If Intel, AMD and Nvidia’s statistics are correct, you’re probably using a computer and graphics card that are several years old. For, video editing, animation and other heavyweight graphics-intensive activities, that’s just about forever. Much has changed in the last several years, so chances are you’re no longer using a modern card — much less the best graphics card out there — with new technologies like smart resolution upscaling or ray-tracing acceleration. And games and software used by creative folks for applications like 3D tools and video editors haven’t gotten any less demanding.
Even if you just need the basics for streaming video or surfing the web, the best graphics card can make your system feel snappier by improving the acceleration of video decoding or redrawing your screens faster, especially if you had previously used a budget GPU. With a-equipped laptop or iMac, you can even upgrade the graphics using an external graphics processing unit (an eGPU with its own power supply) or a dedicated graphics card.
For color work, however, Nvidia finally made your old GeForce card a little more useful: As of version 431.70 (released July 29, 2019), the Studio branch of its driversand other Adobe applications. So no more shelling out megabucks for a Quadro workstation card just for the extra bit depth.
The hardware landscape is constantly in flux. As an example, the latest graphics card options in the $500-or-less price range seem to change every six months or so, with AMD and Nvidia overhauling their lineups for the popular 1080p and entry 1440p markets they’re for. These biannual shufflings are pretty typical in an era of the ever-improving refresh rate and expanding memory bandwidth. Those models tend to be announced much later than the flagships, so if you’re on a tight budget but want something new and cheap, wait until early 2021.
Most recently, Nvidia announced its new, which follow on the Super equivalents, and in the case of the 3090, the Titan RTX. The cards use the Ampere architecture, with improved algorithms and more processing power dedicated to ray tracing (second-gen Turing core), AI (for more efficient upscaling via DLSS) and programmable shaders. They deliver some big jumps in performance over the 2000 series.
And AMD just announced itscards based on its RDNA 2-gen architecture, used in the upcoming consoles, and for the first time targeting 4K gamers (it previously concentrated on 1080p and 1440p). Hardware performance improvements stem partly from the higher-density on-die Infinity Cache design (all have 128MB) and enhanced design of the compute units (including a new Ray Accelerator core for each compute unit). They combine to improve the memory subsystem by reducing the latency of moving data around, increase bandwidth by up to 2.2x with a narrower path (256 bits) and deliver better energy efficiency. That also allows the processors to hit higher clock frequencies without a substantial increase in power requirements.
The AMD GPUs have been optimized to achieve peak performance when used in conjunction with the company’s new Ryzen 5000 series of desktop CPUs, though, so keep that in mind when you’re upgrading or configuring a system. They also support Microsoft’s DirectStorage programming interface, which accelerates SSD access by circumventing the CPU to improve storage-intensive game tasks like load times in games developed with it in mind.
The new architectures for ray-tracing acceleration are accompanied by a larger set of technologies that tend to be lumped in with them because they also improve or accelerate rendering in general. These include upscaling algorithms, for example, which render for a higher resolution screen using native-resolution textures (while maintaining frame rates); in other words, using textures for 1080p to render for 1440p. Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling and AMD’s Radeon Contrast Adaptive Sharpening do this.
AMD’s cards haven’t begun to ship yet and Nvidia’s are still in the early “OMG the bugs!” phase, plus we’re heading into the biggest sale season of the year: Unless you really, really need something now, I’d give it some time until the new products finish percolating and we see the end-of-year deals.
For photo editing, it may no longer suffice to use a low-end or middling graphics card, though it depends on your software. With the latest generation of Photoshop and Lightroom, Adobe has begun to expand its use of AI-related technologies in meaningful ways. For instance, Photoshop’s new Replace Sky and Neural Filters can take advantage of GPU hardware designed to accelerate AI to speed them up, such as the Tensor cores in Nvidia’s RTX cards.
Ready to throw down some cash for a new graphics card for your gaming rig or laptop? Don’t spend a single cent on a graphics card for gaming until you read this buying guide of the best graphics card, wherein we consider everything from video memory, refresh rate and frame rate to power consumption, memory clock and gaming performance. Plus, our general GPU shopping tips at the end will help you make your choice. We update this periodically.
Sure, it’s a reasonable price. But if you’re planning to spend around $100 on a budget graphics card, don’t expect to game with the GeForce GT at 1080p — 720p at best unless a game is very lightweight, though Fortnite, CS:GO, League of Legends and other multiplayer competitive games generally fall under the “can play on a potato” umbrella. Many games may simply go from unplayable to a little less unplayable. This Nvidia graphics card does for a gaming PC what Nvidia’s MX chips do for laptops. In other words, plenty of the latest games will run on it, but many users won’t benefit. Cards can come with the chip overclocked, which gives it a little extra oomph as well.
If you’ve got an old desktop with integrated graphics that don’t support the current versions of graphics programming interfaces such as DirectX 12 or Vulkan, or if you just want to make your Windows experience feel a little more snappy or smooth, a GT 1030-based card can help. The GT line is designed with lower power requirements than the more popular GeForce GTX models, so it can fit in systems with lesser power supplies and compact designs. Unlike most gaming graphics cards, 1030-based cards can be low-profile and take up just a single slot for connectivity, and are quieter because they only require a single fan.
You may see a random AMD Radeon RX 550 card drop down below $100, and that’s a good choice if you’re looking for something with a little extra gaming oomph over the 1030 or support for two monitors. But it takes a lot more space and power than the simple GT half-height replacement cards.
There used to be more options in the $100-$150 range; now, they mostly fall below $100 or above $150, which is frankly annoying. But between $150 and $200 you’ll generally find the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super-based cards and the AMD Radeon RX 5500 XT cards, both of which deliver very similar, solid entry-level 1080p gaming at low or medium settings for all but the most GPU-intensive games.
And since much basic photo editing still isn’t very GPU-intensive, a fast, high-core-count CPU still gives you more performance value for the money than a higher-power graphics card.
One distinction between the two that may affect your decision is power draw: the RX 5500 XT takes about 30 watts more than the 1650S. Since they’re both under 150 watts, though, your power supply probably isn’t a problem.
But unless your budget is extremely tight I suggest you spend a little more (about $225 or so) for at least a GTX 1660 Super: It has 6GB of video memory rather than 4GB, which gives you some headroom to improve the visual quality settings in a game, as well as lowers its near-term obsolescence quotient.
AMD’s Radeon RX 5600 XT delivers the best graphics card performance for this price tier compared with its competitor, the GTX 1660 Ti. The next real performance and capability jump is to the GeForce RTX 2060 and Radeon RX 5700 XT, both above $400, which makes this a good sweet spot to settle in as well.
With reasonably comparable performance at lower prices, RX 5700 XT cards have an edge over their RTX 2060S-based competitors, and it’s also the best graphics card to stick in an external GPU for a Mac.
$425 and up: Wait
You won’t find much, anyway
This is not the time to buy a graphics card over $500. Nvidia’s new RTX 30-series has started shipping, and while I’ve tested the $499 RTX 3070, which I like, it’s just gone on sale and seems to be selling out fast as I write this. And the third-party RTX 3080 cards aren’t available, so we don’t know where the actual prices will fall.
Sub-$1,000 cards in this class deliver good 1440p or better gaming, video editing (the new cards bump the memory as well as the GPU speed), working with high-res real-time-rendered 3D and so on.
I’m still thinking about the more expensive, faster cards like the RTX 3090 and Radeon RX 6900 XT — both of which are also still very new, for 4K gaming and some higher-end video editing — especially since the AMD cards now have 16GB video memory, which may put them in the lead for video editing at a lower price than the RTX 3090.
It’s a bad time to be desperate for a higher-end card, since the older models have disappeared and the new models haven’t ramped up.
Things to keep in mind when looking for the best graphics card:
- Once you’ve narrowed down your choice to a few options, searching for people’s complaints about a product is critical to discovering important information — like how many slots a card really requires as opposed to the manufacturer’s claims. It may take two slots, for example, but be just thick enough to make it impossible to put another card in a slot next to it, or just a little too long to handle a motherboard because of obstructions.
- Power consumption: Always check the power capabilities of a card against your power supply’s output. Don’t forget to take the other cards and devices in your system into account concerning power usage and the possible effect on battery life.
- Most of the negative reviews of graphics describe artifacts and failures that are usually the symptoms of overheating. If this worries you, then don’t buy an overclocked card (usually indicated by “OC” in the name). When buying cards, make sure that it not only has sufficient cooling but that your case’s airflow and the positions of your other cards will allow for optimal heat dissipation. That may mean, for example, moving another PCI card into a different slot.
- GTX models may be a little smaller than the RTX models and may generate less heat.
- The most powerful GPU on the planet won’t make a difference if your CPU is the bottleneck (and vice versa) — think overkill.
- You’ll see a lot of price variation across cards using the same GPU. That’s for features such as overclocking, better cooling systems or flashy (literally) designs.
- All Nvidia GTX and RTX cards support the various flavors of G-Sync, and all AMD Radeon cards RX 400 or later support FreeSync adaptive refresh technologies. These sync with your monitor to reduce artifacts caused by a mismatch between screen refresh rate and frame rate — so if you’re keeping your monitor, you may want to get a card that supports the right tech.
- Performance generalizations are just that — generalizations. If you’re looking to boost performance in a particular game, run a search on, say, “Fortnite benchmarks” and “best cards for Fortnite.”
- Don’t assume that replacing an old card will automatically give you noticeably better or smoother performance.
- Don’t assume that the newer Nvidia RTX 20-series cards will be faster than the 10-series cards they replace.
- Dual cards are usually more of a pain than they’re worth. Video editing is usually the exception, depending upon application support.
- If you want a card for content creation, game benchmarks aren’t usually representative. To research those, start by running a search on “workstation GPUs” or, for example, “best GPU for Premiere.” It’s important to match the GPU to the application, because, for instance, Nvidia Quadro GPUs are generally more powerful than their AMD Radeon Pro or WX series equivalents, but application developers who are tight with Apple — which doesn’t support Nvidia GPUs — optimize their applications for AMD GPUs. The biggest example of this is Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve video editor.