The PC graphics space is one of the most exciting areas of gaming technology right now. The battle between Nvidia and AMD remains as intense as ever, with each manufacturer doing their best to push the envelope with tangible year-on-year improvements in features and performance. Of all the components inside your PC, it’s the GPU that is upgraded most often – reflecting the impressive boost in processing power we see from one generation to the next, meaning that it’s really important to keep our graphics card upgrade guide regularly updated as each new product arrives and as volatile market conditions shift.
We first published this guide at the beginning of February this year. Since then we’ve seen the arrival of a new breed of graphics hardware, spearheaded by Nvidia’s Titan X and GTX 980 Ti. We’ve also carried on benchmarking behind the scenes, testing out multi-GPU set-ups, and applying our range of CPUs and graphics cards to the latest games, offering quality setting recommendations to get the best gameplay experience. Much of that testing has been rolled back into this guide.
However, it’s safe to say that while this guide gets increasingly larger and more dense, there’s just as strong an argument for distilling our thoughts down into a simple series of recommendations – the best card for any particular budget – and you’ll find that data below. We also intend to update these simple recommendations more frequently as prices shift. For example, at the time of writing, there’s a clear move by specialist PC component sellers to shift stock of the Radeon R9 290. It may have been eclipsed by the GTX 970 somewhat, but at the £180-£200 price-points we’ve seen recently, it actually occupies its own price tier with no competition, offering remarkable performance for the money.
But in terms of non-sale, more normal retail prices, here are our key recommendations:
Best £100 / $150 graphics card: GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB
Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 750 Ti and AMD’s Radeon R7 260X graphics cards are our preferred entry point for PC gaming. We start here for a number of reasons – firstly, 2GB of onboard video memory (VRAM) is standard on both cards and secondly, because the amount of rendering power each provides is broadly comparable with PlayStation 4, meaning you can usually run the majority of the latest games to the same quality.
Both AMD and Nvidia competitors are strong. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and for some, the R7 260X may get the nod simply because its price to performance ratio is so good – it’s usually around £20 cheaper than the GTX 750 Ti. However, the Nvidia card gets our recommendation. It maintains more of its performance when paired with a less capable CPU (AMD’s DirectX 11 driver seems to use more CPU resources – power we’d prefer to see running the game) while most models run without the need for additional juice from your power supply, making it more compatible with the entry-level PCs it is designed for. On top of that, it’s a great overclocker…
Honourable mention – Radeon R7 260X 2GB: An efficient GPU design so good that Microsoft used it for Xbox One. However, the PC iteration is significantly faster. Indeed, it trades blows with PS4’s graphics hardware.
Best £150 / $200 graphics card: Radeon R9 280 3GB
AMD’s R9 280 is effectively a rebadged version of the older Radeon HD 7950, but while it is unquestionably old tech, the card fills a niche that Nvidia hasn’t exploited – a sub £150 GPU that has enough VRAM to meet the requirements of running modern games at 1080p without compromising on texture quality.
It’s not the fastest graphics card in this sector, and it’s certainly not the most power efficient – most R9 280s come with meaty cooling assemblies, kick out of a lot of heat and require eight-pin/six-pin power supply connections. However, the amount of performance you’re getting for its £130-£140 asking price is simply phenomenal. Just make sure you’re running a Core i5 CPU or better, or some of its performance will be left untapped.
Honourable mention – GeForce GTX 960 2GB: Faster than the R9 280, more power efficient, overclocks like a demon. But unfortunately, more and more games look at their best with at least 3GB of RAM and in this key area, the GTX 960 falls short. However, if you intend to pair this level of GPU with a less capable CPU – like an Intel Core i3 – the GTX 960 is our recommendation owing to AMD’s driver overhead and its ability to impact performance in CPU-heavy titles.
Best £200-£400 / $300-$500 graphics card: GeForce GTX 970 4GB
It’s had its fair share of controversy, specifically over its non-standard memory set-up, but the GTX 970 is still our preferred pick at the premium end of the graphics card market. The GTX 980 is faster, but prohibitively more expensive (and you can overclock to make up much of the difference) while the two AMD rivals in this space – the R9 290 and 290X – simply aren’t as fast in most titles.
The slight fly in the ointment comes to price. In the UK at least, the GTX 970 has drifted up in price, while the R9 290 and 290X have got cheaper. However, the current promotion which sees Nvidia bundling both The Witcher 3 and Batman: Arkham Knight rebalances things somewhat, so it remains our recommendation – but those on a tighter budget should seriously consider lurking on the bargain forums and looking for one of the sub-£200 R9 290 deals floating about at the moment.
Honourable mentions – Radeon R9 290 and R9 290X 4GB: AMD’s previous top-tier flagships were usurped by the GTX 970, but they are now invariably cheaper – and at the time of writing, the R9 290 can be owned for under £200, while the 290X hits £220 when on sale. That’s incredible value for a brace of still-potent cards. Just stay away from cards using AMD’s reference cooler.
Best graphics card over £400 / $500: GeForce GTX 980 Ti 6GB
It’s a whole new category of GPU power, and though the situation is going to change imminently, right now there is only one manufacturer offering products on this level – Nvidia with its Titan X 12GB and the ever-so-slightly slimmed down GT 980 Ti 6GB. Aside from the VRAM difference (which has no impact whatsoever on any game we’ve tested – even at 4K resolution), these two cards have no meaningful performance differential.
However, there’s certainly a difference in price – about £200-£300 in the UK and $350 in the US. This makes the GTX 980 Ti the only real contender, at least until AMD’s new card arrives. That should be in the next few weeks, so for the time begin we’d recommending holding fire – unless you’re firmly rooted in the Nvidia ecosystem (for example, if you own a G-Sync monitor).
Honourable mentions – none: Right now, the only other card in the same category is the Titan X, which offers only the tiniest sliver of extra performance, but commands a gargantuan price premium.
- Order the GeForce GTX 980 Ti 6GB from Amazon with free shipping. [?]
- Compare the GeForce GTX 980 Ti 6GB in-depth with its competitors.
There’s a vast array of graphics cards on the market right now, but these four price/performance tiers pretty much cover the gamut of available product right now. We believe that there’s room for a £200/$300 bracket though, which may well be filled with an upcoming, hotly rumoured GeForce GTX 960 Ti – and by the looks of it, it would face some firm competition from a discounted R9 290, which gradually seems to be entering this price bracket any way.
On the AMD side, we know for a fact that a new ‘uber card’ is due imminently, but there are also plans to refresh the entire range with new 300-series cards. Many of these will be simple re-brands, but there are rumours of enhanced replacements for the 290/290X, better equipped to take on the GTX 970. All should become clear shortly, and we’ll update accordingly – and it goes without saying that we’ll be reviewing and benchmarking any and all new tech that comes our way.