AMD Radeon or NVIDIA GeForce? A high-end but expensive graphics card or something in the mid-range that’s a bit easier on the pocket? Are you gaming on more than one monitor, or do you have a single 1080p screen or 1440p/1600p monitor? Do you want to run just one card, or two?

These and other questions are the ones facing anyone looking at buying a new graphics card for their PC. Below is a handy guide that tells you what to buy based on your gaming needs.

AMD or NVIDIA?

These two companies are the main contenders for your graphics card money, and which one you should go for largely comes down to your personal brand preference because ultimately, their cards do much the same thing. There are some minor differences to consider, though.

AMD provides more performance for your cash, particularly on the high-end, but they tend to run hotter and louder than NVIDIA cards do. An R9 290, for example, will cost you anything from R5 500 to R7 000, while the top-end NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 starts at R6 700. Performance between the two is incredibly close, but the R9 290 can be had for less cash making it the better option in terms of bang for your buck.

NVIDIA, on the other hand, is closely involved with a lot of game developers who design their games to take specific advantage of NVIDIA’s hardware, so there’s a better chance of playing games as their makers intended them to be played. Their dual-GPU technology (more on that further down) is also better-supported, and gaming in 3D is likewise simpler with NVIDIA’s dedicated 3D Vision tech.

High-end is expensive

NVIDIA: GeForce GTX Titan/780/780i/770
AMD: Radeon R9 290/290X/295X

By high-end, I mean graphics cards that have powerful graphics processors and more than 2GB of video RAM, which is memory just for games that is needed to play on more than one monitor. These will typically cost you anything from R4 000 to R10 000 (and even above), and are for gamers who want to play their games across multiple monitors, and who don’t want to compromise on graphics quality or frame rates. Buying one of these is the best way to future-proof your gaming rig.

AMD-Eyefinity-iv
Gaming on multiple screens really is as cool as it looks.

Good for: Ultimate graphics across multiple monitors, gaming on a 4K monitor
Not good for: Saving you cash, low-power computing

The mid-range sweet spot

NVIDIA: GeForce GT/X 760/660/560
AMD: Radeon R9 280/280X/R9 270X/R9 285/R7 260X/HD7970/HD7770

Mid-range graphics cards typically cost less than R4 000, and are good for gaming on a single monitor at 1080p or thereabouts. These cards can still put out great-looking graphics and are very affordable, but some compromise may be necessary to make games run smoothly by disabling certain graphical features in each game’s settings. Not all games, mind, but certainly the ones that make use of the very latest DirectX features. Your best bet to maximise your gaming budget is to run two of these mid-range cards in pairs, using AMD’s Crossfire or NVIDIA’s SLI dual-GPU technologies that give you a significant, but not quite 2X performance boost over single cards.

NVIDIA_SLI
An SLI setup that uses two NVIDIA GTX690s.

Good for: Great graphics on a budget, single-monitor gaming, dual-GPU gaming
Not good for: Ultimate graphics quality on every game unless they’re SLI’d or Crossfired

The low end

NVIDIA: GeForce GT 730
AMD: Radeon R7 240

Low-end graphics cards, while they are very cheap (sub R1 500) can run game graphics on their own by a very technical definition of “run”, they don’t do a very good job of it and are frankly not worth your time or money. You’re better off avoiding them altogether, and instead saving for a bit longer to get yourself a mid-range card like the ones above. Honestly, if you’re a gamer stay away from these cards as they make no sense in anything but media centre PCs that are expected to do little more than output 1080p videos to a TV, 4K videos at a stretch.

HIS_R7_240
Sies. Gamers: stay away.

Good for: Media centre PCs
Not good for: Gaming

Final words

My advice? Always get the fastest single card your budget will allow, and to save for a few months more to get something just a little more expensive; you’ll be far happier in the long run.

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.