Back in July, we wrote that it was a terrible time to buy a graphics card. The new Nvidia Ampere and AMD Big Navi GPUs were coming, the previous gen cards were selling out due to increased COVID-19 fueled demand, so you were effectively getting less GPU for more money. Nearly four months later, guess what: It's still a terrible time to buy a graphics card! Sigh. This is especially true if you're looking at the top of our best graphics cards and GPU benchmarks hierarchy lists.
The good news is we now know a lot more about what the new GPUs can deliver. The bad news: Everything fast, shiny, and new is likely to continue selling out as quickly as it can be produced, probably into the first quarter of 2021. Here's the short recap.
First, Nvidia has officially launched the GeForce RTX 3090, GeForce RTX 3080, and GeForce RTX 3070 . The first two offer new levels of performance, though the price of the 3090 makes it a hard pass for anyone not doing professional work that can benefit from the 24GB VRAM, with gaming as a secondary option. The 3070 meanwhile basically delivers RTX 2080 Ti performance at less than half the price. That's the theory, anyway, but finding any of these cards in stock is an exercise in frustration.
We don't know how many Ampere GPUs have been shipped and sold, other than Nvidia's claims that it prepared "similar" numbers of product for the Ampere launch as it had for the Turing launch back in 2018. Regardless, demand is much higher, so supply has been woefully insufficient. Even after delaying the RTX 3070 launch by two weeks to build up supply — and Newegg confirmed it had more 3070 cards than the previous two launches — the stock was gone within minutes (see our article on how to buy an RTX 3080, 3090 and 3070 for your best chance).
That last bit is particularly telling, as it comes despite AMD's reveal of the upcoming RX 6900 XT, RX 6800 XT, and RX 6800 GPUs. Big Navi is set to be competitive with Nvidia's top offerings, at least in non-ray tracing performance, but there were still enough gamers waiting to snap up RTX 3070 that it sold out. We don't yet know how Big Navi handles RT, because AMD hasn't shown any actual RT benchmarks, but various rumors and 'leaks' suggest it won't be able to keep up with Ampere. Plus, Big Navi doesn't have a DLSS equivalent (at least not yet). Regardless, a lot of people apparently aren't willing to wait and see.
Old vs. New GPUs: What's the Performance Like?
Every new generation of GPUs improves performance for any given price, and the next generation parts are no exception.
The GeForce RTX 3090 doesn't have a direct equivalent in the Turing generation, as it's a $1,500 GPU, but it's nearly 50 percent faster than the previous generation RTX 2080 Ti, and over 40 percent faster than the Titan RTX (at 4K ultra, which is what you really ought to be running if you're even thinking about buying such an expensive GPU). Plus, right now if you want to buy a new RTX 2080 Ti, you're basically looking at paying over $1,500 anyway. Or you can try eBay, where you might be able to pick up such a card (used, without a warranty) for $900. We don't recommend that, because...
The GeForce RTX 3080 isn't much slower than the 3090, and it's priced to move at $700. And move it has, for the past six weeks since the card first launched. We'd love to know how many have been sold, but our only real indication is that Danish retailer ProShop has only received a fraction of the RTX 30-series cards it's ordered. Anyway, RTX 3080 is over 30 percent faster than the RTX 2080 Ti, for at least $200 less money based on current used prices.
GeForce RTX 3070 is a bit of a larger step down, thanks to using GDDR6 instead of GDDR6X and a 256-bit instead of 320-bit memory interface. Still, it basically matches the RTX 2080 Ti performance for a starting price of $500. If you want one and sign up for all the out of stock notifications, you'll maybe be able to purchase it before the end of 2020, which still sounds like a better plan than buying a previous generation GPU at inflated prices.
Those are the cards that have actually launched, but plenty more are coming. AMD's Radeon RX 6800 XT and Radeon RX 6800 have a planned on-shelf launch date of November 18. AMD says it has worked with its partners to help alleviate bots nabbing all the inventory, but it's not fooling anyone: Both Big Navi chips are going to sell out — unless AMD has managed to produce about 10 times as many cards as we suspect.
At the top, the Radeon RX 6900 XT should be faster than the RTX 3080, and even come close to the RTX 3090 at times. We don't think it will match either card in ray tracing performance, though AMD hasn't shown any numbers yet (which seems a bit ominous). Plus, it's $1,000 — cheaper than the RTX 3090, but we already don't recommend spending that much money on a GPU for gaming purposes.
Radeon RX 6800 XT looks to be the most desirable of the Big Navi chips, in our view, since it's basically everything you can get in the RX 6900 XT, minus 10 percent, with a price of $650. Non-ray tracing (and non-DLSS) performance looks to be competitive with RTX 3080 as well. Which means it's on-shelf life is going to be very fleeting most likely well into until 2021.
The Radeon RX 6800 is a bit of a larger drop in performance, sporting 17 percent fewer shader cores than the 6800 XT and with slightly lower clocks as well. Considering the price is $580, only $70 (11 percent) lower than the faster card, we'd opt for the XT model. Still, compared to the RTX 3070, AMD looks like it might be faster. It has twice the memory as well, plus the big Infinity Cache, which is why AMD isn't even trying to go head-to-head with Nvidia on pricing. Translation: You'll be lucky to find one in stock before New Years.
And there are still more GPUs that may arrive in the next month or two ... except, if AMD and Nvidia can't even provide sufficient quantities of the parts they've already launched, what chance is there for the additional parts to stay in stock? Never you mind! There are credible rumors that we'll see GeForce RTX 3060 Ti launch by December, and possibly GeForce RTX 3060 as well.
We would assume both are going to use the same GA104 GPU found in the RTX 3070, just with some of the shader cores and functional units disabled. The 3070 uses a nearly 100 percent enabled GA104 (46 of 48 SMs), which means there are going to be a decent number of chips that won't meet that standard. Those chips will end up in the 3060 Ti and 3060.
The only real question in my mind isn't whether or not the 3060 Ti and 3060 exist, but whether they'll both launch this year. 3060 Ti seems almost certain; RTX 3060 might end up with a January launch. Both will sell out at launch, unless Nvidia can produce a lot more cards prior to the launch.
AMD also has lower tier not-so-Big Navi GPUs coming. Radeon RX 6700 XT, Radeon RX 6700, and Radeon RX 6500 XT are all likely to appear within the coming months. Considering the late launch date of Bigger Navi (aka, Navi 21), though, pushing those GPUs out this year is probably not going to happen. Again, a January or at least first quarter 2021 launch seems more likely.
Why You Shouldn't Buy the Previous Gen GPUs
Okay, so you likely can't even find the new GPUs or the soon-to-launch GPUs in stock. Why not just pick up a previous generation card on sale? It's a nice thought, but the problem is that most previous generation GPUs are overpriced now. Again, blame COVID-19, but just about every mid-range or higher GPU has seen prices increase over the past few months.
One of the best deals of early to mid 2020 was AMD's Radeon RX 5700, which saw prices as low as $280 (after rebates). It's about 10 percent slower than the RX 5700 XT, but that card was typically selling for $350 or more, so the tradeoff was worth taking. But now? The cheapest RX 5700 we can find in stock (not counting eBay) costs $434. That's more than the cheapest RX 5700 XT, which still costs $390. Either way, you're paying more for a card that will inevitably perform worse than the newer stuff.
Nvidia's RTX 20-series GPUs are, if anything, worse than AMD's Navi 10 parts. RTX 2060 Super is almost viable, since you can find at least one option for 'only' $390 ... except it's an open box. Other RTX 2060 Super cards that are supposedly in stock start at $550 or more! Let's get real: $500 for the RTX 3070 will give you 50-60 percent more performance, once the 3070 is regularly available for purchase. Also, see the above RTX 3060 Ti. 2060 Super is still arguably the best of the worst high-end 20-series Nvidia cards right now.
RTX 2070 starts at $540, which is technically better than the 2060 Super, even if it's the 2018 model. But it's used, so at that point just go take your chances on eBay. 2070 Super cards are listed at $700 and up, and 2080 Super cards start at $950 on Newegg. It's sheer madness! Overspending on underperforming hardware is not what an enthusiast should do, pandemic or not. Those are all Newegg links, but if there are better prices around, we're not finding them.
Are There Any Graphics Cards Worth Buying?
Okay, so we just recommended against buying just about any of the existing / previous generation cards. But surely there must be something that's not a terrible buy, right? There is, but not in the high-end or extreme performance range. Your best graphics card bargains right now are all budget and maybe midrange cards. Let's start with the faster cards.
From AMD, the Radeon RX 5600 XT cards start at $260 after rebates, with many available for under $280. Similarly, Newegg has several Nvidia RTX 2060 cards available for $280 to $325 (after rebate, in some cases). Most other places seem to charge a bit more, or the parts are out of stock, so that's probably the best overall deal right now. Spending more than $350 ends up being close enough to the latest GPUs that shopping / waiting for one of those is a better plan.
The concern is that the new GPUs basically make these older generation cards feel more like they should cost $200-$225, not $275. $275 is what we'd suggest as a reasonable price for an RX 5700 XT, not the 5600 XT, considering its features and performance relative to the latest GPUs. What's more, 6GB VRAM on the 5600 XT and 2060 is definitely going to be a limiting factor in some games, forcing you to use the high setting instead of ultra quality on textures and shadows. Maybe that's a bit of a placebo, but there are definitely games (e.g., Red Dead Redemption 2) where the drop in texture quality is visible. 6GB felt okay a year ago, but now it's at the bottom of what we would suggest for a GPU that costs close to $300.
Stepping down to budget GPUs like the RX 5500 XT and GTX 1650 Super or maybe GTX 1660 Super, that's about the only area where current GPU prices aren't inflated. It's also the area least likely to be impacted by the new high-end GPUs. The GTX 1660 Super gets a bit too close to RX 5600 XT pricing, though, in which case we'd suggest spending the extra money. The RX 5500 XT 8GB meanwhile is faster than the GTX 1650 Super and is probably the best budget option, since it costs less than $200 and at least you won't run out of VRAM. (The 4GB on the 1650 Super is definitely a limiting factor in some games.)
None of the budget GPUs are going to be especially potent, and they're probably more of a stopgap unless you only play lighter games. 1080p at medium or high settings is usually going to do fine, though perhaps not 60 fps smooth. The good news is that we don't anticipate any substantially faster budget GPUs will show up for at least six months.
That Thing About Patience and Virtues...
Okay, the headline isn't fully accurate in the sense that if you could buy one of the recently launched Nvidia RTX 30-series GPUs, at the recommended starting prices, they would be great options. They're just not in stock, and trying to find one in stock could start to feel like a full-time job, creating stress and anxiety rather than letting you have some gaming fun. Instead of worrying about it and repeatedly checking all the online and local resellers, taking a break for a couple of months might be the wiser path.
Assuming you have a graphics card already, even if it's not fast enough to do everything you'd like, try to stick with it a bit longer. Unless it's really old, it's probably already close enough to the budget GPUs that they wouldn't be much of an upgrade anyway. Or, you could always roll the dice and look for a used card on eBay.
Really, though, mom was right and we need more patience. If you don't mind the regular searching for the GPU that you really want, keep it up. It could take a month or two, maybe even three or four if things are really bad, but at some point the next generation parts will be in stock in sufficient quantities. Hopefully that day comes before the RTX 40-series and RX 7000-series GPUs.