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The Best Graphics Cards for 4K Gaming in 2021 | PCMag

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. And from a hardware perspective, that’s a much more daunting prospect.

Only the latest consoles—the Sony PlayStation 4 Pro, the Microsoft Xbox One X, the PlayStation 5, and the Xbox One Series X—will output games at 4K. 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 very powerful graphics card—especially if you want your in-game eye candy dialed all the way up. After all, if you’re investing in a 4K monitor or a 4K TV for gaming, you 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. So the PC graphics card you buy matters—a lot.

4K Gaming: High-End Cards and Dual-GPU

At the moment, to deliver smooth frame rates at high settings at 4K resolution on a PC (that’s 3,840 by 2,160 pixels, for the record) with the most-demanding games, you’ll need to opt for one of the most powerful consumer-grade graphics cards available. These days, those cards include Nvidia’s “Ampere”-architecture GeForce RTX 3080 Founders Edition and the one-step-up GeForce RTX 3090 Founders Edition, or one of the many custom-cooled and/or overclocked models based on these cards’ GeForce RTX 3080 or RTX 3090 graphics processors (GPUs). The GeForce RTX 3070 is also an excellent choice for one-step down play from a GTX 3080 that’s still very 4K-able.

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Also in play for 4K: Cards based on AMD’s Radeon RX Vega 64 (these are fading away), the Radeon VII (also on its way out), AMD’s mid-2019 addition to its lineup, the Radeon RX 5700 XT (as long as you don’t mind turning down your settings a bit), as well as both as both cards featured in the new Radeon RX 6000 Series, the Radeon RX 6800 XT and the RX 6800. But none of these cards, GeForce or Radeon, comes cheap, most of them starting around $400 for the base models of the RX 5700 XT, and as high as $1,799 (!) for some third-party overclocked RTX 3090 cards.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 Founders Edition

At the moment, a card in the GeForce RTX 30 Series is what you’ll really want to opt for if you want butter-smooth frame rates in 4K at or above 60 frames per second (fps) and with anything above high settings. Availability is proving to be an problem with these cards, though; you’ll have to scour etailer sites diligently to find one in stock! Alternatively, if money is not an object, you could pick up two GeForce RTX 3090 cards and use them in a paired NVLink arrangement to push well above 60fps. (That’s a $3,000-plus investment, though.) On the opposite tack, you can scrape by with a single GeForce RTX 3070, or a GTX 3060 Ti for around $400, again if you can find one.

Note that NVLink is only possible now with the very expensive GeForce RTX 3090. In some games, an NVLink setup should deliver better gaming performance than a single RTX 3080 or RTX 3090 card. Note, though, that if you do go this two-card route, multi-graphics setups can introduce side issues. Most games don’t ship on launch day with the optimizations to take advantage of multiple-card graphics, and some games never deliver multi-graphics support at all. We also expect multi-card support to fade faster in 2021 and beyond, as support for it is limited to such elite cards.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti

For this reason, if you’re the kind of enthusiast PC gamer who likes to jump on games on the day they’re released, multi-GPU setups aren’t ideal solutions. Also, you might run across issues with frame timing, in which onscreen game frames don’t get delivered exactly in sync, resulting in a subpar experience. For this reason, we recommend buying the best single card for the performance level you’re after, whenever possible.

If money is no object, that single card is the new $1,499 Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090, which might as well be in a class all its own (though it more appropriately belongs alongside content creator-focused cards like the Titan RTX). The RTX 3090 has been found to be, on average, only around 10 percent faster in gaming than the $699 GeForce RTX 3080, despite costing nearly twice as much for the Founders Edition card. Maybe it’s for this reason that the RTX 3090 has been billed by Nvidia as “the world’s-first 8K gaming GPU,” and early tests show while that claim isn’t a stretch, 8K gaming is so far beyond feasible for 99.9% of buyers right now that it’s effectively a moot point.

These cards are made for much more than gaming, deployed more often in creative fields that do a lot of 4K and 8K video editing, 3D rendering, or 3D modeling. In a price-for-performance sense, they’re major overkill for games, and they are often not optimized to take advantage of top titles as efficiently as the gaming-centric GeForce RTX 3080 cards (and its lessers) are.

So yes, while technically the GeForce RTX 3090 could push 4K-gaming frames with grace, at that price you’re better off going with a single RTX 3080 and spending the leftover $700 or $800 upgrading your RAM, CPU, and motherboard at the same time. Or saving the difference.

4K Gaming Cards: The Best “Budget” Options

If your budget can’t quite bear laying out $500 or more for a graphics card, you can find some less-expensive cards that can handle 4K gaming at lower settings. You won’t get the absolute best visuals possible, but 4K gaming is technically attainable.

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, the AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT and the GeForce RTX 2060 Super are both capable engines. Just remember that you won’t be able to play many games at the highest detail settings unless settings like DLSS or an image sharpener are activated.

AMD Radeon 5700 XT

The card set to replace both the RTX 2070 and the RTX 2070 Super, the Editors’ Choice-winning Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 Founders Edition ($499), blows out the value proposition of what smooth 4K gaming has cost up until now. In our tests of that card, we found it regularly pushed even the most demanding titles up to, or well over, the 60fps/4K mark in the highest detail settings. It sits in our eyes as the first true “value” pick for 4K gamers. If you’re only trying to game on a 4K/60Hz display (as many living-room gamers might), there isn’t any other option that performs to that spec at this price point. AMD’s Radeon RX 6800 matches or beats the GeForce RTX 3070 FE regularly enough to be included in this list, however it just grazes the line of the mainstream, and edges slightly into the high end at $579 MSRP.

Overall, we can’t recommend going much lower than $400 on your card today if you’re serious about 4K gaming, though. One of the biggest concerns that any cost-conscious PC gamer should have when choosing new hardware is how “future-proof” a card is, and given that cards below the GeForce RTX 3080 barely scratch the surface of pushing 60 frames per second (fps) on most current titles at middling settings, that viability will only continue to drop for new games released later this year.

Aside from gauging raw performance, you should keep a few other factors in mind when shopping for a powerful 4K-capable graphics card. Let’s run through these one by one.

Consider the Target Display

The first consideration? The particular 4K display you’ll be using. If you opt for a 4K monitor with a DisplayPort 1.4 input (which has the bandwidth to deliver 4K content at 144Hz, or up to 144 frames per second), any of the current-gen cards here should serve you well. But if you are thinking of using a 4K television as a large-screen gaming display, you’ll likely be stuck using HDMI 2.0 or HDMI 2.1 to jack in.

Why? Most 4K TVs lack DisplayPort connectors. This locks you into using HDMI, and thus to 4K at 60Hz. This doesn’t actually matter all that much outside of the world of the unusual Nvidia BFGD (short for “Big Format Gaming Display”) monitors that will run 4K at up to 120Hz. Though it is very much game-dependent, today no single GPU will push AAA games at max settings in 4K much beyond 60 frames per second natively unless tech like DLSS or image sharpening is in use. (More on that in a bit.)

Beyond TVs, though, gaming monitors have seen more evolution in the last two years than in practically the whole decade before. High-refresh-rate (that is, above 60Hz) 4K monitors are now an option and available from multiple makers. Yes, some are more expensive than a beater of a used car (averaging anywhere between $1,800 to $2,000 at this writing). However, if you have that kind of cash to throw around, they are worth a look.

HP Omen X Emperium 65 BFGD

Options like the Asus ROG Swift PG27UQ and the Acer Predator XB3 are typical of this market, and both provide 4K screens that can be boosted as high as 144Hz under specific conditions. We say “specific,” because as of this writing the two main cables that carry the signal to the monitor (DisplayPort 1.4b and HDMI 2.1) are only capable of delivering a full 4:4:4 signal up to 120Hz. To get to that holy grail of 144Hz, monitor manufacturers use a workaround known as “chroma subsampling,” which brings the color palette down to 4:2:2. That is fine for movies and some 3D gaming, but it can wreak havoc on content like text or graphical elements rendered in the OS.

Why do we mention all that? Because it might be tempting to break the piggy bank, rush out, grab a pair of GeForce RTX 2080 Ti or RTX 3090 cards, throw them into an NVLink configuration, and try to tap into 140-plus frame-per-second rates at 4K on ultra-high detail settings. Realistically, with one of these elite monitors, you should settle for a setup capable of pushing closer to 120fps (120Hz) to get the best visual results from your games and daily computer usage.

That’s pie-in-the-sky for almost all buyers, though. Bottom line: Unless you’re really awash in dough, you’ll be just fine with a monitor or a TV that pushes 4K games at 60Hz. That’s near the top frame rate that today’s rigs equipped with a single GeForce RTX 3080 card will be able to achieve on leading games, anyway. Leave higher-end frame-rate aims in 4K to Powerball winners.

One last consideration: high dynamic range (HDR). It looks gorgeous when implemented properly, and many new games (as well as a back catalog of older games) support the spec. You’ll find many 4K HDR gaming monitors already on the market to choose among, and most have come down in price far enough to keep them competitive with their non-HDR counterparts. From the point of view of card buying, though, no worries: All current-gen GeForce and Radeon cards support it.

How Much Video Memory Is Necessary?

The other thing to watch for while shopping for a 4K-ready gaming card is the amount of dedicated video memory on the card. Generally, 4GB of memory is plenty if you’re gaming at 1080p or below, but when you step up to 4K, a graphics card needs to 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 6GB of memory. A card with 8GB of GDDR6 or more is your best 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.

The RTX 3080, being the luxury-ride card that it is, pushes things to the limit in this category. Every card comes with a whopping 10GB of onboard GDDR6X memory, capable of pushing a staggering 616GB per second across a 352-bit width bus. And the AMD Radeon VII packs even more, 16GB of HBM2 memory, which is more of a boon for content creators than for your average gamer. (The 24GB on the RTX 3090 falls into the same category as the Radeon VII’s 16GB.)

Again, pretty much anything around the 6GB level will hold its own on medium-detail 4K games, but start diving into the high/ultra presets of cutting-edge games, and you’ll need all you can get.

DLSS, Image Sharpening, and Super Resolution: 4K Gaming’s (Potential) Ace in the Hole?

DLSS, or “deep learning super sampling,” is a technology developed by Nvidia for use in its latest lineup of RTX cards. The tech, which uses an AI architecture to streamline the process of anti-aliasing, offers significant performance boosts over non-DLSS results.

Final Fantasy XV

For example, at 4K resolution with DLSS turned on, an RTX 3080 Founders Edition racked up an incredible improvement of nearly 60 percent with the feature enabled in our Death Stranding benchmark. This made it so even low-end cards like the GeForce RTX 3060 Ti could comfortably run the game above that coveted 60fps mark. (It achieved an average of 63fps in native, while turning on DLSS in “Performance Mode” boosted that number to 105fps.) DLSS is a huge leap in gaming tech that brings 4K-playing affordability down to the midrange, and if it can be implemented on a wider basis (rumors say all games that support TAA may see DLSS integration in the near future), it will make it possible for card owners in the $399 bracket to play AAA titles at the highest detail levels, all in 4K.

DLSS indeed shows major promise in games, but we use the term “games” loosely for now, given that, as of this writing, only a limited number of them are trained in how to utilize it. A new version, DLSS 2.0, introduced in spring of 2020, launched with support for just a handful of games, along with promises of easier game-developer implementation. All this is to say that while DLSS is certainly impressive (it may even be the one thing that brings the world of 4K gaming into the hands of mainstream gamers), right now any widespread implementation still looks to be a ways off.

Meanwhile, AMD has announced plans for its DLSS competitor, known as “Super Resolution,” though not much is known about the technology outside of what we’ve heard in the rumor mill. These rumors include that AMD is working on the tech in conjunction with Microsoft, and will base Super Resolution off Redmond’s DirectML API library that utilizes the Azure network of data centers to train any games that want to use the tech.

However unlike DLSS, which is already in its second iteration (with a third, much more substantial upgrade rumored to be on the way soon), Super Resolution has no release date. All we know so far is AMD says it could come out “sometime next year” (that year being 2021), though when exactly that might be is still anyone’s guess.

AMD Super Resolution

Until then, AMD owners can still utilize what we consider to be the best of the various “image sharpening” technologies out there, Radeon Image Sharpening (RIS). As a hardware-based sharpener, RIS gives the best results when users downscale the resolution of their game, and then re-sharpen it using either RIS, or other options like Nvidia’s Freestyle or the third-party program ReShade.

When tuned just right, we’ve found that certain games can add up to a 30% improvement in frame rates without taking a hit in visual quality. This means that midrange cards like the Radeon RX 5700 XT can more reliably hit 4K/60fps, and you can save money on your hardware without sacrificing graphical fidelity.

Understanding Card Length, Power Requirements

If you’re rocking a full-tower PC, card size is probably not an issue. However most high-end, 4K-capable video cards are three slots wide (two at a minimum) and a little more or less than 10.5 inches long, which means that most MicroATX chassis won’t fit these monsters. Even many midsize ATX cases may find them a squeeze.

Video Card Power Sockets

That said, there are some cards that make compromises, like the MSI GeForce RTX 2060 Aero ITX OC. This petite powerhouse takes only two card slots and measures just 7 inches long. But the GeForce RTX 2060 GPU itself will only be able to push around 60fps at medium settings for 4K gaming, at best, unless DLSS is turned on.

As for the power requirements, if your existing system already has a high-end 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. Generally, an 800-watt supply should keep most any current single 4K-capable card juiced; the wattage minimum can vary from card to card.

Many of the latest cards also require two power-supply leads (six- or eight-pin, likely some combination of both) from your supply, so make sure you have the proper cabling in place or adapters on hand. Note: The new RTX 3080 and RTX 3090, in their Founders Edition guises, may employ an adapter from a new 12-pin power socket to typical six- and eight-pin connectors.

Should I Get a Card That’s Overclocked Out of the Box?

The distinctions among the many high-end third-party cards that are capable of 4K play 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 GPU, 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 is often a key reason why some cards of the same class (such as different RTX 3080 cards) vary so much in price.

MSI GeForce RTX 2080 Gaming Trio

Overclocking-minded cards tend to be larger than their same-GPU kin, with more fans and/or more elaborate heat pipes and sinks. The most expensive cards in a given line tend to be the ones with the beefiest hardware for overclocking or with a factory overclock done out of the box. Telltale cards of this kind include Zotac’s Amp Extreme Series, MSI’s Gaming X and Gaming Z, Gigabyte’s WindForce and Xtreme, Asus’ Republic of Gamers, and EVGA’s FTW series.

Some Basic 4K-Gaming Benchmarks…

Want some real world numbers? We’ve benchmarked all the cards recommended on this list, and here’s a snapshot of how they perform in a handful of AAA titles at 4K…

As you can tell from these graphs, the GeForce RTX 2080 Super, the GeForce RTX 3060 Ti, the GeForce RTX 3070, and the Radeon VII make up one roughly equivalent tier, with the GeForce RTX 3080, Radeon RX 6800 XT, and GeForce RTX 2080 Ti on planes of their own. Another interesting story being told here, though, is how many cards benefit from the application of either DLSS or CAS. Midrange cards like the RTX 2060 Super are nearly able to push 4K/60fps on Shadow of the Tomb Raider at its highest detail setting when both RTX and DLSS are turned on, while games like Death Stranding show the true capabilities of CAS and DLSS when pushed to their pre-tuned limits.

(Note: Those Death Stranding results were recorded with DLSS “Performance” mode turned on, and Kojima Studios has since added “Ultra Performance” mode to the settings menu after we started testing. That’s right—this game can go even faster than the results we’ve recorded above!)

But one thing is clear: At the moment, if you can afford (and can find!) a GeForce RTX 3080 or an AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT, that’s the card you want.

So, Which Card Should I Buy for 4K Gaming?

We’ve tested samples of all the key video cards in Nvidia’s “Turing” and “Ampere” and AMD’s “Polaris” and “Navi” families. Below are our current favorites for 4K gaming. Thanks to the tech of image sharpeners and DLSS, which have only continued to gain traction with developers this year, the options for budget buyers to enter the 4K gaming space are broader than ever. For purists, though, mega-monsters like the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 Founders Edition and the AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT are bringing heaps of power to the table, and pushing even the most demanding titles well past any frame rates we’ve seen before.

As it turns out, 2020 closed out as a great year to be a 4K gamer, and doubly so if any of your favorite games support DLSS or CAS. As monitor makers continue to crank up the peak refresh rate of 4K displays, by the mid-2020s we could be wondering how we ever “only” played at 4K/60fps. But until then, both Nvidia and AMD are aiming to bring 4K/60fps gaming to the masses with a wealth of card choices across the midrange and high-end price tiers.

Note: You can interpret an endorsement for a given GPU (say, the Radeon RX 5700 XT, or the GeForce RTX 3080) as an endorsement for any card based on that GPU, as most should perform within striking distance of one another.

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