Best graphics card for gamers and creatives in 2021

If you’re like most people, you’re probably using a graphics card that’s several years old. And with PC gaming, video editing, animation and other graphics-intensive activities, that short space of time is forever. A lot has changed in the past few years, so chances are you’re no longer using the best graphics card out there with new technologies like smart resolution upscaling and ray-tracing acceleration. Meanwhile, games and software used for applications like 3D tools and video editors have only become more demanding. 

But let’s be frank: This is a horrible time to shop for a new video card. They’re harder to find in stock than a PS5. The now-current generation of flagship cards from Nvidia and AMD launched in October 2020, but are still in the LOL-try-to-get-one stage. And you do want one: Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3060RTX 3060 TiRTX 3070 and 3080, and AMD’s Radeon RX 6700 XTRX 6800, 6800 XT and 6900 XT perform noticeably better than the previous generations. We expect the same from Nvidia’s recently announced workstation versions of the 3000 series, the A4000, A5000 and A6000. But you can’t get one — or anything, really — because cryptocurrency mining and bots have once again bogarted the entire available stock, creating shortages and driving up prices. 

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The EVGA GeForce RTX 3060 XC Black, a small dual-fan card, delivers excellent 1080p gaming.


Lori Grunin/CNET

Nvidia throttles the new entry-level RTX 3060 when it detects cryptocurrency mining as a deterrent to having them snapped up by miners (and announced an alternate GPU specifically for that purpose, the CMP). It’s a driver-based solution — the driver handshakes with the card’s firmware to detect and throttle mining-specific operations — which Nvidia ironically disabled with one driver update that’s now been fixed. 

AMD’s latest Radeon RX 6700XT hits (in theory) at a $479 price, making it the current entry to the RX 6000 series. But given its price and performance niche between the RTX 3060 Ti and RTX 3070 and intent of fast, high-quality 1440p gameplay, it’s unlikely to remain the lowest-end card in that line. It does deliver an excellent balance of price and performance not only for gaming, but for creative work like 3D, photo and video editing as well.

However, as I’d assumed, Nvidia’s approach was circumvented fairly quickly by miners. AMD chose to take a more traditional approach to managing availability of the 6700 XT at launch — bringing as many cards as possible to market on day one and attempting to limit sales to one per customer. But as with the rest of GPUs, the bots ‘n’ middlemen who broker the cards to sell them at least twice the list price jumped into action, so you certainly can’t find either at their nominal prices. The 6700 XT is available at a pass-milk-through-your-nose $1,375 though!

Read more: Where to check for Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 stocks

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AMD’s new midrange Radeon RX 6700XT, a $479 GPU that slides between the RTX 3060 Ti and RTX 3070 for both price and performance, is intended for fast, high-quality 1440p gameplay. 


Lori Grunin/CNET

On the horizon we’ve been seeing rumors for an RTX 3050 Ti, RTX 3070 Ti and 3080 Ti.

This list is updated regularly. For the most recent updates, I’ve left the price categories in place for reference so you can see where they were before the market went nuts. Since you can’t find them to buy, the real prices are kind of moot, anyway.

Read more:  Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 and 3080: Check for inventory restocks at Best Buy, Newegg and more

Even if you just need the basics for streaming video or surfing the web, the best graphics card can make your system feel snappier by improving the acceleration of video decoding or redrawing your screens faster, especially if you had previously used a budget GPU. With a Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptop or iMac, you can even upgrade the graphics using an external graphics processing unit (an eGPU with its own power supply) or a dedicated graphics card. 


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The RTX 3000 series follow on the Super equivalents, and in the case of the 3090, the Titan RTX. The cards use the latest Ampere architecture, with improved algorithms and more processing power dedicated to ray tracing (a second-gen Turing core), AI (for more efficient upscaling via DLSS) and programmable shaders. They deliver some big jumps in performance over the 2000 series. 

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I had a very good experience with the EVGA GeForce RTX 3080 XC3 as well as the Nvidia Founders Edition models.


Lori Grunin/CNET

AMD’s latest GPUs are based on its RDNA 2-gen architecture, used in the Xbox Series X, S and PS5 consoles, and for the first time target 4K gamers (the company previously concentrated on 1080p and 1440p gaming). Hardware performance improvements stem partly from the higher-density on-die Infinity Cache design (all have 128MB) and enhanced design of the compute units (including a new Ray Accelerator core for each compute unit). They combine to improve the memory subsystem by reducing the latency of moving data around, increase bandwidth by up to 2.2x with a narrower path (256 bits) and deliver better energy efficiency. That also allows the processors to hit higher clock frequencies without a substantial increase in power requirements. 

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The AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT delivers great performance, especially as AMD’s first significant stab at a 4K-targeted gaming GPU.


Lori Grunin/CNET

The AMD GPUs have been optimized to achieve peak performance when used in conjunction with the company’s new Ryzen 5000 series of desktop CPUs (and subsequently AMD added support for the Ryzen 3000 series), though it doesn’t sound like they get much of a boost from it. If every frame counts, though, it’s something to keep in mind. They also support Microsoft’s DirectStorage programming interface, which accelerates SSD access by circumventing the CPU to improve storage-intensive game tasks like load times in games developed with it in mind. 

Read more: Where to check inventory of the Radeon RX 6800 and RX 6800 XT

The new architectures for ray-tracing acceleration are accompanied by a larger set of technologies that tend to be lumped in with them because they also improve or accelerate rendering in general. These include upscaling algorithms, for example, which render for a higher resolution screen using native-resolution textures (while maintaining frame rates); in other words, using textures for 1080p to render for 1440p. Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling and AMD’s Radeon Contrast Adaptive Sharpening do this. 


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Ready to throw down some cash for a new graphics card for your gaming rig or laptop? Don’t spend a single cent on a graphics card for gaming until you read this buying guide of the best graphics card, wherein we consider everything from video memory, refresh rate and frame rate to power consumption, memory clock and gaming performance. Plus, our general GPU shopping tips at the end will help you make your choice.

Read more: Best cheap gaming mice

Gigabyte

Sure, it’s a reasonable price. But if you’re planning to spend around $100 on a budget graphics card, don’t expect to game with the GeForce GT at 1080p — 720p at best unless a game is very lightweight, though Fortnite, CS:GO, League of Legends and other multiplayer competitive games generally fall under the “can play on a potato” umbrella. Many games may simply go from unplayable to a little less unplayable. This Nvidia graphics card does for a gaming PC what Nvidia’s MX chips do for laptops. In other words, plenty of the latest games will run on it, but many users won’t benefit. Cards can come with the chip overclocked, which gives it a little extra oomph as well.

If you’ve got an old desktop with integrated graphics that don’t support the current versions of graphics programming interfaces such as DirectX 12 or Vulkan, or if you just want to make your Windows experience feel a little more snappy or smooth, a GT 1030-based card can help. The GT line is designed with lower power requirements than the more popular GeForce GTX models, so it can fit in systems with lesser power supplies and compact designs. Unlike most gaming graphics cards, 1030-based cards can be low-profile and take up just a single slot for connectivity, and are quieter because they only require a single fan.

You may see a random higher-end card drop down below $100, and that’s a good choice if you’re looking for something with a little extra gaming oomph over the 1030 or support for two monitors. But they take a lot more space and power than the simple GT half-height replacement cards.

This otherwise sub-$100 card is actually in places for $130 and up. 

Asus

There used to be more options in the $100-$150 range; now, they mostly fall below $100 or above $150, which is, frankly, annoying. But between $150 and $200 may find the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Super-based cards and the AMD Radeon RX 5500 XT cards, both of which deliver very similar, solid entry-level 1080p gaming at low or medium settings for all but the most GPU-intensive games. But even these are really hard to find now.

And since much basic photo editing still isn’t very GPU-intensive, a fast, high-core-count CPU still gives you more performance value for the money than a higher-power graphics card.

One distinction between the two that may affect your decision is power draw: the RX 5500 XT takes about 30 watts more than the 1650S. Since they’re both under 150 watts, though, your power supply probably isn’t a problem. 

But unless your budget is extremely tight, I suggest you spend a little more (about $250 or so) for a GTX 1660 Super at the least: It has 6GB of video memory rather than 4GB, which gives you some headroom to improve the visual quality settings in a game, as well as lowers its near-term obsolescence quotient.

Cards in this segment are available, but cost roughly upwards of $500.

Lori Grunin/CNET

At the moment, cards based on the RTX 3060 are the go-to in this price class — at least, they would be if you could find them at the target base price, which Nvidia had hoped would be $329. You can find these in stock if you’re willing to pay upwards of $1,100. Ouch.

Read EVGA GeForce RTX 3060 XC Black hands-on.

 

Lori Grunin/CNET

With reasonably comparable performance at lower prices, Nvidia’s new RTX 3060 Ti cards have a price edge over their RX 6800-based competitors, though the latter is a good graphics card to stick in an external GPU for a Mac. You can’t get either one of the cards now, though; they’re all out of stock.

Read our RTX 3060 Ti hands-on.

 

Lori Grunin/CNET

My preference here is for the Radeon RX 6800, which generally performs better than the 3070, but not on everything. For instance, I’ve noticed that the RTX 3070 occasionally does better on 1080p than the RX 6800, while the latter GPU makes a better showing in 4K. For video editing, the RX 6800’s larger bandwidth and 16GB of VRAM give it a leg up over the RTX 3070 as well, except if your application takes advantage of Nvidia’s CUDA programming interface to accelerate it. I also like the RX 6700 XT in this segment and you can find some, though at its current price of over $1,100 I don’t really recommend it as a way to save cash. On the other hand, the RX 6800 XT is findable for $2,000 and the RTX 3070 $1,800, so maybe it is a bargain.

Read our RX 6800 hands-on.

 

Lori Grunin/CNET

As with the step-down price segment, the RX 6800 XT generally outperforms the more-expensive RTX 3080 especially at higher resolutions and in professional graphics applications, thanks to the better memory bandwidth and more video memory. But likewise, that doesn’t always hold true, especially with software that takes advantage of Nvidia CUDA.

Out of stock for the most part, unless you feel like paying $2,000 or more for it.

Read our RX 6800 XT hands-on.

 

Nvidia

The situation flips when you climb above $1,000, since the RTX 3090 essentially replaces the Titan RTX with 24GB of video memory. I haven’t yet had a chance to test either the RTX 3090 or its competitor, the RX 6900 XT, so this is a tentative recommendation. But yet again, you can’t find it in stock anywhere, anyway. And even out of stock these cards seem to run more than $2,000.

Things to keep in mind when looking for the best graphics card:

  • Once you’ve narrowed down your choice to a few options, searching for people’s complaints about a product is critical to discovering important information — like how many slots a card really requires as opposed to the manufacturer’s claims. It may take two slots, for example, but be just thick enough to make it impossible to put another card in a slot next to it, or just a little too long to handle a motherboard because of obstructions.
  • Power consumption: Always check the power capabilities of a card against your power supply’s output. Don’t forget to take the other cards and devices in your system into account concerning power usage and the possible effect on battery life.
  • Most of the negative reviews of graphics describe artifacts and failures that are usually the symptoms of overheating. If this worries you, then don’t buy an overclocked card (usually indicated by “OC” in the name). When buying cards, make sure that you have sufficient cooling and that your case’s airflow and the positions of your other cards will allow for optimal heat dissipation. That may mean, for example, moving another PCI card into a different slot.
  • GTX models may be a little smaller than the RTX models and may generate less heat, and the RTX 3000 series has higher power requirements than the 2000 series.
  • The most powerful GPU on the planet won’t make a difference if your CPU is the bottleneck (and vice versa) — think overkill.
  • You’ll see a lot of price variation across cards using the same GPU. That’s for features such as overclocking, better cooling systems or flashy (literally) designs. 
  • All Nvidia GTX and RTX cards support the various flavors of G-Sync, and all AMD Radeon cards RX 400 or later support FreeSync adaptive refresh technologies. These sync with your monitor to reduce artifacts caused by a mismatch between screen refresh rate and frame rate — so if you’re keeping your monitor, you may want to get a card that supports the right tech.
  • Performance generalizations are just that — generalizations. If you’re looking to boost performance in a particular game, run a search on, say, “Fortnite benchmarks” and “best cards for Fortnite.” 
  • Don’t assume that replacing an old card will automatically give you noticeably better or smoother performance.
  • Don’t assume that the newer Nvidia RTX 20-series cards will be faster than the 10-series cards they replace. 
  • Dual cards are usually more of a pain than they’re worth. Video editing is usually the exception, depending upon application support.
  • If you want a card for content creation, game benchmarks aren’t usually representative. To research those, start by running a search on “workstation GPUs” or, for example, “best GPU for Premiere.” It’s important to match the GPU to the application, because, for instance, Nvidia Quadro GPUs are generally more powerful than their AMD Radeon Pro or WX series equivalents, but application developers who are tight with Apple — which doesn’t support Nvidia GPUs — optimize their applications for AMD GPUs. The biggest example of this is Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve video editor.
  • For photo editing, it may no longer suffice to use a low-end or middling graphics card, though it depends on your software. With the latest generation of Photoshop and Lightroom, Adobe has begun to expand its use of AI-related technologies in meaningful ways. For instance, Photoshop’s new Replace Sky and Neural Filters can take advantage of GPU hardware designed to accelerate AI to speed them up, such as the Tensor cores in Nvidia’s RTX cards. But if you don’t have at least 32GB memory, graphics applications may get a bigger boost from upgrading that before the GPU, unless the graphics card is really old. 
  • For video editing, the amount of memory on the card can have a big impact on real-time performance as you work with higher-resolution video (4K and up). 

Relative performance of recent GPUs

Far Cry 5 (1080p)

MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 Ti)

MSI MEG Trident X (RTX 2070 Super)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

Far Cry 5 (4K)

MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 Ti)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (fps)

Shadow of the Tomb Raider gaming test (1080p)

MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 Ti)

Origin PC Chronos (RTX 3080)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

Shadow of the Tomb Raider gaming test (1440p)

MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 Ti)

Origin PC Chronos (RTX 3080)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

Shadow of the Tomb Raider gaming test (4K)

MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 Ti)

MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 with DLSS)

Origin PC Chronos (RTX 3080)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

3DMark Time Spy

MSI MEG Trident X (RTX 2070 Super)

MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 Ti)

Maingear Turbo (RTX 2080 Ti)

Origin PC Chronos (RTX 3080)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Fire Strike Ultra

MSI MEG Trident X (RTX 2070 Super)

MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 Ti)

Maingear Turbo (RTX 2080 Ti)

Origin PC Chronos (RTX 3080)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

3DMark Variable Rate Shading (4K)

Maingear Turbo (RTX 3080)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

SpecViewPerf 13 SolidWorks (4K)

MSI Trident X (RTX 2070 Super)

Maingear Turbo (late 2020)

Maingear Turbo (RTX 2080 Ti)

Origin PC Chronos (RTX 3080)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

Configurations

Maingear Turbo (RTX 2080 Ti) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (2004); 3.8GHz Ryzen 9 3900XT; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,600; 11GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti; 1TB SSD + 4TB HDD
MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060 Ti) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (2004); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti; 1TB SSD
MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3060) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (2H20); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000; 12GB EVGA GeForce RTX 3060 XC Black Gaming; 1TB SSD
MSI Aegis RS (RTX 3070 FE) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 Founders Edition; 1TB SSD
MSI Aegis RS (RX 6700 XT) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (2H20); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,200; 12GB AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT; 1TB SSD
MSI Aegis RS (RX 6800 XT) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000; 16GB AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT; 1TB SSD
MSI Aegis RS (RX 6800) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909); 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,000; 16GB AMD Radeon RX 6800; 1TB SSD
MSI Trident X (RTX 2070 Super) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (1909); (oc) 3.8GHz Intel Core i7-10700K; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,932; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super; 1TB SSD
Origin PC Chronos (RTX 3080) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (2004); Intel Core i9-10900K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 3,200; 10GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 (EVGA); 1TB SSD + 500GB SSD

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