Thanks to streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and even YouTube, it’s finally getting easier to find actual 4K (also referred to as “Ultra HD”) video content. But as awesome as 4K video looks, if you’re aiming to immerse yourself in a pixel-dense world, it’s hard to beat playing cutting-edge PC games in 4K. And from a hardware perspective, that’s a much more daunting prospect.
Only the latest consoles—the Sony PlayStation 4 Pro and the Microsoft Xbox One X—will output games at 4K. But really, if you want to play brand-new AAA games at 4K with the best visuals, you’ll need a desktop PC equipped with a very powerful graphics card—especially if you want in-game eye candy dialed all the way up. After all, if you’re investing in a 4K monitor or a 4K TV for gaming, you want things to look as good as they can. Running games at 4K resolution but dialing down the detail and effects settings in your games is working at cross-purposes. So the PC graphics card you buy matters—a lot.
4K Gaming: High-End Cards and Dual-GPU
At the moment, to deliver smooth frame rates at high settings at 4K resolution on a PC (that’s 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, for the record) with the most-demanding games, you’ll need to opt for one of the most powerful consumer-grade graphics cards available. These days, those cards include Nvidia’s “Ampere”-architecture GeForce RTX 3080 Founders Edition and the one-step-up GeForce RTX 3090 Founders Edition, or one of the many custom-cooled and/or overclocked models based on these cards’ GeForce RTX 3080 or RTX 3090 graphics processors (GPUs). An RTX 3070 is coming soon, too, and it may be borderline appropriate; we’ll see once tested.
Also in play: Cards based on AMD’s Radeon RX Vega 64 (these are fading away), the Radeon VII, and AMD’s latest addition to the lineup, the Radeon RX 5700 XT (as long as you don’t mind turning down your settings a bit). But none of these cards, GeForce or Radeon, comes cheap, most of them starting around $400 for the base models, and as high as $1,799 (!) for some third-party overclocked RTX 3090 cards.
The GeForce RTX 3080 is the card you’ll want to opt for, though, if you want butter-smooth frame rates in 4K at or above 60 frames per second (fps) and with anything above high settings. Availability is proving to be an issue with these cards, though. Alternatively, you could pick up two GeForce RTX 2080 cards and use them in a paired NVLink arrangement, or scrape the bare minimum with a single GeForce RTX 2080 Super. In some games, that setup should deliver significantly better gaming performance than a single Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti card. Note, though, that if you do go this two-card route, multi-graphics setups can introduce side issues. Most games don’t ship on launch day with the optimizations to take advantage of multiple-card graphics, and some games never deliver multi-graphics support at all.
So, if you’re the kind of enthusiast PC gamer who likes to jump on games on the day they’re released, multi-GPU options aren’t ideal solutions. Also, you might run across issues with frame timing, in which onscreen game frames don’t get delivered exactly in sync, resulting in a subpar experience. For this reason, we recommend buying the best single card for the performance level you’re after, whenever possible.
If money is no object, that single card is the new $1,499 Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090, which might as well be in a class all its own (though it more appropriately belongs alongside content creator-focused cards like the Titan RTX). The RTX 3090 has been found to be, on average, only around 10 percent faster in gaming than the $699 GeForce RTX 3080, despite costing nearly twice as much for the Founders Edition card. Maybe it’s for this reason that the RTX 3090 has been billed by Nvidia as “the world’s-first 8K gaming GPU,” and early tests show while that claim isn’t a stretch, 8K gaming is so far beyond feasible for 99.9 percent of buyers right now that it’s effectively a moot point.
These cards are made for much more than gaming, deployed more often in creative fields that do a lot of 4K and 8K video editing, 3D rendering, or 3D modeling. In a price-for-performance sense, they’re way, way overkill for games, and they are often not optimized to take advantage of top titles as efficently as the gaming-centric GeForce RTX 3080 cards (and its lessers) are.
So yes, while technically the GeForce RTX 3090 could push 4K-gaming frames with grace, at that price you’re better off going with a single RTX 3080 and spending the leftover $700 or $800 upgrading your RAM, CPU, and motherboard at the same time. Or saving the difference.
4K Gaming Cards: The Best “Budget” Options
If your budget can’t quite bear laying out $600 or more for a graphics card, you can find some less-expensive cards that can handle 4K gaming at lower settings. You won’t get the absolute best visuals possible, but 4K gaming is technically attainable.
If you don’t mind running games closer to medium detail settings at 4K, but you still want to experience the pixel-dense glory of games running at 3,840 by 2,160, the AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT, the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super, and the GeForce RTX 2060 Super are all capable engines. Just remember that you won’t be able to play many games at the highest detail settings.
Speaking of the RTX 2070 Super, GeForce RTX 2070 Super cards start at around the $499 mark, challenging cards like the older GeForce GTX 1080 Ti on performance. The RTX 2070 Super will even beat the AMD Radeon VII, or at least tussle with it, in some games.
We can’t say just yet whether or not the card set to replace the RTX 2070 Super, the upcoming $499 Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070, will deliver on its promise of being “faster than a 2080 Ti” in 4K gaming, but once we get a chance to review one (likely in late October), we’ll be updating this story with those results.
Overall, we can’t recommend going much lower than $400 on your card today if you’re serious about 4K gaming, though. One of the biggest concerns that any cost-conscious PC gamer should have when choosing new hardware is how “future-proof” a card is, and given that cards below the GeForce RTX 3080 barely scratch the surface of pushing 60 frames per second (fps) on most current titles at middling settings, that viability will only continue to drop for new games released later this year.
Aside from gauging raw performance, you should keep a few other factors in mind when shopping for a powerful 4K-capable graphics card. Let’s run through these one by one.
Consider the Target Display
The first consideration? The particular 4K display you’ll be using. If you opt for a 4K monitor with a DisplayPort 1.4 input (which has the bandwidth to deliver 4K content at 144Hz, or up to 144 frames per second), any of the current-gen cards here should serve you well. But if you are thinking of using a 4K television as a large-screen gaming display, you’ll likely be stuck using HDMI 2.0 or HDMI 2.1 to jack in.
Why? Most 4K TVs lack DisplayPort connectors. This locks you into using HDMI, and thus to 4K at 60Hz. This doesn’t actually matter all that much outside of the world of the unusual Nvidia BFGD (short for “Big Format Gaming Display”) monitors that will run 4K at up to 120Hz. Though it is very much game-dependent, today no single GPU will push AAA games at max settings in 4K much beyond 60 frames per second natively unless tech like DLSS or image sharpening is in use. (More on that in a bit.)
Beyond TVs, though, gaming monitors have seen more evolution in the last two years than in practically the whole decade before. High-refresh-rate (that is, above 60Hz) 4K monitors are now an option and available from multiple makers. Yes, some are more expensive than a beater of a used car (averaging anywhere between $1,800 to $2,000 at this writing). However, if you have that kind of cash to throw around, they are worth a look.
Options like the Asus ROG Swift PG27UQ and the Acer Predator XB3 are typical of this (admittedly rather niche) market, and both provide 4K screens that can be boosted as high as 144Hz under specific conditions. We say “specific,” because as of this writing the two main cables that carry the signal to the monitor (DisplayPort 1.4 and HDMI 2.1) are only capable of delivering a full 4:4:4 signal up to 120Hz. To get to that holy grail of 144Hz, monitor manufacturers use a workaround known as “chroma subsampling,” which brings the color palette down to 4:2:2. That is fine for movies and some 3D gaming, but it can wreak havoc on content like text or graphical elements rendered in the OS.
Why do we mention all that? Because it might be tempting to break the piggy bank, rush out, grab a pair of GeForce RTX 2080 Ti or RTX 3090 cards, throw them into an NVLink configuration, and try to tap into 140-plus frame-per-second rates at 4K on ultra-high detail settings. Realistically, with one of these elite monitors, you should settle for a setup capable of pushing closer to 120fps (120Hz) to get the best visual results from your games and daily computer usage.
That’s pie-in-the-sky for almost all buyers, though. Bottom line: Unless you’re really awash in dough, you’ll be just fine with a monitor that pushes 4K games at 60Hz. That’s near the top frame rate that today’s rigs equipped with a single GeForce RTX 3080 card will be able to achieve on leading games, anyway. Leave higher-end frame-rate aims to Powerball winners.
One last consideration: high dynamic range (HDR). It looks gorgeous when implemented properly, and many new games (as well as a back catalog of older games) support the spec. You’ll find many 4K HDR gaming monitors already on the market to choose among, and most have come down in price far enough to keep them competitive with their non-HDR counterparts. From the point of view of card buying, though, no worries: All current-gen GeForce and Radeon cards support it.
How Much Video Memory Is Necessary?
The other thing to watch for while shopping for a 4K-ready gaming card is the amount of dedicated video memory on the card. Generally, 4GB of memory is plenty if you’re gaming at 1080p or below, but when you step up to 4K, a graphics card needs to handle much more data.
To keep your gaming sessions running smoothly at 4K and high detail settings, you’ll want a card with at least 6GB of memory. A card with 8GB of GDDR6 or more is your best bet, especially if you’re the type who likes to download game mods and/or high-resolution texture packs, which are sometimes specifically created to deliver a greater level of in-game detail for high-end cards that have extra memory capacity.
The RTX 3080, being the luxury-ride card that it is, pushes things to the limit in this category. Every card comes with a whopping 10GB of onboard GDDR6X memory, capable of pushing a staggering 616GB per second across a 352-bit width bus. And the AMD Radeon VII packs even more, 16GB of HBM2 memory, which is more of a boon for content creators than for your average gamer. (The 24GB on the RTX 3090 falls into the same category as the Radeon VII’s 16GB.)
Again, pretty much anything around the 6GB level will hold its own on medium-detail 4K games, but start diving into the high/ultra presets of cutting-edge games, and you’ll need all you can get.
DLSS: Nvidia’s (Potential) Ace in the Hole?
DLSS, or “deep learning super sampling,” is a technology developed by Nvidia for use in its latest lineup of RTX cards. The tech, which uses an AI architecture to streamline the process of anti-aliasing, offers significant performance boosts over non-DLSS results.
For example, at 4K resolution with DLSS turned on, an RTX 3080 Founders Edition racked up an incredible improvement of nearly 60 percent with the feature enabled in our Death Stranding benchmark. This made it so even low-end cards like the GeForce RTX 2060 could comfortably run the game above that coveted 60fps mark. DLSS is a huge leap in gaming tech that brings 4K-playing affordability down to the midrange, and if it can be implemented on a wider basis (rumors say all games that support TAA may see DLSS integration in the near future), it will make it possible for card owners in the $350 bracket to play AAA titles at the highest detail levels, all in 4K.
DLSS indeed shows major promise in games, but we use the term “games” loosely for now, given that, as of this writing, only a limited number of them are trained in how to utilize it. A new version, DLSS 2.0, introduced in spring of 2020, launched with support for just a handful of games, though also promises of easier game-developer implementation. All this is to say that while DLSS is certainly impressive (it may even be the one thing that brings the world of 4K gaming into the hands of mainstream gamers), right now any widespread implementation looks to be a ways off.
Understanding Card Length, Power Requirements
If you’re rocking a full-tower PC, card size is probably not an issue. However most high-end, 4K-capable video cards are three slots wide (two at a minimum) and a little more or less than 11 inches long, which means that most MicroATX chassis won’t fit these monsters. Even many midsize ATX cases may find them a squeeze.
That said, there are some cards that make compromises, like the MSI GeForce RTX 2060 Aero ITX OC. This petite powerhouse takes only two card slots and measures just 7 inches long. But the GeForce RTX 2060 GPU itself will only be able to push around 60fps at medium settings for 4K gaming, at best.
As for the power requirements, if your existing system already has a high-end video card in place, you’ll likely be fine, but check the recommended minimum power-supply wattage for any 4K-capable card you’re considering. Generally, an 800-watt supply should keep most any current single 4K-capable card juiced; the wattage minimum can vary from card to card.
Many of the latest cards also require two power-supply leads (six- or eight-pin, likely some combination of both) from your supply, so make sure you have the proper cabling in place or adapters on hand. Note: The new RTX 3080 and RTX 3090, in their Founders Edition guises, may employ an adapter from a new 12-pin power socket to typical six- and eight-pin connectors.
Should I Get a Card That’s Overclocked Out of the Box?
The distinctions among the many high-end third-party cards that are capable of 4K play can be esoteric. One of the big ones, though, is the presence (or not) of enhanced cooling hardware on the card to handle user-initiated overclocking of the GPU, or sometimes even overclocking done at the factory. Reviews of individual cards will get down into the weeds of exact clock rates or factory overclocking. But know that an overclocking focus is often a key reason why some cards of the same class (such as different RTX 3080 cards) vary so much in price.
Overclocking-minded cards tend to be larger than their same-GPU kin, with more fans and/or more elaborate heat pipes and sinks. The most expensive cards in a given line tend to be the ones with the beefiest hardware for overclocking or with a factory overclock done out of the box. Telltale cards of this kind include Zotac’s Amp Extreme Series, MSI’s Gaming X and Gaming Z, Gigabyte’s WindForce and Xtreme, Asus’ Republic of Gamers, and EVGA’s FTW series.
Some Basic 4K-Gaming Benchmarks…
Want some real world numbers? We’ve benchmarked all the cards recommended on this list, and here’s a snapshot of how they perform in a handful of AAA titles at 4K…
As you can tell from these graphs, the GeForce RTX 2080 Super and Radeon VII make up one roughly equivalent tier, with the RTX 3080 and RTX 2080 Ti on planes of their own. Hit the links for our individual reviews of each card below for a lot more detail on each of these cards’ performance at 4K and other resolutions. But one thing is clear: At the moment, if you can get an RTX 3080 and can afford to splurge for it, that’s the card you want.
So, Which Card Should I Buy for 4K Gaming?
We’ve tested samples of all the key video cards in Nvidia’s “Turing” and “Ampere” and AMD’s “Polaris” and “Navi” families. Below are our current favorites for 4K gaming. Note: You can interpret an endorsement for a given GPU (say, the Radeon RX 5700 XT, or the GeForce RTX 3080) as an endorsement for any card based on that GPU, as most should perform within striking distance of one another.