Gaming has changed a lot from the last 5 years and graphics cards has driven it as what it is today. Every other pc gamer is now a Twitch streamer or a YouTuber posting their game play videos and montages to the internet. This has led to more personnel joining the pc gaming. The graphics card (GPU) is the heart and soul of a Gaming PC. And this is the component, where people get very confused while buying. This guide is based on real life experience we have encountered over the years by helping my friend and folks over the internet. So this guide will help choose the GPU that fits for your needs.
Whenever you want to buy something like a new TV or a Couch etc. you set a budget that is the amount of money you want to spend for that product. So some spend more, some spend less. The graphics card market has also been divided into 3 tier based on the amount the consumers are willing to spends.
Entry level ($150 – $200)
This segment is for casual gamer, who are not into hard-core gaming. These cards gets the job done, as it can play games at playable frame rate. These cards are also for the folks on a tight budget. This cards are good for budget gaming builds under $500 .The player that are into competitive gaming should look forward to this segment. As this cards are small in size, they are perfect for e-sports gaming rig. If you’re looking for GPU on a tight budget and are going to play games on low to medium settings and may be high on 1080p screen at playable frame rate, then this segment is for you.
This segment is a sweet spot for gamers. Most of the consumers lies in this market share, if you can spend $300 for a graphics card. You will have no problem in running games on high settings on 1080p or 1440p with some tweaks in the graphics setting of your games. Most of the pc gamers lies in this category. As most of the consumers lie in this market share, GPU manufactures try their best to outperform each other by price to performance ratio. Some of the cards in this segment are VR ready.
High-end ($400 and above)
This segments is for the enthusiast who can spend big bucks on their GPU .The average high end build cost around $1000. These cards can run games on ultra-settings without any issue. These card can provide best visuals the game has to offer. These audience have multi monitor setups or very high resolution displays. They can spend their top dollar to get the edge over others and for better in game visuals. All the cards in this segment are VR ready.
Your budget is the most important factor, as this is the variable which tell you the segment you belong and what performance you will be getting for that price.
Figuring out brand and model number
Basically there are two most popular brand in graphics industries AMD and NVIDIA. Each brand has their pros and cons. Each brand have their different naming scheme like AMD have their graphics cards names as r7 3XX, r9 3XX and nvidia GTX 9XX, 10XX etc. As each brand releases their next generation graphics card lineup annually, so it becomes difficult to keep the track of their naming scheme.
The rule of thumb is that if there is a GTX 9XX then GTX 7XX is a predecessor of 9XX same goes for AMD if there is a r9 3XX then r9 2XX is its predecessor. The “XX” and their price in the naming scheme tells us which market segment they are targeting at .Suppose there is a GTX 950 and 960 and R7 360 and 370 these cards are targeting at the budget segment as their price is less than $200 in the market or GTX 980 is targeting the high end. So “XX” increases as the market segment changes respectively .Recently AMD has changed their naming scheme but it not much different. It is recommended to go for the latest generation of graphics card each brand has to offer.
As per your budget choose a graphics card from each brand and compare them based on their specification and benchmarks scores.
Benchmark scores are the unit of performance for a graphics card. These score represents how the graphic card performs for the price, which is then used to compare with the competitors offering. There are two types of benchmarking technique.
In synthetic benchmarks various proprietary tools and programs are used to s
imulate the working load on the GPU. The resulting score which is then used to compare with other GPUs. There are many popular programs that are used for synthetic benchmarks of a graphics card like 3DMark Fire Strike, Unigine heaven and the newest one 3DMark Time Spy. These score are the rough performance estimation of a GPU can deliver. The better the score the better the GPU performs.
In game benchmarks:
These benchmark scores are the real deal , these scores are calculated as per the in game Frame per second (fps) of a particular game .Frame per second (fps) are the number of frames displayed on a screen for a second .The average of these fps are taken as the benchmark score , which are used to compare with other GPUs . These scores depicts the real life performance of the graphics card.
These scores you see, is this you get or may improve via patch or driver update. In short higher the average fps the better the performance .In game benchmark tools or third party tools are used to calculate the average fps.
Beginner’s note: For those who don’t want go in detail of synthetic benchmark, consider only the in game benchmark before making decision of buying a graphics card.
PSU Output and TDP of GPU
Power supply unit (PSU) is a component which provides power to the system. PSU is measured in terms of watt (W). So before considering buying a GPU make sure your PSU can supply the required power to the GPU. The power dissipated by the graphics card and processor on full or average load is measured in terms of Thermal Design Power (TDP).
This unit roughly depicts the power required by the component for it to function stably. So if a GPU has a TDP of 200W, CPU has 65W and PSU can supply 500W of power, the system will run without any bottlenecks and will be stable. Also check the power connector cables which are 6pin and 8 pin that comes with the PSU. Which provides additional power to the graphics card for better performance and efficiency and stability, if the graphics card has additional power requirement. So if your PSU doesn’t meet the requirement then it is wise to buy a new one.
Does your motherboard supports it ?
By default every motherboard comes with a PCI Express x16 slot can support a graphics card, PCIe slots are backwards compatible so if a card having PCIe 3.0 x16 lane can still run on motherboard which is having PCIe 2.0×16 but at a lower bandwidth. PCIe 3.0 has become a standard on all motherboards from the mid of 2013, which provides double the bandwidth that of PCIe2.0. If you are going for a multi GPU setup check for multiple PCIe slots so you can run the graphics card on Crossfire or SLI configuration. It will be the second biggest slot on the motherboard other than the RAM slot, below the CPU heatsink.
Platform you have already invested in or going to?
Suppose there is a scenario ,if want to buy a graphics and will be buying other components like a monitor with it or had invested in Nvidia’s hardware like its graphics card and a G-sync monitor in the past and going to switch to AMD or vice versa. Before upgrading you need to consider some things before you make the decision.
Try SLI or crossfire configuration: Before upgrading try out the multi gpu configuration if your motherboards supports and if your PSU can supply enough power to run dual GPU setup. It will give you a better performance for a cheaper price.
G-sync or Freesync: Suppose you already have G-sync monitor or going to buy one, it will be wise choice going for Nvidia card as this technology is only available for nvidia cards. Same goes for AMD‘s freesync monitors.
Graphics technologies: Graphics industry has matured quite a bit. Which has led to innovation and competition in the market. To get the edge over the competition, the GPU manufactures develop their own graphics technologies for rendering, anti-aliasing, physics etc. Each brand has some game development studios they have partnered with, while they try to push their technologies by baking their technologies inside their games to get better performance and stability over the competition .This has led to one brand of cards running better on a games than the other. This may give them advantage and others don’t.
So choose a card based on which games you are going to play and hardware already invested in, For example: if you are going play The Witcher 3 and you want extra visual the game has to offer by Nvidia Gameworks ,then you should go for nvidia card (until their technology gets open source ).
Take a look at your monitor and Targeting FPS?
This section is very important as it is directly proportional to your budget, so let take look at it. Ideally the monitor display images on the native resolution. Suppose you have a 1080p monitor and its refresh rate is 60Hz it means that monitor can display videos and motion graphics with the resolution of 1920X1080 or less and maximum of 60 fps. In graphics or any other industry the more expensive the product the better it performs. So if you are running a game at 1080p on high setting and getting average of 30 fps and your target FPS is 60 then your graphics card is not powerful enough run games at that graphics setting(some bottlenecks may from CPU side ,if it is very old). So you need to raise your budget or lower the setting to get playable frame rate. There is also another case suppose you have got a $600 graphics card and your target is less than 1080p and 30fps then you are wasting the extra horse power the GPU has to offer and your money. You can invest into a higher end GPU if you want to but it comes with a cost of extra premium and power requirement.
So before buying a graphics card take in to consideration monitor’s resolution, target FPS and your budget. I recommend take the one which gives the most bang for your buck, under your budget.
Reference or Non Reference Cards
Reference design cards are designed, manufactured and distributed directly by graphics chip makers like AMD and Nvidia or their board partners. These cards are basically stock card with default clock speeds, stock blower style cooler and basic I/O ports. They are available in very low in stock and have a poor cooling solution on it. I don’t recommend you to buy reference cards. The only advantage is that they are available at a cheaper price than the non-reference cards.
Non reference card are manufactured by chip maker’s board partners like EVGA, MSI, ASUS, Sapphire, XFX etc. These board partners takes these graphics chips from the makers and add them in their own board design, applying their own custom cooler design, increase their clock speed and give better I/O functionality .These are easily available in the market .These cards may be factory overclocked which performs better than the reference ones. I recommend to go for cards with non-reference design.
As there is competition among board partner, the consumer get various options to choose from in their budget. This may be a good or a bad thing, there may not be much performance difference between them.
So, these are the major points you need to consider before making any decision of buying a graphics card. These may not cover all the aspects but covers all the major ones. So what do you take into account before buying a graphics card? Tell us below in the comments if you have any opinions or suggestions.