Whether it’s snug in your tower of power’s PCI Express slot or soldered to the inside of your laptop, the discrete graphics card, or GPU, is an integral component when it comes to PC gaming. Without it, you’re given no other choice but to rely on weaker integrated graphics solutions from Intel and AMD.
A graphics card doesn’t even need to take up a ton of space. With Nvidia’s cutting-edge Max-Q tech, for instance, you’ll soon be able to run games in 4K at acceptable frame rates in a laptop measuring in at under an inch thick. However, you have to be willing to pay a lot more for high power in a compact form factor, as evidenced by the Asus ROG Zephyrus.
Pretty soon, the best graphics cards will get even better, due in part to AMD’s renewed interest in high-end components with the anticipated arrival of Radeon RX Vega. But, even so, there are still plenty of great offerings from AMD and Nvidia you can buy right now. In fact, we’ve detailed our pick of the three top graphics cards, spanning all budgets, below.
Titan X performance without the Titan X cost
Stream Processors: 3,584 | Core Clock: 1,480MHz | Memory: 11GB GDDR5X | Memory Clock: 11GHz | Power Connectors: 1 x 6-pin; 1 x 8-pin | Outputs: 3 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI
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If we’re being honest, the GTX 1080 Ti is exactly what the Titan X Pascal should have been. Thanks to its 11GB of GDDR5X VRAM, the 1080 Ti is wildly more capable than the GTX 1080 proper without costing an arm and a leg. Performance-wise, the GTX 1080 Ti can’t compete with dual-wielding 1080s, but it is cheaper and it does support a larger pool of games than two lesser cards with SLI. Aside from the mysterious absence of a DVI port, the GTX 1080 Ti is indistinguishable looks-wise from any of the other Pascal-series GPUs. Take a gander inside, however, and you’ll notice a sophisticated cooling system needed to keep all of your games running smoothly in resolutions up to 4K.
More of a souped-up version of last year’s Radeon RX 480 than a brand-new graphics card, the Radeon RX 580 takes the Polaris architecture and amps it up to new levels of performance at the same affordable price point. Although it clings to the same 8GB of GDDR5 memory as the RX 480, there are still clear cut performance upgrades in tow. The boost clock, for instance, is now up to 1,441MHz, which you can compare to the 1,266MHz boost of the 480. It still struggles to maintain a consistent 30+ frames per second (fps) running most triple-A titles in 4K, but for 1080p and 1440p gaming, the AMD Radeon RX 580 rules even harder than its predecessor.
Best entry-level GPU: AMD Radeon RX 460
A modest entry point for esports and the like
Stream Processors: 896 | Core Clock: 1,210; 1,250MHz | Memory: 2GB; 4GB GDDR5 | Memory Clock: 7,000MHz | Power Connectors: None | Outputs: 1 x DisplayPort, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DVI
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Like the GTX 1050 and 1050 Ti from Nvidia, the RX 460 runs cheap. Versions of it can be had from XFX, Powercolor, Sapphire and other aftermarket card makers who have all sought out to accomplish the same task of producing a value GPU that can effortlessly run just about every game in your Steam library, so long as you don’t mind parting with the prospect of running The Witcher 3 at 60 fps on Ultra graphics settings. Capable and energy efficient, drawing all of its power straight from the motherboard without any 6- or 8-pin connectors required, the RX 460 is worth the money if you plan on spending a lot of time playing MOBA and RTS games. Otherwise, you’re better off saving for one of the other best graphics cards above.