How to pick the graphics card that’s right for you  03/20/2019 14:32:35  5  Cameron Faulkner
Photo by Stefan Etienne / The Verge

Nvidia’s new lineup of powerful gaming GPUs, the GeForce RTX 20-series, is now widely available (and they’re on their way to high-end gaming laptops.) At their best (and most expensive), you’ll be able to game in 4K beyond 60 frames per second, and for the games that support it, ray tracing allows for more realistic lighting and reflections.

Updated on 11:25AM ET, January 15th: Nvidia has launched the RTX 2060, so we’ve adjusted some language to fit that in. Naturally, buying advice has changed considerably due to its $349 price point, especially since the GTX 10-series cards haven’t become much more affordable. Also, Nvidia announced that G-Sync support is coming to select FreeSync monitors.

You’ll pay more than ever for the latest tech, upwards of $1,200 for the Founders Edition RTX 2080 Ti. The RTX 2080 is the next step down, costing $799 at most. Given the high prices, searching for a better deal on roughly equivalent (sans ray tracing capability) GTX graphics cards was encouraged. But thanks to the RTX 2060 and 2070 making their landing, the entry point for an RTX card is currently as low as $349 (around $499 for the RTX 2070.) No matter the card you’re interested in, opting for a third-party card over Nvidia’s Founders Editions will definitely save some money.

For prospective PC builders, or those in need of a graphics card upgrade, the decision of what and when to buy is a little easier than it was a few months ago when the RTX 20-series was first announced. There are options from both Nvidia and several third-party manufacturers spread across a wide spectrum of prices that should fit most budgets. So, the question of “should you pony up for the new cards, or will your needs be covered if you leap at the next deal for the GTX 1070 Ti?” is still worth asking yourself, but barring any major price drops for the GTX cards (which hasn’t happened yet at the time of this writing) it’s simply smarter to opt for the new RTX 20-series.

If you want the best value and performance down the road, we suggest waiting until you find the right deal on an RTX card. But if you’re seeking clarity on which GPU to pick right now, considering these factors will help narrow things down.

Set a budget, and don’t settle for less

Graphics cards are usually the most expensive component in a PC build. Thankfully, you don’t need to replace them frequently (or at least you shouldn’t if you’re shopping smart).

If you haven’t bought a graphics card yet, you’re in a really good position to save some money, or get a better value. If you want to save money above all else, prices for the likes of the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 will likely fall off a cliff soon, relatively speaking. This is thanks to cards like the RTX 2060 and RTX 2070 occupying their price points, while offering arguably better performance for your dollar. The last-gen lineup is still plenty powerful for most modern AAA games, but is the promise of ray tracing and fluid 4K gaming worth an extra $100 or so?

Taking the time to save up for the graphics card that you want (not to be confused with the GPU you can afford) is worth it. It’s something that I wish I’d done a few years ago. I currently have a GTX 970 in my PC, but that upgrade came after (regrettably) buying the GTX 960 because of its cheaper price. The cost of both graphics cards together could have gone toward a higher-end card at the time, like the GTX 980 Ti or even a GTX 1070, but I couldn’t afford to upgrade again with that much money down the drain.

What do you want to do with it?

Few applications require the power that today’s high-end graphics cards can readily provide, so it may not be totally necessary for you to invest a lot into a new GPU that’s out of your budget. Popular games like League of Legends, Fortnite, Dota 2, Cuphead, and Overwatch can run (albeit with mixed results) on many processors’ integrated graphics alone, so even buying a low-end graphics card will vastly improve the experience.

The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 or AMD’s Radeon RX 560 should be sufficient if you get into casual gaming and don’t want to spend over $150 on a graphics card. Keep in mind that these likely won’t be able to run demanding games above low to medium settings, or do so smoothly at 1080p resolution.

The GTX 1060 and RX 580 are the next step up, and both are capable GPUs around $200 that can run most of today’s games in medium to high graphics settings, with a few compromises. If you’re planning to spend this much, you’ve found yourself at a crossroads: should you wait a few more months for the sub-$400 GTX 1070 and sub-$500 GTX 1070 Ti to drop in price even further, or do you have enough to take the plunge on the $349 RTX 2060 or $499 RTX 2070? After all, the latter provide sizable leaps in performance over the GTX 1060 and will fare better in the future as new waves of graphically demanding games are released.

If you are looking for the absolute best in detail and high frame rates, be prepared to pay for it. The $699 GTX 1080 Ti is still among the best cards, though it’s difficult to recommend since its price and performance generally overlap with the ray tracing-enabled RTX 2080. The RTX 2080 Ti is now the most powerful graphics card offered by Nvidia suited for gaming, and it will cost you $1,199 for the Founders Edition.

Nvidia downplayed the performance of the 10-series cards several times during the announcement of the RTX 20-series cards. Seen above, the new GPUs outpace them by every metric, though that doesn’t mean that they are the best option for everyone. The GTX 1080 Ti and 1080 can’t compete when it comes to ray tracing, though as long as you’re not aiming to game in 4K with fast frame rates for years to come, these should fit the bill for many.

For those hoping to save a bit of money on an RTX 20-series card, manufacturers like Asus, EVGA, and Zotac have released their own respective versions of Nvidia’s latest cards. Prices can dip as low as $100 cheaper than Nvidia’s Founders Edition cards, though some will cost a bit more, accounting for various improvements made to each card’s design, fan count, and clock speed.

What kind of screen will you use?

Both the benefits and limitations of enthusiast graphics cards aren’t as noticeable on a 1080p monitor as they are on a 1440p or 4K monitor. My GTX 970 doesn’t have much of a problem running the latest games on a 1080p 60Hz monitor, though a friend with the same graphics card bemoans its performance with his two 1440p 144Hz monitors.

asus pg279q
The Asus ROG Swift PG279Q gaming monitor comes recommended
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

If you think at any point during the lifespan of your GPU that you’ll buy a high-spec monitor with high refresh rates and G-Sync or FreeSync, that should drive the decision you make for a GPU. The GTX 1070 is currently a decent fit for 1440p gaming at a relatively smooth frame rate, but going above will yield better results and a better value. The new RTX 20-series will be a far better fit if a 4K display with G-Sync is in your future.

At CES 2019, Nvidia announced that it will add G-Sync via a software update to a number of FreeSync monitors that meet its standards. Investing in a monitor that takes full advantage of your Nvidia GPU (applies only to GTX 10 and RTX 20-series GPUs) won’t cost so much in the near future.

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