Graphics Card (GPU) Buying Guide - 2015

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What is the best graphics card for my budget?  What graphics card do I need for a new game I want?  What is the least expensive graphics card to run your programs?  Many questions, let us help you find the right answer with our awesome 2015 graphics card buying guide!

Buying Guide - How To Pick The Best Graphics Card / GPU for Me (2015)?

The best place to start to determine what the best graphics card is for you is how much you want to spend.  Do you have a set budget and looking to get the best bang for your buck, or are you looking to figure out exactly what card you need for the least cost?  Let's start our adventure here, shall we, my fellow pixel-munchers?

Give me the most power for my budget, please!

Many people allocate a set amount of money for upgrades and just try to get the most kick out of their budget.  If this is you, here are a few great places to start - just pick the range that fits your budget and we will help you narrow things down!


Help me spend the least money for what I need, plz!

All righty!  We're going to try to help you pinch some pennies and save some $$$, but first let's look at a few things that will determine how much GPU horsepower you need.  First, because they often set the bar pretty high, let's see what kind of games you want to play (and at what resolution).  If you don't plan on playing any video games, click right here to skip ahead!

What is the best GPU for Gaming?

To determine the GPU you need for gaming, we really have a combination of three things: the resolution you're gaming on, how demanding the games you play are, and the performance level and graphics quality you expect.  For simplicity, we'll assume that you're playing modern games released within the last year or two.  Logically, you might be able to assume the if the games are older that you'll see performance levels above what you're expecting, but this isn't always the case.  We'll help you get into the ballpark, but you can check individual benchmarks for your particular game and see if you can get away with a little less.

For a card to be considered at each level, it will need to be able to average 60 frames per second (FPS).

A sample of the games we used to qualify each level:

  • Battlefield 4 / Hardline
  • Crysis 3
  • Company of Heroes 2
  • Bioshock Infinite
  • Metro: Last Light
  • Total War: Shogun 2 / Rome 2 / Attila
  • Far Cry 3 / 4
  • Assasin's Creed: Black Flag / Unity


A description of each quality level is also as follows:

Medium - these are low-to-mid range settings at the full resolution.  Medium settings typically don't include most particle effects, shadows, smoothing (like anti-aliasing or tesselation), special lighting tech, and use lower-resolution textures.  Graphically, medium settings are typically still very nice but omit the wow-inducing eye candy of the higher settings.

High - high settings include a moderate amount of anti-aliasing, tesselation, and lighting effects, such as shadows, dynamic effects, and reflections.  Textures are also higher resolution and the overall quality difference between high and medium is typically pretty significant.

Ultra - the top-notch, full-featured, and most immersive experience.  Nothing is held back, except some anti-aliasing and other texture smoothing at super-high resolutions (such as 4K), where few cards that exist can push all settings to max.


1080P Gaming


Medium Quality Settings

Nvidia GTX 750 Ti  |  AMD R7 260X


These cards will get you in the door very nicely at 1080P resolutions at at least medium settings.  If you want to dip a bit lower, the GTX 750 and the R7 250X will do fine, but the cards below can be had for a relatively small premium and give you a little more headroom with modern titles.


One advantage the GTX 750 Ti carries is that it runs on a super-efficient architecture and doesn't require any external power.  The GTX 750 Ti is also a great option of you have a low-wattage power supply (less than 450W).



If you've got a little wiggle-room in your budget, you can extend your gaming performance a bit with a couple solid options.  The R9 270 can give a healthy step up for about $30 extra, and the Superclocked versions of the GTX 750 Ti for about $10.



While these cards aren't known for running hot as it is, the aftermarket coolers will help them run super quiet and deliver a little extra overclocking headroom (but don't expect much boost from these budget chips).



High Quality Settings

Nvidia GTX 960  |  AMD R9 280/285


With the release of the GTX 960, Nvidia now has a solid competitor to the R9 285, and rounds out the lineup for really solid mainstream options at the $200 best bang for the buck price point.

Again, the GTX 960 will be cooler and quieter and will allow you to squeak some more performance if you're limited by your power supply.  The GTX 960 should have you seeing a small advantage over the R9 285, but both are a solid choice in the absence of brand allegiances.



There are a mess of options right around the $200 price point including factory overclocked options with aftermarket cooling.  eVGA has a solid offering with a healthy overclock and a great aftermarket ACX 2.0+ cooling system.  PowerColor's option provides a tasty out-of-the box boost as well for $5-10 over comparable cards.



Ultra Quality Settings

Nvidia GTX 970  |  AMD R9 290


Nvidia's GTX 970 is a phenomenal card with amazing efficiency.  Nvidia's lineup left a hole for AMD to thrive with their R9 280 / 285 in the enthusiast sector until the GTX 960 finally released this month.  However, the GTX 970 matched AMD's flagship single-GPU card, the R9 290X at a substantially lower price point, and AMD has had to re-structure their R9 290/X pricing (a win for you!).


Both cards will thrash at 1080P framerates and allow you to enjoy pretty much every pixel of eye candy to its fullest.



These superclocked versions should give a nice framerate kick while carrying a very minimal price premium.



1440P Gaming

As we dig into 1440P (2560x1440) recommendations, we basically see a shift up of one tier for each of the settings.  For example, what worked well for high settings at 1080P now buys us medium settings.

Medium Quality Settings

Nvidia GTX 960  |  AMD R9 280/285


At 1440P, both of these cards should give you a great experience at medium settings for the latest graphically-intense games (and high settings in many titles).  We weren't able to dig up a notable difference in anticpated performance, so our recommendations remain the same from the 1080P picks, just at a lower performance tier at the higher-res.




Again, despite a bevvy of choice (and, quite frankly, it's hard to go completely wrong), these two picks couple higher-clocked chips, good reviews, and a quality aftermarket cooling solution.



If you've got another $50 burning a whole in your pocket, you might consider a jump to an R9 280X at the "awkward" $250 price point, where there isn't alot of other choice before jumping up to a GTX 970 / R9 290 at $300+.

High Quality Settings

Nvidia GTX 970  |  AMD R9 290


The GTX 970 and R9 290/X still rip through 1440P impressively and are really one of the best cards you can get in the high-end arena, dollar-for-dollar.  The R9 290 also tends to flex its muscles more efficiently as resolution goes up, so you might expect it to run strongly against the GTX 970 at 1440P, but again the GTX 970 will do it all much more efficiently.




Ultra Quality Settings

Nvidia GTX 980  |  AMD R9 290X


Now we're really getting into it, and between Nvidia and ATI we're in a bit of a "weird" place until the RX 3XX series comes out and provides a proper competitor to the GTX 980.  The R9 290X falls squarely between the GTX 970 / R9 290 tier and the next step up, the GTX 980.  The R9 290X is still a great card, but it would be wise to wait a couple months and see what AMD's new lineup looks like.


The GTX 980, on the other hand, is going to be Nvidia's high-end workhorse for awhile yet, so if you're probing around in the $500+ arena, it would make a great bet to play 1440P games to the fullest (and dip your toes firmly into the 4K world).



The ASUS STRIX is one of ASUS' premium offerings with great power delivery components and bult around overclocking headroom and at a mere $10 premium is a solid option.


4K Gaming

WHELP!  4K still brings the very best (and most absurdly expensive) cards to their knees.  So we'll try to pick the least expensive ones that will "cut it" across our spectrum of games.  If you wanna game on 4K you'll want to take a look at the Multi-GPU section.

YOU MIGHT GET AWAY WITH (For some games)

The GTX 970 or the R9 290X can get you in the door at 4K on low settings and on less-demanding games.  Even then, expect your framerates (FPS) to struggle, but you might find some games playable.



We're getting closer!  These cards still struggle, but you'll be able to more reliably play games at low settings and still get pretty smooth framerates.  But you'll still be leaving alot on the table, but that's also just the name of the game right now without multi-GPU solutions.


WHAT YOU REALLY NEED (One or more of)

The GTX Titan X is the new king of single-GPU cards and this is possibly the first card that really starts to pull its weight on 4K.  You'll get a pretty good experience across the board, but you still won't be maxing anything out unless (see below)...



Rock two or more and SLI these and a new world of smooth, medium-quality 4K opens up before your eyes (and under a pile of cash):

 Empty your wallet with a pair of these and we'll know you really, really mean business:

Multiple GPUs - SLI & Crossfire

Two or more of the same graphics card can be linked together using a "bridge," which allows them to split the graphics processing workload.  Nvidia has branded this as "Scalable Link Interface," more commonly known as SLI, and AMD calls their version "Crossfire," sometimes abbeviated XF or CF.


Multi-GPU configurations, however, don't exactly multiply the performance as you might expect, a performance metric known as scaling.  The latest generations of cards are closer than ever to achieving ideal scaling (two times as powerful when upgrading to a dual-GPU configuration), but you can stil only expect about a ~75-85% boost in performance.  There are other considerations, such as how much power your power supply can dole out to more cards and compatiblity issues between games and the graphics card SLI/Crossfire drivers.  Additionally, you'll need to know whether your motherboard supports SLI.


While multi-GPU setups are often reserved for those who love to stay on the bleeding edge of PC performance, SLI and Crossfire are currently necessary for adequate perfromance to handle new super-high resolution screens in 4K (or higher).  If you went through our 4K Gaming section you'll notice it takes a ton of horsepower to drive 4K games at even low settings, so you'll need top-end card in SLI to provide a really smooth experience at 4K.


Other Important Considerations

Power Requirements

Most video card spec sheets will give you a recommended power supply wattage rating.  This is a step that's quick but also easy to overlook.  For the past couple generations Nvidia's cards have been more power efficient, so you best "bang per watt" will come from an Nvidia equivalent for your pixel-pushing needs.


If you're looking at higher end, power-hungry cards, you'll also want to make sure you have enough 6-pin PCI-e connectors.  It's also common for higher-end cards to have 8-pin (6+2) PCI-e power connectors, a compatibility issue that's easy to miss..  Frequently two PCI-e power cables are required, so if your power supply only has one, ensure you have something like a molex-to-PCI-e power adapter to make it work - or consider an upgrade.


On the other side of the equation, if you don't have any, or don't want to use any external power for your graphics card, the GTX 750 Ti will be the fastest card you can get that fits the bill.


Size Constraints

Chech that the length of the graphics card you'd like to buy will fit in your case.  This is especially important for small form factor cases.  Also consider where any external power connects to the card, if it's from the side or from the end, and factor in the additional length you might need.


Cooling Options

Manufacturers now offer upgraded cooling solutions to most of thier enthusiast and high end product lines.  The basic designs, usually with a single fan, are called "stock" or "reference" cooler designs.  Multi-fan or coolers with an upgraded fan and larger heatsink are called "aftermarket" fan designs.


Most manufacturers have their own signature naming schemes (such as DirectCUII from ASUS or IceQ from HIIS) to market their aftermarket cooling solutions.  The benefit of these coolers are threefold: First, the coolers will keep your graphics card at lower temperatures which increases their lifespans and prevents performance issues.  Second, they are often much more quiet for an equivalent level of thermal performance.  And finally, they often allow you to overclock your graphics card further because the temperatures stay lower for an equivalent amount of performance.


Upgrading to a model that includes an aftermarket cooler is usally fairly low-cost and is definitely a worthwhile upgrade if it fits your budget.



Nearly all major manufacturers now include their own overclocking tools as a DIY way to get a little boost in performance from your card.  Because every card is unique, your overclocking mileage may vary significantly.  One of the most important considerations is the cooler (see the Cooling Options section) - a better cooler will usually give you more room to overclock.  This is because the card will require more power (and give off more heat) to run at faster speeds.  However, some graphics cards hit limitations before they run into thermal problems and even cards with aftermarket coolers may not overclock as well as a stock cooler - a bit of luck involved.


Some manufacturers separate the chips that overclock better than others - a process called "binning."  Some cards may seem to sport similar specs, but will have more overclocking headroom - and usually cost more as a result.  Similarly, some cards will look very similar, but have significant upgrades to the power components of the video card which will also allow them to be overclocked more.  Again, each brand has their own marketing terms to describe the upgraded power components and these cards also will cost more, but it's not always obvious why.  A great example is ASUS' DIGI+ Super Alloy Power on the ASUS STRIX GTX 980.


Input / Output

Double check that the card has the right ports (HDMI, Displayport, or DVI) for your monitor(s).  Also check if the connections are "mini" or "micro" variants and then make sure the graphics card comes with the proper adapters.  This is a HUGE buzzkill, and again, is an easy one to miss in the excitement of your impending GPU upgrade.


The Best Graphics Card for Under $200

Right around $200

The GTX 960 is the new GPU-to-have at the enthusiast price point under $200.  It took Nvidia to get this card out and the R9 280/285 has enjoyed a pretty nice run of success, but for the price point the GTX 960 performs better, is more efficient, and tends to be more OC-friendly.


Right around $175

The R9 270X is a solid option, and unless you can find a deal on an R9 280/285 slipping into the $175 price range, is really the only card to consider in this price bracket.  It'd be hard to recommend it if you're able to spend and extra $20 to get a GTX 960, though, if you can snag one in the $180s.


Under $150

Nvidia's GTX 750 Ti rings in well under $150, but gives a pretty solid bang-for-your-buck for all of you gamers on a budget.  The GTX 750 Ti is also super efficient and packs quite a punch in a very small form factor.


A little closer to our $150 target with a little boost in performance, the R7 265 can give you pretty decent gaming chops at about $50 less than the enthusiast-level (GTX 960) cards.


Under $125

The GTX 750 Ti is really close to taking this one too, since it hovers very near $125, but the R7 260X will perform pretty similarly and can be had about $15 less.  Note that if you have a low-wattage power supply, the efficiency of the GTX 750 Ti should proabably win you over.



The Best Graphics Card for Under $100

The GTX 750 Ti, but with lower clocks, the GTX 750 is also super efficient and packs a decent punch.  The R7 250 performs similarly, is a little hungrier for electrons, but inches down into the $75 range for super-thrifty gamers.


Keep in mind this is where you'd start at the bottom end for gaming-capable cards.  Any lower and you'll be extremely limited plaaying any games made within the past 3 years.


The Best Graphics Card for Under $300

Right around $300




Around $275


Under $250



The Best Graphics Card for Under $400

Right around $400


Under $350




The Best High-End Graphics Card ($400+)

The GTX 980 Show




The Superclocked Bunch



The Best of the Best (for a mere $1,000)



The Great But Ultimately Not Ideal







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