If you’re buying or building a gaming PC, the graphics card is even more important than the CPU. Unfortunately, the process of figuring out how to buy a GPU can be intimidating. There’s so much to consider, from the type of monitor you’re using (for recommendations, see our Best Gaming Monitors page) to the size of your PC case to the game settings you plan to play at. In this article, we will be talking about Choose The Right GPU.
Below is a list of things you need to keep in mind when shopping for your next GPU. For specific recommendations, see our best graphics cards list of the current options, as well as the GPU Performance Hierarchy to see how today’s cards compare to older cards that you might be looking to upgrade and replace.
- Save some money for the CPU Choose The Right GPU. If you spend all your money on graphics and skimp out on the processor, your system might score well on synthetic benchmarks but won’t do as well in real game play (due to lower minimum frame rates).
- Match your monitor resolution. Many mainstream cards are sufficient for gaming at 1080p resolutions at between 30-60 fps, but you’ll need a high-end card for resolutions at or near 4K resolution with high in-game settings on the most demanding titles.
- Consider your refresh rate Choose The Right GPU. If your monitor has triple-digit refresh rates, you’ll need a powerful card and processor to reach its full potential. Alternatively, if your monitor tops out at 60Hz and 1080p, there’s no point in paying extra for a powerful card that pushes pixels faster than your display can keep up with.
- Do you have enough power and space? Make sure your case has enough room for the card you’re considering, and that your power supply has enough watts to spare, along with the correct type of power connectors (up to two 8-pin PCIe, depending on the card).
- Check the MSRP before buying. A good way to tell if you’re getting a deal is to check the launch price or MSRP of the card you’re considering before buying. Tools like CamelCamelCamel can help separate the real deals from the fake mark-up-then-discount offerings.
- Don’t get dual cards—they’re not worth it. Game support for Multi-card SLI or CrossFire setups has been trending down for years. Get the best single card you can afford. Adding a second card is usually more trouble than it’s worth.
- Don’t count on overclocking for serious performance boosts Choose The Right GPU. If you need better performance, buy a more-powerful card. Graphics cards don’t typically have large amounts of overclocking headroom, usually only 5-10% at best.
There are hundreds of graphics cards from dozens of manufacturers, but only two companies actually make the GPUs that power these components: Nvidia and AMD—although Intel’s Xe Graphics should arrive soon. AMD has competitive upper-mid-range and budget GPUs, and the latest Navi-based RX 5000-series cards have mostly caught up with Nvidia on the power consumption front. But on the very high-end of the market, Nvidia is uncontested as nothing from AMD can outperform the company’s faster RTX cards today. That may change once so-called “Big Navi” cards arrive, but the Nvidia Ampere GPUs are also coming.
Unless you need the level of performance you’ll get from something like an RTX 2080 Ti, the best reason to choose one company over the other is whether your monitor supports AMD FreeSync or Nvidia G-Sync. Both of these technologies synchronize the refresh rate between the video card and the display to eliminate tearing. If your monitor supports neither technology, then you can go with either GPU brand. But even this decision is more complicated lately, with Nvidia now certifying an increasing number of FreeSync monitors to variable refresh using Nvidia cards.
Choose The Right GPU: Which GPUs are budget, mid-range and high-end?
Here’s a breakdown of the major current GPUs and where they stand, grouped roughly by price and performance. (For example, note that the GTX 1070 is with the ‘mid-range’ now, since it’s about as fast as a 1660 Super.) Remember that not all cards with a given GPU will perform exactly the same. For more detail, check out the GPU Performance Hierarchy page.
Choose The Right GPU, How to buy a GPU: Which specs matter and which don’t?
- Graphics card memory amount: Critical. Get a card with at least 4GB, and preferably 6GB or more for gaming at 1080p. You’ll need more memory if you play with all the settings turned up or you install high-resolution texture packs. And if you’re gaming at very high resolutions such as 4K, 8GB or more is ideal.
- Form factor: Very important. You need to make sure you have room in your case for your card. Look at the length, height, and thickness. Graphics cards can come in half-height (slim), single-slot, dual-slot, and even triple-slot flavors. Most gaming-focused cards will be full-height and occupy two expansion slots. Even if a card technically only takes up one or two slots in your case, if it has a big heatsink and fan shroud, it can block an adjacent slot. If you have a tiny Mini-ITX motherboard, look for a ‘mini’ card, which is generally 8 inches (205mm) long or less. However, some cards that carry this moniker are longer, so check the specs.
- TDP: Important. Thermal Design Power or TDP is a measurement of heat dissipation, but it also gives you an estimate of how many watts you’ll need to run your card at stock settings. So if you’re running a 400-watt power supply unit (PSU) with an overclocked 95-watt CPU and you want to add a GTX 1080 Ti (which has a 250-watt TDP) you’re almost certainly going to need a PSU upgrade. Generally speaking, a 600W PSU will handle all but the most powerful graphics cards, and 800W is enough for any single GPU even with overclocking.
- Power Connectors: Important. Most serious gaming cards draw more than the standard maximum of 75W that the x16 PCIe slot provides. These cards require connecting supplemental PCIe power connectors that come in 6- and 8-pin varieties. Some cards have one of these connectors, some two, and six-and-eight-pin ports can exist on the same card. If your power supply doesn’t have the supplemental connectors you need, you’ll want to upgrade—adapters that draw power from a couple of SATA or Molex connectors are not recommended as long-term solutions.
- TFLOPS / GFLOPS: Important. TFLOPS, or trillions of floating-point operations per second, is an indication of the maximum theoretical performance of a GPU. (It may also be expressed as GFLOPS, or billions of FLOPS.) Core count multiplied by the clock speed, multiplied by two (for FMA, or Fused Multiply Add instructions), will give you the TFLOPS for a GPU. Comparing within the same architecture, TFLOPS generally tells you how much faster on chip is compared to another. Comparing across architectures (e.g., AMD Navi 10 vs. Nvidia Turing TU106, or AMD Navi 10 vs. AMD Vega 10) is less useful.
- Memory speed / bandwidth: Somewhat important. Like higher clock speed, faster memory can make one card faster than another. The GTX 1650 GDDR6 for example is about 15% faster than the GTX 1650 GDDR5, all thanks to the increased memory bandwidth.
You should always follow these above points in mind. Those were some of the main points that you should know before buying a GPU.