Best graphics card for gamers and creatives in 2020 – CNET

If IntelAMD and Nvidia‘s statistics are correct, you’re probably using a computer and graphics card that are several years old. For PC gaming, video editing, animation and other heavyweight graphics-intensive activities, that’s just about forever. A lot’s changed in the last several years, so chances are you’re no longer using a modern card — much less the best graphics card out there — with new technologies like smart resolution upscaling or ray-tracing acceleration. And games and software used by creative folks for applications like 3D tools and video editors haven’t gotten any less demanding.

Even if you just need the basics for streaming video or surfing the web, the best graphics card can make your system feel snappier by improving the acceleration of video decoding or redrawing your screens faster, especially if you had previously used a budget GPU. With a Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptop or iMac, you can even upgrade the graphics using an external graphics processing unit (an eGPU with its own power supply) or a dedicated graphics card.

For color work, however, Nvidia finally made your old GeForce card a little more useful: As of version 431.70 (released July 29, 2019), the Studio branch of its drivers opened up true 30-bit color support for Photoshop and other Adobe applications. So no more shelling out megabucks for a Quadro workstation card just for the extra bit depth.


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The hardware landscape is constantly in flux. As an example, the latest graphics card options in the $500-or-less price range seem to change every six months or so, with AMD and Nvidia overhauling their lineups for the popular 1080p and growing 1440p gaming markets. And these biannual shufflings are pretty typical in an era of the ever-improving refresh rate and expanding memory bandwidth.

Most recently, Nvidia announced its new GeForce RTX 3000 series of GPUs, the RTX 3070, 3080 and 3090, which follow on the Super equivalents, and in the case of the 3090, the Titan RTX. The cards use the Ampere architecture, with improved algorithms and more processing power dedicated to ray tracing (second-gen Turing core), AI (for more efficient upscaling via DLSS) and the programmable shaders. They promise big jumps in performance over the 2000 series. And we’re expecting AMD to announce its cards based on the “Big Navi” current-gen architecture within the next couple of months. 

Unless you really, really need something now, I’d wait until the holiday shopping season to give the new products to percolate and possibly have end-of-year deals.

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One of the big differentiators between Nvidia and AMD’s GPUs these days is real-time ray-tracing acceleration — not who has it and who doesn’t, but how it’s implemented. Nvidia uses dedicated silicon RT, or ray-tracing cores, with a proprietary programming interface that takes more work for developers to support. AMD takes a less hardware-dependent approach, which is easier to incorporate — and which will be used by upcoming Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles — but arguably not as effective. 

The new architectures for ray-tracing acceleration are accompanied by a larger set of technologies which tend to be lumped in with them because they also improve or accelerate rendering in general. These include upscaling algorithms, for example, which render for a higher resolution screen using native-resolution textures (while maintaining frame rates); in other words, using textures for 1080p to render for 1440p. Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling and AMD’s Radeon Image Sharpening do this. 


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The result is it can seem like there’s more game support for it than there actually is — for example, if a game supports any piece of the new RTX architecture, like DLSS, it earns the whole “We support it!” checkbox. So deciding whether you as a gamer need the pricey RTX card or can live with a lower-end GTX 1660 Ti requires figuring out if your favorite games take advantage of the “right” features.

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Ready to throw down some cash for a new graphics card for your gaming rig or laptop? Don’t spend a single cent on a graphics card for gaming until you read this buying guide of the best graphics card, wherein we considered everything from video memory, refresh rate, and frame rate to power consumption, memory clock and gaming performance. Plus, our general GPU shopping tips at the end to help you make your choice. We’ll update this periodically.

Gigabyte

Sure, it’s a reasonable price. But if you’re planning to spend around $100 on a budget graphics card, don’t expect to game with the GeForce GT at 1080p — 720p at best unless a game is very lightweight, though Fortnite, CS:GO, League of Legends and other multiplayer competitive games generally fall under the “can play on a potato” umbrella. Many games may simply go from unplayable to a little less unplayable. This Nvidia graphics card does for a gaming PC what Nvidia’s MX chips do for laptops. In other words, plenty of the latest games will run on it, but many users won’t benefit. Cards can come with the chip overclocked, which gives it a little extra oomph as well.

If you’ve got an old desktop with integrated graphics that don’t support the current versions of graphics programming interfaces such as DirectX 12 or Vulkan, or if you just want to make your Windows experience feel a little more snappy or smooth, a GT 1030-based card can help. The GT line is designed with lower power requirements than the more popular GeForce GTX models, so it can fit in systems with lesser power supplies and compact designs. Unlike most gaming graphics cards, 1030-based cards can be low-profile and take up just a single slot for connectivity, and are quieter because they only require a single fan.

You may see a random AMD Radeon RX 550 card drop down below $100, and that’s a good choice if you’re looking for something with a little extra gaming oomph over the 1030 or support for two monitors. But it takes a lot more space and power than the simple GT half-height replacement cards.

Asus

There used to be more options in the $100-$150 range; now, they mostly fall below $100 or above $150, which is frankly annoying. But between $150 and $200 you’ll generally find the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super-based cards and the AMD Radeon RX 5500 XT cards, both of which deliver very similar, solid entry-level 1080p gaming at low or medium settings for all but the most GPU-intensive games. 

And since much basic photo editing still isn’t very GPU-intensive, a fast, high-core-count CPU still gives you more performance value for the money than a higher-power graphics card.

One distinction between the two that may affect your decision is power draw: the RX 5500 XT takes about 30 watts more than the 1650S. Since they’re both under 150 watts, though, your power supply probably isn’t a problem. 

But unless your budget is extremely tight I suggest you spend a little more (about $225 or so) for at least a GTX 1660 Super: it’s got 6GB of video memory rather than 4GB, which gives you some headroom to improve the visual quality settings in a game as well as lowers its near-term obsolescence quotient.

MSI

AMD’s Radeon RX 5600 XT delivers the best graphics card performance for the this price tier compared with its competitor, the GTX 1660 Ti; the next real performance and capability jump is to the GeForce RTX 2060 and Radeon RX 5700 XT, both above $400, which makes this a good sweet spot to settle in as well.

Lori Grunin/CNET

With reasonably comparable performance at lower prices, RX 5700 XT cards have an edge over their RTX 2060S-based competitors, and it’s also the best graphics card to stick in an external GPU for a Mac.

Zotac

This is not the time to buy a graphics card over $500; Nvidia’s new RTX 30-series has started shipping but the $499 RTX 3070 has been bumped until the end of October, and AMD’s next-gen “Big Navi” with RDNA 2.0 architecture — that’s the technology in the upcoming Xbox Series X and PS5 consoles — is expected this month as well. This recommendation applies to good 1440p or better gaming, video editing (the 3000 series bumps the memory as well as the GPU speed), working with high-res real-time-rendered 3D and so on. 

The more expensive, faster cards like the RTX 3090 and 3080 have gotten off to a rocky start, and before we can draw the recommendation line between the $499 RTX 3070 and the $699 RTX 3080 we have to see where the RTX 3070’s performance falls.

If you absolutely need something right now with this level of performance, though, I’d probably think about a cheaper overclocked 2060S or 2070 Super and plan to replace it sooner than you expected. (Or not. It might be fine!)

The same is true for the pro workstation graphics cards, Nvidia Quadro and Radeon Pro. Until we see how the high-end prosumer cards perform — notably, the RTX 3090, which replaces the Titan RTX — or what AMD has in store for us, you don’t want to spend thousands on a Quadro if the RTX 3090 can do what you need for $1,500.

Things to keep in mind when looking for the best graphics card:

  • Once you’ve narrowed down your choice to a few options, searching for people’s complaints about a product is critical to discovering important information — like how many slots a card really requires as opposed to the manufacturer’s claims. It may take two slots, for example, but be just thick enough to make it impossible to put another card in a slot next to it, or just a little too long to handle a motherboard because of obstructions.
  • Power consumption: Always check the power capabilities of a card against your power supply’s output. Don’t forget to take the other cards and devices in your system into account concerning power usage and the possible effect on battery life.
  • Most of the negative reviews of graphics describe artifacts and failures that are usually the symptoms of overheating. If this worries you, then don’t buy an overclocked card (usually indicated by “OC” in the name). When buying cards, make sure that it not only has sufficient cooling but that your case’s airflow and the positions of your other cards will allow for optimal heat dissipation. That may mean, for example, moving another PCI card into a different slot.
  • GTX models may be a little smaller than the RTX models and may generate less heat.
  • The most powerful GPU on the planet won’t make a difference if your CPU is the bottleneck (and vice versa) — think overkill.
  • You’ll see a lot of price variation across cards using the same GPU. That’s for features such as overclocking, better cooling systems or flashy (literally) designs. 
  • All Nvidia GTX and RTX cards support the various flavors of G-Sync, and all AMD Radeon cards RX 400 or later support FreeSync adaptive refresh technologies. These sync with your monitor to reduce artifacts caused by a mismatch between screen refresh rate and frame rate — so if you’re keeping your monitor, you may want to get a card that supports the right tech.
  • Performance generalizations are just that — generalizations. If you’re looking to boost performance in a particular game, run a search on, say, “Fortnite benchmarks” and “best cards for Fortnite.” 
  • Don’t assume that replacing an old card will automatically give you noticeably better or smoother performance.
  • Don’t assume that the newer Nvidia RTX 20-series cards will be faster than the 10-series cards they replace. 
  • Dual cards are usually more of a pain than they’re worth. Video editing is usually the exception, depending upon application support.
  • If you want a card for content creation, game benchmarks aren’t usually representative. To research those, start by running a search on “workstation GPUs” or, for example, “best GPU for Premiere.” It’s important to match the GPU to the application, because, for instance, Nvidia Quadro GPUs are generally more powerful than their AMD Radeon Pro or WX series equivalents, but application developers who are tight with Apple — which doesn’t support Nvidia GPUs — optimize their applications for AMD GPUs. The biggest example of this is Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve video editor.
  • Photo editing is still, for the most part, CPU-bound, so a midrange graphics card is fine. Video editing and 3D-based tools take more advantage of the GPU. Note that Adobe recently announced enhanced GPU support for Lightroom, but it doesn’t make anything render to the screen faster; it’s strictly for making the sliders feel more responsive when you’re working on high-resolution (i.e., 4K or more) displays. So for the moment, that midrange GPU should still be fine.

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