The Best Graphics Cards for 2021 | Digital Trends

Games grow ever more detailed and lifelike and graphics cards continue to get faster and faster in that never-ending arms race. That means that eventually you’re going to need an upgrade to get the best, most immersive experience possible. There are many great graphics cards for all budgets, from both AMD, Nvidia, and their third-party partners. Our favorite for the past year has been AMD’s RX 5700, as it has provided the best value for your buck, however it is now looking somewhat elderly.

Nvidia’s latest 30-series GPUs have already gone on and off store shelves as supply shortage issues mount. AMD’s Big Navi GPUs, launched as RX 6000 and is suffering similar shortages to Nvidia. Intel’s Xe add-in cards should finally be available later this year and offer a glimmer of hope that sometime, somewhere, GPUs won’t be quite so expensive.

If you want to upgrade sooner than that, though, these are the best cards to pick from.

The best graphics cards

We hate to cast a gloom over the party but for the past six months or more, supplies of graphics cards have been horrendously tight. Right now you will struggle to find stock anywhere and if you get lucky you may be charged a premium. We applaud Newegg for the Product Shuffle but it’s a crying shame that such radical steps have become necessary, merely to give gamers a chance of buying a graphics card.

If you can find any of the below cards at close to their retail price, then you’re in for a treat. For that to happen, you’ll need to be patient, and extremely lucky. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay far more than these cards are really worth. If you can afford to do that, then any of them will give you a great gaming experience, but otherwise your best bet is waiting until some normality returns to the industry. Hopefully, later this year.

The best graphics card: AMD RX 5700

AMD Radeon RX 5700 and 5700 XT review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: It’s a great 1440p gaming card with full support for AMD’s new fidelity-boosting features.

Who’s it for: FreeSync gamers and AMD fans who want the best bang for buck near the high-end.

Why we picked the AMD RX 5700:

It might only be $50 less than the more-powerful 5700 XT, but the 5700 represents a much better value proposition. It keeps up with its bigger brother in most cases, falling only a few frames behind, especially at its 1440p sweet spot. It’s loud and warm, but if you’re willing to pop a few washers on it, you can improve that factor considerably. Third-party options offer vastly improved cooling, too.

Built on AMD’s RDNA architecture, this card offers much better performance per watt than older Vega and Polaris graphics cards while delivering performance comparable to Nvidia’s last-generation mid-range cards, like the RTX 2060 and 2060 Super. It doesn’t have ray tracing or DLSS, but it does have AMD’s image sharpening and Radeon Boost, for higher frame rates and better in-game visuals.

If you like overclocking, there’s at least 10% of additional headroom to unlock with a little power modding. That can bring this card rather close the RX 5700 XT’s performance if you do it right.

Best graphics card for 8K: Nvidia RTX 3090

Nvidia RTX 3080

Why should you buy this: The RTX 3090 is a monster of a graphics card, featuring Titan-esque performance at a (comparably) affordable price.

Who’s it for: PC enthusiasts who want the best of the best and have the budget to buy it.

Why we picked the Nvidia RTX 3090:

Nvidia went a different route with its 30-series GPUs, replacing last-gen’s Titan RTX with the RTX 3090 (that’s what we found, at least, in our RTX 3080 vs. 3090 comparison). It’s a monster GPU, sporting 24GB of GDDR6X memory, a massive 10,496 CUDA cores, and a boost clock of 1.7GHz. It’s certainly the most capable GPU on the market, able to hit 8K at playable frame rates with help from DLSS — even if it’s not really designed as a gaming card.

The issue is price. At $1,499, the RTX 3090 is an expensive card (though, it’s still $1,000 less than the Titan RTX). Right now, it’s really the only option for 8K gaming, but the 3090 isn’t a one-trick pony. As a successor to the Titan RTX, the RTX 3090 is made for creators. It boasts up to a 50% performance improvement in real-world benchmarks and up to a 100% improvement in synthetic ones. TechRadar’s benchmarks show the 3090 finishing a Blender render twice as fast as last-gen’s 2080 Ti (a $1,199 GPU).

Unfortunately, the 3090 sold out almost immediately after launching, following in the footsteps of the 3080. As of late 2020, the stock is still low, so you’ll need to stay vigilant if you want to pick up a 3090 whenever retailers restock.

Best graphics card for 4K: Nvidia RTX 3080

Why should you buy this: Although less than half the price of the 3090, Nvidia’s 3080 delivers near-comparable performance at 4K.

Who’s it for: Gamers with a 4K display who want to play the latest AAA games at high frame rates.

Why we picked the Nvidia RTX 3080:

The RTX 3080 marks a generational leap that Nvidia hasn’t experienced in over a decade. Rather than simply refining the features of 20-series GPUs, Nvidia did that while also massively boosting performance across the board. The result: The $699 RTX 3080. Just on the spec sheet, the 3080 shows its power. It doubles the number of CUDA cores in last-gen’s 2080 Ti (albeit with a slight asterix), and although it drops memory from 11GB to 10GB, the 3080 features faster GDDR6X modules. And it’s important to note here that the 3080 launched at $699, while the 2080 was sold at nearly double: $1,199 on a good day.

We can see a clear improvement in specs over the last generation, and our own benchmarks show those improvements in action. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, for example, the 3080 was able to maintain 60 fps at 4K and Ultra High settings. By comparison, the 2080 Ti and 2080 Super managed an average of 47 fps and 43 fps, respectively. If the 30 series was like previous Nvidia generations, we’d expect the 3080 to perform about as well as a 2080 Ti. It performs around 20% better, though, while bringing improvements to ray tracing and Nvidia’s DLSS.

The 3080 isn’t really an option as of late 2020, though. After a disastrous launch, Nvidia publicly apologized, presumably canceling hundreds of bot-driven orders. Now, even with third-party options on the market, it’s tough to find a 3080 in stock.

Best graphics card for 1440p: Nvidia RTX 3060

Why should you buy this: Nvidia’s RTX 3060 offers great performance at a decent price, with entry-level ray tracing and DLSS.

Who’s it for: Gamers who want serious performance without breaking the bank.

Why we picked the Nvidia RTX 3060

RTX 3060 ships with 12GB GDDR6 and an impressive 3,584 CUDA cores, although the memory controller has been cut back from 256-bit on the RTX 3060 Ti, to 192-bit. The end result is decent performance and the latest Nvidia features with more memory than the RTX 3070 and RTX 3060 Ti. This equates to performance that’s around that of an RTX 2070 Super, or 5700 XT. Expect strong, 60+ FPS performance at 1440p in most games, but it’s not a 4K card and not recommendable at that resolution. Its ray tracing and DLSS support are decent, though, letting you employ the fancy lighting feature at lower levels without too much of a performance hit.

Perhaps the most important point in these sad times is that the MSRP of the RTX 30060 is slightly over $300, so if you can find an RTX 3060 in stock and even if you pay a premium, you will surely pay less than $500. That is far too much, but it still offers tolerable value for money. In this space we have previously favoured the RTX 2060 and RTX 2060 Super and while you might still consider those graphics cards, the time has really come to advance to Nvidia Ampere RTX 3000.

Best graphics card for 1080p: Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti

Why should you buy this: The 1660 Ti is plenty fast, without the RTX performance, however current pricing puts it out of reach.

Who’s it for: Gamers who aren’t interested in ray tracing.

Why we picked the Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti:

Nvidia’s entry-level graphics cards haven’t received quite as much attention as its ray-tracing RTX GPUs, but the Turing-generation GTX cards are no slouch. The 1660 Ti is a solid replacement for Nvidia’s stellar GTX 1060 6GB, offering a 20% to 30% uptick in performance, beating out strong contenders from AMD like the RX 590.

The GTX 1660 Ti does lack the RTX features, like ray tracing and DLSS, which have so characterized this generation and the last generation of graphics cards from the green team, and that should make the pricing attractive. Right now you can find stocks of the MSI GTX 1660 Ti Ventus Edition for a mind blowing $880 which shows just how tough things have become.

Best budget graphics card: AMD Radeon RX 590

AMD RX 590
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: It gives you fantastic 1080p performance without breaking the bank.

Who’s it for: Gamers on a budget who still want high frame rates.

Why we picked the AMD Radeon RX 590:

The latest refresh in a long line of refreshed cards, the RX 590 was never supposed to be a standout. A slightly overclocked RX 580 at its heart, it offers surprisingly capable performance considering its pedigree. At just under $200, it outpaces its predecessor and keeps up with the more-expensive GTX 1660 and AMD’s more recent RX 5500, too.

It’s quite a hot card, and we’d caution against buying the more expensive, overclocked versions, but if you can find a base model at $200 then we advise you to snap it up as the RX 590 is an absolute killer card for 1080p and 1440p.

If you’re on an even stricter budget, you can grab an RX 570 for substantially less, and that still represents a great budget gaming option. There’s also the option of the RX 580 and AMD’s RX 5500, but none of them can quite keep up with the RX 590. Stock is a slight concern. However, stock of the RX 580 is plentiful, and it gets close to the performance of the RX 590.

The best mobile graphics: RTX 3060

Razer Blade 2019 review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: It offers great performance without adding undue bulk to modern laptops.

Who’s it for: Power gamers on the move.

Why we picked the Nvidia RTX 3060:

Nvidia’s RTX 3060 is the latest iteration of its leaner mobile gaming solutions, but that doesn’t mean it lacks power. It offers a greater number of CUDA cores than previous generations of Nvidia mobile chips and delivers a sizable performance improvement over the past generation.

Although the RTX 3060 falls behind its full-scale desktop and mobile counterparts, its real strength lies in not outputting anywhere near the level of heat generated by big-scale GPUs. That means you’ll still find the RTX 3060 in laptops that are sleek and thin and don’t weigh too much. You can see the results in this older Razer Blade that we previously used in testing that weighs just 4.5 pounds and offers performance that in years gone by you’d only find in chunky gaming machines that weigh close to double that.

There are some solid alternatives in this space, with both AMD and Nvidia offering mobile options with greater and lesser performance depending on your needs. In our opinion, RTX 2070 Max-Q offers all the performance most users could want, all in a low-profile chipset. It’s a great solution for those who want optimal video performance from a smaller laptop. If you’re a gamer or just want some enhanced graphics on your small form factor laptop, this is a great choice.

What is the best graphics card for gaming?

The most powerful graphics card for gaming right now is the Nvidia RTX 3090, but is it really the best graphics card for you? Choosing the right GPU involves more than benchmarks and specs.

The price is an essential factor in buying a graphics card, but there are additional pieces in play and the major drama at present is inventory, or rather, the lack of inventory. You must consider the paired components, what games you’re playing, and your display’s resolution and refresh rate. 

A 1080p display works best with the RTX2060 Super and the GTX 1660 Ti, so you don’t need to spend too much on a stronger graphics card. You shouldn’t stretch your budget to accommodate an RTX 3080. Even with high refresh rate displays, you’ll have wasted graphical horsepower.

If you find yourself playing games like Fortnite more than games like Battlefield V, the most expensive card on the market isn’t necessary. It’s more sensible to base your choice on your display and the games you plan on playing. Consider the games you plan to play, and your search will be easier.

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