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Now is the best time to look for a low-cost graphics card

It’s been a difficult couple of years if you’ve been looking for computer improvements. After a one-two punch of a global chip scarcity, a cryptocurrency mining boom, and a scourge of scalpers (yep, “scourge” is the collective word for scalper, I looked it up! ), graphics cards in particular have been exceedingly difficult to come by at any fair price. However, with new budget GPUs from both Nvidia and AMD on the road, your best opportunity at a new card for less than a mortgage payment might be coming up very soon.

A little background information. Nvidia launched the GeForce RTX 3050 and AMD announced the Radeon RX 6500 XT at CES in early January, with retail pricing of $250 and $200, respectively. We could go into great length on the technological capabilities of these cards, but that’s for another post. To summarise, they’re designed for low-cost gaming PCs, with a focus on 1080p performance and bringing high-end technologies like ray tracing and DLSS to a price point where they’ve never been seen before.

So, what makes these cards any less subject to market pressures that have caused prices to double or even treble their MSRP? A few of things. For starters, they’re less powerful cards in general, particularly in terms of memory, making them less appealing to bitcoin miners. Crypto hashes are shredded by the same number-crunching power that allows you to shoot at 60 frames per second in 4K. In other words, greater power equals more money, and crypto miners would rather spend a few hundred dollars on a more powerful card that is more efficient for their needs. Less demand from crypto miners equals less interest from scalpers — or, to put it another way, trickle-down apathy.

This should lead to a decrease in demand from the non-gaming part of the market. What about the supply side? Without getting too scientific, less powerful CPUs may be produced in bigger numbers than the screamers found in the RTX 3070, RX 6700 XT, and higher versions. The processor dies are physically smaller, which allows the manufacturer to get more out of a single run – similar to creating more cookies out of the same dough by making each cookie smaller.

This implies that whether or not there is a chip shortage, Nvidia and AMD should be able to push these less powerful cards out of the manufacturing factories at a much faster pace. At the very least, we’ve seen some proof of this: According to rumours, Nvidia’s numerous manufacturing partners, such as EVGA, MSI, and Asus, are preparing a full court push of RTX 3050 variations.

After all, given the current state of affairs, you’re unlikely to be able to pick up a new graphics card just by wandering into Best Buy during your lunch hour. Pre-orders, standing in line in front of shops, hammering the F5 button at their preferred etailer, and all the other boring details of attempting to buy a faster gaming PC in the COVID age are likely to continue. (Incidentally, if you need to update numerous components at once, a pre-built PC may still be the superior choice.)

The Radeon RX 6500 XT will be available on January 19th, while the GeForce RTX 3050 will be available on January 27th. Good luck with your search.

Michael is a former graphic designer who has spent more time than he likes to admit constructing and customising desktop PCs. In no particular order, he enjoys folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde.