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Graphics cards
As we talked about in our intro, AMD and Nvidia are duking it out in the budget and mid-range graphics card markets right now. Gamers are reaping the benefits, and cash-strapped gamers especially are living a golden age of sorts. The current situation can be defined in few words: you can get a ton of graphics card in the $150-to-$250 range, thanks to an apparent supply increase and heady competition from both the red and the green teams.

We're officially drawing a line in the sand and asserting that any graphics card with less than 4GB of RAM is a bad idea for a brand-new gaming machine. Our observations indicate that with the latest crop of games, it's become a little too easy to hit certain corner cases where lesser-endowed cards hit a RAM limit, degrading performance.


MSI RX 480 4GB Armor OC

Nvidia recently threw a bone to budget-minded builders with its GeForce GTX 1050 and GTX 1050 Ti cards. We think the GTX 1050 is the less-appealing choice of the two, thanks to its 2GB of RAM—a characteristic shared by the RX 460 2GB cards that we'll be avoiding.  The GTX 1050 Ti with 4GB of RAM, on the other hand, is a much more capable card. Nvidia blesses this card with a fully-enabled GP107 GPU, and it's quiet and efficient. There are many compact single-fan GTX 1050 Tis without a PCIe power connector, too, making this card a great drop-in upgrade for prebuilt desktops. It's an excellent choice for around $140, though if you have just a few more bucks in your pocket and a solid power supply, the Radeon RX 480 4GB offers much more performance for roughly $180. Still, a living-room gaming PC with a GTX 1050 Ti inside could be quite appealing.

At the high end of the market, the GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 continue to rule. These cards can now regularly be found at or under their suggested prices, and every manufacturer under the sun has a specially-tuned version for every price point. If you want the best gaming experience around, there's no need to look further than either of these cards.

Nvidia still hasn't chosen to support the VESA Adaptive-Sync standard (better known as FreeSync) in its latest graphics cards, so folks that are keen on VRR tech from a sub-$300 graphics card will need to take stock of their budgets and see whether a $380-or-more monitor is within the realm of affordability. If it is, a GeForce card and a G-Sync monitor will be a good pairing. Those looking to save every dollar will want to look into a Radeon and one of the many FreeSync displays on the market.

The eagle-eyed among you may notice that we're now separating our graphics card choices a little differently. That change is long overdue, since there's plenty of overlap between different prices points, and because of our ongoing investigation into the performance of graphics cards tied to affordable CPUs. As it turns out, we've roughly established that in certain scenarios, graphics cards more powerful than a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti can hit a wall if they're paired with an affordable dual-core, four-thread CPU.

If you've been keeping track, you'll realize that the top budget combo of the moment is the Pentium G4620 with a GTX 1050 Ti. If you go for a faster CPU, you'll often find yourself craving a more powerful graphics card, and vice-versa. Our graphics card choices for the budget segment and our recommendations in the Sample Builds section of this Guide reflect that fact.

Budget
In the budget arena, there's a lot of graphics card to be had for a small amount of cash these days. For under $150, you can get a card that should be able to handle almost any game you throw at it if you don't push the resolution or detail too high. These are also the cards that we advise people pair with budget CPUs, as discussed above. An added advantage is that none of our budget picks requires a PCIe power connector, meaning these cards can go into any system where they can physically fit.

Product Price Remarks
Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 Windforce OC 4GB $119.99 Look, ma, no power connectors needed!
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050 Ti Windforce 4GB $149.99
EVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti SC $149.99

The Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 Windforce OC 4GB we've chosen for our entry-level bracket boasts all the best features of the breed. It doesn't need a six-pin PCIe power connector to run, and its dual-fan cooler should be polite under load. For only a few bucks more than 2GB RX 460s, we think this card is the RX 460 to get.


Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 Windforce OC 4GB

For more gaming power in this segment, the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti offers substantially superior performance and runs quieter and cooler than the RX 460 4GB, for just a little more cash. The only thing going against it is its lack of FreeSync support, really. Its power and noise profile make it a near-perfect choice for a gaming-oriented HTPC, too. Our choice for this type of card is another Gigabyte model, the GTX 1050 Ti OC. It offers slightly boosted clocks and a dual-fan setup. You'd be forgiven for mistaking it with the RX 460 picture above, too.


Gigabyte GTX 1050 Ti Windforce

You might find it odd that we made a lot of noise (pun intended) about how cool and quiet the GTX 1050 Ti is, but we listed a mid-sized, dual-fan card above. Fret no more. Our next choice is a compact card that can go into just about any system on the planet with a PCIe x16 slot. We're talking about the EVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti SuperClocked. This tiny terror is actually in the TR labs, and measures at only 5.7" long. The single fan on it is more than enough to quietly cool it, and it draws power through the PCIe slot alone. Finally, despite its dimensions, it'll still offer a 1468 MHz boost clock.


EVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti SC

Whither the Radeon RX 470 in our budget options? Well, it's complicated. In some ongoing tests, we've found that the most affordable Polaris 10 card is best paired with more expensive quad-core CPUs to achieve the best performance possible. Sure, you can get one for a ridiculously low price these days, and it'll still offer enviable performance for 1920x1080 gaming, but think of it as a way to get that performance on the cheap with an otherwise-powerful system instead of a way to pump up an otherwise modest PC. That role is best left to the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti for the smoothest gameplay around. Radeon RX 480 4GB cards can be had for just a bit more than an RX 470 these days, too, so we think it's worth taking the tiny step up and getting the fully-enabled Polaris 10 card instead. 

Sweet spot
Here we reach the point where things start getting more serious. Our graphics card choices for this section still stay within the sub-$300 range, but they need at least a Core i5 CPU to truly shine, as we've just discussed. Keep that in mind when looking at the options below.

Product Price Notable needs
MSI Radeon RX 480 4GB Armor OC $179.99 One eight-pin power connector
MSI Radeon RX 480 8GB Armor OC $224.99
Gigabyte GTX 1060 6GB Windforce OC $254.99

Let's look at the MSI Radeon RX 480 4GB OC Armor first. These cards have plummeted in price since their launch, and you can now find them easily for less than $200. Our chosen model goes for only $180, if you can believe that. The fully-enabled Polaris 10 GPU on the RX 480 offers potent performance for both 1920x1080 and 2560x1440 gaming alike, and the extra gigabyte of RAM this card offers over the somewhat-hobbled GTX 1060 3GB only sweetens its appeal.

We're happy to report that the high prices that the Radeon RX 480 8GB previously commanded are a thing of the past, as well, leaving buyers with pretty clear choices when it comes to getting that graphics card that's Just Right: not too cheap, and not too expensive. One can say the sweet spot has never been sweeter.


MSI Radeon RX 480 Armor 8GB

The first selection we have is the MSI Radeon RX 480 Armor 8GB. There's not a lot we can say about this specimen that's not a good thing. It offers two large fans, healthy clock speeds, and a particularly tasty price: $225. This class of card should be enough for pretty much any game with maxed-out settings at 1920x1080, and it should still offer pretty good performance at 2560x1440 with a few settings dialed back. FreeSync support means builders can pair an affordable variable-refresh-rate monitor with the RX 480 for buttery smoothness, and both the RX 480 4GB and RX 480 8GB can serve as the foundation for entry-level VR-ready systems, too.

For a few bucks more, the GTX 1060 6GB delivers pretty much the same performance as the RX 480 GB. This card's real advantage is the highly power-efficient GP106 Pascal GPU. Thanks to that efficiency, custom-cooled cards can deliver high performance without making more than the barest peep of fan noise, and they consume significantly less power than the Radeon RX 480. If you're considering a VR-ready system, the GTX 1060 6GB offers the requisite performance and some Pascal-exclusive VR rendering features for the money, too.

If you have your eye on a G-Sync monitor or want a fairly powerful card that's also cool and quiet, we recommend the Gigabyte GTX 1060 6GB Windforce OC as our choice for the green team in this segment.

High end
Nvidia's Pascal cards make picking a high-end graphics card really easy right now. If you have $350 to $450 to spend, you want a GeForce GTX 1070 with a custom cooler. If you have about $600 to $700, you want a GeForce GTX 1080 with a custom cooler. Any questions?

Product Price
Gigabyte GTX 1070 G1 Gaming $394.99
Gigabyte GTX 1080 G1 Gaming $609.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming $669.99

OK, you want further convincing. How about the fact that the GTX 1080 is about 20% faster than a GeForce GTX 980 Ti or a Radeon R9 Fury X in many games, sometimes even faster? The GTX 1070 is no less impressive. It delivers GTX 980 Ti-class performance for far less money than that card demanded at the height of its popularity. If you're trying to push 2560x1440 gaming to its limits, or want a smooth 4K ride, the GTX 1080 is the way to go. The GTX 1070 carries on the GTX 980 Ti's commanding performance for maxed-out or high-refresh-rate gaming at 1920x1080 or 2560x1440. Both cards have 8GB of RAM, but the GTX 1080 uses the higher-speed GDDR5X and the GTX 1070 makes do with good old GDDR5.


Gigabyte GTX 1070 G1 Gaming

What about Nvidia's Pascal-powered Titan X? This beastly card uses Nvidia's baddest consumer Pascal GPU so far, GP102, to serve up 3584 stream processors, 224 texturing units, and 96 ROPs, all running in a 1531MHz boost clock range. PC Perspective got its hands on one of these beasts and found that it wipes the floor with any other single-GPU graphics card available today. Nvidia charges $1200 for the privilege of owning a Pascal Titan X, though. If you demand the absolute best 4K gaming performance from a single-GPU card on the market, get ready to pay up. Everybody else is probably safe with a GTX 1080 of some flavor.


Gigabyte's GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming

You'll notice a distinct lack of Radeons in this section. As of this writing, AMD simply doesn't have an answer to the GTX 1070 or GTX 1080. The Radeon R9 Fury X can go into the ring with the GTX 1070, but its 4GB of RAM may limit its long-term appeal—and it needs far more power than the GeForce to do its thing. As for the GTX 1080, it's simply in a league of its own right now.

The value proposition gets little better as we move down AMD's model lineup. Radeon R9 Fury cards can be had for not much more than a GTX 1060 6GB these days, but unless absolute performance is the most important factor for you, we'd take the Nvidia card for its diminuitive size, larger RAM complement, and power-sipping nature. The Radeon R9 Nano's unique form factor isn't enough to recommend it over a GTX 1070, either. We might see higher-end Radeons that can mix it up with Pascal sometime this year, but for now, Nvidia rules the roost.