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The Best Graphics Cards to Maximize Gaming Performance For Your Resolution
Last Updated: January 9, 2021
In 2021 the gaming GPU market is in a strange place; there’s a lot of great news, and some not so great news. If you’ve been chilling under that cliché rock the past few months, gamers have recently been spoilt with a bunch of impressive next-gen releases from both NVidia and AMD that push performance fairly significantly beyond the previous generation at a (seemingly) good price. But on the other side of the coin that brings us all back to reality is the sticky stock situation where finding a good card available to buy – and at a regular price – is not easy (though certain cards are easier to get than others).
Related: Why Are GPU Prices So High in 2021?
Availability should get better as we move through 2021 (well, hopefully), but there’s no guarantees and nobody knows just when graphics cards will become less of a challenge to simply, well, buy. At the time of me writing this in January, unless you’re quite motivated to grab a card and willing to actively keep an eye on stock and prices across multiple stores in your region, with blazing-fast Jedi reflexes to get through that checkout process faster than you can say “sold out” – it’s going to tough grabbing one of the more in-demand cards like the RTX 3060 Ti, RTX 3070, RTX 3080, or RX 6800/XT.
But when availability hopefully gets better soon, below are the best gaming GPUs in terms of standout value for different budgets and usage (ie gaming resolution). At the end we’ll also cover common questions related to choosing the right GPU for your PC build, including what to know about power requirements, VRAM, size differences, and other basic specs. Oh and keep in mind these are general graphics card recommendations – not for specific partner/aftermarket models. Let’s cut the small talk and get straight into the current top 5 best GPUs for gaming right now as of January 2021 (in my opinion).
1. NVidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti (Best Overall Value GPU)
The cheapest of the new RTX 3000 series so far is also the best bang for buck overall for most gamers who use either a 1080p 144Hz or 1440p 60Hz/144Hz monitor – the most common PC gaming resolutions chosen by gamers building a new PC today in 2021. The RTX 3060 Ti packs serious punch for the price tag when compared to NVidia’s previous-gen Turing cards, and it’ll shine in the aforementioned resolutions in most games. In less demanding titles you could use it for 4K 60Hz or 1080p 240Hz (depending on which genre) as it’s a powerful mid-range card, and its 8GB of VRAM is also enough for the far majority of modern titles now and likely over the next few years.
But let’s not keep the elephant in the room waiting; yes, based on the high demand and seemingly low supply of pretty much all good graphics cards right now, you’ll need some good timing and active willpower to grab a RTX 3060 Ti in stock (and at a regular price). But when/if you, you’re set for a very good 1080p/1440p experience. Considering its performance is comparable to that of a once-mighty RTX 2080 Super, you’re also good to go for a great VR gaming performance in any current VR title, and on good settings (usually high/ultra) excepts in anomalies like Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (which has a mind-blowing VR mode) which will require more GPU grunt for great performance (though a RTX 3060 Ti will definitely still run the game okay on lower settings).
But for literally any other VR title, including the current standard of VR gaming that is of course the historic, awe-inspiring Half Life Alyx, a RTX 3060 Ti really is enough for a very good experience whether you’re rocking a Quest 2, Rift S, Reverb G2, Valve Index, or any other headset and you want to remain cost-effective in your GPU choice. No matter whether you’re joining the virtual reality revolution happening as we speak or you’re sticking to traditional flatscreen gaming, the RTX 3060 Ti is undoubtedly one of the best GPUs for gaming right now in regards to overall performance per dollar.
NVidia GeForce RTX 3070 (8GB GDDR6)
Video Memory (RAM): 8GB GDDR6
MSRP: Starts at $399 USD (depends on model)
Recommended CPU: R5 3600 / i5 10400 (or better)
PSU Wattage Requirement: 600 Watts (or more)
The MSI RTX 3060 Ti Ventus 2X OC, just one of many 3060 Ti models worth considering
The 3070 is close second as best overall bang for buck gaming GPU (pictured is the ASUS TUF RTX 3070 OC)
2. NVidia GeForce RTX 3080 (Best GPU for 4K and VR)
If you’re simply after the best of the best gaming GPUs available right now, and simultaneously care for getting your money’s worth in terms of performance per dollar (which rubs out the overpriced 3090), the RTX 3080 is an easy recommendation and is also the best graphics card for 4K gaming in general, beating out the AMD competition in most games in that regard (though team red shines for maximum 1440p 144Hz performance). With great power comes great choice; if 4K is not your thing, with a 3080 you can pick and choose a gaming monitor of any resolution and refresh rate whether that’s 1440p 144Hz, 1080p 240Hz, or even 1080p 360Hz. It’s also a beast for VR that’ll easily handle any demanding VR title you throw at it on ultra settings.
It’s safe to say if you manage to get your hands on a mighty 3080 you’ll be set for an amazing gaming experience for a mighty long time. The card’s 10GB of super-fast GDDR6X memory is also plenty to be “future proofed” for any future VRAM-hungry games that come out; don’t be worried that competing AMD models have a whopping 16GB as there’s really no benefit to having 16GB vs 10GB of VRAM in the far majority of gaming situations. There are so few instances where having 10GB will limit performance.
Don’t get me wrong with all this 3080 talk though; AMD’s latest high-end GPU offerings are just as impressive – at least if rasterization performance (ie non ray-tracing) is all you care about like the majority of gamers. For ray-tracing, in the handful of titles that support it like Cyberpunk 2077 or Minecraft, NVidia clearly wins. But for standard gaming performance? AMD and NVidia are neck and neck right now, with the RX 6800 and 6800 XT on either side of the RTX 3080 (in terms of pricing) being very worthy considerations.
3. AMD Radeon RX 6800 (Best GPU for 1440p 144Hz)
While there’s certainly bad news when it comes to the GPU market right now in terms of availability and frequently inflated prices, let’s not forget the good news that many have long forgotten by now – AMD is well and truly back in the high-end GPU market – a presence we’ve not felt since… Obi gave up far too easily against Vader in IV (Master Kenobi; you disappoint me). Competition is great again in the upper echelons of the cutthroat GPU game, and that’s good news for us consumers (well,
when if the market returns to some kind of normalcy). Late last year saw not only NVidia raising eyebrows with its game-changing Ampere cards (RTX 3000), but AMD soon followed up with their long-awaited Big Navi (RX 6000) and the outcome surprised many – these cards are legit.
But like NVidia right now, legitimately priced they are not, so be wary to pay too much (if anything) above MSRP. If you even find one in stock, that is. As mentioned earlier, finding any good GPU right now, whether RTX 3000 or RX 6000, is not easy. At least at the time of writing this; let’s hope things get better as the year moves on and we continue to leave 2020 in the rear view. Anyway, the RX 6800 is a beast of a gaming card that sits price-wise (MSRP $579 US) in-between the RTX 3070 and RTX 3080, offering very similar gaming performance to both.
The RX 6800 loses out to the team green competition when you compare ray-tracing performance, which is clearly NVidia’s thing for the time being, and also loses out if you’re after hardware encoding performance for a streaming PC build. But if neither of these things is important to you (they won’t be to the average gamer, at least for now; sorry NVidia), choosing between AMD and NVidia in this sort of price tier is not easy. But If 1440p 144Hz is the name of your game, as is increasingly common nowadays being a good “sweet spot” of value when it comes to choosing a good gaming monitor, the RX 6800 typically wins out in that regard and so gets my top pick for this particular category this quarter.
The RX 6800 XT is also going to provide super performance for 1440p 144Hz, but I’d say its smaller brother 6800 is the better value and more than enough firepower for most gamers. If you’re eyeing off 4K or VR too, a RX 6800 is also going to perform very well, just not as good as a 3080, though the performance gap isn’t that large in general. Both the 6800 and 6800 XT also boasts a mammoth 16GB of VRAM, meaning you’re pretty much set for life in that regard; a truly overkill amount for the games of today and tomorrow, but very nice to have (though it must be also pointed out that the RTX 3080 has slightly faster GDDR6X memory compared to the standard GDDR6 memory of the 6800 and 6800 XT).
AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT (16GB GDDR6)
4. NVidia GeForce GTX 1660 Super (Best Budget GPU for 1080p)
If the latest high-performance RTX 3000 or RX 6000 series is out of your price range, the GTX 1660 Super is a great option for gamers on a budget and offers very good 1080p performance whether on a 60/75Hz or 144Hz. If you’re rocking the latter, to get close or over 144FPS you’ll need to lower settings in more demanding titles, and you also won’t get 144FPS+ in the most demanding of AAA titles (even on low settings). But for many popular titles on lower/competitive or even medium settings, a GTX 1660 Super will provide a solid 1080p 144Hz experience.
A GTX 1660 Super will also dominate 1080p 60FPS gaming on high settings in most titles for those slower-paced genres that don’t benefit from higher refresh-rate monitors (ie 144Hz). You won’t get 1080p 60FPS on ultra/maxed settings in the absolute most graphically demanding like Cyberpunk or Red Dead Redemption 2, but you can get that silky-smooth 60FPS if you lower the settings to around medium.
In the near future you’ll see the 1660 Super get replaced by a newer model, but for now if you’re building a new PC and want the best value budget GPU, it’s one of your best bets assuming you find one around MSRP ($229) as even cheaper cards like these can be overpriced and/or hard to find available. Yup; the GPU market isn’t great at the minute in terms of availability no matter which tier of build you’re planning.
5. NVidia GeForce RTX 3090 (Ultimate GPU for VR/4K 144Hz)
Not to say that you need such a crazy powerful graphics card for VR (Virtual Reality) or 4K 144Hz (ie 144FPS), but if money is of no concern and you just want the best of the best for the fastest gaming performance available today, the RTX 3090 is the best gaming graphics card on the market bar none. With an insane 24GB of GDDR6X memory and a price tag that’ll have your left kidney fearing for its safety, despite how its been marketed by team green it’s not really primarily a “gaming” card and has much more practical use for high-end workstations such as extreme 3D rendering PC builds. However, it is technically the fastest gaming GPU money can buy, edging out AMD’s top offering in the RX 6900 XT to deliver the highest frame rates possible.
So while being a tough card to recommend to the great majority based on both its significantly higher price compared to the RTX 3080 and the fact that most gamers have no need for any more pixel power than what a 3080 or 6800 XT provides, for a specific person the 3090 can be worth getting. We’re talking VR enthusiasts wanting the highest graphics fidelity possible today in the form of higher SuperSampling and/or render resolution settings (eg cranking up the SteamVR resolution scale for the most crisp, immersive image quality), or for traditional flatscreen gamers wanting to get the absolute most out of a 4K 144Hz gaming monitor.
AMD Radeon RX 6900 XT (16GB GDDR6)
How to Choose a GPU (FAQ for Beginners)
How to Know a GPU Will Fit in Your PC?
The actual physical size of a video card may be an issue when it comes to compatibility with your other components, especially if it’s a large/long GPU and you don’t have a huge case. Rule numero uno when choosing the right graphics card for your PC build is to confirm that your case will fit your new beast by checking the maximum supported GPU length found on the spec sheet of your case compared to the length of the specific GPU model you’re planning on getting.
GPUs also vary in both how many PCIe slots they take up on the motherboard (they only plug into one but can hover over other PCIe slots) as well as how many rear metal brackets they take up in your case. These may be worth checking if you either have an extra large or wide GPU and are worried about compatibility, or if you’re building in a small case and want to ensure your GPU will fit both your motherboard and case. See our guide to graphics card slot sizes for more on this.
How to Know the Power Supply Requirements of a GPU?
Before choosing a GPU you also need to be aware of its power supply requirements which will be listed in the spec sheet of the specific graphics card in question, which you can find on either the official manufacturer’s website (ie on EVGA, Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, etc) or on product listings (ie on Amazon or Newegg etc). There are two aspects to this; wattage requirements and power connector requirements.
Firstly, your power supply must have enough wattage (for example 550 watts or 650 watts, two common wattages for gaming PC power supplies) for the specific GPU you want to use in your PC. GPUs use the most amount of power when compared to other components within a typical gaming computer, hence why this is an important step when planning a new system build or upgrade.
You’ll see a recommended or minimum required power supply wattage within the specs of the card somewhere, but remember if you plan on upgrading your graphics card in future then you may need a little extra power, however not necessarily as the wattage requirements a card lists is typically quite high in general since the wattage listed is often assuming the use of a high-end CPU (and so technically you could even get away with less wattage than is recommended).
As well as making sure your PC provides enough wattage for your graphics card, to be on the safe side when it comes to GPU compatibility with your build you also want to double check your power supply has the right power cables for your new card. Some lower-powered GPUs don’t require a direct connection to the power supply and can be solely powered through the PCI-Express slot on the motherboard where you install the card (eg the older GTX 1050 Ti), in which case you don’t have to connect the GPU to the power supply (and can therefore ignore this bit about power supply cables), but any half-decent modern gaming GPU these days will require a dedicated connection to the power supply (even modern budget GPUs like a GTX 1650 Super).
Related: How to Choose a PC Power Supply
Different graphics cards have different amounts of pins on the top of the card that need to be connected using PCIe cables that come with your power supply, so all you need to know is make sure your particular power supply model has enough of these PCIe cables to connect all the pins. For example, most RTX 3080 models require 2x 8pin connections (total of 16 pins) as pictured below, in which case you need to check that your power supply has 2x 8pin PCIe connections (any half-decent power supply absolutely will).
Some less powerful cards may only need a single 8pin or 6pin connector, which in this instance is essentially the same requirement since PCIe power supply cables come in the form of 6+2 pin connectors that can be used either for 6pin or 8pin connections on a card. For some extreme GPUs, for instance the Gigabyte Aorus RTX 3080 Master Rev 2.0, you’ll need a whopping 3x8pins (therefore your PSU needs to list 3 PCIe connectors in its specs).
It’s good to be aware of this stuff, though I’d say it’s a little uncommon common to encounter issues with regards to power supply cables and GPU compatibility – when you buy a high-end GPU that requires 2-3 PCIe connectors, unless you screw up badly then chances are you’ll be pairing it with a half-decent power supply (at least if you know what’s good for you and your system!) and most decent modern power supplies will have at least 2-3 PCIe connectors (if not 6).
But it’s good practice to double check just to be safe, and to understand these GPU spec basics for the future. Incompatibility can happen sometimes too, such as when using an older PSU model that may be a little lacking in the PCIe cables department since older GPUs generally did not require as many pin connections (some older power supplies are still of good quality and fine to use today with a modern GPU, eg some Seasonic models).
Pro Tip: Power supply cables can have multiple connectors on the same cable, such as 2x8pin connectors on a single PCIe power cable. But ideally, wherever possible you want to use two separate connectors on separate cables if your card requires 2 sets of 8pins for instance. In other words, when connecting your power supply cables to a GPU needing 2x8pin connectors, avoid using a single PCIe cable. Using two PCIe cables allows for the most system stability.
How Much VRAM is Good for Gaming in 2021?
Graphics cards have on-board memory known as VRAM (Video Random Access Memory) to help store and process data faster. The more memory your card has the better, but in reality it’s often not as hugely important a spec as some people might make you believe, and the actual GPU model you choose is a lot more important. That said, there’s a certain baseline you want to reach in terms of VRAM, which changes as time goes on. Right now at the time of writing this in 2021, for modern AAA games you want to shoot for a minimum of 6GB (which cards like the GTX 1660 Super has), with the ideal being 8GB or more.
Anything higher than 10GB is overkill for literally 98% of gaming situations, and merely a luxury nice to have. Also keep in mind that just because one GPU has more VRAM than another, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s faster when it comes to straight gaming performance. A good case in point right now is the RX 6800 and 6800 XT, both of which rock a sky-high 16GB of VRAM. But that doesn’t mean they’re automatically faster than say the RTX 3080 which “only” has 10GB VRAM; when it comes to 4K performance the 3080 beats them both. In terms of future proofing, for a card to stay super relevant over the next few years, while we can only speculate in this regard, I would personally say that 8GB is plenty to do that, with 10GB being ideal. But if you have a 8GB card then you’re going to be good for a long, long time. 6GB cards may really start to struggle in a few years, but again that’s just speculation, and they could still be fine (and they’ll definitely do just fine for the next 2-3 years in most games, generally speaking).
How to Know a GPU Supports Multiple Monitors?
If you’re building a dual or triple monitor gaming setup, you want to choose a graphics card that specifically states that it supports the amount of displays you want. Any half-decent modern graphics card will support multiple monitors, but you want to make absolutely sure of it as some GPUs do not (especially cheaper cards). If you go to the manufacturer’s page for your specific GPU model (ie on the Gigabyte site for a Gigabyte branded model – NOT the NVidia or AMD site) then you’ll see it mentioned within the spec sheet if that card supports dual, triple, or even quad monitor setups. You’ll also see the types of output ports that specific card has, such as DisplayPort, HDMI, or even the older VGA connection type. If your card has both DisplayPort and HDMI ports, as is often the case, use the DisplayPort if you have the choice as it is the standard these days.
How Much Should You Spend on a Graphics Card?
As mentioned, the video card is the single most crucial component of all in regards to how fast/smooth your games will run, and at what graphics quality settings you’ll be able to run them at. Modern games contain thoroughly complex, detailed and dynamic 3D scenes with all sorts of special rendering and lighting effects thrown on top, which can really tax your system heavily. The better your graphics card, the faster your computer will be able to handle all of these computations on the fly and output them on-screen, making for a smoother, higher-quality visual experience.
If your graphics card isn’t good enough for the specific games you want to play (and for the resolution and in-game graphical settings you desire to run the game at) the in-game performance is going to suffer. In other words, your frame rate will be low, which results in the on-screen action appearing to lag/stutter. At best, this slowdown can hinder your enjoyment a little, and at worst the game becomes straight-up unplayable if your frame rate dips below 20-30FPS too often so (or doesn’t even run to begin with).
But how powerful of a GPU you’ll be needing to buy to avoid lame lag getting in the way of your fun will differ from gamer to gamer. Factors such as the resolution and refresh rate of your monitor play a part in how much graphical grunt you’ll need, but a huge determining factor as well is the types and specific games you’ll be playing. Different games can vary massively in their hardware requirements. For example, the difference in the hardware requirements of CSGO (an old title running on a fairly basic graphics engine, at least by today’s standards) compared to a fresh new AAA blockbuster like Red Dead Redemption 2 is quite vast. One can run super-smooth on almost any super-cheap “potato” PC, while the other will require a fairly beefy GPU in order to get smooth performance (especially at higher settings and/or resolutions).
Also, if you buy a more expensive high refresh-rate gaming monitor (such as 120Hz, 144Hz, or even 240Hz), your hardware requirements will be increased further. For example, if you get a 144Hz gaming monitor, to take full advantage of that screen you’ll want to aim to get around 144FPS (frames per second) which requires a more powerful GPU. Though do keep in mind that even if you get a 144Hz monitor, even getting 100FPS or so is still fine as you’ll still see those extra frames. In other words, you don’t need to get 144FPS if using a 144Hz screen.
Generally speaking, as a gamer you want to buy the best graphics card you can afford, as you’ll not only get the fastest performance now but the card will last you longer without having to upgrade. But there is also the other side of the argument of overspending, as you don’t want to spend money on a card that’s totally overkill for your particular usage – especially if you’re trying to be cost-effective like many gamers. As a real world example of overspending, if you’ll be sticking to a standard 1080p monitor that has a 60Hz refresh rate, all you need to make the most of that screen is to get 60FPS performance. So if you spend the extra money on a GPU that’s capable of getting a much higher frame rate of 150FPS, you could have gotten away with a much cheaper card.
Below is a chart showing roughly how much of your overall PC build budget you should look to spend on the GPU if your aim is to fully maximize the gaming performance of your new PC. So for example, when building a $1000 gaming computer, to maximize gaming performance you should be looking at choosing a graphics card around $350 (no less than $250 and no more than $400). Keep in mind we’re only talking in terms of the core hardware components here, and not accessories like your monitor, because if we included the monitor in our chart it would be too difficult to give a rough estimate percentage (as monitor purchases can vary wildly from a cheap $100 1080p 60Hz display to a high-end $1000 4K display).
Shooting for this 25 – 40% range allows you to maximize gaming performance but avoid having to sacrifice too much on your other still-important components, such as still getting a good CPU, RAM and so on. Building a PC is a balancing act, and you could say your system is only as strong and reliable as your weakest link (so don’t go too cheap on your power supply selection). That’s why it’s not practical to throw too much more than 35 to 40 percent on your graphics card choice, such as getting a 600 dollar GPU for a $1000 build, as you’d be very limited in what other parts you get.
Are Factory Overclocked GPU Models Worth It?
You’ll notice some graphics card models have SC or OC in their model name, which stands for SuperClocked and Overclocked. This simply means the card is a factory overclocked model, meaning that the manufacturer has increased the clock speed of the card compared to other models within that same GPU model type. Overclocked GPUs can give you a little extra performance out the box compared to other models, without needing to overclock your GPU yourself. These OC/SC models are a little more expensive than non-OC models, but whether they’re worth it or not all depends on the specific model in question, its price relative to other cards, and how much extra performance it will give you (usually not much; we’re talking perhaps 3-15FPS more depending on the situation). You’re often really not missing out on much (if anything) by just getting a standard non-OC model, but if you find an OC model for around the same price then you may as well go for it.
Do You Even Need a Graphics Card for PC Gaming?
This may surprise some of you if you’re new to hardware; technically speaking, no, you don’t need to buy a discrete/dedicated graphics card when you build a computer for gaming. Say what? Some CPUs come with a built-in integrated graphics chip that is capable of outputting to a display just like a graphics card would (for these CPUs you would plug your monitor cable into the back of your motherboard instead of the back of your GPU). CPUs that have integrated graphics are called APUs (Accelerated Processing Unit) if it’s an AMD processor and iGPU (Integrated Graphics Processing Unit) for Intel processors.
That means the CPU can play the role of both a processor and a graphics card, taking responsibility for doing all the rendering calculations and outputting the display to your monitor. Integrated graphics is no match for a standalone graphics card, and is only a realistic option if you’re say building a PC for Rocket League or other games that have quite low requirements, and you fully understand you’re not going to get super-smooth performance in the latest AAA games. Integrated graphics really can be a good value option for less demanding titles though, and especially AMD’s recent APUs like the 3200G and 3400G which provide very respectable gaming performance in many popular games.
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Indie game dev currently working on my dream game, an atmospheric VR FPS adventure powered by Unreal Engine, who also likes writing about hardware and gaming in general.
Favs of all time are OOT, Perfect Dark, MGS1, MGS2, GE007, DKC2, THPS3, WC3, HL1, HL2, with the most recent addition to my list of immortals being the VR masterpiece that is Half Life Alyx.
To keep in touch check back to the blog for my latest articles or see BGC on FB, and for anyone also into the VR FPS scene I’ll be sharing the first screenshots of my upcoming VR game here when the time is right (game is very early on in development). – Julz