It used to be that video editing software relied solely on your computer's central processor (CPU) to process and export video. But even with 4, 6, 8, or even more cores, a CPU simply can't match the incredible power of a graphics card, which can contain thousands of processing cores. It's actually rather more technical than that, but the upshot is a graphics card can export video a whole lot faster than even a top-end CPU.
What's more, while spending top dollar on the very best graphics card will get you extra encoding performance, you really don't have to. Even a lower-mid-range card will give your editing rig a serious speed boost, with pricier video cards only yielding marginally superior performance. Providing your editing software supports hardware video acceleration (pretty much all popular editing packages do, with apps like DaVinci Resolve being heavily reliant on graphics card hardware) upgrading your computer's graphics card can give you a worthwhile performance boost when video editing.
Choosing the right video card for you obviously depends on your budget, as well as the kind of computer you'll be upgrading. Firstly, you can only upgrade the graphics card in a desktop computer, not a laptop. It is possible to increase the graphics card performance in a laptop by adding an external graphics card (eGPU), attached via Thunderbolt. An eGPU is basically a conventional internal graphics card, stuck in a special enclosure that allows it to be powered direct from a mains outlet and connected to your computer via Thunderbolt. However, in this guide we're only covering internal graphics card upgrades for desktop computers.
Choosing the right graphics card
If you're editing on a Mac, it'll need to be a 2019 Mac Pro, and you'll need a graphics card made by AMD, not Nvidia. That's because macOS only supports AMD cards, and AMD's current graphics card range is only supported by macOS Catalina and newer (Catalina does support the late 2013 'trash can' Mac Pro as well as the 2019 Mac Pro, but you can't physically upgrade the graphics card in the 2013 Mac Pro). If you're prepared to use Windows via Boot Camp on a 2019 Mac Pro, a Nvidia graphics card can be fitted, albeit not in PCIe expansion slot 2.
If you're editing on a PC, you've got a lot more graphics card choice. Virtually any graphics card using a Nvidia or AMD chipset should work just fine, providing you first check these criteria:
1: Make sure there's enough space inside your desktop tower. High-end graphics cards tend to be quite long, which can mean they won't fit inside smaller tower cases. They also tend to be fitted with a bulky cooling heatsink and fan assembly, which will require plenty of space directly below the PCIe slot that the card is plugged into.
2: Ensure your PC's power supply unit (PSU) is up to the job. Fitting a powerful, power-hungry graphics card could overload a puny power supply, at best resulting in system crashes, or at worst, a puff of smoke out the back of your computer along with a blank monitor and, well, swearing. The current generation of graphics cards use much less electricity than a few years ago when you needed a thumping great 1000 watt power supply to ensure a top-end graphics card was adequately powered. Nowadays a card like the GeForce RTX 2060 Super is rated to draw 175w of power, so a good quality 500w PSU should be adequate to power the whole PC. AMD cards, however, are less power efficient, requiring more juice and therefore a slightly higher PSU wattage.
Most graphics cards are powered via a socket on the side or back of the card, and this could take the form of a 6 pin, 8 pin, or dual 6 pin connectors. Fortunately almost all modern PSUs will be fitted with the necessary plugs to suit all these connector variants, and if not, your graphics card is likely to come with an adapter in the box.
3: Ensure your PC's motherboard is compatible. This almost certainly going to be fine. Graphics cards have been using the same physical PCI Express 16x data connector for well over a decade, so unless your motherboard is seriously archaic, you should be able to plug in a modern graphics card into your PC without issue, providing points 1 and 2 above are followed.
Finally, credit to Puget Systems for the video encoding performance stats we use in this buyer's guide. Graphics cards are almost always judged solely on their gaming performance, so we are very grateful for Puget's comprehensive and continually updated analysis of graphics card performance when accelerating image and video editing software.
Update - December 2020: right now, due to production shortages, almost all makes and models of graphics cards are in very short supply. Nvidia's latest RTX 30-series cards are practically impossible to find, and those that are available may well be selling for hugely over-inflated prices. Be sure to regularly check the latest prices below from our respected affiliate retailers to ensure you get a good deal.
The best graphics cards for video editing
Nvidia's latest GeForce RTX 30-series range is still being rolled out, with the top-end models appearing first. The latest addition - the RTX 3060 Ti - is the cheapest 30-series card to appear to date, and it follows on from the previous GeForce 1060 and 2060 models as the price/performance sweet spot in the range.
That said, thanks to Nvidia's sustained price hikes with the launch of each new generation of GeForce cards, the 3060 Ti now commands big money for what's still just a mid-range card. But with rival AMD's graphics cards coming up short for video editing performance, if you want fast export times, you've got little choice but to grit your teeth and pay Nvidia's inflated pricing.
There are numerous card manufacturers making the RTX 3060 Ti, many sporting a slight performance overclock to make them marginally faster than standard. All share the same fundamental specifications, though, but since launch few manufacturers have been able to keep up with demand, and consequently stock of the 3060 Ti is almost non-existent right now.
The GeForce GTX 1660 Super is due for replacement, but for now it's still Nvidia's current best buy if you're after a decent graphics card for video editing that doesn't break the bank. That said, it's far from the cheapest model in the current GeForce range, but going for a really low-end card is a false economy. Spending just a bit more to get a card like the GTX 1660 Super yields significantly better performance and will get you a graphics card that stays useful for longer, meaning you won't need to upgrade as often. Video export speeds will be 10-20% slower than more exotic GeForce RTX-series cards, but then the 1660 Super should be at least half the price, so it's still good value. However, with 'only' 6GB of video RAM on board, higher performance cards will have a more significant edge when editing 8K and high frame rate 4K footage.
Like almost all graphics cards, various board manufacturers make their own variants of the GTX 1660 Super, and unless you're gunning for every last frame-per-second in gaming performance, spending extra on a factory overclocked version isn't worth it. Being more of an entry-level graphics card, it's also possible to find the GTX 1660 Super with a physically shorter board design, making it suitable to fit in smaller PC cases, though usually the cooling heatsink and fan assembly will still require the space of two expansion bays in your motherboard.
If you're a hardcore gamer, the immensely powerful RTX 3080 will have no trouble running the latest AAA titles at 4K with smooth frame rates. When it comes to video editing, the extra oomph won't make such a dramatic difference to export times compared to using a more modest graphics card, as the RTX 3080 may only be around 10% faster than its cheaper RTX 3070 for an average Premiere Pro project.
However. the difference will be more pronounced if you're applying multiple GPU-accelerated effects. The extra power of the RTX 3080 is also utilized much more effectively by Davinci Resolve, which relies more heavily on your graphics card than most other editing packages do. Consequently you may see up to 50% faster performance in Davinci Resolve versus an RTX 3070. The huge 10GB of video memory on the RTX 3080 can also be beneficial for editing 8K and high frame rate 4K footage.
The RTX 3080 isn't actually the fastest graphics card on the market right now - that accolade goes to Nvidia's GeForce RTX 3090. But with the RTX 3090 costing double the price of the already ludicrously expensive RTX 3080, while offering only marginally increased encoding performance in almost all scenarios, we simply can't recommend the RTX 3090 for video editing.
Like it or not, Nvidia dominates the graphics card market, both for gaming and video editing performance. Arch rival AMD's cards are consistently slower than their Nvidia counterparts for video editing, with even the latest RX 6800 and 6800 XT models falling well short of equivalently priced Nvidia cards in most editing workloads. Consequently, we can't recommend an AMD graphics card for PC video editing.
However, if you're rocking a 2019 Mac Pro tower and are looking to upgrade your graphics card, AMD is your only option for macOS, and with the new RX 6xxx series not currently supported by Big Sur, the older RX 5700XT is still the model to go for.
You won't get the same encoding speed of an equivalently priced Nvidia graphics card, but the RX 5700 XT is much more competitive in gaming, so if you're a PC gamer first and content creator second, the RX 5700 XT is a sound choice, and it's one of your only choices when editing on a 2019 Mac Pro.
Nvidia doesn't just offer its extensive line of GeForce graphics cards - there's also its Quadro range. Where GeForce cards are designed and marketed primarily for gaming, Quadro cards are built for professional applications like scientific computation, 3D rendering, and to a lesser extent, video editing. The graphics card hardware is almost identical to that of the GeForce RTX 2070, which itself offers comparable performance to the newer RTX 2060 Super. The latter is around half the price of a Quadro RTX 4000, so if it offers similar performance, then why pay so much more for the Quadro? Well, for video editing, the vast majority of users will be fine with a GeForce card. The Quadro range gets you several processing benefits that are mostly of use to scientific and 3D rendering work, but the primary benefit for video editing are Quadro-specific video card drivers carefully optimized for popular video editing programs to ensure top-notch reliability.
If you're going to be editing mission-critical footage and system stability is therefore absolutely paramount, the Quadro RTX 4000 is an excellent graphics card and it's actually very well priced for a Quadro card (the flagship Quadro RTX 8000 will set you back around $10,000!). However, if you don't need total driver reliability, the similarly fast GeForce RTX 2060 Super is the better - and cheaper - buy.
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