The Best GPU Upgrades For Every Budget

Getting the best performance for your GPU dollar can be a tricky proposition. From high end to more affordable models, we have put together a list of the best upgrades.

Upgrading is not just as simple as buying the most expensive video card possible -- there are a huge number of different GPUs available. If you want gaming performance, the sweet spot is around the $300 mark.

The problem is, paying more or less doesn't scale linearly with performance. For example, a GPU twice as expensive doesn't offer twice the performance. While you can run GPUs in SLI or CrossFire, that doesn't give double the performance either.

If you are still rocking a gaming PC from a few years back, then don't shell out for the very fastest video card -- your existing system simply won’t be able to keep up.

If you already have a high-end PC, then stepping up to the latest GPU may only give a small performance benefit, so compare benchmarks online before shelling out cash. If you want to get into 4K gaming, or run multiple monitors, you may need to really stretch the budget.

With Computex in early June, we can expect a range of new GPUs. The new models will be expensive at first, but will tend to push down the prices of existing cards, so keep an eye out for bargains.

Don’t forget about second-hand GPUs either. For an older PC, a cheap last generation graphics card can offer excellent performance for your dollar. It’s also a good way to make a few bucks off your existing hardware if you do upgrade.

No matter what GPU you buy, look for models that offer something extra. A factory overclock is a great way to get a little more performance. Some manufacturers also offer bundles with free games, or aftermarket cooling solutions that are both quieter and dump heat better.

Always compare prices online on websites such as staticICE and PC Part Picker.

Be specific in what you search for. For example, searching AMD Radeon R9 270 vs Radeon R9 270 returns less results (with higher minimum prices), as some brands are excluded.

As always, keep an eye out for specials and bargains -- you can often pick these GPUs up for a decent discount.


Under $200

 

AMD Radeon R9 270

Price: $199

Now an older card, the Radeon R9 270 gives reasonable performance for not too many dollars.

We very much recommend stepping up to the $300 price bracket, but if your budget can’t strength that far, the 270 is a decent choice. It’s slightly faster than the 750 Ti, but also slightly more expensive.

The Radeon R9 270X offers only a slight boost in performance for a $30 price jump.

You can also get away with a 300W or better PSU and a single 6-pin power connector.

 

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti

Price: $175

For a cheap but capable gaming GPU, the GeForce GTX 750 Ti is a solid choice if you are willing to compromise.

You won’t be able to get the fastest frame rates at higher resolutions unless you drop back the quality a little. Still, for the price it’s hard to go too wrong.

If you are willing to go second hand, similar money can buy a faster GPU. The 750 Ti needs a 300W or better PSU, but doesn't use any external power connections.


Under $300

 

AMD Radeon R9 280

Price: $259

Over a year old now, the Radeon 280 is still one of the best bang for buck GPUs available. Prices haven't really dropped either and it can be occasionally hard to find.

The 280 will struggle with high-end 4K gaming, so if you want to push the resolution limits, prepare to spend a little more.

The faster Radeon R9 280X can be had for $299, but doesn’t give the biggest performance boost considering the price bump. You will need a 500W+ PSU with both a 6- and 8-pin connector.

 

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960

Price: $279

The GeForce GTX 960 edges out the Radeon R9 280, but is turn just beaten by the 280X. Considering the price, it’s one the better gaming GPUs for those on a budget.

While the Radeon competition has a slight edge in performance for your dollar, the GTX 960 is a lot more power efficient. It won’t instantly lower your power bill, but if you do a lot of gaming, the savings will add up enough to make the GTX 960 a slightly cheaper option.

You will need a 400W+ PSU with a single 6-pin connector.


Under $500

 

AMD Radeon R9 290X

Price: $449

The Radeon R9 290X have been kicking around for over a year now, but still offers high end performance. Most importantly, it can handle 4K gaming, with fast frame rates.

It’s a hot and noisy card, so make sure you look at models with an aftermarket heat sink. A 500W+ PSU is must have, as well as both a 6- pin and 8-pin power connector.

You can pick up the non X 290 a little cheaper, but you also get a corresponding drop in performance.


NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970

Price $449

For future-proofed gaming without going too overkill on the budget, the GTX 970 is one of the best choices available. It can handle 4K gaming – even across multiple displays.

The GTX 970 is ommonly factory overclocked, which offers a small but welcome boost in performance. The GeForce GTX 970 actually offers slightly better performance for your dollar than the 290X, so unless you have a particular allegiance to the boys in red, NVIDIA wins here.

You will need a 500W or better PSU, as well as dual 6-pin power connectors.


$500+

 

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980

Price: $729

The GTX 980 offers top-notch performance, but does so at a hefty cost. In fact, its biggest competitor is the GTX 970, which is only mildly slower considering the huge price difference.

Still, if you want the very best frame rates for 4K gaming (and don’t want to mess around with SLI) then the GTX 980 is about your only choice. You will need a 500W or better PSU and two 6-pin power connectors.

There is no real AMD competition at this price point either -- the R9 295X2 is harder to find and at $1000+, a lot more expensive, despite offering comparable performance.


$1500+

 

NVIDIA GeForce GTX Titan X 12GB

Price: $1549

The ultimate GPU that money can buy today is the GTX Titan X. Without delving into SLI, there is literally no better option for high end gaming. Of course, it’s not exactly bang for buck, but that’s not the point.

The Titan X is probably overkill if you don’t plan any 4K gaming unless you are pushing for stupidly high frame rates. If you want to go totally hardcore, it’s also possible to run the Titan X in 4 way SLI.

The Titan is somewhat efficient all things considered, but still needs a 600W or higher PSU and both an 8-pin and a 6-pin power connector. Check out the full Australian review over at Gizmodo.


Comments

    +1 for 290X. Best bang for buck GPU I've owned bar none. This is coming from a former Titan SLI user that got fed up with Nvidia's drastically overpriced lineup, and constantly releasing new upgrades to crap on their high end users. Can't wait for the 300 Series Radeons to see what they're capable of.

    Don't forget the R7 260x if you are running at lower than 500W.
    Changed it out for my old Radeon 5xxx for my phenom, it's never been so happy!

    no love for the 295x2 - a bit suprising.

    Not all Lifehacker readers are just gamers.
    I'd love to see some recommendations/reviews of various GPUs for applications, like Davinci Resolve, Premiere, After Effects, 3DS Max, FCPX etc.

    Last edited 22/05/15 12:39 pm

      Hey Poita

      Any chance you came across anything in the end? Building myself a resolve system and looking for any little bits of information and came across your comment.

    600W or higher CPU and both an 8-pin and a 6-pin power connector.

    He he - Imagine how big my CPU would have to be to utilise 600w of power.

      I'm only a novice builder, but I think generally it's the peripherals rather than the CPU that consume all the power. If you're running multiple GPUs in SLI/crossfire, you can easily need a beefier PSU.

    running a single evga 980 SC here, it is NOT capable of 4k gaming on its own without serious tweaking of graphics settings and you will have to make sacrifices to quality. You will not really notice these on a reasonable sized screen though. I have a 28" screen and most of the quality drops are hidden by the higher resolution
    4k is SLI territory if you want 60fps on the latest games however, even the Titan X has been shown to struggle when solo

      This. I could choke my SLI Titans (6GB) at 2560x1440 with high end stuff like ArmA 3 or Metro Last Light cranked up as high as they could go. Well, choke might be exaggerating, but ArmA 3 dipped into 30-40fps in hectic times on max settings. 4K would've required at least 3 6GB Titans to pull off on high end games at high to max settings. Not familiar with the current Titans, but can't see them being much different - and no way could you run something like ArmA 3 on even high settings at 4K acceptably with a 980, even a superclocked version.

      '4K capable' means little more than it's able to display games at that resolution.

      Last edited 22/05/15 2:41 pm

        Absolutely - these are the cards that can start to handle most 4K gaming.

        You won't get the best frame rates and the best detail levels at the same time on the more intensive games though. Other (older) games will run just fine.

        It's all about compromises - many of which can be alleviated by faster GPUs!

    Actually in the works of building a Windows 10 Machine for Gaming and tinkering with.

    I'm actually really torn on what card to buy - my current rig has a Radeon Sapphire HD 6770 and have had no issues with it. I do prefer nVidia cards but their price discrepancy is just too much I find.

    In saying that I'm basically deciding between the 960/970 and Radeons R9's I'd like to be spending around the $300 mark but don't want the card to feel like its becoming redundant too quickly.

    At this very point in time I'm struggling to decide - so any recommendations/feedback would be great! :)

    The advise from the article is a nice little start.

      Have a look at http://www.videocardbenchmark.net/gpu_list.php
      You can search & then do a direct comparison between video cards

      Keep an eye out for the impending AMD 300 Radeon series. Compare AMD with Nvidia in terms of performance vs. pricing and figure it out from there based on your budget. Don't let fanboys of either camp influence you - just look at figures. I wouldn't recommend spending any more than 500-600 on a GPU, even if you're after performance. Buying bleeding edge is never a good idea.

      I recommend 300-500 as a solid budget for a GPU - but again, it depends on what games you want to play and at what resolution. Just make sure you do your research, and check with anyone who's had real world experience with cards that tickle your fancy as well.

    I picked up a GTX750ti second hand for $150, just to tide me over while I'm saving for a GTX970. I tend to play slightly older games, and it runs Dota 2 and Borderlands 2 without any worries, so I'd recommend it to anyone wanting a cheaper GPU option.

    For the record, it's also the most powerful card you can get that doesn't need an additional PSU connector.

    Wouldn't touch NVidia with a 10 foot pole. I've had 3 NVidia and 4 AMDs so far and had nothing but problems with the NVidias. All 3 were unstable for me, and only 1 of the 4 AMDs were unstable. NVidia tend to make the most powerful GPUs, but that comes at a cost (In my experience - but everyone's mileage varies).

    I think I have a different definition of "best". My current (old) card has a passive heatsink, no fan. Why? Because the "best" for anything that doubles as home entertainment system means "silent".

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