A good graphics card - or video card, as it is also known - is the backbone of any high-performance PC. The best graphics cards promise to speed up your computer, improving its efficiency and keeping images, movies and games looking sharp.
Choosing a graphics card is particularly important for gaming, as integrated graphics cards are rarely advanced enough to keep up with the billions of calculations per second than today's games require. To help, we're taking a look at the best graphics cards available and offering some handy tips on finding the right one for you.
What is a graphics card?
When your computer wants to display something on your screen, it does so by sending instructions (as computer code) to the graphics card. The graphics card takes these instructions and turns them into signals that your monitor can understand and display.
Screens are made from pixels, which are tiny lights in thousands of rows and columns on your screen. A full high-definition (HD) monitor has 1920 columns and 1080 rows – that’s more than 2 million pixels! Determining which color to display in each pixel requires a lot of calculations. Most PC gamers want to play their games at a minimum of 60 frames per second (FPS). This requires the color for every single pixel to be calculated 60 times every second. Keeping up with the graphics demand of new games, increasing your frame rate or screen resolution, or editing large video files requires increasing numbers of graphics calculations to be made. You may quickly find that your video card is not up to the task if you haven’t updated it in a while - or at all.
Types of graphics card
Modern PCs can use one of two types of graphics card: integrated or discrete. Almost all new CPUs (Central Processing Units) now come with integrated, or built-in, graphics cards. These are good enough for most tasks short of editing HD video or playing graphics-intensive games. For these purposes, a discrete video card is a must-have. Discrete graphics cards are physically separate units from the CPU, and will not only have their own graphics processing units but usually their own fans, allowing them to work at higher speeds without overheating. They are more powerful and are considered to be the best graphics cards.
What kind of graphics card do I have?
If you have a desktop computer, knowing which graphics card you have is as simple as opening up the side panel – when your PC is safely shut down - and looking inside. If you have a discrete graphics card, it will generally stick out from the middle of your motherboard, which is the main circuit board at the center of your PC.
You can also see what graphics card you have via your operating system – which is especially helpful for laptop users.
Type ‘Control Panel’ into the Windows start menu (which you can access via the Windows logo on your keyboard or in the bottom-left of your screen) and press Enter.
Click ‘System and Security.’
On the left pane, click ‘Device Manager’ and click ‘OK’ on the prompt that comes up.
Under ‘Display adapters’ all the graphics cards in your computer will be listed. If there’s only one option, it’s generally because you have integrated graphics. If there are multiple entries this means you also have a discrete graphics card on your PC.
Another useful tool is Speccy - a system information tool for figuring out exactly what you have on your computer. It will not only tell you which graphics card you have, but also provide information about your CPU, storage drives, memory and much more. This is particularly useful when deciding which aspects of your system to upgrade.
Choosing a graphics card
Buying a new graphics card can be a daunting prospect, as there are so many options to choose from. At the more expensive end, they run into many hundreds of pounds or dollars, so it is important to find the right one for you.
What to look for in a graphics card
The first thing to figure out is what you’re going to use your graphics card for. Watching movies, even in ultra-high-definition 4k, as well as playing older games and light video editing is all possible without any problems on budget video cards.
Many popular online games such as Dota, League of Legends, Overwatch, PUBG and Fortnite are also not graphics-intensive, so sticking to these games, a lower to mid-end graphics card will likely be enough for you. However, if you have a high refresh rate monitor, such as 144hz, you will want to make sure that the graphics card you get is powerful enough to run your favorite games at the corresponding frame rate. This is also true if you want to run games at higher resolutions, such as 2560x1440 or 3840x2160 (4k) as there will be many more pixels to render.
For playing newer single-player games and triple-A titles, as well as for heavy video editing, you will want to look at mid- to high-range graphics cards. If your monitor has a high resolution (above 1920x1080) or high refresh rate (above 60fps), you may benefit from investing more in your graphics card or even building your own PC from scratch, which - by the way - is far easier than you might think!
Compatibility with the rest of your system
While a new graphics card will help with your graphics performance, your video playing software, games or video editing programs may still be slowed down by other parts of your system, such as your RAM and CPU. If you’re building a new PC, or want to upgrade your current desktop, it’s important to make sure your graphics card is compatible with the rest of your system. (It’s generally not possible to upgrade the graphics card in a laptop.) A CPU fast enough to keep up with your graphics card, as well as a PSU (Power Supply Unit) with enough power to feed both of them, are essential. You will also need a slot in your motherboard that can support the graphics card of your choice.
Figuring out which motherboard you have is easy using Speccy. Your motherboard model’s name will be listed under ‘Motherboard’ and you can simply Google it to find out which slots you have available for a graphics card. The slots to look for are called PCI-E (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) slots. There will be a number connected to the slots, such as x8 or x16, which denotes the size of the slot. Full-size graphics cards need an x16 slot, but there are also smaller x8 sized graphics cards available.
You will be able to figure out what PSU you have by opening the side panel of your desktop PC (while it is turned off and disconnected from power). The PSU looks like a rectangular block and will be either at the very bottom or very top of your desktop PC. There will be information on it to let you know the model and brand, and, most importantly, the wattage. You can then use a power supply calculator to figure out if there is enough power available on your PC for your graphics card of choice.
The important calculations on graphics cards are done in the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). There are two major GPU manufacturers, AMD and Nvidia. You may hear or see people referring to graphics cards by the GPU they have – such as Nvidia GTX 2070 or AMD Radeon RX 590.
Many different manufacturers build graphics cards from AMD’s and Nvidia’s GPUs, which is why you’ll see things like Asus Rog 2070 and Gigabyte GeForce 2070. This can cause some confusion for those unfamiliar with the already complicated graphics card naming systems. However, as long as you stick to well-known brands, you are generally safe to ignore the graphics card manufacturer and focus on finding a card with the right GPU.
Size of memory
Just as CPUs use RAM (Random Access Memory) to speed up their operation, GPUs need dedicated memory to do their calculations efficiently. The memory will be built into the graphics card, and usually, there is a set amount of memory that each GPU comes with.
Lower-end cards will come with up to 4GB of memory, whereas higher-end cards may have up to 16GB. The amount of memory your card has will only matter in situations where a lot of video data needs to be kept in memory for quick access. This is normally in video-games with expansive high-definition environments, or when editing very long or 4k video files. If you run out of video memory, the game or video editor will start stuttering as objects within the image will need to be loaded every time they appear on your screen.
Type of memory
There are multiple types of video memory, such as DDR4, GDDR5, and GDDR5X. All of these have slight improvements in speed over the previous type. The newest version is GDDR6, which is only in the highest-end graphics cards currently available, such as the Nvidia GeForce GTX 2080. Generally, you shouldn’t worry about the type of video memory that your card has, as it will be suited to fit the design of your GPU.
Which graphics card is best for my PC?
There are many graphics card options and sizes available, but if you are planning to play games or use video editing programs, you will want a standalone card from either AMD’s Radeon or NVIDIA’s GeForce range. These cards are designed for PC gaming and will also have enough power for editing videos.
AMD vs. NVIDIA
AMD’s and NVIDIA’S cards offer rough equivalents to each other - for example, the AMD Radeon RX 580 and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 both cost around £250 and offer similar performance, whereas the RX Vega 56 and GeForce GTX 1070 cost around £450 and offer increased performance for the money. Most gamers and video editors will want as much power as they can get from their graphics card, so the best way to choose is to first decide your budget and then compare the cards you can get from AMD and NVIDIA for that price. A graphics card for 4k gaming and video editing - such as the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 2080ti - will set you back up to £1200, but for 1080p gaming, at 60fps a budget of £250 will be sufficient and will get you a card like the GTX 1060. Sites like gpuboss are a great tool for helping you decide, as they allow you to directly compare the features and power of two graphics cards.
How to shop for a new graphics card: other things to consider
AMD and NVIDIA come out with a new range of graphics cards every year or two, so it’s a good idea to follow news on the topic for a while before making a purchase. This will help you avoid spending money on an expensive card just before an updated version comes out. You might also want to keep track of general trends in graphics card prices. Early in 2018 prices skyrocketed due to the use of graphics cards in mining cryptocurrencies, but prices have started trending downwards since. You can use sites like PCPartPicker to keep track of general price trends to avoid spending too much on your card.
Current graphics cards from NVIDIA and AMD require a PCI-E slot on your motherboard, and almost always with the x16 length. You will have to check which slot your desired card requires, and ensure that you have one of those slots available on your motherboard using the instructions in the previous section. Older types of graphics card used conventional PCI or AGP slots, but cards that use these slots are now rare and have limited power.
If you’re not looking to do PC gaming or perform video editing, the integrated graphics cards embedded into Intel’s and AMD’s CPU’s will be enough. If you’re thinking of buying a new laptop, you might even want to avoid ones that advertise discrete graphics cards, as the cards will add weight and drain your battery without providing much in return in your daily computer use.
Once you have chosen your graphics card and put together your new PC, there are a number of things you can do to make sure you’re getting the most out of your hardware. Read our blog on optimizing your PC for gaming to get some great tips.