How to Buy the Best 4K 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.
Consoles like the Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4 can’t handle 4K gaming, a task left to the more premium PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X. The only other real 4K-capable console, of sorts, at the time of this writing was the Android TV-powered Nvidia Shield. It can run some Android games at 4K, as well as stream PC games from your home gaming PC at 4K (and even over the Internet if you have a fast connection).
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 powerful graphics card—especially if you want to play your games with the in-game eye candy dialed all the way up. And if you’re investing in a 4K monitor or a 4K TV for gaming, you clearly 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.
At the moment, to deliver smooth frame rates at high settings at 4K (that’s 3,840-by-2,160 resolution, for the record) with the most-demanding games, you’ll need to opt for one of the most powerful graphics cards available. These days, those cards include Nvidia’s new-architecture GeForce GTX 1080 Ti Founders Edition, the one-step-down Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition, or one of the many custom-cooled and/or overclocked models based on the GTX 1080 graphics processor (GPU). But those cards don’t come cheap, generally starting at above $699 for the Ti model, with the most basic versions of the GTX 1080 models now selling for around $500.
The GeForce GTX 1080 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), rather than 30fps. Alternatively, you could pick up two GeForce GTX 1080 cards. In many games, that setup should deliver significantly better gaming performance than a single 1080 Ti card.
Note, though, that if you do go the dual-graphics-card route, multi-graphics setups can introduce a host of side issues. Most games don’t ship on launch day with the optimizations in place to take advantage of multiple-card or multiple-GPU 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. You might run across issues with frame timing on multi-card or multi-GPU systems, as well, where onscreen game frames don’t get delivered at exactly the right time, resulting in a subpar experience. For this reason, we generally recommend buying the best single card (or single-chip card) for the performance you’re after, whenever possible.
Not long ago, the current-generation Nvidia Titan X was a the most powerful gaming card you could buy, and so also the best 4K gaming option for those without budget constraints—it sells for $1,200. But the launch of the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti knocked the Titan X out of any sensible contention strictly for gaming purposes, because the GTX 1080 Ti is based around the same chip as the Titan X, it performs somewhat better (though roughly the same at 4K), and it costs several hundred less than the Titan X. Unless you have some specific non-gaming reason to shell out for the performance of a Titan X (say, for rendering or scientific work), and maybe you want to use it to do some 4K gaming on the side, this card makes little sense at this point. To be clear, though, it’s still one of the most powerful cards you can buy, for sure.
Get the Best 4K Video Card on a Budget
If your budget can’t quite bear laying out $550 or more for a graphics card, you can find some less-expensive options that can handle 4K gaming at lower settings. You won’t get the absolute best visuals possible, but 4K gaming is technically attainable with these cards.
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 resolution, under-$600 cards such as the GeForce GTX 980 Ti and AMD’s last-generation, high-end Radeon R9 Fury X and Radeon R9 Fury are also capable options. Just remember that you won’t be able to play many games at the highest detail settings.
These above cards have fallen in price thanks to the introduction of the GTX 1080, as well as the lesser GeForce GTX 1070, both released in mid-2016. GeForce GTX 1070 cards start at around the $350 mark, with Nvidia’s Founders Edition version at around $400. This card challenges cards like the older GeForce GTX 980 on performance. The GeForce GTX 1070 even beats the GeForce GTX 980 Ti at times, depending on the gaming matchup.
The GeForce GTX 1070 is poised to take over in this price range, and opting for one of the last-generation cards may save you some money if their prices fall far enough. But as newer games arrive in 2017 and beyond, you’ll have to dial things back more and more to keep the frame rates at or above a clean 30fps.
Aside from raw performance, a couple of other things are worth keeping in mind when shopping for a powerful 4K-capable graphics card.
Consider (and Match) the Monitor
The first consideration has to do with the kind of display you’ll be using. If you opt for a 4K monitor with a DisplayPort input (which has the bandwidth to deliver 4K content at 60Hz, or up to 60fps), any of the above options should serve you well. But if you are thinking of using a 4K television for a larger-screen (and sometimes lower-price) gaming display, you may not want to opt for an older AMD Radeon-based card.
Why? Most 4K TVs lack DisplayPort connectors, instead relying upon HDMI input. Many newer 4K TVs have HDMI 2.0 ports, which also have the bandwidth to deliver 4K content at 60Hz. Nvidia’s current-generation middle-to-high-end cards have HDMI 2.0 ports, as well. In AMD’s case, though, only the newest-generation Radeon RX 480 and RX 580 cards (and others in the RX 400 and RX 500 series) have an HDMI 2.0-capable port. The older Radeon R9 300-Series and Radeon R9 Fury cards don’t. And the RX 480 or RX 580 are not ideal cards for 4K play, though they may suffice at 4K at low detail settings. Then again, they are $200 to $250, versus $600-plus for an elite-level 4K card.
As a result, if you opt for an older AMD card and plan on plugging your PC into a 4K HDTV, you’ll be stuck doing things at 30Hz, or dialing the resolution back to 1080p. This will bother some buyers and gamers more than others. Many games are certainly playable at 30Hz. But competitive twitch gamers (think of titles like League of Legends and DOTA 2) will want a higher refresh rate in order to remain competitive. And even if you’re fine with playing games at 30Hz, you may be annoyed by things like choppy mouse-cursor movement if you’re computing or gaming on a 4K screen limited to just 30Hz.
Mind the Video Memory
The other thing to watch for while shopping for a 4K-ready gaming card is the amount of dedicated video memory your card has. Generally, 2GB of memory is plenty if you’re gaming at 1080p or below. But when you step up to 4K, a graphics card needs to very quickly 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 4GB of memory.
A card with 6GB or more can be a better 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. But you usually need to specifically download these additional files, either from the game developer’s Web site, Steam, or other gaming-community sites.
Consider Card Length
If you’re rocking a full-tower PC, card size is probably not an issue. Most high-end, 4K-capable video cards are two slots wide and a little more or less than 10 inches long. That said, if you’re trying to build a gaming PC in a MicroATX- or Mini-ITX-styled chassis, we’ve seen a few “short-barrel” cards that can squeeze in where full-size cards can’t.
On the AMD side of the aisle, for a while that card has been the Radeon R9 Nano, detailed below. On the Nvidia side, we have seen “short” GTX 1050, GTX 1060, and 1070 cards (we recently tested the Zotac GeForce GTX 1060 Mini), though really the GTX 1070 is the bare-minimum “real” 4K card of that lot. (Gigabyte and Zotac both offer short-board GTX 1070 cards.) We also just tested a short-board GeForce GTX 1080 Mini from Zotac, which is the best current compact card for 4K play.
Check the Power Requirements
If your existing system already has a 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. (A 500- or 600-watt supply ought to be able to keep most any current single 4K-capable card juiced.) Many of the latest cards also require just a single power-supply lead (six- or eight-pin) from your supply, but make sure you have the proper cabling in place, or adapters on hand.
Overclocked, Out of the Box?
The distinctions among many high-end cards designed for powering through 4K display tasks 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 graphics processor, 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 can sometimes be a key reason why some cards of the same class (such as different GTX 1080 cards) vary by so much in price.
Overclocking-minded cards will tend to be larger than their same-GPU kin, with more fans and/or more elaborate heat pipes and sinks. The presence of a water-cooling rig, such as with Corsair/MSI’s Sea Hawk cards or EVGA’s FTW Hybrids, is the definite sign of an extreme card meant for tweakers. With air-cooling, the most expensive cards in a given line tend to be the ones with the hardware for overclocking or a factory-overclock done out of the box. Telltale cards of this kind include Zotac’s Amp and Amp Extreme Series, MSI’s Gaming X and Gaming Z, Gigabyte’s WindForce and Xtreme, Asus’ Republic of Gamers, and EVGA’s FTW.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
We’ve tested a lot of video cards in the recent “Pascal” and “Polaris” families; these are our current favorites for 4K. Note that the Radeon RX 480 and 580 are not stellar 4K cards by themselves, as we noted earlier, but they can be configured in multi-card CrossFire configurations, in which you add more cards as money allows. (Nvidia’s current-gen Pascal GTX 1070 and 1080 cards are limited to two-card SLI configurations, so the RX 480 and 580 has a minor niche here, in this way.)
Note that the current popularity of crytocurrency mining has caused intense demand for graphics cards, so current street prices for the GPUs in this roundup could be much higher than listed here.