If there is a good part of the PC that has evolved over the years, it is the graphics card. A few years ago, his single role was to transmit the data to the screen. Today the graphics card also acts as a co-processor for 3D. The GPU reduces the load on the CPU significantly by being in charge of calculating certain graphical effects and 3D calculations.
Today, applications that include 3D (mainly games and some professional 3D applications) require a powerful graphics card whose prices is from $30 to over $1000. Other uses like surfing the internet do not need additional power from the graphic card. Consequently, for this type of use, any base card sold a few dozen dollars, or even an integrated processor graphics chip will be enough (a graphics cards will, however, be more efficient to decode video streams and relieve the processor). For gamers, the choice is a lot more complicated, but with this guide, you will be able to find the right graphics card based on your usage and budget.
Graphics cards now use the format PCI-Express (PCI-Express versions are fully compatible with each other) that have gradually replaced the AGP as it allows more bandwidth (data transfer between the motherboard and graphics card ). However, the two interfaces are incompatible with each other. To use an AGP graphic card, you must use an AGP motherboard and vice versa.
Memory and Frequency
At the introduction of 3D graphic cards, the amount of onboard memory played a significant role and performance went hand in hand with the amount of ram. That has changed, and today, the amount of memory on the card is no longer the most important factor for choosing a graphic card. The amount of memory now varies from 1 to 12 GB. A minimum of 4 GB is required for the most powerful cards to store the heaviest textures, to add graphical effects (smoothing, filtering, etc.) without overloading the GPU. The speed and bus width influence the bandwidth of the memory and therefore directly on the performance of the graphic card. Unfortunately, manufacturers bridle their graphic card (bus width) to reduce production costs, and this has significant consequences on the performance.
Let’s move on to the type of memory, and its frequency. You will notice in the characteristics, that there are two different types of memories: DDR3 and GDDR5. These two are different memories: the first, DDR3, is the slowest, it is reserved for entry-level cards. The second, GDDR5, better performing, is found on mid and high-end cards. A rule applies: You should always give priority to speed over quantity. As for the frequency, the higher the frequency, the faster the exchange of data with the GPU.
The GPU and the memory communicate through a memory bus whose width is expressed in bits: 128, 256, 384, 448 or 512 bits. The larger the bus, the more the memory and the GPU exchange data in the same clock cycle. This bandwidth significantly affects performance.
Currently, there are only two major graphics card manufacturers: AMD and NVIDIA, but contrary to what one might think, the number of graphics cards models is massive. There are several brands of graphic cards but be aware that only Nvidia and AMD produce the graphic chips. They provide their graphics chips to different manufacturers like Hercules, Sapphire, HIS, Asustek, Gigabyte, MSI, Sapphire, XFX, Inno3D, Gainward and many others.
All these different models have a very similar or even identical performance when using the same graphics. Frequently, the only main difference is the cooling system. The choice of brand for a model will, therefore, be dependent on the selling price, the efficiency of the cooling system and the “bundle” (cables, games, software supplied with the card). Factory overclocked cards are more performant (but more expensive) and are not always a good choice. Sometimes, the difference in price between an overclocked and a no overclocked GPU is not justified since nowadays, overclock is free and easily done directly on the desktop.
Attention: When you build a custom PC, remember that a computer is a set of components and it is important to balance the “power” between the components. For example, an ultra-powerful graphics card with a slow processor will never reach its full potential (the reverse is also true).
As soon as you switch to a multi-screen configuration, launch 3D games or use your virtual headset, the graphics card is significantly solicited and creates heat. The fan starts turning faster and dissipates the heat, however, you must verify that the fan is not dusty and that your tower is sufficiently ventilated. If this is not respected, your graphic card can overheat, making your system unstable. To prevent this, you can use a free software such as Speccy to inform you of the temperature of your components; If the graphics card tends to overheat, it is possible to change its ventilation or install a more efficient new cooling system. The most demanding users will opt in this case, for a watercooler.
LIST OF THE BEST GRAPHIC CARD FOR GAMING
The price for a graphic card ranges between $30 and $1000; the first you should do is to define the budget and the intended purpose. Graphics cards can be identified in 4 major categories based on the price and use:
- The entry-level: It allows to run some older games on low resolution, the price is around $30 to $80.
- The low-end: It allows to run recent games without pushing too much the graphic details, rather suitable for light games like Mobas (LoL, DotA…), the price is around $80 to $150.
- The mid-end: to play the latest games with every detail on high resolution, probably the best choice for gamers who do not have the means or do not wish to buy a high-end card, the price of $150 and $300.
- The high-end: maximum performance and very high-resolution, the price is over $300. Especially designed for large screens owners on a very high resolution (1440p).
The best graphic card models in the four major categories defined above utilize in the list below. If you have doubts about your purchase, leave a comment, or contact me directly.
The entry-level best choices
They are designed for office use or multimedia (decoding, watching films in high definition, etc.). It is in this category that most passive cooling (fanless) cards are located. They are silent and energy efficient.
This kind of card is usually used in a compact PC, used as a home theatre.
Low profile graphic card
These are no miracle in games. The oldest titles will run smoothly, but recent games will require you to sacrifice the resolution and several visual graphic settings.
For non-gamers looking for a cheap graphics card, the Nvidia GeForce GT 730 PCI-E is a high-quality card at a great price. It has an excellent price for an entry-level and is capable of running light games.
The most interesting cheap card for gamers is the Radeon R7 250, its price / performance ratio is excellent, and this card allows you to play relatively recent games in good conditions on a medium-sized resolution. In general, I recommend gamers to try to make if possible; an effort for a mid-range graphic card. These provide a better gaming experience.
For those who still have an AGP motherboard, you will hardly find new cards except at a much higher price. It is better to upgrade your entire build.
The Low-End best choices
In this price range, it is possible to have a nice graphics card to play comfortably.
You can play in FHD (1080p) while sacrificing some of the graphical settings and by having lower frames (FPS – Fluidity of the game). It is not advisable to exceed a screen size of 27 inches to keep a nice rendering. This type of card is suitable for users that don’t want to waste a huge sum of money in a GPU. However, this solution is not recommended for recent games in high resolution, but most games are perfectly playable if you are not too demanding.
The Radeon RX 460 is a good choice for players with a tight budget. Its performance is excellent for a graphic card of this price. This card is very efficient. The TDP of this card is so low that you don’t have to use additional power connectors to power this card. However, for gaming, I recommend you to use them to unlock the full potential.
With Nvidia, the best graphic card for gaming is the NVIDIA GTX 1050 Ti graphics card in this tier. The GTX 1050 Ti recommended min power supply is 300W, it has 4 GB GDDR5 memory and is fully compatible with DirectX 12. This GPU is also NVIDIA G-SYNC Ready. To fully utilise this technology you have to use a 144Hz monitor, this provides a better fluidity. This affordable card is the best graphic card of this category.
The Mid-End best choices
At this price, the gap widens with the quality proposed by the consoles, even of the last generation. You will play Full HD, at 1920×1080, and more if your monitor supports it. This tier is the minimum requirement to enjoy virtual reality.
These models are recommended for casual gamers who do not seek maximum performance but appreciate having good resolutions and superb graphic details in good sized screens. This is certainly the most interesting category for fans of video games who want to play in comfortable conditions at a high resolution. Unlike most gamers tend to think, spending more money on a high-end card will not give you a sustainable GPU (future-proof).
In this category, the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060, which is an incredible card with excellent performance for a reasonable price. This card is actually the best selling graphic card on Amazon. One of the best value graphic card for gaming on the market at the moment. Supports DX12, is VR-ready and has an excellent 6 GB GDDR5 memory. This card requires a min power supply of 400W.
Slightly less expensive we have one of the newest cards from AMD: the Rx 470, which is a particularly interesting card that comes with the freesync technology. It has 4GB GDDR5 memory and requires a PSU of 400W.
The High-End best choices
This price range is meant for the most demanding gamers or those who want the best performance for as long as possible before upgrading. With a high-end graphics card, the latest games will be perfectly fluid at high, and very high resolutions. Antialiasing and anisotropic filters can be enabled. Remember that this type of graphic card has no interest in a small resolution. It is also necessary to have a powerful processor to exploit the power of the card.
These beasts are essential to enjoy 3D on three screens simultaneously (NVIDIA 3D Vision Surround) because they are capable of displaying two images (one for each eye) at 5760×1080 pixels without deteriorating the performance. While doing this, they can consume up to 4gb.
The best graphic card for gaming in the market is the GeForce GTX 1080 with 8GB GDDR5X memory. Based on the new architecture: Pascal. It has an incredible performance on a 1440p resolution, extremely efficient for a high-end graphic card. We also have the GTX 1070, the little brother of the GTX 1080. The performance is slightly inferior, but still enough to have an amazing gaming experience.
If you are a hardcore gamer or an enthusiast I highly recommend these two cards.
For those going for a dual-GPU setup, I advise you to think about it. These solutions have many faults. I rather encourage you to buy a single GPU card like the GeForce GTX 1080 which is enough to play all the games at high-resolution in perfect condition. To check which power supply will be necessary to power your build. I advise you to check my Ultimate Guide for power supplies.