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Nearly every home computer user has experienced the dreaded performance slowdown: the computer’s speed is quite fast when it’s just home from the store, but over time — or after installing a particular software package — the machine slows significantly. Many people start shopping for a new computer, but it’s possible to give an old desktop computer new performance life by installing a graphics card.
A graphics card drives the display on your computer monitor. It also determines the maximum video resolution. Rendering graphics requires a lot of processing power, so cards need the newest components to keep up with software demands.
When you’re ready for a new graphics card, you can count on the information in our shopping guide. At BestReviews, we pride ourselves on the detailed research we perform for each product. We provide readers with the key information needed to make a wise purchase, and we explain the jargon found in technical product categories like graphics cards. We don't accept samples from manufacturers, so our selections in the product matrix above are free of bias.
Please refer to the above product matrix for our top five graphics card recommendations. And, if you’d like to learn more about graphics cards in general, please continue reading this shopping guide.
A graphics card renders graphics and processes video. When a graphics card is not performing well, pauses or outright skips occur in video playback and graphics-intensive gaming. The user’s experience with graphic arts packages, layout and design software, and 3D modeling applications might also be substandard, as on-screen images fail to display correctly.
A higher-quality graphics card provides the processing power and independent memory needed for a more satisfying experience.
Do your homework before you select a graphics card. You need to know what kind of hardware already exists in your computer and what kind of graphics card your computer can support. The card you select must be compatible with your computer’s motherboard. Also, the motherboard must be powerful enough to work with the graphics card.
The Windows operating system provides some information about your computer hardware. Click on the Windows 10 icon in the lower left corner of the screen, then click the gear-shaped icon this opens the Settings window. Scroll down and click About on the left side of the screen.
Some computers don’t use independent graphics cards. Instead, the GPU is integrated into the motherboard. You can add a graphics card to this system for more display power.
Here are two specifications you should identify before buying a graphics card —
CPU: The CPU (central processing unit), or “processor,” is the primary hardware for driving computer operations. Note the type of processor in your computer.
RAM: RAM, or Random Access Memory, refers to physical chips where data is stored temporarily. The data is then passed to the CPU for processing. Note the amount of RAM in your system.
The compatibility specifications for the graphics card you want to install should list minimum levels for the computer’s CPU and RAM.
The two primary manufacturers of GPUs are Nvidia and AMD. Other companies make graphics cards and incorporate Nvidia or AMD GPUs.
The graphics card sits in a PCI-E (PCI-Express) slot. The card slides into the slot, then tabs on the side of the card lock into place.
You need at least one empty PCI-E slot to install a graphics card. Some cards require two or three slots to accommodate a wider card. These cards may only slide into one slot, but additional components, such as cooling fans or heat sinks, increase the width of the card. These components will hang over empty PCI-E slots.
Before purchasing a new graphics cards, take note of how many slots it requires. Make sure you have the available space in your desktop computer. Keep in mind that if your current computer has an independent graphics card, you’ll remove it, freeing a slot or two. Can’t find a graphics card in your current configuration? Many computer motherboards contain an integrated graphics card, which means none of the PCI-E slots are occupied.
Graphics cards handle video and graphics processing on a computer.
Graphics cards typically cost between $200 and $1,000. They can be divided into lower- and higher-end classes.
A graphics card that costs less than $400 is a mainstream card. These work well with less-demanding games and video but won’t handle high-end graphics processing. These are also more likely to be compatible with older computers.
For processor-intensive software, such as massively multiplayer online games, a graphics card with a higher price is the right option. A high-end card is also necessary to stream HD or 4K resolution video and to edit and process HD or 4K video. A top-notch graphics card requires stronger computing components in your system to take advantage of the card’s full capabilities.
Graphics cards use a lot of power. As the GPU processes data, electricity flows through the card and heat builds in the chip. The chip and graphics card must dissipate this heat to keep the card running at top efficiency.
Graphics cards use fans and heatsinks to disperse heat. A heat sink is a slotted piece of metal; it sits above the GPU and pulls heat away from the chip. Fans move air across the heatsink to carry heat out of the computer case.
Overclocking is the process of pushing a processor beyond the manufacturer’s top limit. To achieve top-end performance, some gamers overclock a GPU.
The GPU (Graphics Processor Unit) is the computer chip that processes the data for the graphics card. The GPU is often hidden under cooling system components, so you might not see it on the card.
GPUs are measured by clock speed, which is listed in megahertz (MHz). The higher the number of MHz available, the faster the GPU works. There are two primary GPU manufacturers:
Nvidia (produces GeForce GPUs)
AMD (produces Radeon GPUs)
Graphics card manufacturers integrate either GeForce or Radeon GPUs in their products.
Pay close attention to the maximum video and graphics resolution the graphics card offers to ensure they meet you needs.
Graphics cards can use the host computer’s RAM, but this RAM is shared between the graphics card and all other computer operations. Without enough RAM, the GPU can’t process at peak efficiency, and display performance suffers.
Most graphics card include separate RAM, dedicated entirely to the card’s operations. Check the amount of memory available on the graphics card. Cards with more RAM perform faster and can handle more complex graphics demands.
The type of memory on the card is also important. GDDR5 is a fast RAM with a lot of bandwidth. GDDR3 and GDDR4 are slower with less bandwidth. For the highest performance level, choose the fastest type of graphics RAM you can afford.
For top performance, the amount of RAM on the computer motherboard should be at least twice the RAM on the graphics card.
The graphics card specifications should list the maximum resolution the card displays. Most graphics cards can produce graphics and video at much higher than HD resolution (1920x1080 pixels). Make sure the card produces a resolution that matches or exceeds your current needs.
After installation, a small part of the graphics card sticks out the back of the computer case. This edge of the card is accessible from outside the case and provides output ports. Your monitor plugs into these ports; typical port types include VGA, DVI, and HDMI. Some cards will have multiple ports while others may only offer one. Also, some graphics cards allow you to attach more than one monitor.
Memory bandwidth is a key indicator of graphics card performance. GDDR5 memory offers a significant performance improvement over GDDR4 and GDDR3.
These companies produce some of the highest-quality graphics cards:
Graphics cards from these manufacturers typically include either an AMD Radeon GPU or an Nvidia GeForce GPU. AMD and Nvidia also sell their own branded graphics cards.
Q. Is it worth upgrading my desktop computer with a new graphics card? The computer is pretty old.
A. If your desktop computer is more than three to five years old, it might not support a newer graphics card. The computer’s CPU determines the options for compatible graphics cards. Check the Futuremark.com website for a list of capabilities by CPU. Computers with the highest-rated CPUs should support newer graphics cards.
Q. Can I place a new graphics card in my laptop computer?
A. The graphics cards listed in our products matrix are specific to desktop computers. To upgrade a laptop computer graphics card, you must purchase a card designed for laptops. Changing a laptop computer graphics card is a difficult process best left to a trusted repair center.
Q. How much RAM does my computer need to accommodate a new graphics card?
A. As a general rule, your computer needs double the memory of the graphics card. For example, if the new graphics card has 2GB of RAM, your computer motherboard should have at least 4GB.
Q. Why do I see the term “GPU” when I’m looking at graphics cards?
A. The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is the chip that handles the processing of graphics data. A high-quality GPU, such as the Nvidia GeForce or the AMD Radeon, is essential for a high-quality graphics card.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.