Get a serious graphics card upgrade with our pick of the best for Full HD and 4K gaming – with prices starting from just £110
PC gaming has come a very long way since the early days of blocky, 16-colour graphics. The latest games feature breathtaking cinematography with atmospheric lighting and super-realistic physics effects, and with the rise of 4K and HDR they also offer incredible detail. The best graphics cards today push as many pixels to your desktop monitor as you’d see on a 50ft cinema screen.
To get the best from modern PC games, you need a graphics card that’s capable of handling all of this visual magic in real-time. If you demand nothing less than the smoothest 4K HDR gaming experience, you can spend four figures on a top-end monster such as Nvidia’s obscenely-fast RTX 2080 Ti card. If, however, you simply want a card that can conjure up playable framerates in the latest games at slightly more sensible resolutions, then you can spend much, much less.
In this article we’ve collected our favourite cards and, with prices starting at just £110, every card here has the power to deliver high-resolution, real-time gaming with bags of detail. Spend a little more, and some can also conjure up immersive virtual reality experiences if you partner them with a cutting-edge VR headset from the likes of HTC and Oculus.
The hardware inside a graphics card will be made by either AMD or Nvidia – but cards based around their technology will be sold by a wide range of companies. Often the different companies will have their own spin on a card: for example, a GeForce RTX 2060 card sold by MSI might be a different physical size or have different connectors to one sold by Palit. Some card manufacturers also overclock their GPUs for an extra speed boost, and some use their own cooler designs to help their cards run cooler, quieter or overclock more effectively than their rivals.
How much do you need to spend?
Since all major card manufacturers compete with one another, however, the big difference is likely to be price. Barring factory overclocks and improved coolers – which admittedly can have a big impact – all versions of a GPU will perform fairly similarly, so it’s worth shopping around to see which brand offers the best deal.
If you can get a factory-overclocked model with a better fan without spending vastly more, though, then that’s always well worth considering – it is sometimes possible to squeeze quite a bit more performance out of a GPU with a bigger, better cooler. And if you need the smallest graphics card possible for a mini-ITX PC case, then look out for models with cut-down dimensions and pint-sized cooling fans – these days you can buy a graphics card which is both surprisingly powerful and surprisingly tiny.
Do you need to buy a monitor with AMD Freesync or Nvidia G-Sync?
One last thing to consider is whether you’ll be using a monitor with built-in syncing technology – in other words, whether it can sync the refresh rate to your GPU’s frames-per-second output, eliminating screen tearing without the input lag of standard V-sync. Nvidia G-Sync and AMD Freesync are the two main types, but in most cases each will only work with their respective graphics card brand; for example, even if your monitor supports Freesync, you can’t use it together with an Nvidia GPU. It’s therefore often worth matching your graphics card choice to the syncing technology in your monitor, if you already own the latter.
How much memory does a graphics card need?
When it comes to memory, you won’t be surprised to hear that more is usually better. An increasing number of games now have ‘Ultra’ graphics options which push memory usage up to and beyond 6GB, and more at higher resolutions. If you want to handle the highest settings in games and game at resolutions above Full HD, then you can consider 4GB a bare minimum. If you want a card that’ll be able to tackle the highest settings for a few years yet, then set your sights on a 6GB card as a bare minimum.
The best graphics cards to buy in 2020
1. Best graphics card: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti
Price when reviewed: £1,099 inc VAT | Buy now from Amazon
This is the ultimate, money-no-object graphics card, a £1,099 behemoth capable of running most games at 4K without dropping below 60fps. It’s based on Nvidia’s Turing architecture, a complete overhaul of the Pascal architecture that powers the GTX 10-series, and comes equipped with 4,352 processor cores (nearly 800 more than the GTX 1080 Ti) as well as 11GB of the very latest GDDR6 memory.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s the flagship card for Nvidia’s ray-tracing and Deep Learning Super-Sampling (SSAA) technologies. Ray-tracing essentially allows for more realistic-looking lighting and reflections in games, while DLSS is the end result of a new way of working out how to implement anti-aliasing. When developers agree to use the system, Nvidia’s own supercomputer will analyse their game, with AI determining an algorithm that smooths out edges without the usual adverse impact on performance
Both technologies are so new that the number of games that support them are currently very limited, but we do know that ray-tracing will reduce overall performance if you choose to enable it. As such, you’ll get the best results with the most powerful of the RTX family, the RTX 2080 Ti.
Key specs – Processors: 4,352 stream processors (max 1,545MHz); Memory: 11GB GDDR6
2. Best graphics card for 1440p gaming: AMD Radeon RX 5700
Price when reviewed: £290 including VAT | Buy now from Amazon
It took some time but AMD has finally given its Radeon graphics card architecture a full overhaul, resulting in the RX 5700 and the RX 5700 XT. Codenamed Navi, these two cards are the first to show off AMD’s 7nm RDNA architecture.
What this lacks in fancy features like ray-tracing, it makes up for with much more efficient core performance than previous Radeon efforts. The RX 5700 is therefore able to not just keep up with its closest Nvidia rival, the RTX 2060, but edge ahead of it in most of our gaming benchmarks. This frame-pushing proficiency makes it an excellent card for both 1080p and 1440p; 4K is also possible, though you’ll need to lower some settings in more demanding games.
Even better, for £290 it’s an absolute bargain. It’s a fair few notes less than the RTX 2060, and no other sub-£300 graphics card can compete with it in a simple speed contest. If you do have a little extra cash to burn, the RX 5700 XT is great as well, though its performance advantage over the cheaper RX 5700 is only particularly visible at 4K. For 1440p and below, this is the card to beat.
Key specs: 2,304 stream processors (max 1,725MHz), 8GB GDDR6
3. Best graphics card for affordable 4K gaming: AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT
Price when reviewed: £329 inc VAT | Buy now from Amazon
AMD has gone two for two on top-notch graphics cards in 2019, as the RX 5700 XT knocks the RTX 2070 off its perch – just as the RX 5700 did with the RTX 2060.
Both Navi cards actually have the same underlying GPU, only the RX 5700 XT runs with all of its potential unlocked; the RX 5700 has fewer of its cores enabled, and runs at slower clock speeds. These advantages help the RX 5700 XT achieve noticeably smoother results at 4K, even if the two cards come surprisingly close at the lower resolutions.
It also tended to come out a few frames ahead of the RTX 2070 in our benchmarks, despite a big price gap between the two – which is in AMD’s favour too. Once again, this saving comes at the cost of having no ray-tracing nor majorly performance-boosting extras like DLSS, but until support for both of these becomes more widespread, that’s not a very off-putting sacrifice.
What’s concerning is that the reference model we tested, and which you can buy from AMD directly for a change, has a very loud cooler. It might therefore be better to investigate the growing range of partner models, which should have quieter and potentially more effective open-air style coolers.
Key specs: 2,560 stream processors (max 1,905MHz), 8GB GDDR6
4. Best graphics card for affordable 1080P gaming: AMD Radeon RX 570
Price when reviewed: £110 inc VAT | Buy now from Amazon
The RX 570 is an interesting one: originally launched all the way back in April 2017, it wouldn’t initially appear to have any business being on a list of the best graphics cards in 2019. Especially as it was positioned, slightly awkwardly, between the bonafide budget RX 560 and the mid-range RX 580.
Regardless, thanks to a combination of peppy performance, slashed prices and some questionably expensive competition from Nvidia, it’s ended up as the smartest choice by far for inexpensive 1080p gaming. Take, for instance, how it stacks up against our previous entry-level favourite, the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti: the RX 570 is visibly faster, due to its roots as a pseudo-mid-range GPU, but it’s also become drastically cheaper over time. Meanwhile, the GTX 1050 Ti stubbornly refuses to drop below the £120-£150 range.
More recent GeForce models like the GTX 1650 and GTX 1660 are also too expensive to be worth considering over the stalwart RX 570. There is a question of how long the RX 570 has left in it, as it’s over two years old and could be on the verge of being replaced by an all-new RDNA card. For the time being, though, there’s nothing this cheap that runs anywhere near as well.
We tested the Asus ROG Strix OC edition, which comes factory-overclocked and rocking a dual-fan cooler. Despite these improvements, it’s also one of the best-priced RX 570 variants.
Key specs: 2,048 stream processors (max 1,310MHz), 4GB GDDR5
5. Best mid-range card with ray-tracing: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070
Price when reviewed: £460 inc VAT | Buy now from Amazon
The arrival of the RX 5700 XT has knocked this card a few places down the list – AMD’s Navi GPU can pump out frames just as quickly as the RTX 2070, yet costs well over £100 less.
Nonetheless, the RTX 2070 remains a good buy if you want both high-end performance and access to Nvidia’s ray-tracing and DLSS technologies. It too is capable of 4K gaming, just not to the standard of the RTX 2080 Ti, to be sure, but on the highest possible settings you can still get 60fps in less demanding games and at least 30fps in more GPU-punishing titles. Make a few concessions, like switching off AA, and you can easily get the latter running smoothly as well. Alternatively, consider using it with 1440p and even 1080p monitors with higher 120fps or 144Hz refresh rates, as this GPU will have no problems achieving excellent fps counts at lower resolutions.
Doing this risks bringing it into contention with Nvidia’s own RTX 2060, but beside performing in general, the RTX 2070 also helps ensure that enabling ray-tracing won’t cut the frame rate as low as it would with the more mid-range card.
We tested, and can thus particularly recommend, the MSI RTX 2070 Armor 8G model. It’s not overclocked but has a nice, quiet dual-fan cooler, subtle RGB lighting and a sturdy backplate.
Key specs: 2,304 stream processors (max 1,620MHz), 8GB GDDR6
6. Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super: High-end performance at a sensible price
Price when reviewed: £500 inc VAT | Buy now from Ebuyer
Unlike the RTX 2060, we think the Super version of the RTX 2070 is worth paying more for over the original. That’s in spite of RAM staying at the same 8GB of GDDR6, but clock speeds are up across the board – base speeds from 1,410MHz to 1,605MHz, and boost speeds from 1,620MHz to 1,770MHz. You also get more CUDA cores, with the RTX 2070 Super jumping from 2,304 to 2,560.
In our performance tests, it both outpaced the RX 5700 XT and closed the gap on the RTX 2080 Ti. True, the former is still much cheaper and the latter remains far more powerful, but not everyone has a spare £1,000 or so to drop on a GPU. The RTX 2070 Super delivers reasonable 4K and great 1440p performance for less than half of what Nvidia’s premier GPU costs, so even if it’s not as tremendous a deal as the RX 5700 XT, it’s worth considering nonetheless. Don’t forget, this has ray-tracing and DLSS capability on top.
We tested Zotac’s GeForce RTX 2070 Super Amp Extreme, with a distinctively long yet slim triple-fan cooler. This presents another advantage over the stock RX 5700 XT, which is a lot louder and lets the GPU run hotter.
Key specs: 2,560 stream processors (max 1,770MHz), 8GB GDDR6