Best graphics card for gamers and creatives in 2021

Best graphics card for gamers and creatives in 2021

If AMDIntel 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 short space of time is 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 got more demanding.

This is a horrible time to shop for a new video card: They’re harder to find in stock than a PS5. The now-current generation of flagship cards from Nvidia and AMD launched as of October 2020, but are still in the LOL-try-to-get-one stage. You want one, because Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3060 TiRTX 3070 and 3080, and AMD’s Radeon RX 6800, 6800 XT and 6900 XT perform noticeably better than the previous generations. But you can’t get one — or anything really — because cryptocurrency mining has once again bogarted the entire available stock, creating shortages and driving up prices.

Nvidia’s latest entry-level RTX card — the RTX 3060, which was announced in January 2021 — hasn’t begun shipping yet. But you can bet once it does you won’t be able to find that one either, and certainly not for its $329 nominal price.

This list is updated regularly. For the most recent update, I’ve left the price categories in place for reference so you can see where they were before the market went nuts. Since you can’t find them, those prices are kind of moot, anyway.

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.

The RTX 3000 series follow on the Super equivalents, and in the case of the 3090, the Titan RTX. The cards use the latest 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.

I had a very good experience with the EVGA GeForce RTX 3080 XC3 as well as the Nvidia Founders Edition models.

AMD’s latest GPUs are based on its RDNA 2-gen architecture, used in the Xbox Series XS 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 Radeon RX 6800 XT delivers great performance, especially as AMD’s first significant stab at a 4K-targeted gaming GPU.

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.

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.

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.

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 higher-end 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 they take 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.

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 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).

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