How to Choose the Right Graphics Card
If you frequent gaming and hardware sites, you’ll see lots of buzz around “4K gaming” on new high-end monitors, as well as the rise of more-affordable 1440p (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) displays. Spend long enough in those parts, and you might assume that high-res gaming and expensive, monster video cards rule the PC-gaming world.
Not so! Yes, they are important, and yes, they are the eventual future—when they get cheaper, much cheaper. For the foreseeable future, though, playing at 1,920 by 1,080 pixels (a.k.a. 1080p, or “full HD”) will remain the sweet spot for PC gamers.
Today, 1080p monitors are affordable—you can find plenty of ’em down around $100—and even a midrange video card can run the latest games on one of these displays with a silky-smooth frame rate. In fact, according to the latest Steam Hardware Survey results, 1080p remains by far the most common native display resolution for PC gamers on the service, outranking all other resolutions combined.
The truth is, though most gamers would love to play at the highest resolution possible, buying both a high-res 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) or 1440p display and a video card that can ace gaming at that higher resolution will cost you plenty. (One depends on the other.) Most of us just want our games to look good and run smoothly, and that’s much less expensive to achieve at the mainstream resolution of 1,920 by 1,080.
This resolution has been the de facto standard for gaming for some time now, and it will stay that way until cheap 1440p monitors become much more common, or 4K-capable graphics cards become reasonably affordable. (At this writing, gaming at 4K resolution with leading PC titles was impossible to achieve with a card costing much less than $500, unless you were willing to dial back on the detail settings.) So purchasing a video card that can run games at a smooth clip at 1080p is a solid investment, one that should keep you happy for at least a few years, if not longer.
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1080p Gaming Cards: A Competitive Field
Just one problem: Since 1080p is such a popular resolution, a boatload of video cards are competing for the top spot in the category. The field of 1080p graphics cards is more granular in the first half of 2020 than it’s ever been, with nearly a dozen different card classes (defined by their different core graphics processors) to choose from. But that’s where we come in. We’ll walk you through the features you need to pay attention to when shopping for a 1080p-ideal video card, and outline the best cards we’ve tested for gaming at this resolution, given your budget.
The good news? Nvidia’s introduction of its 2018 and 2019 “Turing”-generation video cards, alongside AMD’s “Navi” line of cards, has meant better 1080p power than ever for under $250. Nvidia also, in mid-to-late 2018, introduced its first cards in its new GeForce RTX line, including the GeForce RTX 2080 and GeForce RTX 2070, as well as an expensive, elite-class GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. (Most of these have been augmented and, in some cases, replaced by newer, mid-2019 “RTX Super” editions.) While these high-end cards will run any game very nicely at 1080p, they are mighty, mighty overkill for this resolution, starting at $499 for cards based on the RTX 2070 and above $1,000 for the RTX 2080 Ti cards.
Buying Basics: What to Look for in a 1080p Card
Most cards that are “good enough” for 1080p gaming ring up at between $150 and $300 at this writing. Pricier cards will certainly do the job, too. But the further you get above $300, the more into overkill territory you’ve gone for most games. Here are the key factors in play.
How Much Video Memory Is Enough?
The amount of graphics memory (or video RAM) that your video card has onboard directly affects the resolution at which you can game smoothly, as well as the detail settings that are possible. The overall power of the graphics processing unit (commonly called the “GPU”) on the card dictates how well you can run a specific game at certain settings, too. But think of the video memory as a freeway that opens up lanes for the GPU to work its magic without getting congested.
Without enough video memory, the GPU will be constrained, unable to perform at its maximum potential. The reason: The video card actually crunches all the pixels that go onto the screen while they are in memory. So, the more data that’s needed, either for a certain resolution or to display more detail in a game, the more memory is required to handle it efficaciously. That’s why high-end video cards tend to have more on-card memory; more of it is needed to manage all the pixels that render games at higher resolutions and at higher detail settings.
Generally speaking, for 1080p gaming, 2GB of video memory is an adequate minimum, but 4GB is much better. In cards under $300 nowadays, you’ll see graphics memory ranging from 1GB up to 8GB. A few of the key cards for 1080p gaming come in 3GB/6GB and 4GB/8GB variants.
Going with a card that has 6GB or 8GB of RAM is fine, but don’t expect miracles, as performance generally does not improve by a whole lot in cards at this resolution versus 3GB or 4GB, all else being equal. Leveraging the extra memory only applies in certain games and under certain circumstances. So don’t spend the money on any more RAM or GPU power than you need. For 1080p play, opting for a 3GB or 4GB card should suffice, unless you intend to upgrade your monitor to a 1440p or 4K screen in the near future. But if that’s the case, you’ll want a card that’s equipped with a more powerful GPU, too.
Which Ports Does My Graphics Card Need?
All the standard outputs on today’s graphics cards (VGA, DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort) support 1080p resolution. In most cases, you’ll just need to pick a card that has a port matching what’s on your monitor. It’s not until you get into resolutions higher than 1080p that it’s possible to start exceeding the capabilities of some interfaces, such as VGA and older versions of HDMI.
If you’re sticking to 1080p, you shouldn’t have much cause for concern or confusion, since all cards and most monitors these days have multiple ports. Chances are, you’ll be able to just plug in and go; at worst, if you’re upgrading from an old system or card, you may need a new cable or an adapter. So keep these things in mind while you’re shopping.
Both DisplayPort 1.4 and HDMI 2.0 can support 1080p resolution up to 240Hz, so if playing games at a high refresh rate is your main concern (more on that in a moment), make sure you pick up a card and a cable that are appropriate for this aim.
Also realize, if you’re making the move for the first time away from DVI or VGA, that the HDMI interface can carry an audio signal; if your display has built-in speakers (or is an HDTV), that can eliminate some cabling complexity.
How Much Should I Spend on My Graphics Card?
This is a moving target, but it’s safe to say you can expect to drop between $100 and $300 on a 1080p-appropriate video card, depending on whether you want to run games at the very highest settings, or closer to medium ones. If you’re interested in enabling anti-aliasing (AA), which smooths jagged lines from the edges of in-game objects, you’ll need to spend toward the higher end of the range, especially if you want to crank up the AA settings as high as possible. (AA tends to be demanding.)
If you’re content with just average detail settings and frame rates, by all means adhere to a strict budget. But if you want maximum detail and AA at 1080p, you’ll probably need to venture into the $200-to-$300 zone.
Should I Get an AMD or an Nvidia Graphics Card?
Both AMD and Nvidia have strong offerings nowadays in the range between $100 and $300, though we give Nvidia an edge for hitting more price points within the range with solid offerings. But so long as you’re sticking to both companies’ latest-gen cards, it’s hard to pick a bad one for 1080p in that price span.
On the supporting-software front, we also give Nvidia a slight edge, but it’s a near-run thing nowadays. Nvidia’s GeForce Experience software is slick, lets you record in-game video easily with its Shadowplay feature, and updates your drivers for you (only prompting you when they’re ready to install). Nvidia’s software also helps you join co-op games quickly and easily. AMD’s Radeon Software boasts similar capabilities, and the company’s driver software is a clear improvement over the Catalyst app from days of yore. There’s no longer as much daylight between Team Green (Nvidia) and Team Red (AMD) on this score as in previous years.
Also worth considering: the competing image-smoothing technologies, FreeSync (AMD) and G-Sync (Nvidia). If you have a new monitor that supports one or the other, that would be a vital reason to choose one chip company over the another. That said, you can currently find a subset of monitors that are branded as FreeSync, but which Nvidia now supports under its G-Sync image-smoothing tech; these displays are dubbed “G-Sync Compatible.”
Finally, there’s sharpening tech. This new addition to gamers’ arsenals is the perfect way to pinch every bit of performance you can out of a card. What they do, in a nutshell, is downscale the resolution of a game (thereby increasing performance by up to 30 percent on the same card), without sacrificing visual fidelity in the process. Currently, the two competing technologies from Nvidia and AMD are called Freestyle and Radeon Image Sharpening (RIS), respectively, and each has its own benefits and drawbacks.
We’ll get into the latest-gen AMD and Nvidia cards geared toward 1080p below and break out the card classes in play today by price.
Should I Get an Overclocked Card, or a Reference Card?
In the world of video cards, the manufacturer of a graphics chip (AMD or Nvidia) designs a GPU, as well as (usually) an adequate cooling mechanism for the card. This is known as a “reference design,” the baseline model of the card with nothing too fancy added, running at safe speeds. Once the chip maker designs this basic package, it hands off the design to its partners (say, MSI, EVGA, Asus, Gigabyte, or Sapphire) to use as a “reference” or “stock” design for their own retail cards.
Often, these companies will offer cards based on this basic design, but also crank out more-expensive, higher-performance versions that are overclocked. The reference design usually will have AMD or Nvidia branding somewhere on the card, and look reserved compared to the more-aggressive designs with bigger fans, exotic shrouds, and the manufacturer’s own branding more prominent than Nvidia’s or AMD’s. With these latter cards, the larger, more complex cooling hardware on the board might allow them to run cooler, too, granting more headroom for overclocking, which can result in a small boost in performance. (Some of these cards are overclocked right out of the box.)
As impressive as these tricked-out cards can be, they can be louder than stock versions, and priced higher. Unless you really like the particular aesthetics of a given model (to show off, say, in a windowed PC case), or you know from a review that one is particularly impressive, we’d suggest doing some shopping research. Most of the time, your money is better spent stepping up to a card with a higher-end GPU, even if it’s a stock design, rather than a similarly priced, snazzier-looking overclocked card based around a lower-end (or previous-generation) graphics chip.
What Is My Monitor’s Refresh Rate, and Why Does It Matter?
Note that all of our 1080p-card advice is based on the assumption that you’ll be using a standard monitor with a refresh rate of 60Hz. If you mean to use (or soon upgrade to) a display panel with a higher refresh rate, such as one of the deluxe 120Hz, 144Hz, or even 240Hz gaming panels now on the monitor market, you’ll likely need a higher-end card than these to get the full benefit of those displays. (See our picks for the best gaming monitors.) Frame rates higher than 60 frames per second (fps) will show up readily on these panels, and you’ll want to look at gaming test results for an idea of the sustained frame rates you will likely get with any given card.
Though here in 2020 you can find 4K monitors that can technically push upward of a 144Hz refresh rate at 4K resolution, those displays are analogous to a Ferrari versus your standard gamer’s Subaru. For the vast majority of players, high-refresh-rate gaming lives in the world of 1080p. Whether it’s 144Hz, 165Hz, or 240Hz, all the 1080p displays in these categories are priced in the range of $150 to $700, and depending on the game you’re playing, need a greater or lesser GPU that can match their output. In essence, a high-refresh monitor can actually display all the frames per second a card can put out, up to the monitor’s refresh-rate limit, which is a boon for smoothness in many cases and a big step up from the 60Hz limit of most conventional monitors.
Mega-popular online games such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, and DOTA 2 benefit greatly from a 240Hz refresh rate, and these games are also optimized to the point where you could likely approach that frame rate on an under-$300 card. Similarly, GPUs in the $150-to-$300 range can push games like Apex Legends, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Rocket League, and Rainbow Six: Siege into the 144Hz 1080p realm without a problem. (See our guide to the best video cards for Apex Legends.)
The point is that if you’re planning on gaming at 1080p competitively, make sure you’ve got a card rated for the game(s) you intend to play at that refresh rate, because the last thing you’d want to end up with is a pricey monitor that doesn’t have a powerful enough GPU to back it up properly. That’s where looking at 1080p test results carefully makes all the difference.
What Graphics Card Do I Need for VR?
Here in 2020, there’s some overlap between VR and 1080p-appropriate video cards. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have twin 2,160-by-1,200-pixel displays that run at 90Hz (requiring roughly 90 frames per second of performance). When those headsets first launched, you needed quite a bit more horsepower to run VR than what you’d get in a basic video card that could run then-recent games at 1080p at 30fps (or even 60fps). VR required a high-end video card.
That changed with the launch of the AMD Polaris and Nvidia Pascal cards, and the cost of entry was driven down even further once Navi and Turing debuted. The 8GB versions of the AMD Radeon RX 580 (Polaris) and the 6GB versions of the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 (Pascal) are the minimum cards you’ll want today for VR play. They are still fine picks for dual use with VR and 1080p gaming, though the GTX 1060 has been eclipsed now by the rough-equivalent Turing-based GeForce GTX 1650 Super, GeForce GTX 1660, GeForce GTX 1660 Super, and GeForce GTX 1660 Ti. Likewise, the Radeon RX 580 is fading away in favor of the newer, cost-comparative Radeon RX 5500 XT.
That said, the landscape for VR has also changed since those first headsets debuted. Both have been surpassed by newer, faster headsets like the Oculus Rift S and the Valve Index, which each support far greater resolutions than their predecessors and, in the case of the latter, a 120Hz refresh rate. To run the newer headsets, you’ll need to enter the midrange and look at cards like the GeForce RTX 2060 Super or the Radeon RX 5700 XT to get passable results in the virtual world of your choosing. (Of course, you could always just forego the PC completely and try a $400 cable-free headset like the Editors’ Choice Oculus Quest, too.)
So…Which Card Is Best for 1080p?
Naturally, what’s “best” for any given buyer depends on several factors (and your budget). But we can say that if you’re looking for a current-gen card today for 1080p gaming that balances both performance and price, cards based on the GeForce GTX 1660, GeForce GTX 1660 Super, and the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti GPUs, as well as the Radeon RX 5000-series cards from the Radeon RX 5500 XT to the RX 5600 XT, are all fine choices.
If you’re looking at high-refresh-rate 1080p, you’ll want to look at the top end of each line above, or maybe a little above them. The GeForce RTX 2060 (Nvidia’s lowest-end RTX-class card) is the top end of what is reasonably defined as a 1080p muscle card. It was able to hit the glorious 144fps target in most of our multiplayer games, even with AA enabled, making it a great card for high-refresh 1080p gaming that should last quite a while. The AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT beats it in many tests, however. Really, it’s a toss-up between these two if you want a great 1080p card with future-proofing and the baseline ability to run a current VR headset. The step-down GeForce GTX 1660 Super, meanwhile, is just a hint off the pace of the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti and will be, for more price-sensitive buyers, the best value of the current bunch.
If you’re looking to save a bit more money and still get fine 1080p for many games (at full settings for older games and slightly reduced ones for newer demanding games), look at the cards built around the GeForce GTX 1650 Super and Radeon RX 5500 XT GPUs.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
See our deep-dive reviews below of individual cards for a good idea of the kind of frame rates you can expect in games that you might play. We test with demanding new titles and some staple older offerings. Also, for a look at our picks for the best overall video cards, see our roundup of the best graphics cards; for play at 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels), check out the best graphics cards for 4K gaming; and if you have a small-form-factor desktop, check out the best graphics cards for compact PCs.