If you’re looking into building or buying a powerful gaming rig, you will need to pay close attention to the graphics card. The graphics card is the most important component in a gaming PC. But buying a GPU can be a challenging task because there is so much to consider, from the type of the monitor you’re using to the size of your chassis and more.
But it doesn’t need to be that tough. If you know your budget, PC requirements and performance goals, you’re already a step closer to finding the perfect graphics card for your needs. Our GPU buyer’s guide will explain the nitty-gritty surrounding graphics cards and shed light on the key features to look for when making a buying decision.
Where’s the Value?
Today, the GPU market is saturated with hundreds of graphics cards from different manufacturers, but only two companies make the GPUs that power these components: Nvidia and AMD. So which one should you buy, Nvidia or AMD? It will all boil down to your personal preferences.
In the latest generation, AMD’s 6000 series hasn’t offered the same undercutting value as in previous generations. (The $1000 6900-XT has similar performance to the $700 Nvidia RTX 3080, while the 6800-XT beats the RTX 3070 on most games but for $150 more.) While AMD now offers the much-vaunted ray-tracing technology, it’s nowhere near as good at this point as Nvidia’s offerings.
If you’re into sheer performance, Nvidia should be your go-to choice. Nothing from AMD can outperform Nvidia’s top-of-the-range RTX cards today. However, they carry a hefty price tag. Nvidia says, “You have to pay to play.” In fairness, this generation’s top card, the RTX 3090, is a fair bit cheaper at $1500 compared to last year’s RTX 2080 Super, which launched at $1700.
Looking back to last year, AMD cards like the Radeon 5700 XT offered considerably more bang for your buck. Nvidia, on the other hand, rules the high-end GPU market with more powerful and expensive cards.
G-Sync or FreeSync?
G-Sync and FreeSync are technologies developed by Nvidia and AMD respectively. Buying a monitor that supports one of these features will help with synchronizing the display with the attached graphics cards, which helps to reduce screen tear and input lag.
Again, AMD tech (FreeSync) is cheaper than Nvidia’s G-Sync, and many AMD FreeSync monitors are now “G-Sync Compatible” too. These may be worth considering if you want to have a monitor that’ll not only be cheaper than a full G-Sync but give you more flexibility in the future when buying AMD or Nvidia cards.
Performance at Various Budgets
With price comes performance, especially when it comes to GPUs. A good GPU will enable you to play recent games at smooth frame rates. But a great GPU will enable you to flawlessly play those games at a higher resolution as well as perform high-end creative work, like 4K video editing. You’ll find such GPUs on the higher price bracket. See our GPU performance hierarchy guide below.
|Nvidia GTX 1650, AMD RX 470, AMD R9 380, Nvidia GTX 1050-Ti||Entry level||$100-$200||Best suited for light gaming, undemanding e-sports titles and the many great indie games. Best suited for casual games.|
|Nvidia GTX 1660S, AMD RX 570, AMD RX 580, Nvidia 1650 Super||Budget||$200-$300||Will run more demanding games at low-medium settings. Don’t expect higher than 1080p resolutions.|
|Radeon 5700-XT, Nvidia RTX 2070||Mid-range||$350-$500||You’ll be able to play the latest games on medium settings at resolutions up to 1440p. Will definitely do the job for now, but you may need to upgrade in a year or two. You get ray-tracing with the RTX 2070, too.|
|Nvidia RTX 3070, AMD RX 6800-XT||High end||$500-$700||Powerful, futureproof GPUs designed for 4K gaming (though not always at a stable 60fps).|
|Nvidia RTX 3090, Nvidia RTX 3080, AMD 6900-XT||Premium||$700-$1500||Probably excessive for most gamers. Mainly for enthusiasts who want to be at the bleeding edge of gaming graphics tech and who enjoy searing frame-rates at the highest resolutions.|
If you’re a hardcore gamer looking for full immersion and uncompromised 4K gaming and are ready to splurge, the Nvidia 3080 is the GPU to go for, though extreme gamers with unlimited budgets may be tempted to go all the way with the Nvidia 3090.
What to Look for When Buying a Graphics Card
As mentioned earlier, there are many manufacturers on the market today – like Asus, EVGA, Gigabyte and more – who make their own brands of graphics cards. These cards are all powered by either Nvidia or AMD GPUs.
However, they differ from each other in terms of memory type, heatsink used, speed, bandwidth and more. Knowing how each of these components work can help you choose the perfect card for you. Below you’ll find the things to look for when buying a graphics card.
Nothing can be more frustrating than excitedly opening your case to install your new graphics card, only to realize it’s an inch too long. Before you commit to buy, do your homework and find out how much physical space your case can offer.
Take note of the power supply as well. How many amps can it supply on the 12v rails? How many watts is it rated for, and how many six- and eight-pin PCIe connectors does it have? Cross-reference this information with the graphics card you want to buy. If your computer can’t handle it, you’ll want to look for a graphics card that will require less power or consider a power upgrade.
Lastly, check the ports. Some monitors use DisplayPort, others have HDMI, and some older units only use DVI. Ensure the card you want to buy has the connectors you need for your monitors. If you buy a card with different ports from the ones on your monitor, you may have to buy an adapter at an extra cost.
Your system dictates the kind of graphics card you should buy. Knowing your system’s limitations can save you money and headaches. For example, if you’re running an older dual-core CPU like Pentium or Celeron, it won’t keep up with high-end graphics cards. In such cases, go for mid-range cards and save your hard-earned money.
Your display is also an important factor to consider, with 1440p (2560 x 1440) being a popular go-to resolution for a gaming monitor. If you intend to run three 1080p monitors in surround, a mid-range card will not get you decent framerates in modern 3D games.
3. Memory and Bandwidth
Many will tell you that the bigger the graphics card memory, the better the performance, but that’s not always the case. Unless you’re using it with ultra-high resolutions, like 4K or with multiple monitors in surround, the quantity of RAM won’t make much difference. Also, most if not all high-end graphics cards come with high memory by default.
What you need to pay more attention to is bandwidth. Data ready to be processed by the GPU is usually stored on the card’s own dedicated memory called GDDR3, GDDR5 or (more recently) GDDR6. Note that GDDR5 memory provides twice the bandwidth of GDDR3 clocked at the same rate.
Since memory bandwidth is an important performance determinant, you should always choose GDDR5 for better performance. In fact, 1 GB of GDDR5 is more preferable than 4 GB of GDDR3, as far as performance is concerned.
4. CUDA Cores (Nvidia) or Stream Processors (AMD)
While CUDA cores don’t tell you much about performance, they are very important, especially in gaming. CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture) is Nvidia’s proprietary parallel computing language that works to leverage the GPU in specific ways to perform tasks with greater accuracy. A CUDA core is Nvidia’s equivalent to AMD’s stream processors.
The more CUDA cores or Stream Processors, the better the GPU is at rendering outstanding visuals. This is very important for handling intensive graphics work or in gaming, where frame rates are paramount.
5. TDP Values
Just like CPU, the GPU produces heat for all the processing work it does, which is shown by its TDP value. TDP values indicate the amount of power required to keep the GPU at an acceptable temperature. The more power the GPU requires, the more heat it will produce. As such, always go for the GPU with the smallest TDP value.
Investing in a capable GPU will not only get you a capable PC for graphics intensive work but will also give you a more fluid and immersive gaming experience. We hope our GPU buyer’s guide will help you to easily narrow your choices to only the right ones for your needs. Feel free to comment and share.
And that’s it for our GPU buying guide. If you bought a GPU and want to stress test it to make sure it doesn’t turn your PC into a toaster, see our Furmark guide. Also check out our guide on eGPUs to see if they’re worth buying.