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Graphics
Not building a gaming PC? Feel free to skip this page—unless you're getting an Ivy Bridge-E processor. See the guide's processor page for more detail about that chip's needs.

Last year, AMD's Radeon HD 7000-series (and, later, R7- and R9-series) graphics cards were supremely competitive. They performed as well as or better than Nvidia's solutions, and they often sweetened the pot with more attractive game bundles or more enticing prices. We wound up recommending Radeons almost exclusively in our primary System Guide builds throughout most of 2013.

Then, late last year, cryptocurrency miners started buying Radeons in bulk. Supplies of these cards have since become tight, and prices have risen accordingly—often by a lot. This situation has put AMD in quite a bind. The company could order additional wafers full of GPUs from TSMC, which might relieve the shortage—but only a few months from now. Worse, if the cryptocurrency bubble bursts, or if miners switch to dedicated ASICs, then AMD could be left holding boatloads of excess inventory while second-hand mining cards flood eBay and Craigslist. If we were AMD, we'd be cautious about that approach.

Where does this all leave us? Well, some sub-$200 Radeon graphics cards are still in adequate supply, and they're still good deals. However, higher-end models like the Radeon R9 280X and R9 290 are prohibitively expensive right now. Litecoin miners might be happy to pay huge premiums for these cards, but gamers shouldn't be—not when Nvidia cards without crazy price mark-ups can run games just as well. That's why we've featured more Nvidia cards than AMD ones below: GeForces are simply the only reasonable options at some price points.

Before we tackle our recommendations, a quick word about graphics card vendors. For any given GPU type, a number of cards from different vendors exist. For the most part, those cards aren't all that different from one another. Some of them are identical except for the stickers on the cooling shrouds. You're free to buy any card you wish, but we've tried to pick offerings based on three criteria: the vendor, the type of cooler, and the core and memory clock speeds. We favored major vendors known to have decent service, and we looked for quiet coolers (especially dual- and triple-fan solutions) and higher-than-normal clock speeds (provided they didn't incur too high a price premium). The cards you see below may not be the absolute cheapest of their kind, but they are the ones we'd buy.

Oh, and one last thing: while some of the motherboards we recommend support multi-GPU configurations, we wouldn't advise building a multi-GPU setup unless you absolutely must. Multi-GPU setups open up a whole can of worms, with occasionally iffy driver support for new games, potential microstuttering issues, and other difficulties. We've found that it's almost always preferable to buy a faster single-GPU solution, if one is available, than to double up on GPUs.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750 $119.99 N/A
XFX Radeon R7 260X $119.99

If you're serious about playing games, this is about as cheap as we'd go. Cards like these will run games quite well at 1080p with the graphical detail dialed down a little. Any cheaper, and you'd have to lower the resolution and image quality a fair bit.

The GeForce GTX 750 and Radeon R7 260X cost the same and have equivalent performance in current titles. Which one should you get? That depends. For most folks, the GTX 750 is probably the better choice. The GeForce draws much less power, so it doesn't require an auxiliary power input and can be cooled more quietly. However, the R7 260X has 2GB RAM versus the GTX 750's 1GB, which may make it more future-proof. The GTX 750's 1GB of RAM may have contributed to its shaky performance in our Battlefield 4 test, for instance. That game has very high quality textures and assets, and others will likely follow its lead in the future. Owners of 1GB cards may have to dial back the texture quality level a notch at times.

Honestly, though, you can't go wrong with either card.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750 Ti $169.99 N/A
Sapphire Radeon HD 7850 2GB $169.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 660 $189.99
Asus GeForce GTX 760 $249.99

The sweet spot for graphics cards lies here, between about $150 and $250. All of the offerings above can run current games at 1080p with high or maxed-out detail levels, and cards at the upper end of this spectrum will deliver the smoothest performance at the highest image quality settings at that resolution. Here, we'd just recommend getting the fastest card you can afford.

At $160-170, a choice must be made between the GeForce GTX 750 Ti and the Radeon HD 7850 2GB. These are both 2GB cards, but the AMD offering should have a small performance lead overall. On the flip side, the GTX 750 Ti is for more power-efficient, so it may be a better fit for a cool-and-quiet PC.

AMD was supposed to have a Radeon R7 265 in this price range, too, but it's not available yet. Since the R7 265 is more or less a re-badged 7850, that's no great loss.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 770 $339.99 Dual PCIe power connectors (6 + 8-pin)
Asus GeForce GTX 780 $519.99

Want to play games at 2560x1440? The GeForce GTX 760 will pull it off, but a GeForce GTX 770 or GeForce GTX 780 will provide a much smoother experience with more room to crank up image quality options. (Both of these cards require a power supply with dual PCIe power connectors, by the way. See our case and PSU page for more details.)

It's a shame the Radeon R9 290 isn't available at a competitive price right now. It was our favorite high-end option—cheaper than the GeForce GTX 780 and nearly as fast. We had some reservations about its stock cooler, but new models have cropped up with custom cooling solutions, and we've gotten good results out of them. Perhaps the R9 290 will make a comeback once the cryptocurrency mining fever blows over. We can only hope.

You'll notice that we aren't recommending higher-end models like the GeForce GTX 780 Ti. As much as we sympathize with the desire for bragging rights, we can't honestly advocate in favor of a $700 card that's barely any faster than the $500 GTX 780. The law of diminishing returns kicks in here, big time. The only way to exceed the GTX 780's graphical performance substantially is to pair two of them up in an SLI config, but that option lies beyond the scope of this edition of the System Guide.