A few years ago, people were predicting the death of PC gaming as we know it. Those people are feasting on an abundance of humble pie, as PC games remain a cornerstone of the industry: digital delivery gives us more variety than ever before, and even the relatively niche market of performance gaming hardware has never been more healthy. But even the most humble of PC gamers needs a graphics card (well, sort of), and it’s one of the most frequent upgrades gamers make. But is now a good time to buy one?
Short answer: No for high end cards, yes for midrange and budget cards. With NVIDIA refreshes still at least several months away and high-end AMD cards currently hot, the market is primed for high prices and low availability. Frugal buyers would do well to wait for Radeon cards to go down in price as supplies are stocked up, and for NVIDIA cards to follow suit as the company is forced to be competitive again. However, gamers looking for good deals in the $100-300 segments of the market should be able to find them reliably.
NVIDIA GTX 900 and AMD RX 400/500 Cards are Plentiful and Powerful
The GeForce GTX 900 series was introduced in late 2014, though NVIDIA had already been using some of its “Maxwell” class manufacturing techniques for the mid-range GTX 750 and 750 Ti cards. In addition to the usual bumps in pure speed for the processors and local memory, 900-series GPUs also expanded support for performance at higher 4K resolutions and VR applications for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. NVIDIA’s previous-gen lineup consists of the following cards, from least expensive to most expensive and powerful, in various packages customized by OEM vendors:
- GTX 950
- GTX 960
- GTX 970
- GTX 980
- GTX 980 Ti
- GTX TITAN X
The GTX 970 is worth a particular note here: a unique design on its memory bus means that the stated 4GB memory capacity on the reference card can’t all be accessed at the highest 224-bit bus speed. This lowers performance versus a similar system with high-speed access to all memory. Consumers were upset when this was discovered, and NVIDIA settled a class-action lawsuit over the matter. Nevertheless, the GTX 970 sold well and continues to be a good option for gaming builds.
The equivalent generation of AMD Radeon cards is the R 300 series, first released in late 2015. But since AMD is in a distant second place when it comes to market share, their newer cards tend to be much more competitive in price, so the newer generation is still going head-to-head with NVIDIA’s older designs. The RX 400 series, first on sale in late 2016, is the logical match-up to the GTX 900, while still being cheaper at every level:
- RX 460
- RX 470
- RX 480
NVIDIA and AMD Are Fighting Hard for the High End After Vega’s Release
The GTX 1000 series, first released to market in May of 2016 with the GTX 1080, adds support for new CUDA features, the DisplayPort 1.4 and HDMI 2.0b standards, support for faster memory, and a dynamic load-balancing scheduling system. The architecture series, “Pascal,” is a considerable boost over Maxwell. The current lineup of desktop cards is as follows:
- GTX 1050
- GTX 1050 Ti
- GTX 1060
- GTX 1070
- GTX 1080
- GTX 1080 Ti
- GTX Titan XP
NVIDIA-branded cards can generally be split into three categories: budget (X50 and X60), high-end (X70 and X80), and super-high end (X80 TI cards and above). Even the budget cards can handle most…
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