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How to Choose the Right Graphics Card

Thanks to streaming services
such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and even YouTube, it’s finally getting
easier to find actual 4K (also referred to as “Ultra HD”) video content.
But as awesome as 4K video looks, if you’re aiming to immerse yourself
in a pixel-dense world, it’s hard to beat playing cutting-edge PC games
in 4K.

Only the latest consoles—the Sony PlayStation 4 Pro and the Microsoft Xbox One X—will
output games at 4K. But really, if you want to play brand-new AAA games
at 4K with the best visuals, you’ll need a desktop PC equipped with a
very powerful graphics card—especially if you want in-game eye candy
dialed all the way up. After all, if you’re investing in a 4K monitor or
a 4K TV for gaming, you want things to look as good as they can.
Running games at 4K resolution but dialing down the detail and effects
settings in your games is working at cross-purposes. So the PC graphics
card you buy matters—a lot.

4K Gaming: High-End Cards and Dual-GPU

At
the moment, to deliver smooth frame rates at high settings at 4K
resolution on a PC (that’s 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, for the record) with
the most-demanding games, you’ll need to opt for one of the most
powerful consumer-grade graphics cards available. These days, those
cards include Nvidia’s “Turing”-architecture GeForce RTX 2080 Ti Founders Edition, the one-step-down Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Founders Edition and GeForce RTX 2080 Super,
or one of the many custom-cooled and/or overclocked models based on
these cards’ GeForce RTX 2080 or RTX 2080 Ti graphics processors (GPUs).

Also in play: Cards based on AMD’s Radeon RX Vega 64, the Radeon VII, and AMD’s latest addition to the lineup, the Radeon RX 5700 XT (as long as you don’t mind turning down your settings a bit).
But none of these cards, GeForce or Radeon, comes cheap, most of them
starting around $400 for the base models, and as high as $1,200 (!) for
some third-party overclocked RTX 2080 Ti cards.

The
GeForce RTX 2080 Ti is the card you’ll want to opt for, though, if you
want butter-smooth frame rates at or above 60 frames per second (fps) in
anything above high settings. Alternatively, you could pick up two GeForce RTX 2080 cards and use them in a paired NVLink arrangement,
or scrape the bare minimum with a single GeForce RTX 2080 Super. In
some games, that setup should deliver significantly better gaming
performance than a single RTX 2080 Ti card. Note, though, that if you do
go this route, multi-graphics setups can introduce side issues. Most
games don’t ship on launch day with the optimizations to take advantage
of multiple-card graphics, and some games never deliver multi-graphics
support at all.

So, if you’re the kind of
enthusiast PC gamer who likes to jump on games on the day they’re
released, multi-GPU options aren’t ideal solutions. Also, you might run
across issues with frame timing, in which onscreen game frames don’t get
delivered exactly in sync, resulting in a subpar experience. For this
reason, we recommend buying the best single card for the performance
level you’re after, whenever possible.

And then there’s Nvidia’s aptly named Titan line of cards. The pricey Titan RTX is
the beast of beasts, the crème de la crème, the absolute beefiest
consumer-level graphics card you can buy today. And while technically
the card is more powerful than anything that’s come before it, much of
that power would be wasted on games alone.

Nvidia Titan RTX

These
cards are made for much more than gaming, deployed more often in
creative fields that do a lot of 4K and 8K video editing, 3D rendering,
or 3D modeling. In a price-for-performance sense, they’re way, way
overkill for games, and they are often not optimized to take advantage
of top titles as well as the gaming-centric GeForce RTX 2080 Ti cards (and its
lessers) are.

So yes, while technically
the Titan RTX could push 4K-gaming frames with grace, at that price
you’re better off going with a single RTX 2080 Ti and spending the
leftover $1,300 upgrading your RAM, CPU, and motherboard at the same
time. Or saving the difference.

4K Gaming Cards: The Best “Budget” Options

If
your budget can’t quite bear laying out $600 or more for a graphics
card, you can find some less-expensive cards that can handle 4K gaming
at lower settings. You won’t get the absolute best visuals possible, but
4K gaming is technically attainable.

If
you don’t mind running games closer to medium detail settings at 4K,
but you still want to experience the pixel-dense glory of games running
at 3,840 by 2,160, the AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT, Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super, and GeForce RTX 2060 Super are all capable engines. Just remember that you won’t be able to play many games at the highest detail settings.

AMD Radeon 5700 XT

Speaking
of the RTX 2070 Super, GeForce RTX 2070 Super cards start at around the
$499 mark, challenging cards like the older GeForce GTX 1080 Ti on
performance. The RTX 2070 Super will even beat the AMD Radeon VII, or at
least tussle with it, in some games.

Overall, we
can’t recommend going much lower than $400 on your card today if you’re
serious about 4K gaming, though. One of the biggest concerns that any
cost-conscious PC gamer should have when choosing new hardware is how
“future-proof” a card is, and given that these options barely scratch
the surface of pushing 60 frames per second (fps) on most current titles
at middling settings, that viability will only continue to drop for new
games released later this year.

Aside from gauging raw
performance, you should keep a few other factors in mind when shopping
for a powerful 4K-capable graphics card. Let’s run through these one by
one.

Consider the Target Display

The
first consideration? The particular 4K display you’ll be using. If you
opt for a 4K monitor with a DisplayPort 1.4 input (which has the
bandwidth to deliver 4K content at 144Hz, or up to 144 frames per
second), any of the current-gen cards here should serve you well. But if
you are thinking of using a 4K television as a large-screen gaming
display, you’ll likely be stuck using HDMI 2.0 to jack in.

Why?
Most 4K TVs lack DisplayPort connectors. This locks you into using
HDMI, and thus to 4K at 60Hz. This doesn’t actually matter all that much
outside of the world of the new Nvidia BFGD (short for “Big Format
Gaming Display”) monitors that will run 4K at up to 120Hz. Though it is
very much game-dependent, today no single GPU will push AAA games at max
settings in 4K much beyond 60 frames per second.

Beyond TVs, though, gaming monitors
have seen more evolution in the last two years than in practically the whole
decade before. High-refresh-rate (that is, above 60Hz) 4K monitors are now an option and available from multiple makers. Yes, some are more expensive than a beater of a used car
(averaging anywhere between $1,800 to $2,000 at this writing). However,
if you have that kind of cash to throw around, they are worth a look.

HP Omen X Emperium 65 BFGD

Options like the Asus ROG Swift PG27UQ and the Acer Predator XB3
are typical of this (admittedly rather niche) market, and both
provide 4K screens that can be boosted as high as 144Hz under specific
conditions. We say “specific,” because as of this writing the two main
cables that carry the signal to the monitor (DisplayPort 1.4 and HDMI
2.1) are only capable of delivering a full 4:4:4 signal up to 120Hz. To
get to that holy grail of 144Hz, monitor manufacturers use a workaround
known as “chroma subsampling,” which brings the color palette down to
4:2:2. That is fine for movies and some 3D gaming, but it can wreak
havoc on content like text or graphical elements rendered in the OS.

Why
do we mention all that? Because it might be tempting to break the piggy
bank, rush out, grab a pair of GeForce RTX 2080 Ti cards, throw them
into an NVLink configuration, and try to tap into 140-plus
frame-per-second rates at 4K on ultra-high detail settings.
Realistically, with one of these elite monitors, you should settle for a
setup capable of pushing closer to 120fps (120Hz) to get the best
visual results from your games and daily computer usage.

That’s pie-in-the-sky for almost all buyers, though. Bottom line: Unless you’re really
awash in dough, you’ll be just fine with a monitor that pushes 4K games
at 60Hz. That’s near the top frame rate that today’s rigs equipped with
a single GeForce RTX 2080 Ti card will be able to achieve on leading
games, anyway. Leave higher-end frame-rate aims to Powerball winners.

One
last consideration: high dynamic range (HDR). It looks gorgeous when
implemented properly, and many new games (as well as a back catalog of
older games) support the spec. You’ll find many 4K HDR
gaming monitors already on the market to choose among, and most have
come down in price far enough to keep them competitive with their
non-HDR counterparts. From the point of view of card buying, though, no
worries: All current-gen GeForce and Radeon cards support it.

How Much Video Memory Is Necessary?

The
other thing to watch for while shopping for a 4K-ready gaming card is
the amount of dedicated video memory on the card. Generally, 4GB of
memory is plenty if you’re gaming at 1080p or below, but when you step up to 4K, a graphics card needs to handle much more data.

To
keep your gaming sessions running smoothly at 4K and high detail
settings, you’ll want a card with at least 6GB of memory. A card with
8GB of GDDR6 or more is your best bet, especially if you’re the type who
likes to download game mods and/or high-resolution texture packs, which
are sometimes specifically created to deliver a greater level of
in-game detail for high-end cards that have extra memory capacity.

The
RTX 2080 Ti, being the luxury-ride card that it is, pushes things to the
limit in this category. Every card comes with a whopping 11GB of
onboard GDDR6 memory, capable of pushing a staggering 616GB per second
across a 352-bit width bus. And the AMD Radeon VII packs
even more, 16GB of HBM2 memory, which is more of a boon for content
creators than for your average gamer.

Again,
pretty much anything around the 6GB level will hold its own on
medium-detail 4K games, but start diving into the high/ultra presets of
cutting-edge games, and you’ll need all you can get.

DLSS: Nvidia’s (Potential) Ace in the Hole?

DLSS,
or “deep learning super sampling,” is a new technology developed by
Nvidia for use in its latest lineup of RTX cards. The tech, which uses
an AI architecture to streamline the process of anti-aliasing, offers
significant performance boosts over non-DLSS results.

Final Fantasy XV

For
example, at 4K resolution with DLSS turned on, an RTX 2080 Ti Founders
Edition racked up an incredible score of 8,851 in our Final Fantasy XV
benchmark. This represented a massive 33 percent boost in performance
versus the same tests on the card with DLSS turned off. Comparatively,
the top-end consumer gaming card from AMD, the $699 Radeon VII,
barely scratched out a score of 3,502.

DLSS
indeed shows major promise. Games run more smoothly and look better,
even at the highest resolutions. However, we use the term “games”
loosely, given that, as of this writing, only a limited number of games
are trained in how to utilize it. A new version, DLSS 2.0, introduced in spring of 2020 launched with support for just a handful of games, though also promises of easier game-developer implementation. All this is
to say that while DLSS is certainly impressive (it may even be the one
thing that brings the world of 4K gaming into the hands of mainstream
gamers), right now any widespread implementation looks to be a ways off.

Understanding Card Length, Power Requirements

If
you’re rocking a full-tower PC, card size is probably not an issue.
However most high-end, 4K-capable video cards are three slots wide (two
at a minimum) and a little more or less than 11 inches long, which means
that most MicroATX chassis won’t fit these monsters. Even many midsize
ATX cases may find them a squeeze.

Video Card Power Sockets

That said, there are some cards that make compromises, like the MSI GeForce RTX 2060 Aero ITX OC.
This petite powerhouse takes only two card slots and measures just 7
inches long. But the GeForce RTX 2060 GPU itself will only be able to
push around 60fps at medium settings for 4K gaming, at best.

As
for the power requirements, if your existing system already has a
high-end video card in place, you’ll likely be fine, but check the
recommended minimum power-supply wattage for any 4K-capable card you’re
considering. Generally, a 600-watt supply ought to be able to keep most
any current single 4K-capable card juiced, but you’ll want to upgrade to
at least 650 or 700 watts if you opt for the power-hungry, 300-watt
Radeon VII.

Many
of the latest cards also require two power-supply leads (six- or
eight-pin, likely some combination of both) from your supply, so make
sure you have the proper cabling in place or adapters on hand.

Should I Get a Card Overclocked Out of the Box?

The
distinctions among the many high-end third-party cards that are capable
of 4K play can be esoteric. One of the big ones, though, is the
presence (or not) of enhanced cooling hardware on the card to handle
user-initiated overclocking of the GPU, or sometimes even overclocking
done at the factory. Reviews of individual cards will get down into the
weeds of exact clock rates or factory overclocking. But know that an
overclocking focus is often a key reason why some cards of the same
class (such as different RTX 2080 cards) vary so much in price.

MSI GeForce RTX 2080 Gaming Trio

Overclocking-minded
cards tend to be larger than their same-GPU kin, with more fans and/or
more elaborate heat pipes and sinks. The most expensive cards in a given
line tend to be the ones with the beefiest hardware for overclocking or
a factory overclock done out of the box. Telltale cards of this kind
include Zotac’s Amp Extreme Series, MSI’s Gaming X and Gaming Z,
Gigabyte’s WindForce and Xtreme, Asus’ Republic of Gamers, and EVGA’s
FTW series.

Some Basic 4K-Gaming Benchmarks…

We’ve
benchmarked all the cards recommended on this list, and here’s a
snapshot of how they perform in a handful of AAA titles and synthetic
benchmark tests at 4K, as well as some lesser resolutions: 1440p and
1080p. (In the case of the second chart, look at the numbers for Time
Spy Extreme for numbers that approximate 4K play.)

3DMark Fire Strike at 4K

3DMark Time Spy at 4K

Far Cry 5 at 4K

Final Fantasy XV at 4K

Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 4K

Rainbow Six Siege at 4K

As you can tell from these graphs, the GeForce RTX 2080 Super and Radeon VII make up one roughly equivalent tier, with the RTX 2080 Ti on a plane of its own. The Radeon VII card struggled to keep up specifically in the Final Fantasy XV test, likely due to the optimizations that Nvidia worked on with Square Enix during the development of the Windows port. Hit the links for our individual reviews of each card below for a lot more detail on each of these cards’ performance at 4K and other resolutions.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti

So, Which Card Should I Buy for 4K Gaming?

We’ve tested samples of all the key video cards
in Nvidia’s “Turing” and AMD’s “Polaris” and “Navi” families. Below
are our current favorites for 4K gaming.

Where To Buy

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