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Computers

Best graphics cards for gamers and creatives in 2019

Picking a new graphics Nvidia or AMD card can be overwhelming. We'll help you get started with everything you need to know.

amd-radeon-rx-5700-xt-3

AMD's new Radeon RX 5700 XT

Lori Grunin/CNET

If Intel, Nvidia and AMD's statistics are right, you're probably using a system that's several years old. In PC gaming hardware terms, that's just about forever. A lot's changed in those few years, especially in graphics-processing technologies and the demands of the software that depends on them -- predominantly games and creative applications such as video editors and 3D tools. 

Even if you only need the basics for streaming video or surfing the web, a new graphics card can make your system feel snappier by redrawing your screens faster or improving the acceleration of video decoding. With a Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptop or iMac you can even upgrade the graphics using an external graphics processing unit (an eGPU).

The landscape is constantly in flux; as an example, cards in the $350-$500 price range completely changed during the first weeks of July, with AMD and Nvidia overhauling their lineups for the growing 1440p gaming market. Nvidia announced the RTX 2060 Super, RTX 2070 Super and RTX 2080 Super to replace its unsupered versions of the 2070 and 2080; the RTX 2060 remains in the line. They're not radical changes, though, they simply bring slightly better performance the the cards of the same name -- or to to put it another way, bring slightly lesser performance than the step-up cards at lower prices. They're slated to be available this month.

The move was an obvious counter to AMD, which had announced prices when it unveiled its new Radeon RX 5700 and RX 5700 XT cards based on its next-generation 7nm "Navi" architecture. So two days prior to shipping -- they're available now -- AMD dropped the prices of those cards to match Nvidia's. It debuted the flagship Radeon VII in February, which uses the 7nm process but sticks with the previous-generation Vega architecture.

Ready to throw down some cash for a new graphics card? Don't spend a penny until you read this detailed buying guide, plus our general GPU shopping tips at the end. 

Disclosure: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.    

Gigabyte

If you're planning to spend less than $100 on a graphics card, don't expect to game with the GeForce GT at 1080p. It adds a boost over Intel's integrated graphics, but many games may simply go from unplayable to a little less unplayable, depending upon how graphically intensive the game is. This does for desktops what Nvidia's MX250 does for laptops. In other words, plenty of games will run on it, but many 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 Windows feel a little more snappy, 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 cards, 1030-based cards can be low profile and take up just a single slot, as well as be quieter because they only require a single fan.

Sapphire

It's not the fastest CPU in its class, but the RX 580 is one of the best values in graphics cards. It's fast enough to deliver solid 1080p play in all but the most demanding games. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 is its closest competitor but costs a lot more. And AMD's step-up from this, the RX 590, isn't substantially faster. 

And if you need a relatively inexpensive speed boost for your old (but still Thunderbolt 3-enabled) MacBook Pro --  an eGPU equipped with this card should do the trick. It's the same GPU that's in some 2018 MacBook Pros, so first check what you already have to make sure the upgrade makes sense.

MSI

Though Nvidia threw all its efforts into the new RTX line of cards, with their ray-tracing (for rendering) and Tensor (for AI) cores, a lot of the benefits they might offer have yet to materialize. The 1660 Ti offers more of the practical performance advantages of the company's Turing architecture for most current games without the cost overhead of the future-focused features. Its big brother, the RTX 2060, is certainly faster and will deliver better 1440p or 144Hz-plus gaming, so if that's what you need it's probably worth the extra $70 or so the 2060 will cost you.

AMD's Radeon RX Vega 56 delivers comparable performance for the same money, but its power requirements are more demanding than the 1660 Ti, a burden your power supply or case may not be able to bear.

Lori Grunin/CNET

AMD's new cards provide excellent mainstream gaming performance, and they're quiet, too. Given the relatively small $50 price differential, it probably makes sense to just go for the XT version to give yourself some room to grow, though the lower-end version is fine if you'd rather spend that $50 on a new game. The cards are still new, so we haven't seen the "it arrived dead" or "I got a blue screen of death" reviews yet and specific manufacturer's cards may perform better than the AMD reference cards I tested; thus, my specific recommendation is tentative.

$500-$750: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super

For 1080p gaming with a high-refresh-rate monitors or 1440p gaming

Nvidia

The RTX 2070 Super will start at the lower end of the range and the RTX 2080 Super will starts at the top, offering only a modest increase in performance and support for the same 8GB of video memory. So unless you need to give your frames rates a little push to make it over a line to better sync with your monitor or to hit a slightly better level of quality, the 2070 really is a better buy. Neither are available yet, but should be soon, so I recommend hitting "pause" on your buying until they are.

XFX

At the moment, the Radeon VII is the most powerful consumer card you can get for a Mac -- it's the first shipping card using AMD's latest Navi 7nm process -- and a good upgrade for video editing. Be warned, though, most reports say its fans are loud.

Asus

The RTX 2080 Ti is a lot faster than the 2080, but that's to the tune of about $400 more, so if you're just looking for high-refresh or high-quality 1440p, it might be a better bet. 

EVGA

Though the RTX 2080 Ti isn't the fastest gaming card available today -- the Titan RTX takes that prize -- it's half the price of its more powerful sibling and can certainly deliver top frame rates. While all the RTX series cards support acceleration for Nvidia's proprietary ray-tracing and illumination-programming interface, most of the time you'll see a performance hit unless you go with the high-end card or drop back on other quality features and resolution. 

One of the advantages of the Ti version over the non-Ti model is memory: It has 11GB compared to 8GB. That's important when you're running higher resolutions. For game development or video editing, you'll see a lot more gains over the 2080 Ti than gamers will, in part thanks to its 24GB of video memory.

Things to keep in mind as you shop:

  • Once you've narrowed down your choices to a few options, searching for people's complaints about a product is critical to discovering important information -- like how many slots a card truly requires. 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 fit on your motherboard because of obstructions.
  • Always check the power requirements of a card against your power supply's output. Don't forget to take the other cards and devices in your system into account with respect to power usage.
  • 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) or be mindful that it seems to plague Nvidia RTX cards more than GTX. When buying a card, make sure that not only does the card have sufficient cooling, but 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.
  • The most powerful GPU on the planet won't make a difference if your CPU is the bottleneck (and vice versa).
  • You'll see a lot of price variation across cards using the same GPU. That's for features such as overclocking, better cooling or flashy (literally) designs. 
  • All Nvidia GTX and RTX cards support G-Sync Ultimate, 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.
  • 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 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 may be an 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.
  • Photo editing is still, for the most part, CPU bound, so a midrange graphics card is fine. Video editing and 3D-based tools take more advantage of the GPU.
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