Whether you're a gamer, a video editor or a graphic designer, you need a computer with powerful graphics capabilities. Unless you upgraded when you bought your computer, its graphics chipset is likely integrated with the CPU or even motherboard. Often called onboard video, such a solution shares system memory and processing power with your computer, which can make graphics-intensive applications work painfully slowly. What you need is a discrete graphics card with ample processing power and video memory. Such cards fit into a slot on your motherboard and connect directly to your monitor.
We've created side-by-side graphics card comparisons and detailed reviews of the best graphics cards, such as the Nvidia GeForce GTX 980, Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 and AMD Radeon R9 290X. You can also read our articles on graphics cards and get tips on eking the best video-rendering capabilities out of your computer.
Graphics cards continue to get faster and more powerful, and the options can seem overwhelming. To find the right one, first consider how you'll use it. If you want to play the latest games at ultra-high settings and resolutions higher than 1080p, you'll be happiest with a high-end card. If you just want to edit videos, a midrange card still provides a vast improvement over integrated graphics. This guide will help you choose the right graphics card for your needs.
Whatever a graphics card looks like or its specifications are, all you really need to know is how it performs. Can it handle your favorite games at the highest settings, and at what resolutions? We created our graphics card comparison by compiling test data across a slew of modern games. We tested all of the games at 1080p with the highest settings and recorded their average frame rates. We also looked at 4K performance. Higher frame rates are better, as they provide a smoother rendering experience and are a good indication of more power.
The most important aspect of a graphics card is its graphics processing unit, or GPU. By processing graphics separately, the GPU lightens the load of your computer's CPU, allowing it to function faster. Look for a card with a high core clock speed and memory clock speed. These two factors help determine a card's memory bandwidth, which in turn affects frame rate. Faster frame rates result in smoother scrolling and animation. Pixel and texture fillrates are also important to consider.
Noise and Power
Generally, the more work your graphics card needs to do, the more electricity it consumes and the hotter it runs. Thus, high-end cards usually use more electricity and run hotter, but they provide you with significantly more rendering power. What you want is a balance. Nvidia does a particularly good job of keeping its cards relatively quiet and powerful. AMD graphics cards are notorious for their fans being quite loud.
The two major players in the graphics card world are AMD and Nvidia. Each has developed its own rendering technology for processing graphical data. Nvidia graphics cards use CUDA cores, and AMD uses stream processors. While these technologies are measured differently, their purpose is to accelerate the communication rate between the graphics card's GPU and your computer's CPU. The more CUDA cores or stream processors a card has, the faster it is, and this makes your program or game run smoother and faster. AMD and Nvidia have also made great strides in offering 3D capabilities.
The application programming interface (API) – DirectX, Mantle, OpenGL or OpenCL – enables the card to interact with your software. Choose a card that's compatible with the API of the programs you wish to run. For example, if your card supports only DirectX 9 and you buy a game or application that requires DirectX 11, you have to upgrade your card in order to play it.
There's no such thing as a perfect graphics card for all situations, but by determining which key features best suit your needs, you can find one that does exactly what you want it to do. The newest, fastest cards are expensive, but the results can be worth it.