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Computers

Best graphics cards for gamers and creatives in 2019

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

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Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti enables 1440p gaming at high refresh rates.

Nvidia

If IntelAMD's and Nvidia'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. So chances are, you're likely no longer using a modern card, much less the best graphics card out there. A lot's changed in the last few years, particularly in graphics-processing technologies and the demands of the software that depends on them -- predominantly games and creative applications like 3D tools and video editors. 

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

For color work, however, Nvidia just made your old GeForce card a little more useful: As of version 431.70 (released July 29), the Studio branch of its drivers just opened up true 30-bit color support for Photoshop and other Adobe applications. So no more shelling out megabucks for a Quadro workstation card just for the extra bits.

The hardware landscape is constantly in flux. As an example, the latest graphics 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, while the RTX 2060 remains in the line. These aren't radical changes -- they simply bring slightly better performance to cards of the same name. 

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 7-nanometer Navi architecture. So two days prior to shipping -- they're available now -- AMD dropped the prices of those cards to match Nvidia's. 

Ready to throw down some cash for a new graphics card for your gaming rig? Don't spend a penny until you read this detailed buying guide of the best graphics cards, plus our general GPU shopping tips at the end. In fact, you may not want to spend any pennies at the moment if you're shopping for a card for good 1080p gaming or better. The new Radeons seem to be having driver issues and the new Nvidia Super cards still aren't widely enough available to have garnered a lot of reports for good or ill.

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

Gigabyte

Sure, it's a reasonable price. But 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 bit of 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 the latest 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 graphics 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 for mainstream users. The 1660 Ti offers more of the practical graphics 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. (The RTX 2060 remains on the market despite the addition of the Super version, which is a bit faster.)

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 reasonable $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 new, but the "it arrived dead" and "it really overheats" reviews are starting to appear, as are complaints about AMD's drivers, which just makes me sad. 

AMD also seems to have discontinued the Radeon VII, which was a lot more expensive but delivered comparable performance, so this is your highest-end Mac option (unless something new comes out in conjunction with the release of the Mac Pro in the fall) and a good upgrade for video editing. It's likely to be more stable under MacOS than Windows, since AMD works so closely with Apple.

So if you're risk-averse, I'd just wait for now if you're buying in this segment. We're still waiting for sufficient reports about the alternative Nvidia RTX 2060 Super to come in. Unfortunately, you have to look at problems with graphics cards more statistically than anecdotally because there are a seemingly infinite number of variables that can affect a card's operational stability.

Nvidia

The RTX 2070 Super starts at the lower end of the range, and the RTX 2080 Super 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 frame 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 Super really is a better buy. It still doesn't seem to be widely available, however, so remains an unknown quantity with respect to reliability.

$700 to around $1,000: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super

For high-quality or high-refresh-rate 1440p gaming

Asus

The speed gap between the RTX 2080 Ti and the 2080 Super is narrower than it was with the plain-old 2080, but that's still to the tune of about $300 more, so if you're just looking for high-refresh or high-quality 1440p, it might be a better bet. There isn't a huge performance increase over the 2070 Super for the extra $150 or so, though, so you may want to consider saving the money. It's still not widely available, and like the other Super cards, we're still waiting on the stability verdict.

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 from the 2080 Ti than gamers will, in part thanks to the extra video memory.

Things to keep in mind as you buy a 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 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 handle a motherboard because of obstructions.
  • 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 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) -- 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 G-Sync Ultimate, and all AMD Radeon cards RX 400 or later support FreeSync adaptive refresh technology. 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 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.
  • 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. Note that Adobe recently announced enhanced GPU support for Lightroom, but it doesn't make anything render to the screen faster; it's strictly for making the sliders feel more responsive when you're working on high-resolution (i.e. 4K or more) displays. So for the moment, that midrange GPU should still be fine.
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