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Graphics cards
The big news in the graphics card arena in last System Guide was the release of the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti. This time around, we're going to discuss cards that are a little more reasonably-priced for the average builders. We're talking, of course, about the recently-released Radeon RX 500 series cards: the RX 580, RX 570, and RX 550. Their launch didn't have quite the same level of fanfare as the RX 400 series, probably because the new cards could be described as hot-clocked versions of their predecessors—and that's not a bad thing at all, since they were introduced at nearly the same price points of the units they're respectively replacing. For that reason, we've chosen them as direct replacements for their predecessors wherever applicable.


Gigabyte Aorus RX 580 8GB

Apart from that development, things have been mostly quiet in the graphics card arena. That too plays into the fact that our recommendations overall aren't shifting all that much. The impending release of the RX Vega might shake things up a little, but that card's final form remains a mystery.

No matter which graphics card you choose, we're continuing to draw a line in the sand regarding graphics memory these days. 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 AAA games, it's become a little too easy to hit certain corner cases where less-endowed cards can run out of RAM, degrading gaming performance.

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.

We also separate our choices roughly according to the CPUs that we expect will accompany each of these cards. For example, 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 G4560 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 4GB Windforce OC $129.99 Look, ma, no power connectors needed!
EVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti SC $139.99

The Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 4GB Windforce OC 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. If you're wondering about the RX 560, it simply hasn't been released yet. It'll almost certainly take the RX 460's place when it does.


Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 4GB Windforce OC

If you have just a few more bucks, though, the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti offers substantially better performance and runs quieter and cooler than the RX 460 4GB. 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 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 measures in 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 570 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 an RX 570 for a ridiculously low price these days, and it'll still offer enviable performance for 1920x1080 gaming in games that don't lean on the CPU, 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 580 4GB cards can be had for just $20 or so more than an RX 570 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's 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-class CPU to truly shine, as we've discussed above. Keep that in mind when looking at the options below.

 

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte Radeon RX 580 4GB $199.99 One eight-pin power connector
Gigabyte Radeon RX 580 8GB $239.99
MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6GB OCV1 $239.99

Radeon RX 580 4GB cards are unquestionably the best value in sub-$200 graphics picks right now, and Gigabyte's spin on the Radeon RX 480 4GB is a fine example of why. For just $200, gamers can get ahold of a card with performance superior to the old GeForce GTX 970 for about half of what those cards used to command.


Gigabyte Radeon RX 580 8GB

If you're building with an eye toward future games where higher-quality textures will be the order of the day, we suggest Gigabyte's Radeon RX 580 8GB. There's not a lot we can say about this card that's not a good thing. It offers two large fans, healthy clock speeds, 8GB of RAM, and a particularly tasty $225 price tag. FreeSync support means builders can pair an affordable variable-refresh-rate monitor with any RX 580 for buttery smoothness. Both the RX 580 4GB and RX 580 8GB can serve as the foundation for entry-level VR-ready systems, too.


MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6GB OCV1

Given the higher prices and similar performance of GTX 1060 6GB cards versus the RX 480 8GB, we dont think it's worth springing for the green team's option in this price range unless you favor even quieter running, low power consumption, or G-Sync. 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 580. 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. At $240, the MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6GB OCV1 is really all the card or cooler you need for GP106.

High end
The arrival of Nvidia's $700 GeForce GTX 1080 Ti has reshaped the high-end graphics card market. GeForce GTX 1080 cards now carry a $500 list price, and even the fanciest custom cards like Gigabyte's GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming can now be had for hundreds of dollars less than they sold for just a couple weeks ago. Those price cuts don't change the performance story we've been telling for many moons, though. The GTX 1080 is now the second-fastest graphics card on the market, and it remains ideal for high-refresh-rate gaming at 1920x1080 or an enviably smooth ride in most games at 2560x1440. The GTX 1070 provides GTX 980 Ti-class performance for quite a bit less money than that card sold for at its zenith.

If you want the finest 4K gaming experience on the market right now—or the finest gaming experience at any resolution, period—the GTX 1080 Ti is the way to go. Custom-cooled versions of that car have now arrived with upgraded power delivery circuit and far superior thermal handling than the Founders Edition. No matter how you get your GTX 1080 Ti, it's a total winner, and the rare TR Editor's Choice award we bestowed on it at launch should underscore that point. The $700 price tag is lofty, to be sure, but you can't get that class of gaming performance any other way right now.

Product Price
Gigabyte GTX 1070 G1 Gaming $409.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming $539.99
Gigabyte Aorus GeForce GTX 1080 Ti $719.99

The prices for GeForce GTX 1070 cards didn't drop quite as hard as that of the GTX 1080s in the wake of the GTX 1080 Ti launch, but they are nonetheless lower. Where previously you'd need $400 to $450 to grab a GTX 1070, you can now get a hold of a good specimen for $400, often less if you come across a good sale. Still, spending $100 more will get you a GTX 1080. While that's not small investment, it buys you a lot more graphics power.

If your budget only stretches to a GTX 1070, however, fear not. Our Gigabyte GTX 1070 G1 Gaming pick is reasonably priced, sports Gigabyte's excellent triple-fan cooler, pushed clocks, and comes with the buyer's choice of two free games: Ghost Recon Wildlands or For Honor. At roughly $400, we think it's the model to get.


Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming

For those who want prefer the punch of a GeForce GTX 1080, we're tipping our hat to Gigabyte's GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming. This Editor's Choice-winning card has a beefy triple-fan cooler with assertive styling, plenty of RGB LEDs, and among the highest clocks available for an out-of-the-box GTX 1080. It also comes with a handy front-panel bay with VR-ready video and USB ports. This excellent card now goes for just $549.99, a substantial discount compared to its $680-or-so price tag until just recently. Hard to argue with that. Gigabyte also offers an Aorus version of this card with extra bling for $10 more, although one loses the VR front panel in the bargain. Either way, you can't go wrong.


Gigabyte Aorus GeForce GTX 1080 Ti

Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1080 Ti is the uncontested single-GPU performance king, and every manufacturer out there has a custom-cooled take on them. We're fans of Gigabyte's cards in general, and their fair pricing in particular. For only $20 more than the initial launch price of $700, you can get a hold of a Gigabyte Aorus GeForce GTX 1080 Ti. It comes with a massive triple-fan cooler with offset spinners and can nominally boost to 1708 MHz in its OC mode. Boost clocks in Pascal cards are mostly just indications, so with this much thermal dissipation power at hand, we wouldn't be surprised to see this card go far past that 1708 MHz mark.

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, GTX 1080, or GTX 1080 Ti. The Radeon RX Vega may change the game when it arrives sometime soon, but for now, Nvidia enjoys complete dominance of the $300-and-up graphics card market.