Choosing the Best Graphics Card for Gaming: Ultimate 2017 Buying Guide

Last Updated: 25th May, 2017.

Welcome to the complete definitive guide on how to choose the best graphics card for gaming where we cover everything you’d ever want to know about picking the right GPU for your high-performance gaming rig.

If you’re simply after specific graphics card recommendations, we also maintain an updated list of the current best gaming graphics cards on the market. But if you want to get into the nitty-gritty details and understand GPUs that little bit more to make the most informed, wise purchasing decision then keep reading as this guide goes into more depth and afterwards you’ll know everything you’d ever want to know about them.

best gaming gpu under 200 for 2017Choosing the best graphics card for gaming, and for your specific spending budget, isn’t that straightforward.

For one there’s the confusing naming systems, the performance and power statistics, the myriad of other features and specifications to wrap your head around, not to mention the sheer number of choices that you have.

You don’t need to understand everything about them and become a hardware pro to buy a great value card, but there are some basics you should be aware of if you want to be a smart shopper now and into the future as chances are you’ll have to upgrade or build a new system in the future.

GPUs are constantly evolving beasts with new technology breakthroughs seemingly happening every other day, but here at CGB we’re here to cut through the noise and help you make sense of all the confusion. Without futher ado let’s dive into the wonderful world of GPUs, starting with the basics.

What is a Graphics Card?

For the uninitiated, a graphics card is a hardware component in a computer and is responsible for rendering the graphics you see on screen. The technical term is GPU (short for Graphics Processing Unit), and it’s also sometimes referred to as the video card.

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Followed closely by your processor, your graphics card is the single most important components when it comes to gaming and other graphically-demanding tasks. PC games these days have many complicated, detailed 3D scenes with awesome special effects, and the graphics card is responsible for processing and outputting all this action in the blink of an eye.

Simply put, the better and more powerful your graphics card, the faster your games will run making for a smoother, more visually-appealing and overall more enjoyable experience.

If your graphics card isn’t up to scratch for the specific games you want to play (and for the resolution and in-game graphical settings you desire to run the game at) then in-game performance is going to suffer and the on-screen action will “lag” or hiccup, which can hinder the experience at best and make the game completely unplayable at worst.

What About Integrated Graphics Cards?

Graphics cards also sometimes come integrated with either a motherboard or a CPU, which is known as an integrated graphics card (or on-board graphics card).

However, these built-in graphics solutions are nowhere near as powerful as a dedicated graphics card as you can imagine, and have no place in modern gaming if you want good performance. Give them a miss; you need a dedicated graphics card.

GPU Arms Race

When choosing the best graphics card for gaming, these days there are only 2 makers in the game. There used to be a few more options back in the day but now only AMD and Nvidia remain.

Both companies have been neck and neck in the GPU game for a long time now, and both continually push the envelope and strive to produce faster, more efficient GPUs than the other. It seems that every time either AMD or Nvidia makes a new breakthrough in graphics technology; the other strikes back sooner rather than later to outdo them yet again and the cycle is sure to continue.

It’s worthy to note that whilst they’re only 2 manufacturers to choose from, other companies such as EVGA, MSI, ASUS, PNY, XFX and Sapphire re-sell AMD and Nvidia cards under their own brand with tweaks and adjustments such as modified cooling solutions and clock speeds. But every graphics chip is still either AMD or Nvidia.

Choosing AMD or Nvidia in 2017

As of right now at the time of writing, deciding between the two GPU giants depends on which type of gamer you are and how much you’re looking to drop on your card. If you’re building or upgrading a budget to mid-range gaming PC, say under $1000 or so, you have many great options from both AMD and Nvidia.

On the other hand, for a high-end system $1000 and over, Nvidia is the only real option as they currently dominate the upper end of the market with their amazing 1070 and 1080 range of cards. If you’re going for even higher performance than these high-end cards, Nvidia is still king with their Titan GPUs.

Model Numbers Explained

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The model number is the easiest way to generally compare the overall performance of a card against a card within the same range of cards.

By model number we mean, as examples, the AMD Radeon RX 580 or the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060.

In general, the higher the model number, the powerful the card. A GTX 1080 is going to be more powerful than a GTX 1070. Likewise for AMD; the RX 580 is the next tier up from the RX 570.

However, keep in mind that AMD and Nvidia change their model numbers when a new range of cards is released. So this is where things can get a little confusing because one card from a previous range of cards may have a smaller model number than another newer card, but have better performance than that newer card.

GPU Features Explained

Let’s get into the most common features that you should be aware of on your quest for the best graphics card for gaming. You don’t need to know all the minute details inside out and become a tech expert, but knowing at least the basics will hold you in good stead not only when buying a graphics card now but later down the track should you ever upgrade.

Video Memory (VRAM)

Graphics cards have on-board memory, known as video memory (or VRAM) to help store and process data faster. The more memory your card has the better, but in truth it’s not really a defining factor. The actual model you choose is a lot more important, but you’ll tend to find that the better cards have more memory anyway.

4 GB of video card memory is around the most common these days, and is plentiful amount Anything more is just a bonus, really. 2GB would be the minimum to future-proof your build for the near future, and is still enough to play the latest games these days without problems.

Core Clock Speed and Memory Bus

Just like processors, graphics cards have a clock speed specification too, which tells you roughly how fast the GPU can work for you. Some lower-end cards can have faster clock speeds than higher ranked cards though to make up for their lack of power in other areas, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will perform better in reality.

To be honest the clock speed isn’t something the majority of gamers should worry about when choosing a graphics card, and it’ll mean more to the hardware enthusiasts who want to compare GPUs more closely.

The memory bus size is also another spec that important, yet not so important for the average gamer trying to pick a card. But for those who wish to know, the size of the memory bus dictates how much data can be sent through all at once.

Minimum Power Supply

You’ll need to be aware of how much power your new video card will require to run, AKA the minimum recommended power supply (which should be stated clearly somewhere). This is especially important if you choose a monster high-end card that will suck a ton of power, so you can pick an adequate power supply for your needs.

Do keep in mind that GPU power recommendations are usually a little higher than you actually need though, due to the fact that they take into account things like low quality power supplies which actually produce less power than they say (yet another reason you should never get a cheap power supply which is a common beginner mistake).

If you’ll be running dual GPUs in SLI or CrossFire, then obviously that’ll require a lot more power so adjust accordingly and plan ahead if you think you might add a second graphics card at a later date.

Size Matters

Graphics cards vary in actual size and in general the more powerful the card the larger it will be. This may be a concern if you buy a gigantic high-end card and you have a small case and/or motherboard.

If you go with the typical mid-tower ATX case and motherboard then you should be fine to fit most graphics card in your build, but check the supported GPU dimensions of your case to be sure, especially if you’re getting a massive card with multiple fans which may require a larger case (ie a “full-tower” case)

But if you opt for a micro-ATX setup or smaller for your build, or you are upgrading the video card in a small PC, then you should ensure your new flashy graphics card is actually going to fit without problems before buying it.

Output Ports

When choosing a graphics card the output ports may be an important factor for you. Most cards these days will have a DVI port which is the common way to connect to your monitor, but depending on your individual needs you may want other output ports such as HDMI, mini HDMI or the latest technology “DisplayPort” and “Mini DisplayPort” to connect to a TV or other device. If you want to output your display to 2 monitors then you will need a video card with 2 DVI ports.

Multi-GPUs (SLI and CrossFire)

For the more hardcore gamers and power users who want to splurge on some serious graphics power, a multiple graphics card setup may be an option. AMD and Nvidia both have their own technologies, namely CrossFire and SLI (stands for Scalable Link Interface) respectively, to link up more than one card so that your computer recognizes them as the one card.

If you do plan on a multiple card setup you’ll generally want all your cards to be the same manufacturer and GPU. You will also need to make sure your motherboard has enough PCI-Express ports for your graphics cards, and your power supply will need to be powerful enough to support multiple cards.

We don’t generally recommend it though, as having 2 cards doesn’t mean you’ll get twice the performance. In fact, it’s more like 30 – 50 percent more, and there are other issues that come with it as well. For 98% of gamers (and especially if you’re new) just stuck with the single GPU.

DirectX and OpenGL

If you’re buying a new card then you don’t have to worry about this as they will undoubtedly have support for the latest versions of both DirectX and OpenGL, but if you’re buying an older card then it’s something you might want to check. If you weren’t aware, DirectX and OpenGL are APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) which is basically software that the developers use to create their games.

Special Features

Both AMD and Nvidia have their own special features that they try to use to distinguish themselves from each other. For example Nvidia has their PhysX technology which adds more realistic physics, and 3D Vision which runs your games in 3D mode assuming you have their 3D Vision kit and a special 120Hz monitor.

AMDs has Eyefinity technology which allows you to easily output your display to half a dozen monitors. These fancy features come at a cost though, and depending on your card they may slow down your performance quite notably. Once again, unless you’re a high-end enthusiast who really wants a certain new fancy feature, I wouldn’t worry about this.

How Much to Spend on Your GPU?

When building a PC suited for modern gaming, and your aim is to maximize gaming performance for your money, as a general rule of thumb you’ll want to dedicate roughly between 25 – 40 percent of your total spending budget to your graphics.

So, on a $1000 PC build, you’ll be looking at a card between $250 to $400. On a $500 build, that’s around $125 to $200.

Whilst you do want to get the most powerful graphics card you can afford, there is a point where you can overspend. For example, if you’ll be sticking to full HD resolution (ie 1080p, 1920 x 1080) which is still the most common, there’s no need splashing over 300 dollars on an extreme tier card.

The resolution you’ll be playing in matters a lot. Higher resolutions such as 1440p (QHD) and 4K (UHD) demand a lot more from your graphics card as there are way more pixels to render on-screen than the traditional resolutions of HD (720p) and full HD (1080p).

As well as resolution, your GPU selection also comes down to the types of games you’ll want to play.

Are you running the most graphically-demanding games on the market, such as Dues Ex Mankind Divided, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Far Cry Primal and Witcher 3?

Or less demanding games such as Overwatch, World of Warcraft, and Battlefield 1? Alternatively, do you plan on running mostly older games that don’t require anywhere near as much power?

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Then there’s the issue of whether or not you mind turning down the in-game graphics settings for a more playable experience if your card can’t handle a certain game well enough on max settings.

Some specific cards do run certain games slightly faster than others, so you may want to take this into account and take a look at game-specific benchmarks if you plan on playing a certain game the majority of the time and care about getting a certain type of performance at a certain resolution (such as the ultra smooth 60 frames per second).

For example, for a particular chosen title, either AMD or Nvidia may be better optimized for that game so you may want to do your homework about that.

Planning Ahead

On top of those considerations, when choosing the best graphics card for gaming you should also remember that the better the card you purchase now, the more future-proof your build is and the longer you can delay having to upgrade your graphics card.

If you buy a 100 dollar card now to be able to play in 1080p just fine for today’s titles, in a couple of years you’ll need to upgrade to keep up. Whereas if you splurge on a higher-end card now, even if you’re still only playing in 1080p, you’ll be able to keep up flawless performance for many years to come without needing to upgrade your gear.

Buying Your Graphics Card

So after all that, hopefully you’ll be able to research and choose the best graphics card for gaming for your PC with a lot less confusion.

We do our own independent research here at CGB and keep up with the latest happenings in GPU technology, and you can check out our top recommended graphics cards here. Good luck out there, gamer.

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