Nvidia's GTX 1080 and 1070, and AMD's RX480 are the graphics cards you've been waiting for. But you'll want to keep waiting a little bit longer.
Sean HollisterSenior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
When you read my headline I expect you'll react in one of two ways. You'll say: "Well, I wasn't planning to anyway. Thanks for the useless article, asshat." Or, maybe: "Nvidia just launched the GTX 1080, and reviewers say it's the fastest GPU ever. Why would I wait?"
The truth is that now is the worst time to buy a graphics card, full stop. And it's precisely because it's about to become the best time to buy a graphics card. You just have to wait a little bit longer.
Why are these new GPUs so great? And given their assumed greatness why would you wait? Let me explain.
Every year, Nvidia launches three waves of desktop graphics cards: expensive ones ($600), ludicrously expensive ones ($1,000), and eventually ones that your average PC gamer can actually afford ($200).
But thanks to huge improvements in graphics technology, you'll soon be able to pay hundreds of dollars less for better performance than ever.
And if you step up to an Nvidia GTX 1080 ($600, £560, roughly AU$815 converted), you could get what reviewers are calling the best graphics card ever made. Review after review shows it's not only the fastest on the market, it usually wins by leaps and bounds. In some games, it's faster than two of last year's GTX 980s put together.
It's not just $400-plus graphics cards that are offering more performance than ever before. AMD just announced the RX480 -- a $199 graphics card that will allegedly offer unprecedented power at that price point. AMD says it will offer a premium VR experience, something previously only available with GPUs costing $320 and up. You'll still need to pony up the cash for a VR headset, of course.
Basically, if you're considering any graphics card other than these three GPUs...don't. Even if you find a decent sale, you'll probably be paying too much.
Why do I need more speed?
It's true: If you bought your graphics card in the past couple of years, you may not need to upgrade at all. For instance, an Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 390 ($320, £280, roughly AU$420) can play practically any game at 1080p resolution with loads of gorgeous detail.
But the new GTX 1080, in particular, crosses a threshold that many gamers have been waiting for.
If you've wanted to play games on a 4K TV or monitor, there really hasn't been a single graphics card with enough muscle to make it happen. The AMD Fury X and Nvidia GTX 980 Ti came close, but the new GTX 1080 can finally achieve smooth gameplay at 4K resolution and near-maximum levels of detail. Games like Rise of the Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto V, The Division and Crysis 3 would require turning down your graphics settings with any other GPU.
While the cheaper AMD RX480 and the Nvidia GTX 1070 won't quite manage that feat (the 1070 is engineered to have roughly 75 percent the power of a 1080), they are capable enough for another strenuous task: virtual reality.
In order to keep you from getting sick in an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive VR headset, your GPU has to produce 90 frames per second, an even smoother framerate than it does for traditional 2D monitors. And it has to do that twice, once for each eye, to maintain the illusion that you've been transported to another place.
That requires a pretty beefy GPU, which both AMD and Nvidia are making more affordable. But Nvidia has another ace up its sleeve. The GTX 1070 and 1080 both support a host of new rendering techniques specifically for VR.
With "Simultaneous Multi-Projection" and "Single Pass Stereo," Nvidia's new Pascal GPUs can render windows for both of your eyes to see into a VR world at the same time -- and reduce the size of those windows so they don't spend time rendering graphics that wouldn't be seen by the user anyhow. If or when game developers build those features into their latest games, Nvidia says it could double the all-important framerate of VR titles.
The new Nvidia GPUs also unlock the ability to shoot dSLR-like photos and stereoscopic photospheres inside supported games with a feature called Ansel -- spheres you could then explore in VR -- and a way to fix multi-monitor configurations so the side monitors more accurately show you what you'd see if they were windows into a game world.
Because you'll pay way too much if you buy right away.
Though Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1080 will soon cost $599 (£559 or roughly AU$815 converted) you can only buy the Founder's Edition as of today -- a special version of the graphics card dressed up in a custom aluminum cooling solution that retails for $699, £619, or roughly AU$950.
But you probably can't even get it for that price right now, because supplies are limited. We're seeing street prices as high as $899 for the GTX 1080 Founder's Edition right now. It's not like the card is a limited edition, either. Nvidia says it'll sell them through the lifespan of the product.
The cheaper GTX 1070 is in the same boat. When it arrives June 10, you'll have to pay $449, £399 or roughly AU$610 converted -- a sizable premium on top of the $380 (roughly £265 or AU$515) that normal versions of the card should cost in a matter of weeks or months. (Normal versions of the 1080 are already beginning to trickle out.) And again, that doesn't include any additional retailer markup if Nvidia can't produce it quick enough to satisfy demand.
Meanwhile, if you want to see how AMD's RX480 compares at $199 (roughly £140 or AU$270 converted), you'll have to wait until its June 27 launch. We also don't know if AMD has a higher-end Radeon GPU to match the GTX 1080 and 1070, which could make it worth waiting even a little bit longer. And if you wait longer still, Nvidia will likely have an even more powerful GTX 1080 Ti early next year.
The GTX 1080, GTX 1070 and AMD RX480 offer a pretty sizable leap forward for PC gaming if you've got the cash to spend, and at $199, the AMD card could make investing in VR far more affordable than before.
But now isn't the time to buy. Watch and wait: The prices will come down.