How to pick the graphics card that’s right for you!

It’s always the best and worst time to buy a graphics card

Nvidia’s new lineup of powerful gaming GPUs, the GeForce RTX 20-series, is now available. 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. You’ll pay a lot for the latest tech, though: pricing for Nvidia’s Founders Editions reference cards starts at $599 for the RTX 2070. The RTX 2080 is the next step up and will cost $799. The new high-end card, the RTX 2080 Ti, sits at $1,199. Though, if you opt for a third-party card, you’re likely to save some money no matter which card you choose.

For prospective PC builders or those in need of a graphics card upgrade, the decision of what and when to buy is a bit tougher now than it usually is: should you pony up for the new cards, or will your needs be covered if you leap at the next deal for the GTX 1080 Ti?

Even if you’ve been doing a bunch of research, Nvidia’s new cards likely threw a wrench in your planning. 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. Thanks to the introduction of Nvidia’s latest graphics cards, prices for the GTX 10-series GPUs are beginning to plummet across the board. While ray tracing and fast 4K gaming in the future will be reserved for Nvidia’s best, the last-gen lineup is still plenty powerful for most modern AAA games.

Taking the time to save up for the graphics card that you want is worth it. It’s something that I wish I’d done a few years ago. I 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. Popular games like League of LegendsFortniteDota 2Cuphead, 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 $250 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 the highest resolutions.

The GTX 1060 and RX 580 are the next step up, and both are capable GPUs below $500 that can run most of today’s games in medium to high graphics settings. If you’re planning to spend this much, you should consider saving a bit more for the sub-$700 GTX 1070 and GTX 1070 Ti, both of which are beginning their descent in price following the launch of the $799 RTX 2070. These 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 $899 GTX 1080 Ti is still among the best, though it’s currently difficult to recommend for enthusiasts since its price overlaps with the ray tracing-enabled RTX 2070 and the more capable RTX 2080. The RTX 2080 Ti is now the most powerful graphics card offered by Nvidia, and it will cost you $1,399 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, and as long as you’re not aiming to game in 4K with fast frame rates for years to come, these should fit the bill as prices are beginning to drop.

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 the reference card, though some will cost a bit more, with 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.

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