Picking a new AMD or Nvidia graphics card can be overwhelming. We’ll help you get started with everything you need to know.
Best graphics card
If Intel, AMD and Nvidia’s statistics are correct, you’re probably using a computer and graphics card that are several years old. For PC gaming, video editing, animation and other heavyweight graphics-intensive activities, that’s just about forever. A lot’s changed in the last several years, so chances are you’re no longer using a modern card — much less the best graphics card out there — with new technologies like smart resolution upscaling or ray-tracing acceleration. And games and software used by creative folks for applications like 3D tools and video editors haven’t gotten any less demanding.
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.
For color work, however, Nvidia finally made your old GeForce card a little more useful: As of version 431.70 (released July 29, 2019), the Studio branch of its drivers opened up true 30-bit color support for Photoshop and other Adobe applications. So no more shelling out megabucks for a Quadro workstation card just for the extra bit depth.
The hardware landscape is constantly in flux. As an example, the latest graphics card options in the $500-or-less price range seem to change every six months or so, with AMD and Nvidia overhauling their lineups for the popular 1080p and growing 1440p gaming markets. And these biannual shufflings are pretty typical in an era of the ever-improving refresh rate and expanding memory bandwidth.
Most recently, Nvidia announced its new GeForce RTX 3000 series of GPUs, the RTX 3070, 3080 and 3090, which follow on the Super equivalents, and in the case of the 3090, the Titan Xp. The cards use the Ampere architecture, with improved algorithms and more processing power dedicated to ray tracing (second-gen Turing core), AI (for more efficient upscaling via DLSS) and the programmable shaders. They promise big jumps in performance over the 2000 series. And we’re expecting AMD to announce its cards based on the “Big Navi” current-gen architecture within the next couple of months.
One of the big differentiators between Nvidia and AMD’s GPUs these days is real-time ray-tracing acceleration — not who has it and who doesn’t, but how it’s implemented. Nvidia uses dedicated silicon RT, or ray-tracing cores, with a proprietary programming interface that takes more work for developers to support. AMD takes a less hardware-dependent approach, which is easier to incorporate — and which will be used by upcoming Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles — but arguably not as effective.
The new architectures for ray-tracing acceleration are accompanied by a larger set of technologies which 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 Image Sharpening do this.