Your buying guide to the best graphics cards in 2018
Whatever your budget, there’s a bewildering array of options when it come to graphics cards. With multiple variations on a theme from each vendor, coupled with impenetrable acronyms and an unpronounceable product names, choosing a graphics card can be a daunting task.
But, stick to a few guidelines and the whole process becomes a lot easier.
If you want to upgrade your PC with a high-performance card for gaming you’ll need to be willing to spend anything ranging from around £100 right up to as much as some might consider spending on an entire PC. Budget then, will be your first constraint.
AMD’s current range is its RX 500 series of graphics cards, which is a relatively minor update to the RX 480, 470 and 460 from 2016. They are, in general, better value and faster than their predecessors and have a couple of new features including Radeon Chill that reduces power consumption.
However, keep an eye out for the 400-series cards as they can be as fast (or faster) in certain games, so if you spy one at a low price, it could be the better buy.
Plus, there’s an entry-level model – the RX 550. This costs under £80 (although more for overclocked versions) and is aimed at e-sports gamers and will play titles such as CS:GO and League of Legends.
AMD has released its Adrenalin Edition drivers now, which allow you to control your graphics card (including the ReLive livestreaming) from a phone app. It’s a little extra you don’t get with Nvidia cards.
Currently, prices of some cards including the AMD Vega cards are very high. This is because people are buying them up to use for mining cryptocurrencies. For an explanation see What is Ethereum? and How to mine Bitcoin. An RX Vega 56 should cost less than £400, but since the cards are in short supply, if you can find one you’ll pay over £480 at the moment.
1080p resolutions and above
If you want to play at 1080p resolutions with all the details turned up to ‘Ultra’ then you’ll want something a lot more powerful, such as an Nvidia GTX 1070, 1070 Ti or 1080. AMD now has two cards to compete with Nvidia in the form of the Radeon RX Vega range.
In the mid-range, around £300, is the Nvidia GTX 1060 and AMD RX 580. They may not break many speed records, but they’re optimised for virtual reality, and will appeal if you’re building (or upgrading) a PC to use with a VR headset.
If price is no object, then the GTX 1080 Ti is the current benchmark topper. It starts at around £699, but you’ll pay more for an overclocked version, up to £800 or so. (There’s also the Titan Xp, but this isn’t really what we’d consider a consumer graphics card, so we haven’t reviewed it.
Next year it’s rumoured that the next generation of GeForce cards will be launched. Read more about Nvidia Volta.
Many gamers won’t need a card with this level of performance, but high-quality gaming at 4K resolution, 3D, Virtual Reality, high refresh-rate displays and multi-monitor setups can all demand a huge amount of processing power, and in those situations such high-end cards are there to provide the grunt. Don’t worry, there are plenty of excuses you can use to justify your expensive purchase.
Where it gets more complicated is that not all graphics cards based on a particular GPU are created equal. Individual manufacturers will modify the reference designs in a variety of ways, adding features and boosting performance along the way.
Is an overclocked card the best choice?
Most graphics cards can be overclocked to some extent, and the amount of overclocking available can be greatly increased through the use of upgraded components and powerful custom cooling systems.
The better-designed graphics cards will come from the factory pre-overclocked to take advantage of the improved hardware and this is why we start to see differences in performance between graphics cards using the same GPU types.
Sometimes speed boosts are negligible, but on occasion a more radical redesign can achieve larger speed boosts, taking the graphics card into the same territory as non-overclocked cards from the next tier above.
Factory overclocked cards can often therefore deliver excellent value for money.
Most graphics card vendors have at least one model for each GPU with an enhanced and more efficient cooler which allows the underlying components to run faster without overheating, giving you increased frame rates. But it’s also important to consider the noise output from the fans.
The best examples will remain quiet and even turn off altogether until required, meaning your gaming PC and be just as useful for listening to classical music as it is for first-person shooters.
The choice between AMD or Nvidia-based cards can be tricky if you have between £200 and £300 to spend, but if you have a good idea of which games you want to play, you will notice that many of them are optimised better for on one vendor’s GPUs than the other. This may be enough to sway your decision.
The MSI GeForce GTX 1070 Ti Gaming 8G delivers performance between a GTX 1070 and a GTX 1080 and its upgraded PCB design and cooling system makes it suitable for significant overclocking.
However, there are no factory-overclocked modes available on this or any other GTX 1070 Ti. You’ll get cooler, quieter operation, but to you’ll need to manually overclock the board to get the best value for money.
If you’re prepared to do so, this this board will give you near GTX 1080 performance at a significantly lower price.
Read our MSI GeForce GTX 1070 Ti GAMING 8G review.
The Radeon RX Vega 56 is a worthy competitor to Nvidia’s GTX 1070, often beating it on both performance and price. It can be a little power hungry and runs rather loud but, if you can find one at recommended price, it’s an excellent value for money card.
Read our AMD Radeon RX Vega 56 8GB review.
The Radeon RX Vega 64 is a much-needed high-end update from AMD which delivers significant improvements over the previous ‘Fury’ cards and finally offers a worthy competitor to Nvidia’s GTX 1080.
It isn’t as quick as the GTX 1080 Ti, but then again, it’s much cheaper.
Read our AMD Radeon RX Vega 64 8GB review.
Although surpassed by the GTX 1080 Ti, the 1080 is still a very powerful graphics card. And now it costs less than £500 it’s even better.
This particular card from Asus costs more than that, but it’s factory overclocked and offers even better performance. But don’t forget you can buy a standard GTX 1080 and attempt to overclock it yourself if you want to save money.
At £419.99, the MSI GeForce GTX 1070 Gaming X 8G costs significantly more than the £374.99 you would be paying for a ‘vanilla’ 1070, but it offers much more in terms of both performance and features, and is still some way off the price of a GTX 1080. If you can’t afford a GTX 1080, or would simply like to save some money, this is an excellent high-performance graphics card.
Read our MSI GeForce GTX 1070 GAMING X 8G review.
The Asus ROG Strix Radeon RX 580 TOP Edition 8GB is one of the most expensive Radeon RX 580 cards available, but offers excellent performance delivering similar overall frame rates to an overclocked Nvidia GTX 1060, although this will of course depend on which games you play. The board offers superb build quality and a great selection of features including programmable lighting effects and bundled overclocking software. It’s sheer size may be a problem for some smaller cases, however, and audible coil whine can occasionally spoil the experience.
Although a low-cost card, the Gigabyte Radeon RX 550 Gaming OC 2GB never seems cheap. It offers excellent build quality for the price and it’s uprated cooling lets you choose between performance and silence. Performance is more than adequate for older games and good for less demanding titles such as e-sports. It’s price is, however, a little high for those trying to spend as little as possible, bringing it very close to the price of the much faster RX 560. This card is therefore best for those whose PCs don’t meet the power requirements of the RX 560 but want the best performance they can get.