Quick facts about graphics cards
- Of all the components inside a PC, upgrading the graphics card often has the biggest impact on performance.
- Your monitor size can determine which graphics card you should buy. There’s no point having all those extra pixels if your GPU isn’t powerful enough to utilize them properly.
- New graphics cards can cost between $25 and $3,000, with the average price falling around $220.
What is a graphics card?
Your graphics card powers every pixel on your monitor. It’s what allows you to see the images on your screen. Every PC has one built in, and if you only use your computer for basic tasks like web browsing, you probably don’t need to upgrade. But if you’re an avid gamer, a 3D animator or a keen crypto miner, you’ll need a powerful, discrete graphics card.
Discrete graphics cards are inserted into your PC’s motherboard. They combine several important components, like in-built RAM and cooling systems. But at the core of each card is the graphics processing unit, commonly referred to as a GPU.
Having a more powerful GPU allows you to play games at higher resolutions, higher frame rates and with the in-game visual settings maxed out. Upgrading your graphics card often has the most significant impact on improving your PC’s performance. However, they can also be the most expensive component inside your computer.
AMD vs. Nvidia?
Two companies dominate the graphics card market: AMD and Nvidia. Though other graphics card manufacturers exist, only these two produce the GPUs powering them. Whether you pick up a card branded as ASUS, Zotak, Gigabyte, MSI or any other third-party manufacturer, the GPUs will actually be from either Nvidia or AMD.
Because these third-party branded graphics cards are all based on the same reference designs from AMD or Nvidia, they don’t typically stray too far from the original specifications. The differences between them are generally minor and focused on slight improvements to efficiency, such as more efficient cooling systems, quieter fans, smaller form factors, extra display ports and aesthetic trimmings like RGB lighting.
Historically, Nvidia has held the edge over AMD, but that gap has narrowed significantly in recent years. Nvidia’s premium graphics cards are still the most powerful on the market, but AMD presents great alternatives at every other tier. They’re generally cheaper, too.
How to compare graphics cards
Finding the best graphics card for your setup and gaming needs can require some intense research. But understanding the aspects and key features of any graphics card can help you discover the right one for your unique situation.
The graphics processing unit is the most important part of any graphics card. When considering GPU, check both the minimum and recommended specs on the latest video games. These tell you the least powerful graphics card that you can get away with and the ideal card for playing a game at its ideal settings.
Nvidia has two common GPU lines, GeForce GTX on the lower end and GeForce RTX on the premium end. AMD brands their cards as Radeon. As a general rule, the higher the number that follows, the more powerful the card. For example, the RTX 2080 is more powerful than the RTX 2060.
G-Sync and FreeSync
G-Sync and FreeSync are competing technologies built into certain monitors. It automatically aligns the screen’s refresh rate with the graphic card’s frame rate, which helps mitigate screen tearing and ugly visual artifacts.
G-Sync is compatible with Nvidia cards, while FreeSync works with AMD cards — though, some of the newest Nvidia cards now work with FreeSync, too. If you own either a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor, it’s a good idea to pair them with a graphics card that can take advantage of the technology.
Graphics cards contain onboard random access memory (RAM). Generally speaking, the more RAM, the better. For example, a card with 4GB of RAM won’t perform as well as one with 8GB. We’d advise aiming for more than 4GBs of RAM unless you only play older games in 1080p.
The type of RAM is important as well. For example, GDDR6 RAM is faster than the previous generation of GDDR5 RAM. Here, newer is usually better.
What resolution will you play at?
The resolution depends on the monitor you own. If you intend to play on a native 1080p monitor, you can get away with a far cheaper graphics card. Most lower-end cards will have no trouble providing top-notch full HD performance. But if you’re shooting for 1440p or 4K (or higher), you’ll need something more powerful. Only higher-end graphics cards can manage these resolutions while maintaining good performance. The more pixels you have, the more power you’ll need.
Physical space inside your PC
Graphics cards come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, with some so big they take up two or more slots on a motherboard. Bulky graphics cards are common in “turbo” editions, as they often feature additional fans and oversized cooling components. Be sure to measure the available space inside your case so you don’t buy a card too big for your PC’s britches.
The graphics card is typically the most power-hungry component of a PC, so verify that your power supply has enough juice to sustain it. Most cards will recommend a minimum wattage for smooth operation, and it’s a good idea to heed these recommendations to avoid compatibility issues and performance problems.
Four things to consider
Besides specs, other factors can affect your GPU choice — like your budget and how many years you hope to get out of the card. Here are a few additional things to consider to get the best graphics experience based on your needs.
- Heat mitigation. GPUs run extremely hot. As such, graphics cards come packed with heat mitigation tools to keep them from burning out. These include heat sinks, cooling gels and fans – some of which become noisy. Also, allowing adequate breathing room inside your PC will help these systems do their job properly.
- GPU lifespan. Even the most expensive graphics card will eventually fall behind and need replacing. But the more you spend now, the longer you can put off upgrading. As a general rule, if you buy a top-end GPU, you should get great performance out of it for at least three years.
- Saving money. The most reliable way to save money and still get good performance out of a graphics card is to play at 1080p resolution — or, at the higher end, QHD instead of 4K — while aiming for high frame rates and in-game graphics settings. Sure, your monitor will need to be smaller to maintain respectable dots per inch (DPI). But we’ve found that faster frame rates have a bigger impact on the gaming experience than higher resolutions. AMD cards are generally the cheaper option too.
- What display port does your monitor use? Most graphics cards include at least one HDMI and one Display Port for connecting to a monitor. But depending on your setup, you might need more ports for connecting two or more monitors. Since the types and number of ports can vary significantly between graphics card variants, make sure it has all the ports you need.