be suitable for well-optimized older titles as well, and some may even be good enough to play newer games on the lowest settings. If you just want to get a taste of the PC Master Race, you can do so at the Low-Mid Tier perfectly fine. The cards in the low 100s are performing with parity to the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, and once you buy the card, you should be good for at least another five or six years before you start having issues running new games. Heck, you can run most popular titles on Medium and High with graphics cards considered to be in the Low-Mid Tier.
Once you’ve decided what you want out of a graphics card and how much you want to pay for it, it’s time to talk about the brand of the graphics card.
Brand – What’s the difference between Nvidia and AMD anyways?
When shopping for graphics cards, the two names you’ll hear tossed around are Nvidia and AMD. Nvidia and AMD are the only two companies remaining that create discrete desktop GPUs, and the competition between them is hot at any given price range. In many cases, the AMD card in the range may come off as a better value, though it would consume more power and generate more heat. Nvidia’s cards are typically more expensive but consume less power and generate less heat, which allows users to have better thermals or even install powerful graphics cards in a common desktop tower.
That aside, Nvidia and AMD tout two very different feature-sets with their graphics cards. In addition, some games are developed with AMD or Nvidia in mind, though typically games developed with AMD in mind are more platform agnostic. There are notable few cases of Nvidia Gameworks titles performing poorly on AMD hardware.
Now, both platforms like to tout their own special features, Nvidia especially. However, in general, if one company has it, the other one does as well. DSR and G-SYNC, for instance, are features Nvidia likes to tout, but both have AMD equivalents. The only real special features that differentiate the two are Nvidia’s PhysX (and CUDA cores), AMD’s TressFX and TrueAudio. PhysX is used for special physics calculations in supported games (which adds a level of visual flair, sometimes at the cost of performance), while TressFX is a physics technology devoted to realistic hair simulation, and TrueAudio is a spatial audio technology exclusive to newer AMD cards.
Overall, though, they aren’t actually that different, right?
Basically, if you’re looking for a value solution, it’s probably best to go with the AMD card in your price range. It’ll normally perform better in most titles unless they’re Nvidia-optimized.
If, however, you want to ensure the highest level of performance in everything you play, go with an Nvidia card. Both have their benefits.
Deciding on Your Graphics Card
This is a special step in the process. You see, once you’ve decided where your budget range is, it’s time to compare the cards at that range. For instance, in the Low-Mid range, we have the following cards at the time of writing (September 2015):
- AMD R7 360 at $110
- Nvidia GTX 750 Ti at $110
- AMD R7 370 at $130
- Nvidia GTX 950 at $150
- Nvidia GTX 960 at $160
At the time of writing these are the cards in active competition. Looking at their names; you may wonder what the deal is with “GTX” and the numbers. I’ll explain that quickly.
Basically, Nvidia cards have been using the following formula for the past decade or so. It may actually stand to change soon, but for now, they name their cards “GTX,” with the number following denoting the series number and the card’s ranking in that series. The GTX 960, for instance, is in the 9th series of GTX graphics cards and the number 60 denotes its performance in comparison to its peers. It performs better than the 950 and 760 Ti in this list.
AMD uses a weirder but similar scheme. You can see how the R7 360 and R7 370 are related, though, right?
When you’re buying graphics cards, you usually want to go with ones that are in the latest series. As of 2015, those series are the GTX 900 series and the R7/R9 300 series. There will be a new cycle next year – Nvidia may change up theirs, but AMD’s will likely be something like R7/R9 400.
Essentially, just decide how much you’re willing to spend. All of these cards are the best performers at their range, except the GTX 950. You see, the lower-priced R7 370 trades blows with it in various games, and for just ten dollars more, its older brother is slightly stronger than both of them. When it comes to sheer value, the R7 370 is perhaps the best card on the market right now. This is a big issue with PC enthusiasts buying at this range – a lot of these cards are similarly priced, but due to how competitive it is, what looks like a minor price (and therefore performance) gap can turn out to be quite a bit wider than you think.
In general, if you spend more, you’re getting more performance. But at any price range, you should be paying close attention to how price/performance compares between cards and their peers. For resources on this, try using websites like GPUBoss, Passmark, and HWCompare.
So once you’ve decided on your graphics card, that’s it, right? Wrong.
Graphics cards come in various forms from different manufacturers. While AMD and Nvidia release “stock” versions of their graphics cards, typically you’ll be buying specialized versions of those cards from manufacturers like EVGA, Sapphire or MSI, just to name a few. So once you’ve decided what graphics card you want, say the GTX 750 Ti, now you have to decide what version of it you want. Each version will have about the same performance, but some will have performance boosts in the form of higher VRAM capacity or higher clock speeds. In addition, some may also use specialized coolers. What you’ll want to do at this point is compare multiple versions of the same card at the same price range, and grab the one that’s right for you.
Some cards have versions designed to fit into smaller cases, for instance. Using a computer that isn’t a massive tower? Try something low profile, and remember to check card dimensions against your case dimensions. Don’t mind paying a few pennies more for higher performance at the cost of increased power consumption and size? Go for it.
As for manufacturer recommendations, stick with the big names. EVGA, MSI, ASUS, Sapphire and Gigabyte are all great companies to buy graphics cards from.
If you have any questions, feel free to sound off in the comments, especially if you’re shopping around for GPUs right now. I’m more than willing to help you choose if you’re having trouble.