Hands-On & Video Overview of the Top Gaming Video Cards
The Top Gaming Graphics Cards by Price
|Price||Primary Choice||Alternative Competitor
|Cheap Bastard||$95||Radeon R7 260X||GTX 750 Passive (for HTPCs)|
|Budget||$147||Radeon R9 270||GTX 750 Ti ($130)|
|Mid-Range||$200||Radeon R9 280X||GTX 760 2GB ($190)
GTX 770 2GB ($250)
|High-End||$370||GTX 970 4GB||Radeon R9 290X 4GB ($300)|
||$550||GTX 980 4GB||-|
Best Ultra-Budget Video Card Under $100 – Radeon R7 260X 2GB
Although it's not our first recommendation for a mainstream card, AMD's Radeon R7 260X makes for a go-to unit when spending less than $100 on a video card. We'd generally urge more serious gamers to spend at least $120-$150 on a decent video card, but sometimes the budget wins out; similarly, not all GPUs need to be capable of running modern AAA titles at higher settings.
The R7 260X 2GB graphics card we've selected will easily handle most modern titles (sans the likes of Assassin's Creed Unity, Far Cry, and similar high-fidelity games) at medium settings with a playable framerate. For those building home-theater PCs and “console replacements,” the 260X makes for a reasonably-priced option for gaming at moderate settings. Consider a passive GTX 750 if silence or TDP are concerns for an HTPC; check out our review of that over here.
If $95 is too low for your price and $150 is too high, stay tuned for the GTX 750 Ti.
Our Go-To For Gaming: Budget Graphics Cards Under $150 – GTX 750 Ti & R9 270
The sub-$150 price-point moves the most video cards among our readers. Given the recent price drops of AMD's R9 270 and nVidia's GTX 750 Ti – both capable of playing nearly all current games at medium to high settings – it's easy to tighten the budget without significant sacrifice. You'll need something higher-end for certain games (again, ACU) or multi-monitor arrays, but if gaming at medium to high settings on 1080p is acceptable to you, these make for good buys.
AMD's R9 270 ($147) will pump a bit more raw power, but you're paying an extra $17 for that. The R9 270 uses the usual 6-pin power connector and has a higher TDP (and thus, slightly higher thermals) than its immediate GTX 750 Ti competitor. If a PCI-e power connector requirement isn't a deterrent – and for most builds, it won't be – the R9 270 will power games at generally higher settings. AMD is presently shipping its R9 270 alongside three free games, including Alien Isolation, Star Citizen, Thief, and more.
Nvidia's GTX 750 Ti ($130) comes in a bit cheaper, at lower TDP (~65W), without a power cable requirement (potentially better for cramped HTPCs), and with nVidia's surprisingly good GFE & ShadowPlay software. In our tests, we've found that the GTX 750 Ti will play most games (including Far Cry 4) fluidly at medium to high settings. The R9 270 will push slightly higher settings if the 750 Ti's advantages are uninteresting for your uses. We would strongly recommend the GTX 750 Ti in instances where the R9 270 is pushing the limits of the budget. Driver optimization and the software suite make the 750 Ti a strong contendor if more limited on spending.
Mid-Range Gaming Video Cards Under $250 – GTX 770, R9 280X
The launch of the GTX 970 heralded a price reduction in the GTX 760 and 770, falling to $200 and $250, respectively. Nvidia has discontinued production of the GTX 770 and 780 in favor of the new GTX 970 ($370) and 980 ($550), but that doesn't make either of the previous cards any less desirable; in fact, the price drops have made them viable options for more budget-friendly builds.
The $200-$250 price-point has become more noteworthy than previously due to trends of increased VRAM consumption in games. This is something we validated in our ACU benchmark and Far Cry 4 benchmark, two games that use upwards of 4GB VRAM when available.
The GTX 760 2GB ($190) was once a $250-$300 video card, landing it firmly in the mid-range category. Even with the launch of the GTX 970 and prevalence of competing AMD devices, the GTX 760 still stands as one of the best gaming solutions out there for users building mid-range systems (think: sub-$1000). You'll play almost all games on high-ultra (1080) settings with the 760, sans a few of the newest AAA titles (everything Ubisoft makes, really) and Crysis 3. Even given the performance of the GTX 760, we'd strongly encourage considering AMD's $200 R9 280X, found just below. The 760 faces fierce competition these days, even against nVidia's own 770 at $250. If $200+ is stretching the budget too thin, the 760 still offers solid, high graphics performance.
AMD's R9 280X 3GB ($200) trades blows with the GTX 770 2GB ($250) in performance in some games (Battlefield 4), but the 280X drives higher FPS overall. Various nVidia features could make the GTX 770 more appealing – including unarguably more active driver support – but the R9 280X's pricing, generally higher FPS, and included games make it an appealing competitor. Performance-wise, you can't go wrong with either the 770 or 280X, just pick based upon price and ancillary needs. The 770 would be the preferred choice if COMPUTE or CUDA performance are demanded, as would be the case in Adobe Premiere or Sony Vegas editing environments.
High-End Gaming Graphics Cards Under $400 – GTX 970, R9 290X
We've mentioned the GTX 970 a few times now. NVidia's GTX 970 4GB GPU ($370) should be one of the most popular graphics solutions this holiday season. The card has consistently performed approximately equal to the GTX 780 ($380) in framerate while consuming less power and offering architectural advantages. The 970 runs about 10% slower in framerate than the GTX 980 – a $200 price increase – and makes for a reliable gaming solution. We'd strongly recommend a GTX 970 4GB purchase if it is in budget for your mid-range or high-end gaming PC setups. This is easily one of the best value purchases on the market right now.
If AMD is more your thing or you're on a tighter budget, the R9 290X 4GB ($300) is now available at nearly $200 less than its launch MSRP. Due to power consumption, thermal demands, and overall inefficiency of the card in the face of nVidia's similarly-performing GTX 970, we would generally favor the GTX 970 over the R9 290X. The 290X is still a high-performing graphics solution, despite these flaws.
Flagship Gaming & Production Video Card – GTX 980
Our review of nVidia's GTX 980 4GB ($550) declared the 980 to be the best video card we've ever tested, especially when considering its low 165-180W power draw, low thermals, advanced (and good-looking) heatsink design, and impressively modest price. The GTX 970 offers such power for gaming applications that the 980 is tough to justify for most users; enthusiasts and hobbyist production users will get the most use out of the GTX 980, but the GTX 970 serves as a catch-all otherwise. The extra performance can be the difference between pushing higher resolutions with DSR, if that's of interest.
Be sure to tweet at us or stop by the forums for more one-on-one video card selection support!
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.