Reviews and comparisons for graphics cards and the amount of onboard video memory (sometimes referred to by the rusty term “frame buffer”) is usually matched to the requirements of the games or programs that the card is designed to run. In a certain sense, from a PC-gaming perspective, you can count on a video card to have enough memory to handle current demanding games at the resolutions and detail levels that the card is suited for. In other words, a card maker generally won’t overprovision a card with more memory than it can realistically use; that would inflate the pricing and make the card less competitive. But there are some wrinkles to this.
The best graphics card isn’t simply the fastest graphics card, or the cheapest graphics card. Instead, the best graphics card needs to balance performance, price, and features. There are many great graphics cards, but for a great GPU that won’t break the bank, Nvidia’s RTX 2060 is probably the best option. It delivers performance roughly equal to the outgoing GTX 1070 Ti, with a lower price, plus all the new RTX features.
Next, check your graphics card’s height. The card partners sometimes field their own card coolers that depart from the standard AMD and Nvidia reference designs. Make certain that if your chosen card has an elaborate cooler design, it’s not so tall that it keeps your case from closing.
If your goal is a high-end graphics card (we define that, these days, as cards at $500 or more) for playing games at 4K, and you plan to use the card for three to five years, the upper end of the market is mostly Nvidia’s game at the moment. But that could shift as 2019 progresses, with AMD’s next-generation “Navi” cards expected later this year. Based on a new 7nm manufacturing process, these cards could change AMD’s fortunes in the graphics space. The Radeon VII, its first 7nm-built video card, is a competent offering for 1440p/4K play and content creators, but it doesn’t quite topple the RTX 2080 in most respects. (See our face-off AMD Radeon VII vs. Nvidia RTX 2080: Which High-End Gaming Card to Buy?)
If you’re looking for the best value, forget about the new RTX cards. On the other hand, if you’re eying a 4k 144Hz HDR G-Sync display and you want the absolute fastest graphics card around, this is the card for you. You could even try adding a second card and using an NVLink connector, assuming you just won the lottery. We’re unlikely to see anything substantially faster for at least a year, so you’ll be able to sit comfortably at the top of the pecking order for a while.
While the CPU is still the ‘brain’ of your PC, dozens of games every year will push your graphics card to its limits. It’s the component you’ll want to upgrade most frequently, but if you buy the right card, it should last you at least two years. For gaming systems, it’s also likely the most expensive part in your build. On a practical budget, it’s critical to find the graphics card with the best ratio of price to performance. That’s why we’ve previously looked at cards in the $300/£250 range, though the best values are currently either above or below that mark.
Here in early ’19, that hubbub has died down—at least for the moment. Our guide will help you sort through the best video-card options for your desktop PC, what you need to know to upgrade a system, and how to evaluate whether a particular card is a good buy. We’ll also touch on some upcoming trends—they could affect which card you choose.
If you’re looking at any given pre-built desktop PC on the market, unless it’s a gaming-oriented machine, PC makers will de-emphasize the graphics card in favor of promoting CPU, RAM, or storage options. Indeed, sometimes that’s for good reason; a low-cost PC may not have a graphics card at all, relying instead on the graphics-acceleration silicon built into its CPU (an “integrated graphics processor,” commonly called an “IGP”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on an IGP—most business laptops, inexpensive consumer laptops, and budget-minded desktops have them—but if you’re a gamer or a creator, the right graphics card is crucial.