If Intel, AMD and Nvidia‘s statistics are right, you’re probably using a computer system that’s several years old. In PC gaming hardware terms, that’s just about forever. So chances are likely that you’re no longer using a modern card, much less the best graphics card out there, with new technologies like ray-tracing acceleration or smart upscaling. A lot’s changed in the last few years, particularly in graphics-processing technologies and the demands of the software that depends on them — specifically software used to play games and creative applications like 3D tools and video editors.
Even if you just need the basics for surfing the web or streaming video, the best graphics card can make your system feel snappier by improving the acceleration of video decoding or redrawing your screens faster. With a Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptop or iMac, you can even upgrade the graphics using an external graphics processing unit (an eGPU).
For color work, however, Nvidia just made your old GeForce card a little more useful: As of version 431.70 (released July 29), the Studio branch of its drivers opened up true 30-bit color support for Photoshop and other Adobe applications. So no more shelling out megabucks for a Quadro workstation card just for the extra bits.
The hardware landscape is constantly in flux. As an example, the latest graphics cards in the $350-$500 price range completely changed during the first weeks of July, with AMD and Nvidia overhauling their lineups for the growing 1440p gaming market. Nvidia announced the RTX 2060 Super, RTX 2070 Super and RTX 2080 Super to replace its “unsupered” versions of the 2070 and 2080, while the RTX 2060 remains in the line. These aren’t radical changes to their specs — they simply bring slightly better performance to cards of the same name.
The move was an obvious counter to AMD, which had announced prices when it unveiled its new Radeon RX 5700 and RX 5700 XT cards based on its next-generation 7-nanometer Navi architecture. So two days prior to shipping — they’re available now — AMD dropped the prices of those cards to match Nvidia’s.
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One of the big differentiators between Nvidia and AMD’s GPUs these days is real-time ray-tracing acceleration — not who has it and who doesn’t, but how it’s implemented. Nvidia uses dedicated silicon RT, or ray-tracing cores, with a proprietary programming interface that takes more work for developers to support. AMD takes a less hardware-dependent approach, which is easier to incorporate, but arguably not as effective.
The new architectures for ray-tracing acceleration are accompanied by a larger set of technologies which tend to be lumped in with them because they also improve or accelerate rendering. 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 Image Sharpening do this.
The result is it can seem like there’s more game support for it than there actually is — for example, if a game supports any piece of the new RTX architecture, like DLSS, it earns the whole “We support it!” checkbox. So deciding whether you need the pricey RTX card or can live with a GTX 1660 Ti requires figuring out if your favorite games take advantage of the “right” features.
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Ready to throw down some cash for a new graphics card for your gaming rig? Don’t spend a single cent until you read this detailed buying guide of the best graphics cards, plus our general GPU shopping tips at the end to help you make your choice. In fact, you may not want to spend any money at the moment if you’re shopping for a card for good 1080p gaming or better. The new Radeons seem to be having driver issues and the new Nvidia Super cards still aren’t widely enough available to have garnered a lot of reports for good or ill.
Sure, it’s a reasonable price. But if you’re planning to spend less than $100 on a graphics card, don’t expect to game with the GeForce GT at 1080p. It adds a bit of a performance boost over Intel’s integrated graphics, but many games may simply go from unplayable to a little less unplayable, depending upon how graphically intensive the game is. This does for desktop PCs what Nvidia’s MX250 does 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.
It’s not the fastest CPU in its class, but the RX 580 is one of the best values in graphics cards. It’s fast enough to deliver solid 1080p play in all but the most demanding games. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 is its closest competitor but costs a lot more. And AMD’s step-up from this, the RX 590, isn’t substantially faster.
And if you need a relatively inexpensive speed boost for your old (but still Thunderbolt 3-enabled) MacBook Pro, an external graphics card (eGPU) equipped with the RX 580 should do the trick. It’s the same GPU that’s in some 2018 MacBook Pros, so first check what you already have to make sure the upgrade makes sense.
Though Nvidia threw all its efforts into the new RTX line of cards, with their ray tracing (for rendering) and Tensor (for AI) cores, a lot of the benefits they might offer have yet to materialize for mainstream technology users. The 1660 Ti offers more of the practical graphics performance advantages of the company’s Turing architecture for most current games without the cost overhead of the future-focused features. Its big brother, the RTX 2060, is certainly faster and will deliver better 1440p or 144Hz-plus gaming, so if that’s what you need it’s probably worth the extra $70 or so that the 2060 will cost you. (The RTX 2060 remains on the market despite the addition of the Super version, which is a bit faster.)
AMD’s Radeon RX Vega 56 delivers comparable performance for the same money, but its power requirements are more demanding than the 1660 Ti, a burden your power supply or case may not be able to bear.
AMD’s new cards provide excellent mainstream gaming performance, and they’re quiet, too. Given the relatively reasonable $50 price differential, it probably makes sense to just go for the XT version to give yourself some room to grow, though the lower-end version is fine if you’d rather spend that $50 on a new game. The cards are relatively new, but the “it arrived dead” and “it really overheats” reviews have started to appear, as are continuing complaints about AMD’s drivers, which just makes me sad.
AMD also seems to have discontinued the Radeon VII — it’s disappeared from all the big outlets — which was a lot more expensive but delivered comparable performance, so this is your highest-end Mac option (unless something new comes out in conjunction with the release of the Mac Pro in the fall) and a good upgrade for video editing. It’s likely to be more stable under MacOS than Windows, since AMD works so closely with Apple.
So if you’re risk-averse, I’d just hold off for now if you’re buying in this segment. The comparable Nvidia alternative, the Nvidia RTX 2060 Super, doesn’t have a lot of reviews yet and the older (but still available) RTX 2060 is about 30% slower than the AMD.
Unfortunately, you have to look at problems with graphics cards more statistically than anecdotally because there are a seemingly infinite number of variables that can affect a card’s operational stability.
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The RTX 2070 Super starts at the lower end of the range, and the RTX 2080 Super starts at the top, offering only a modest increase in performance and support for the same 8GB of video memory. But the 2080 has been out for a while and is a proven quantity, while the 2070 Super still hasn’t caught on, so if you want to buy now, I suggest the 2080.
Though the RTX 2080 Ti isn’t the fastest gaming card available today — the Titan RTX takes that prize — it’s half the price of its more-powerful sibling and can certainly deliver top frame rates. While all the RTX series cards support acceleration for Nvidia’s proprietary ray tracing and illumination-programming interface, most of the time you’ll see a performance hit unless you go with the high-end card or drop back on other quality features and resolution.
One of the advantages of the Ti version over the non-Ti model is memory: It has 11GB compared to 8GB. That’s important when you’re running higher resolutions on gaming laptops. For game development or video editing, you’ll see a lot more gains from the 2080 Ti than gamers will, in part thanks to the extra video memory. It’s also designed for multi-GPU configurations, important for working with high-res video or 3D rendering, though I’ve found they can be finicky.
Things to keep in mind as you buy a 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 truly requires. 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.
- 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) or be mindful that it seems to plague Nvidia RTX cards more than GTX. When buying cards, make sure that not only do they have sufficient systems to keep cool 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 G-Sync Ultimate, and all AMD Radeon cards RX 400 or later support FreeSync adaptive refresh technology. These sync with your monitor to reduce artifacts caused by a mismatch between screen refresh rate and frame rate.
- 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.
- Photo editing is still, for the most part, CPU-bound, so a midrange graphics card is fine. Video editing and 3D-based tools take more advantage of the GPU. Note that Adobe recently announced enhanced GPU support for Lightroom, but it doesn’t make anything render to the screen faster; it’s strictly for making the sliders feel more responsive when you’re working on high-resolution (i.e. 4K or more) displays. So for the moment, that midrange GPU should still be fine.
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Originally published in 2019.