Best graphics card for gamers and creatives in 2021
If AMD, Intel and Nvidia‘s statistics are correct, you’re most likely using a computer and graphics card that are several years old. For PC gaming, animation, video editing and other heavyweight graphics-intensive activities, that’s just about forever. Much has changed in the past few years, so chances are you’re no longer using a modern card — much less the best graphics card out there — with new technologies like ray-tracing acceleration and smart resolution upscaling. And games and software used by creative folks for applications like 3D tools and video editors have only gotten more demanding.
Even if you just need the basics for streaming video or surfing the web, the best graphics card can make your system feel snappier by improving the acceleration of video decoding or redrawing your screens faster, especially if you had previously used a budget GPU. With a Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptop or iMac, you can even upgrade the graphics using an external graphics processing unit (an eGPU with its own power supply) or a dedicated graphics card.
For color work, however, Nvidia finally made your old GeForce card a little more useful: As of version 431.70 (released July 29, 2019), 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 bit depth.
The hardware landscape is constantly in flux. As an example, the latest graphics card options in the $500-or-less price range seem to change every six months or so, with AMD and Nvidia overhauling their lineups for the popular 1080p and entry 1440p markets they’re for. These biannual shufflings are pretty typical in an era of the ever-improving refresh rate and expanding memory bandwidth. Those models tend to be announced much later than the flagships, so if you’re on a tight budget but want something new and cheap, wait until early 2021.
The now-current generation of cards from Nvidia and AMD launched as of October 2020, but are still in the LOL-try-to-get-one-and-overpay stage of the buying cycle. That’s partly because Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3060 Ti, RTX 3070 and 3080, and AMD’s Radeon RX 6800, 6800 XT and 6900 XT perform noticeably better all around than the previous generations.
The RTX 3000 series follow on the Super equivalents, and in the case of the 3090, the Titan RTX. The cards use the new Ampere architecture, with improved algorithms and more processing power dedicated to ray tracing (second-gen Turing core), AI (for more efficient upscaling via DLSS) and programmable shaders. They deliver some big jumps in performance over the 2000 series.
AMD’s latest GPUs are based on its RDNA 2-gen architecture, used in the Xbox Series X, S and PS5 consoles, and for the first time target 4K gamers (the company previously concentrated on 1080p and 1440p gaming). Hardware performance improvements stem partly from the higher-density on-die Infinity Cache design (all have 128MB) and enhanced design of the compute units (including a new Ray Accelerator core for each compute unit). They combine to improve the memory subsystem by reducing the latency of moving data around, increase bandwidth by up to 2.2x with a narrower path (256 bits) and deliver better energy efficiency. That also allows the processors to hit higher clock frequencies without a substantial increase in power requirements.
The AMD GPUs have been optimized to achieve peak performance when used in conjunction with the company’s new Ryzen 5000 series of desktop CPUs, though it doesn’t sound like they get much of a boost from it. If every frame counts, though, it’s something to keep in mind. They also support Microsoft’s DirectStorage programming interface, which accelerates SSD access by circumventing the CPU to improve storage-intensive game tasks like load times in games developed with it in mind.
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The new architectures for ray-tracing acceleration are accompanied by a larger set of technologies that tend to be lumped in with them because they also improve or accelerate rendering in general. 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 Contrast Adaptive Sharpening do this.
Though most have technically shipped, neither AMD nor Nvidia’s cards are available. We’re knee deep in the biggest sale season of the year, but I haven’t seen any good deals on graphics cards, except for the very low end. And last-gen cards are overpriced relative to the current generation, and the properly priced cards are all out of stock.
Ready to throw down some cash for a new graphics card for your gaming rig or laptop? Don’t spend a single cent on a graphics card for gaming until you read this buying guide of the best graphics card, wherein we consider everything from video memory, refresh rate and frame rate to power consumption, memory clock and gaming performance. Plus, our general GPU shopping tips at the end will help you make your choice. We update this periodically.
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Sure, it’s a reasonable price. But if you’re planning to spend around $100 on a budget graphics card, don’t expect to game with the GeForce GT at 1080p — 720p at best unless a game is very lightweight, though Fortnite, CS:GO, League of Legends and other multiplayer competitive games generally fall under the “can play on a potato” umbrella. Many games may simply go from unplayable to a little less unplayable. This Nvidia graphics card does for a gaming PC what Nvidia’s MX chips do 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.
You may see a random AMD Radeon RX 550 card drop down below $100, and that’s a good choice if you’re looking for something with a little extra gaming oomph over the 1030 or support for two monitors. But it takes a lot more space and power than the simple GT half-height replacement cards.
There used to be more options in the $100-$150 range; now, they mostly fall below $100 or above $150, which is frankly annoying. But between $150 and $200 may find the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super-based cards and the AMD Radeon RX 5500 XT cards, both of which deliver very similar, solid entry-level 1080p gaming at low or medium settings for all but the most GPU-intensive games. But even these are really hard to find now.
And since much basic photo editing still isn’t very GPU-intensive, a fast, high-core-count CPU still gives you more performance value for the money than a higher-power graphics card.
One distinction between the two that may affect your decision is power draw: the RX 5500 XT takes about 30 watts more than the 1650S. Since they’re both under 150 watts, though, your power supply probably isn’t a problem.
But unless your budget is extremely tight I suggest you spend a little more (about $250 or so) for at least a GTX 1660 Super: It has 6GB of video memory rather than 4GB, which gives you some headroom to improve the visual quality settings in a game, as well as lowers its near-term obsolescence quotient.
AMD’s Radeon RX 5600 XT delivers the best graphics card performance for this price tier compared with its competitor, the GTX 1660 Ti. The next real performance and capability jump is to the GeForce RTX 3060 Ti above $400, which makes this a good sweet spot to settle in as well.
With reasonably comparable performance at lower prices, Nvidia’s new RTX 3060 Ti cards have a price edge over its RX 6800-based competitors, though the latter is a good graphics card to stick in an external GPU for a Mac. You can’t get either one of the cards now, though; they’re all out of stock.
My preference here is for the Radeon RX 6800, which generally performs better than the 3070, but not on everything. For instance, I’ve noticed that the RTX 3070 occasionally does better on 1080p than the RX 6800, while the latter GPU makes a better showing in 4K. For video editing, the RX 6800’s larger bandwidth and 16GB of VRAM give it a leg up over the RTX 3070 as well, except if your application takes advantage of Nvidia’s CUDA programming interface to accelerate it.
Though it’s all moot because everything’s sold out, anyway.
As with the step-down price segment the RX 6800 XT generally outperforms the more expensive RTX 3080 especially at higher resolutions and in professional graphics applications, thanks to the better memory bandwidth and more video memory. But that likewise doesn’t always hold true, especially with software that takes advantage of Nvidia CUDA.
Also out of stock everywhere.
The situation flips when you climb above $1,000, since the RTX 3090 essentially replaces the Titan RTX with 24GB of video memory. I haven’t yet had a chance to test either the RTX 3090 or its competitor, the RX 6900 XT, so this is a tentative recommendation. But you can’t find it in stock anywhere, anyway.
Things to keep in mind when looking for the best 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 really requires as opposed to the manufacturer’s claims. 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.
- Power consumption: 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). When buying cards, make sure that you have a sufficient cooling and 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, and the RTX 3000 series has higher power requirements than the 2000 series.
- 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 the various flavors of G-Sync, and all AMD Radeon cards RX 400 or later support FreeSync adaptive refresh technologies. These sync with your monitor to reduce artifacts caused by a mismatch between screen refresh rate and frame rate — so if you’re keeping your monitor, you may want to get a card that supports the right tech.
- 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.
- For photo editing, it may no longer suffice to use a low-end or middling graphics card, though it depends on your software. With the latest generation of Photoshop and Lightroom, Adobe has begun to expand its use of AI-related technologies in meaningful ways. For instance, Photoshop’s new Replace Sky and Neural Filters can take advantage of GPU hardware designed to accelerate AI to speed them up, such as the Tensor cores in Nvidia’s RTX cards. But if you don’t have at least 32GB memory, graphics applications may get a bigger boost from upgrading that before the GPU, unless the graphics card is really old.
- For video editing, the amount of memory on the card can have a big impact on real-time performance as you work with higher-resolution video (4K and up).
Relative performance of new GPUs
|Maingear Turbo (RTX 2080 Ti)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (2004); 3.8GHz Ryzen 9 3900XT; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,600; 11GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti; 1TB SSD + 4TB HDD|
|MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 Ti)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (2004); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti; 1TB SSD|
|MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3070 FE)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 Founders Edition; 1TB SSD|
|MSI Aegis RS (RX 6800 XT)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000; 16GB AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT; 1TB SSD|
|MSI Aegis RS (RX 6800)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000; 16GB AMD Radeon RX 6800; 1TB SSD|
|MSI Trident X (RTX 2070 Super)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909); (oc) 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,932; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super; 1TB SSD|
|Origin PC Chronos (RTX 3080)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (2004); Intel Core i9-10900K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,200; 10GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 (EVGA); 1TB SSD + 500GB SSD|