Whatever your budget, there’s a bewildering array of options when it come to graphics cards. Multiple variations on a theme from each vendor, coupled with impenetrable acronyms and an unpronounceable product names can make choosing one a daunting task. But, stick to a few guidelines and the whole process becomes a lot easier.
Best graphics cards: buying guide
If you want a high-performance card for gaming you'll need to be willing to spend anything ranging from around £280 to as much as some might consider spending on an entire PC. Budget then, will be your first constraint.
Coming in at the bottom of the enthusiast price range at the moment, we have the GeForce GTX 970 from Nvidia and AMD’s slightly newer Radeon R9 390 GPUs, priced at around the £280 mark. We don’t have any of the older, but still current GTX 970 products featuring in the group test this time around but you can check our previous reviews for more details of those. Either of these GPU types will provide smooth gameplay with high quality graphics settings at reasonably high resolutions. You may even get away with some 4K gaming, although we wouldn’t recommend aiming for a 4K gaming rig at this level.
Increasing your expected outlay by around £70 to £120 will get you a Radeon R9 390X or an Nvidia GTX 980. In this price bracket we would definitely recommend the Nvidia product. It does come in rather more expensive than the AMD-based cards, but we feel the performance boost of an R9 390X over the standard R9 390 often isn’t enough to justify the added price premium. Thankfully R9 390Xs are often quite discounted as a result, so you may still find a good deal.
Spending £500+ will get you an Nvidia GTX 980 Ti, a very different beast from the standard GTX 980, an AMD Radeon R9 Fury or its more powerful liquid-cooled sibling the Radeon R9 Fury X. Many gamers won’t need a card with this level of performance, but High-quality gaming at 4K resolution, 3D, Virtual Reality, high refresh-rate displays and multi-monitor setups can all demand a huge amount of processing power, and in those situations these high-end cards are there to provide the grunt. Don’t worry, there are plenty of excuses you can use to justify your expensive purchase.
Where it gets more complicated is that not all graphics cards based on a particular GPU are created equal. Individual manufacturers will modify the reference designs in a variety of ways, adding features and boosting performance along the way.
Best graphics cards: overclocking
Most graphics cards can be overclocked to some extent, and the amount of overclocking available can be greatly increased through the use of upgraded components and powerful custom cooling systems. The better-designed graphics cards will come from the factory pre-overclocked to take advantage of the improved hardware and this is why we start to see differences in performance between graphics cards using the same GPU types. Sometimes speed boosts are negligible, but on occasion a more radical redesign can achieve larger speed boosts, taking the graphics card into the same territory as non-overclocked cards from the next tier above. Factory overclocked cards can often therefore deliver excellent value for money.
Most graphics card vendors have a naming system they use for each type of GPU which describes the additional features of the boards. For example, MSI refers to its current dual-fan heatpipe cooler as TwinFrozr V. An efficient cooler will allow the underlying components to run faster without overheating, giving you increased frame rates. But it’s also important to consider the noise output from the fans. The best examples will remain quiet and even turn off altogether until required, meaning your gaming PC and be just as useful for listening to classical music as it is for first-person shooters.
The choice between AMD or Nvidia-based cards can be tricky, but if you have a good idea of which games you want to play, you will notice that many of them are optimised better for on one vendor’s GPUs than the other. This may be enough to sway your decision.
How we test
To test graphics cards, we built a high performance PC designed to eliminate any CPU bottlenecks which may slow down the performance of the fastest graphics cards.
Testing is carried out under Windows 10 Pro 64-bit with a disk image which is restored before testing, to ensure that all cards are using the same Windows configuration. We use the latest graphics drivers available to ensure we have the latest optimisations in place.
Graphics benchmarks will change as new games become available and older ones fall out of use, but for now we use.
Alien Isolation, Aliens Vs Predator, Sniper Elite V2, Grand Theft Auto V, Bioshock Infinite and Thief. Each game is run at a variety of resolutions and quality settings picked as appropriate for the category of graphics card under test. (We don’t attempt to test low-end cards at 4K for example).
In addition to the game tests, we use FutureMark’s 3DMark suite which produces five individual test results at different expected performance levels ranging from low-end devices up to the most powerful cards available.
We also measure the total power consumption of the PC while idling at the desktop and with the graphics card fully loaded by running FurMark. During this procedure we also note the temperatures reached as well as the fan noise produced along with any GPU throttling which may occur.
Testing is carried out using an AOC U2868PQU monitor which allows for display resolutions up to and including 4K UHD at 3840x2160 pixels.
The test PC specification is as follows:
- Motherboard: Asus X99-A
- Processor: Eight-core Intel Core i7-5960X overclocked to 4.2GHz
- CPU Cooler: Corsair H100i GTX
- Power Supply: Corsair RM1000
- Memory: 16GB Kingston HyperX Predator DDR4
- Storage: Crucial CT500MX
Our thanks go to Asus, Corsair, Crucial, Intel and Kingston for supplying the components.
- Reviewed on: 3 March 15
- RRP: £90 inc. VAT
The 260X is the superior card for gamers - even if the difference isn't quite as big as you might think. We were mostly seeing average increases of 3-4fps. The most we saw was, in Crysis 3, a gap of almost 7fps. But if you need strong gaming performance for less than £100, this is the best product here, and can handle games even at the relatively high resolution of 1920x1200.
Read our MSI Radeon R7 260X OC review.
- Reviewed on: 5 March 15
- RRP: £285 inc VAT
A lot of the 960's appeal will come down to what you want the card for. If low power consumption is a must, then the 960 is an obvious buy at this price point - it really is astoundingly efficient compared to the competition. However, if you're more interested in raw figures, it's a harder decision. This Zotac costs is currently around £20 cheaper than the 280X, but about 2-3fps down on speed. Likewise, it's a similar amount more expensive than the 285, this time being 2-3fps faster. At this pricing, there's very little to choose between them, although the 960's lower power output will make it rather better value than either once you take running costs into account. That, added to HEVC support, makes this marginally the best card at this price point, in our opinion. Another £20 needs to be taken off the price, though, in order to establish it as a clear winner.
- Reviewed on: 9 September 15
- RRP: £309.99 inc VAT
The Radeon R9 390X isn’t always a good value for money option when compared to a standard R9 390, but find this card at the right price and it’s one of the better examples thanks to its Double Dissipation cooler. But, it’s still noisier and slower than the more expensive GPUs. Stay below 4K resolution and this card will serve you well.
- Reviewed on: 4 September 15
- RRP: £289 inc VAT
Noise issues aside, the Club 3D Radeon R9 390 royalQueen makes a great choice for a first enthusiast-level system. It also serves at a convenient drop-in performance boost when teamed up with an existing AMD card, even from the previous generation. Give, the low price, it probably makes more sense to buy one of these than to step up to a Radeon R9 390X.
Read our Club3D Radeon R9 390 royalQueen review.
- Reviewed on: 7 September 15
- RRP: £405 inc VAT
The MSI GTX 980 Gaming 4G is an excellent graphics card for those who want to run games at the highest quality settings, but who don’t want, or can’t afford a 4K setup. The factory overclock, control applications and Twin Frozr V cooler allow for full control over performance, consumption and noise output.
Read our MSI GTX 980 Gaming 4G review.
- Reviewed on: 17 September 15
- RRP: £533 inc VAT
The Zotac GeForce GTX 980 Ti Amp! Edition performs well and comes at a reasonable price. It’s not as impressive than the Asus Strix GTX 980 Ti, but the Zotac is around £100 cheaper, and has a reassuring five-year warranty.
- Reviewed on: 31 August 15
- RRP: £639.99 inc VAT
Despite the high price, the GTX 980Ti Strix Gaming offers considerable value for money to those who can afford it. It may costs over £100 more than many other cards based on the same GPU, but its tangible performance benefits and superb build quality make it quite obvious where that extra money is going.