I’m a data expert when it comes to pre-built computers; I spend a lot of time QC'ing and investigating market trends, shelf share, price fluctuations, advertisements – anything that has to do with desktop and notebook models hitting the markets. So I can easily narrow down some pre-built gaming PCs that are within my budget if I'm looking to buy. However, when it comes to computer hardware… I had quite a lot of research to do. For me, buying a new gaming PC is not as simple as picking a brand and the best graphics card available.
Say you want an Alienware desktop shipped and sold by Amazon; you have a few options, and not many to look at. But if you're like me, you're wondering if the model with that GeForce RTX 2080 graphics card is really worth that $500+ price increase from the models with mostly similar specifications otherwise. But if you go with a cheaper option, how much are you missing out in terms of good graphics? Is the difference that noticeable?
This snapshot was taken from our Desktops weekly Pricing & Promotions Report, for the week of April 7, 2019
While there are other articles that can explain the details and importance of graphics cards much better than I can, I find those results to be way too deep on jargon and technical terms. This is especially unhelpful if you're just looking for the ELI5 ("explain like I'm five") version of what RTX or Ti are. So here's my goal: to explain to avid gamers, who aren't big on hardware technicalities, the basics for how these graphics cards differ from one another, what traits some series have over another, and which GPU is better than the others for your situation.
What are My Options?
You've got plenty of options. Probably too many to choose from. You've got the GeForce MX series, the GeForce 900 series, the GeForce 10, 16, and 20 series. The prime differences within each series is the microarchitecture they're based on, which is basically the chip's internal engineering architecture.
However, it's a bit more complicated than one series outperforming another. Though desktops with the GeForce RTX 20 series debuted last year, and the GeForce GTX 10 series has been around for some time, that doesn't mean all 20 series graphics cards outperform the 10. The GTX 1080 Ti, for example, still outperforms the RTX 2070. If you're unsure or are still learning about which GPUs are stronger than others, you can use sites such as TechPowerUp's GPU Specs Database and userbenchmark.com to compare graphics card performances.
Look at all them differences! But all you really need to know is the 1080 Ti performs better (mostly), while the 2070 is cheaper (kind of).
To reiterate, just because the number is bigger, doesn't mean it will run better. Here's a real world example: if you were looking to buy a new PC to play Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, you will need a GeForce GTX 660 or stronger just to run it (though a GTX 970 is recommended). While the GTX 580 outperforms the GTX 660, the GTX 750 Ti does not – meaning you will not be able to run this game on a PC with the GTX 750 Ti.
You may have heard of "Ti", "SLI," and "Max-Q" coupled together with graphics cards as well. A "Ti" graphics card is a stronger variant of the already existing, non-Ti version. (For example, the GTX 1070 Ti outperforms the GTX 1070, but not the GTX 1080.) A "SLI" graphics card basically means there's more than one graphics card there. (For example, Acer Predator GX21-71-76ZF boasts a "GeForce GTX 1080 SLI" in its specs – meaning it runs two GTX 1080 graphics cards.) A "Max-Q" graphics card is essentially a faster, cooler, and quieter variant of the standard model, though not necessarily stronger.
And this is all just within the Nvidia brand. If I threw AMD into the mix, I'd pass my word limit.
This snapshot was taken from our Desktops weekly Market Intelligence Report, for the week of March 17, 2019
What is the RTX Series, and how is it different from the GTX series?
The GeForce GTX 1660 Ti (part of the GTX 16 Series) launched earlier this year. It is considered a midrange graphics card with a performance "bridging the gap between the GTX 1060 and GTX 1070." Other than bringing more options to Nvidia midrange lineup, this GPU doesn't appear to be much different from the GTX 10 Series. But the RTX series changes an entire letter. So what makes the GeForce RTX stand out from the GeForce GTX series?
Two big things: ray tracing and deep learning supersampling (DLSS). In layman's terms, ray tracing renders lights and shadows more realistically, similarly to how movies use CGI. Until recently, realistic 3D rendering had been difficult to simulate for real-time graphics. On the other hand, DLSS is artificial intelligence that lowers the resolution where it's not needed (when the game is fast-paced), and maximizes it where it's important (when the game is slow-paced). By doing this, DLSS uses less of the GPU's rendering power so these freed-up resources could be put towards another task, such as "counteracting performance issues caused by ray tracing." Whether a game looks better with or without these features is up to the player. You can read more about ray tracing here and here, and more about DLSS here.
So basically, the RTX series changes up the way light and resolution is used to create images. Though according to Polygon and PCWorld, GTX 10 and 16 Series graphics card will soon support basic ray tracing as well. Maybe the RTX 20 Series will drop its price once this featured is enabled? I wonder…
These Features Sound Awesome. Why Wouldn't I Just Go with the GTX 1080 or RTX 2080?
Expenses, of course! It's not just the graphics card you have to shell out for – you need to make sure you buy a strong enough processor to prevent bottlenecking. For example, the Intel Core i7-8700K processor alone runs for between $350-400 – and the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 is still about $400 as well. With the prices of those two PC components alone, I could buy a PlayStation 4 for everyone in my squad.
What's this "Bottlenecking?"
As someone who looks over the specifications of all pre-built PCs that enter the market, I'll tell you right now: just because the manufacturer put a CPU and GPU together into a single PC, doesn't mean the graphics will run well at all. For example, gap intelligence recorded Newegg selling the CyberPower Gamer Xtreme C858T gaming desktop for $1399, earlier this year on January 28. Considering this PC sold for $1629 when it first debuted on Newegg in August 2018, that price drop may look like a deal, but don't be fooled. Its Core i5 8400 processor and GeForce RTX 2080 are an incredibly poor match; the processor is far too weak for that powerful graphics card.
When shopping for a good GPU, you must check the CPU a PC's GPU paired with to avoid what's called bottlenecking – otherwise you're spending a whole lotta cash for pretty graphics you'll never see. Basically, if your CPU is too old or too weak to handle your GPU, or vice versa, your game will perform poorly. This may sound intimidating to shoppers new to the PC gaming world, but luckily, this bottleneck calculator exists to tell you if one component is too weak for the other, and will even recommend what RAM and storage type will meet your needs. (Sites like TechPowerUp will help you determine which display resolution will suit your configurations as well.)
So What's the Best Nvidia Graphics Card for Me?
If you want the best-of-the-best and have the budget for it, the option is clear. But if you're an in-betweener like I am, or just want something that works but has that Nvidia brand to it, there are definitely options for you. I've done the research, so you don't have to!
Casual or new gamers: Do you play Minecraft with your son? Do you play Fortnite because your friends conned you into it? Are you just getting into gaming? Then an entry-level or budget graphics card such as the GeForce GTX 1050 or GeForce MX250* might work best for you; the former currently sells for under $150. (However, these GPUs work best on a 1366×768 [HD] laptop/monitor. If you're using a 1920×1080 [FHD] resolution, I recommend shelling out an extra ~$50 for a GeForce GTX 1060 instead.) Entry-level graphics cards are able to run games, most likely with reduced settings. These kinds of cards are most suitable for gamers who don't play too often, or at least don't care for the best possible rendering in any game.
*Availble only within laptops – you can't pick this one off the shelf, but it's a good option if you're looking for a new laptop
Gamers who like open-world games (casual or not): You'll want something that performs a bit better than the minimum required if you're playing games like Ghost Recon: Wildlands or Assassin's Creed: Odyssey that focus on scenic details. I recommend grabbing a GeForce GTX 1660 if you're looking for something under $250 – but grab a Geforce GTX 1660 Ti or higher if you really want those Ubisoft open landscapes to look gorgeous on your screen.
If you have a GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card and want something stronger, you have quite a lot of options, ranging from kinda stronger to much stronger.
Gamers who prefer to relax: Maybe you like to goof around in Battlefield V or Overwatch with your buddies, prioritizing hanging out more so than the actual game. Or maybe you want your game to still look good, but you just don't care about every hair folicle on Geralt's head. I recommend the GeForce GTX 1060, just to cover your bases. You can go lower for games such as Stardew Valley and Minecraft, but on the off-chance your squad wants to play a AAA title, I'd still get something stronger.
Gamers who prefer performance over graphics: You probably care more about getting those clicks timed just right in League of Legends than how well your character renders. In this case, you should absolutely use the bottleneck calculator here – while I recommend using the GeForce GTX 1060, a powerful CPU is actually more important in this scenario than the GPU. You should check that your monitor and/or laptop display is optimized for response time, refresh rates, and your preferred FPS as well. Do you have the right Adaptive Sync Technology and Display Type for LoL or CS:GO?
Gamers who need the best possible visuals, but aren't rich: So you can't afford an RTX 2080 or GTX 1080 Ti, but want the best-looking graphics, right? Easy: the GeForce GTX 1080 or the GeForce RTX 2070. But if those two options are still outside your budget, as they're both over $500, then I would definitely go with either the GeForce RTX 2060 or the GeForce GTX 1660 Ti; as of today, the former is about $349 (cheaper than the GTX 1070 Ti), and the latter is about $279, but weaker.
Gamers who need the best possible visuals – and are totally rich: If you have arguments for why you'd pick a graphics card other than the GTX 1080 Ti or RTX 2080 that aren't listed here, please let me know! I'm very curious.
Check for minimum spec requirements – check for bottlenecking – check for all of the things – don't let this be you!
Thank you for reading what seems to be part four of my Computer Tech 101 series. If you didn’t know what TFLOPS stands for before reading my blog, you probably still don’t – but at least if you need a graphics card that's within your budget and suits your playstyle, you’ll have a better idea of what to look for now!
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