Your buying guide to the best graphics cards in 2017
Whatever your budget, there’s a bewildering array of options when it come to graphics cards. With multiple variations on a theme from each vendor, coupled with impenetrable acronyms and an unpronounceable product names, choosing a graphics card can be a daunting task.
But, stick to a few guidelines and the whole process becomes a lot easier.
If you want to upgrade your PC with a high-performance card for gaming you’ll need to be willing to spend anything ranging from around £100 right up to as much as some might consider spending on an entire PC. Budget then, will be your first constraint.
AMD has just released its RX 500 series of graphics cards, which is a relatively minor update to the RX 480, 470 and 460 you’ll find below. They are, however, better value and faster than their predecessors and have a couple of new features including Radeon Chill that reduces power consumption.
Plus, there’s a new entry-level model – the RX 550. This costs under £80 (although more for overclocked versions) and is aimed at e-sports gamers and will play titles such as CS:GO and League of Legends.
But if you want to play at 1080p resolutions with all the details turned up to ‘Ultra’ then you’ll want something a lot more powerful, such as an Nvidia GTX 1070 or 1080.
In the mid-range is the Nvidia GTX 1060 and AMD RX 480 (now replaced by the 580). They may not break many speed records, but they’re optimised for virtual reality, and will appeal if you’re building (or upgrading) a PC to use with a VR headset.
If price is no object, then the GTX 1080 Ti is the current benchmark topper. It starts at around £699, but you’ll pay more for an overclocked version, up to £800 or so.
Next year, or possibly later in 2017, it’s rumoured that the next generation of GeForce cards will be launched. Read more about Nvidia Volta.
Many gamers won’t need a card with this level of performance, but high-quality gaming at 4K resolution, 3D, Virtual Reality, high refresh-rate displays and multi-monitor setups can all demand a huge amount of processing power, and in those situations such high-end cards are there to provide the grunt. Don’t worry, there are plenty of excuses you can use to justify your expensive purchase.
Where it gets more complicated is that not all graphics cards based on a particular GPU are created equal. Individual manufacturers will modify the reference designs in a variety of ways, adding features and boosting performance along the way.
Is an overclocked card the best choice?
Most graphics cards can be overclocked to some extent, and the amount of overclocking available can be greatly increased through the use of upgraded components and powerful custom cooling systems.
The better-designed graphics cards will come from the factory pre-overclocked to take advantage of the improved hardware and this is why we start to see differences in performance between graphics cards using the same GPU types.
Sometimes speed boosts are negligible, but on occasion a more radical redesign can achieve larger speed boosts, taking the graphics card into the same territory as non-overclocked cards from the next tier above.
Factory overclocked cards can often therefore deliver excellent value for money.
Most graphics card vendors have at least one model for each GPU with an enhanced and more efficient cooler which allows the underlying components to run faster without overheating, giving you increased frame rates. But it’s also important to consider the noise output from the fans.
The best examples will remain quiet and even turn off altogether until required, meaning your gaming PC and be just as useful for listening to classical music as it is for first-person shooters.
The choice between AMD or Nvidia-based cards can be tricky if you have between £200 and £300 to spend, but if you have a good idea of which games you want to play, you will notice that many of them are optimised better for on one vendor’s GPUs than the other. This may be enough to sway your decision.
For a price premium of one decent game, you get a graphics card that’s far superior to the Founders Edition, both in terms of performance and features. Thanks to its programmable RGB lighting, it’s especially interesting for those who want to build great-looking systems with windowed side panels. It’s also great for those who would like their PC to remain silent when not in use for gaming.
At £419.99, the MSI GeForce GTX 1070 Gaming X 8G costs significantly more than the £374.99 you would be paying for a ‘vanilla’ 1070, but it offers much more in terms of both performance and features, and is still some way off the price of a GTX 1080. If you can’t afford a GTX 1080, or would simply like to save some money, this is an excellent high-performance graphics card.
Read our MSI GeForce GTX 1070 GAMING X 8G review.
The GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition is expensive, but offers stunning performance. Manufacturer overclocked versions will arrive soon and may be better value, but you can overclock the Founders Edition fairly easily yourself. If you’re not planning to buy a VR headset, you can save money and buy a GTX 1080, but if you can afford it, the 1080 Ti still offers good value and will be more future proof. However, AMD’s Radeon RX Vega cards will be out soon, and it’s worth waiting to see if they’re better value still.
The Asus ROG Strix Radeon RX 580 TOP Edition 8GB is one of the most expensive Radeon RX 580 cards available, but offers excellent performance delivering similar overall frame rates to an overclocked Nvidia GTX 1060, although this will of course depend on which games you play. The board offers superb build quality and a great selection of features including programmable lighting effects and bundled overclocking software. It’s sheer size may be a problem for some smaller cases, however, and audible coil whine can occasionally spoil the experience.
Although a low-cost card, the Gigabyte Radeon RX 550 Gaming OC 2GB never seems cheap. It offers excellent build quality for the price and it’s uprated cooling lets you choose between performance and silence. Performance is more than adequate for older games and good for less demanding titles such as e-sports. It’s price is, however, a little high for those trying to spend as little as possible, bringing it very close to the price of the much faster RX 560. This card is therefore best for those whose PCs don’t meet the power requirements of the RX 560 but want the best performance they can get.
The Asus ROG Strix RX 470 O4G Is a highly competent, modern graphics card for 1080p gaming with cool quiet fans, factory-overclocked performance and many desirable custom features. It’s very affordable too, but keep a look out for 4GB RX 480 cards which can offer better performance for only a little more cash.
Read our Asus ROG Strix RX 470 4GB review.