The best graphics cards | Gaming

Whether you’re upgrading your old rig or putting together a new one, every great PC needs a graphics card — and that includes laptops.

There are a lot of considerations to factor in — everything from monitor resolution, power and thermal requirements, and even game preference will dictate how much you spend and what you spend it on. This is even more true since Nvidia is expected to debut a new generation of graphics in the near future. That often has a dramatic effect on the pricing and availability of existing cards, not to mention offering new options for potential buyers.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for GPUs, but we hope this guide to the best graphics cards steers you in the right direction.

Our pick

Nvidia GTX 1060

ZOTAC GeForce GTX 1060 AMP! Edition
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: The GTX 1060 3GB strikes the perfect balance between price and performance.

The best

ZOTAC GeForce GTX 1060 AMP! Edition

With 3GB of memory and solid performance, the GTX 1060 is a great fit for most PC gamers.

Who’s it for: Gamers looking to improve their gaming quality without breaking the bank.

How much will it cost: $200-$300

Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1060:

The GTX 1060 might not be the cheapest card, and it might not be the most powerful, but it offers a solid balance of the two that will appeal to most PC gamers.

It also hits the sweet spot for graphical memory. The GTX 1060’s 3GB of GDDR5 should be just the right amount for 1080p gaming, although higher-resolution textures may push up against that limit. It’s also one of the cheapest entry-level cards for virtual reality.

The result is a card that has no trouble playing well optimized games like Battlefield 1 or Fallout 4 with the settings cranked. Even at 2,560 × 1,440, we saw an average performance of 60 frames per second or higher. It’s a tough battle between the GTX 1060 and AMD’s similarly priced RX 580, but ultimately we gave the Nvidia option the nod for beating the Radeon on pricing and power-draw with similar performance.

That said, it isn’t going to deliver top performance in every game. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is by far the most demanding game we’ve tested, and the GTX 1060 delivered just 37 frames per second on average while running at ultra settings in 1080p. This video card is great in most situations and there is always the option of the slightly more expensive 6GB version if you want additional VRAM headroom, but if you want real power, you’ll need to stretch your wallet a bit further.

Our full Nvidia GTX 1060 review

The best graphics card for 4K

Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti

Zotac GeForce GTX 1080Ti AMP
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: You want to play the latest games at the highest frame rate and resolution.

The best graphics card for 4K

Zotac GeForce GTX 1080Ti AMP

Without dropping over a thousand dollars for a GPU, the GTX 1080 Ti offers the best performance available to PC gamers today.

Who’s it for: 4K monitor owners and PC gaming enthusiasts.

How much will it cost: $700+

Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti:

Unlike the GTX 1060, there’s nothing budget-friendly about the massive GTX 1080 Ti. Aside from the Nvidia GTX Titans, which are absurdly expensive and not that much faster, the GTX 1080 Ti is the most powerful consumer offering in Nvidia’s arsenal, and it shows in its gaming performance.

This card can hit an average of 60 frames per second in many games, even at 4K resolution. While there were similarly priced cards in the previous generation, such as the AMD R9 Fury series and the GTX 980 Ti, even they couldn’t capably handle 4K gaming on their own.

Without a true competitor at this level from AMD this generation, the GTX 1080 Ti is an easy choice for anyone with deep pockets and a need for speed. Basic cards start at $700, and reach over $800 when packed with high-end features like liquid cooling loops and impressive overclocks.

Our full GTX 1080 Ti review

The best entry-level graphics card

Nvidia GTX 1050

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: You want to turn a PC without a GPU into a certified gaming rig.

The best entry-level graphics card

MSI GeForce GTX 1050 2G OC

Compact and lightweight, the GTX 1050 packs a surprising punch at 1080p, without breaking the bank.

Who’s it for: Casual and occasional gamers.

How much will it cost: $130+

Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1050:

If you’re looking to buy a current generation graphics card there are only two options at the $150-ish price point: the AMD RX 560 and the GTX 1050. The latter takes home our recommendation for best entry-level card by providing the best performance at that price point. Simple enough.

Like the GTX 950 we reviewed last year, the GTX 1050 pumps out 60 frames per second, or close enough to it, at 1,920 × 1,080, even with the settings turned up. Most models will also feature a shortened PCB and simple cooling, typically without an external power connection. That means the slim card will fit into compact cases, as well as pre-built systems with total power as low as 300 Watts.

Of course, the tradeoff for the GTX 1050’s bargain price means it likely won’t last as long as other GPUs. While that GTX 1080 is still firing on all cylinders a few years down the road, the GTX 1050 might start looking a little sad. At least at $130, your wallet won’t hurt too much having to pick up the tab. If you have a few extra dollars spare too, you could upgrade to a 1050 Ti for a nice little bump in performance and some additional longevity.

Our full Nvidia GTX 1050 review

What about AMD?

Fans of the red team will no doubt notice we didn’t include any AMD picks in this best-of list.

That’s a problem with best-of lists: They’re about what is the very best, and don’t leave room for second place, even if it’s a very close second. And AMD’s offers are indeed very close at some price points. The Radeon RX 580 and Radeon RX 570 are highly competitive with the GTX 1060, and its more recent Vega 56 and 64 cards offer credible competition for the GTX 1070 and 1080. They just aren’t quite as easy to recommend.

Performance wise AMD’s new crop of top-tier cards are pretty great, even beating out their Nvidia counterparts in some respects, but that leaves them in a strange limbo of who to recommend them to. If you want 4K gaming, the GTX 1080 Ti is better than the Vega 64 and if you’re looking for something more mid-range, the GTX 1060 is a better bet than the Vega 56. Both of AMD’s top cards are rather expensive too, at around $480 – $600.

There are instances you might want to pick them instead of an Nvidia card though. If you don’t fit into our above categories, the Vega cards are AMD’s highest performing offerings since its Fury range from 2015. We thought they performed great in our testing. Additional features like FreeSync are useful too. AMD’s version of adaptive monitor sync is available in a wide selection of affordable monitors. If you’re not familiar with it, read up on the technology here.

How we test

When we test graphics cards, we tend to focus on three major factors: Feature set, performance, and price.

Feature set is often determined by brand and platform, which we always consider as we review a card. It’s not just about whether it can handle a virtual reality headset, or how many monitors it supports. We check out graphical standard and API support, and special features like Nvidia’s Ansel, or AMD’s WattMan overclocking software.

Of course, performance is key. We run review units through a series of synthetic and real-world benchmarks, even beyond those we report. We keep detailed records of frame rate trends, frame times, and any anomalous activities, like noise, heat, or artifacts.

Ultimately, it all comes down to cash. With so many GPUs, board partners, and differences in clock speed and memory, there’s no shortage of options, and it’s all too easy to overpay. We check the price of each individual card, and even help determine availability at launch.

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