How to Buy the Right GPU: A Graphics Card Guide for 2020 - Tom's Hardware

How to Buy the Right GPU: A Graphics Card Guide for 2020 – Tom’s Hardware

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Getting the best graphics card is key if you’re looking to buy the best gaming PC or looking to build a PC on your own. The graphics card is even more important than the CPU. Unfortunately, the process of figuring out how to buy a GPU can be intimidating. There’s so much to consider, from the type of monitor you’re using (for recommendations, see our Best Gaming Monitors page) to the size of your PC case to the game settings you plan to play at.

Below are the things you need to keep in mind when shopping for your next GPU. For specific recommendations, see our best graphics cards list of the current options, as well as the GPU Benchmarks Hierarchy to see how today’s cards compare to older cards that you might be looking to upgrade and replace.

Note that, when we wrote this, stock of both Nvidia’s latest 30-series cards as well as AMD’s 6000 cards were extremely limited. (As in, practically non-existent.) Frankly, even previous generation hardware is currently overpriced and out of stock. For help on that front, check out our Where to Buy an RTX 3060 Ti, 3070, 3080 or 3090 and Where to Buy Radeon RX 6800, RX 6800XT, RX 6900XT stories. Hopefully, issues with availability as well as bots buying cards to sell them at higher prices will ease in the coming months, as we get further from launch and more silicon comes of the fabrication lines.

Quick tips

  • Save some money for the CPU. If you spend all your money on graphics and don’t opt for one of the best CPUs, your system might score well on synthetic benchmarks but won’t do as well in real game play (due to lower minimum frame rates).
  • Match your monitor resolution. Many mainstream cards are sufficient for gaming at 1080p resolutions at between 30-60 fps, but you’ll need a high-end card for resolutions at or near 4K resolution with high in-game settings on the most demanding titles. So be sure to pair your GPU with the best gaming monitor for your needs.
  • Consider your refresh rate. If your monitor has triple-digit refresh rates, you’ll need a powerful card and processor to reach its full potential. Alternatively, if your monitor tops out at 60Hz and 1080p, there’s no point in paying extra for a powerful card that pushes pixels faster than your display can keep up with.
  • Do you have enough power and space? Make sure your PC case has enough room for the card you’re considering, and that your power supply has enough watts to spare, along with the correct type of power connectors (up to three 8-pin PCIe, depending on the card).
  • Check the MSRP before buying. A good way to tell if you’re getting a deal is to check the launch price or MSRP of the card you’re considering before buying. Tools like CamelCamelCamel can help separate the real deals from the fake mark-up-then-discount offerings. But note that in recent months, due to supply issues and increased demand, most recent cards have been selling for well above their MSRP.
  • Don’t get dual cards—they’re not worth it. Game support for Multi-card SLI or CrossFire setups has been trending down for years. Get the best single card you can afford. Adding a second card is usually more trouble than it’s worth.
  • Don’t count on overclocking for serious performance boosts. If you need better performance, buy a more-powerful card. Graphics cards don’t typically have large amounts of overclocking headroom, usually only 5-10%.

AMD or Nvidia?

Nvidia and AMD GPUs (Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

There are hundreds of graphics cards from dozens of manufacturers, but only two companies actually make the GPUs that power these components: Nvidia and AMD—although Intel’s Xe Graphics could arrive this year. With its latest “Big Navi” RX 6000 cards, AMD is more competitive than it has been in years with Nvidia and its current-gen Ampere cards, like the GeForce RTX 3080, in general performance.

That said, the realistically lit elephant in the room that we’ve been ignoring thus-far is real-time ray tracing. Introduced as a major new feature with Nvidia’s now previous-generation RTX 20-series cards, “Team Green” is now on its second generation RTX with 30-series GPUs. AMD (“Team Red”) stepped into this game in a big way in 2020 with its RX 6000 cards, but it’s still on its first go-round with real-time ray tracing, and so lags behind Nvidia on this front.

Still, the rollout of games that make use of (and specifically good use of) ray tracing has been slow. There’s no doubt that more games are adding RT support—and many more will in the future as ray tracing is also supported by the recent Sony PlayStation 5 and Microsoft Series X consoles. But as of this writing, only roughly 20 AAA games have ray tracing support (depending on what you classify as a AAA title and substantive ray tracing), with perhaps ten more slated to launch this year. Of those, we really only think two (Control and Cyberpunk 2077) really do the tech justice. So weigh the importance of ray tracing performance with how interested you are in these games, how important the best possible visuals are to your enjoyment, and how much future-proofing you want baked into your GPU.

Also, don’t forget DLSS, Nvidia’s AI-assisted resolution upscaling. It can deliver improved performance with less of a hit on frame rates than is typical from maxing out your monitor’s resolution the traditional way. But again, support for this feature is limited to a subset of games (admittedly a growing one). And once again, AMD has its own (open source) answer to DLSS, called Fidelity FX Super Resolution (AMD FSR). But it isn’t ready for a 1.0 release yet, and Nvidia’s DLSS 2.0 implementation has been in the wild for over a year now.

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