Graphics card buyer’s guide
Confused by all the GPU options currently on the market? The APC team makes choosing the right one simple with this comprehensive and (mostly) jargon-free guide.
With both AMD and Nvidia both relying on GPU designs launched over a year ago at this point, we’re about due for a refresh at the top end. That doesn’t mean now’s not a good time to buy a new GPU, however — especially if you’re aiming for the competitive budget or mid-range space. High launch prices have well and truly subsided, so there are some genuine midrange bargains to be had in particular.
There are more formats and resolutions than ever before for PC gaming — the proliferation of ultra-widescreen displays means it’s no longer just 1080p, 1440p and 4K. You’ve now got newfangled ultrawide 21:9 aspect-ratio models (which are commonly either 2,560 x 1,080 pixels or 3,440 x 1,440 pixels) that demand more GPU grunt, not to mention the burgeoning VR market.
HOW FAST IS FAST ENOUGH?
With any graphics card purchase, your ultimate goal should be to maintain an average framerate above 60fps in mainstream games, and you really don’t want that number dropping below 30fps at any time — doing so means you’ll really start to feel the slowdown in the gameplay and it makes for a frankly crappy gaming experience.
With the bulk of PC monitors still 1080p models — or 1,920 x 1,080 pixels — for most of us, a high-end graphics card like the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti is overkill. You can get much better bang-for-buck at the $300–$400 mark, but you don’t even need to spend that much to get solid speeds at 1080p. On the other hand, when paired with a high refresh-rate monitor, higher framerates can arguably improve the overall experience, making games feel faster and more responsive — and you mightn’t need to spend a fortune to get on board this revolution, with HFR monitors starting at $200.
WHEN TO UPGRADE
To keep on top of modern graphics upgrades, most PC gamers will want to upgrade their GPU every two to three years. Driver upgrades tend to eke more performance out of cards over time, but these can only go so far.
When exactly you should upgrade is going to vary significantly from person to person, but the general rule is that, if your current setup can no longer maintain 60 fps at Medium detail settings, it’s worth investigating the current GPU scene.
IS OVERCLOCKED WORTH IT?
This is really a question of how much you’re being asked to pay. While higher clocks does indeed generally mean more FPS, out of the factory, most overclocked cards only offer a modest speed increase in the range of 2–5%. What you’re really paying for is the chance of achieving higher speeds manually thanks to better cooling hardware and higher-quality power components.
That said, you’ll be lucky to eke more than about 10–15% of an increase from most GPUs and their accompanying memory — remember that both need to be bumped up to see a consistent increase in framerates. Generally, then, you shouldn’t pay more than 15% more for an overclocked card.