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It's Still a Terrible Time to Buy a Graphics Card

It's Still a Terrible Time to Buy a Graphics Card
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

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. Five 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 well into the first quarter of 2021. Here's the short recap.

First, Nvidia has launched the GeForce RTX 3090, GeForce RTX 3080, and GeForce RTX 3070, and GeForce RTX 3060 Ti using its new Ampere architecture. 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, and the 3060 Ti beats the old 2080 Super at a price that's over 40 percent lower. 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). The RTX 3060 Ti did no better.

AMD's Radeon RX 6900 XT, Radeon RX 6800 XT and RX 6800 GPUs haven't done any better, and in fact appear to be in even more limited supply than Ampere. Big Navi is competitive with Nvidia's top offerings, at least in non-ray tracing performance, but even the relatively lackluster (in terms of value and features) RX 6900 XT immediately sold out. It seems as though ray tracing performance isn't even a factor, as not only the new AMD GPUs but also the older RX 5000 series GPUs are sold out or only available at inflated prices.

Old vs. New GPUs: What's the Performance Like?

Current gen budget GPU vs. next gen high-end GPU, in vehicular format (Image credit: Shutterstock)

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, even if you wanted to buy a new RTX 2080 Ti for whatever reason, you're still looking at over $900 on eBay (used, without a warranty). 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 several months 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. RTX 3060 Ti meanwhile is the new price to performance ratio king at $400 with RTX 2080 Super levels of performance. And it's just as sold out as the other cards.

Big Navi arrived in November, sort of.

(Image credit: AMD)

AMD's Radeon RX 6900 XT, RX 6800 XT and RX 6800 have also launched. AMD claimed it worked with its partners to help alleviate bots nabbing all the inventory, but it didn't fool anyone: All three Big Navi chips sold out within minutes, and indications are the retailers had even fewer cards to go around than Ampere.

At the top, the Radeon RX 6900 XT is often faster than the RTX 3080, and even come close to the RTX 3090 at times, at least in rasterized games. It generally can't match either card in ray tracing performance, plus it's a $1,000 card — 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 is 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 about 5 percent performance, with a price of $650. Non-ray tracing (and non-DLSS) performance is 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. Third party cards are even launching at much higher prices (like $900) and still selling out.

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's card looks quite good. It has twice the memory, plus the big Infinity Cache, which is why AMD isn't even trying to go head-to-head with Nvidia on pricing.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 FE

The RTX 3070 and 3060 Ti won't be the last new Ampere GPUs (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

And there are still more GPUs that may arrive in the few months ... 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's a good chance we'll see GeForce RTX 3060 in early 2021, possibly even at CES, and an RTX 3050 Ti is probably coming as well.

Both will likely use the same GA106 GPU, but beyond that things get murky. The 3060 Ti still has 8GB of GDDR6 VRAM on a 256-bit memory bus. How does Nvidia trim that down to hit a lower price point? RTX 2060 has 6GB and already struggles at least in part because it only has a 192-bit interface with 6GB. Given costs and other factors, I can't imagine Nvidia doing 12GB on the 3060, which means 6GB may ride again. And if there's a 3050 Ti, there will inevitably be a 3050 as well. I'd be okay with an RTX 3050 that's basically a touch faster than the 2060, but gets the price down to only $200. But that might be a pipe dream.

The only real question in my mind isn't whether or not the RTX 3060, RTX 3050 Ti, and RTX 3050 exist in Nvidia's plans, but rather when they'll launch. RTX 3060 might end up with a January launch, and it will sell out at launch. How many GA106 wafers and chips did Nvidia order about six months back? That's the real question.

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), those GPUs weren't going to hit 2020. A January or at least first quarter 2021 launch seems more likely.

Why You Shouldn't Buy the Previous Gen GPUs

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Okay, so you likely can't even find the new 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 and gamers and office workers cooped up at home, but just about every 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 over $600. That's more than the cheapest RX 5700 XT, which still costs $470. Either way, you're paying more for a card that performs much worse than the latest GPUs.

Nvidia's RTX 20-series GPUs are, if anything, worse than AMD's Navi 10 parts. RTX 2060 Super starts at $600 right now, $200 more than the launch price! 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. Alternatively, the RTX 3060 Ti easily beats the 2060 Super for (theoretically) $400. And RTX 2060 Super is still arguably the best of the worst high-end 20-series Nvidia cards right now.

RTX 2070 Super starts at $730, and 2080 Super cards are going for $800 and up on Newegg. It's sheer madness! Overspending on underperforming previous gen 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?

The RX 5500 XT 8GB is arguably the best current budget card deal

(Image credit: ASRock)

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 was, last month, but these days even budget and midrange cards are overpriced. Let's start with the faster cards.

From AMD, the Radeon RX 5600 XT cards start at $320, which is actually an awesome deal compared to the Nvidia RTX 2060 cards that are now selling for $450 or more. Most other places seem to charge a bit more, or the parts are out of stock, so the RX 5600 XT is perhaps the best overall deal right now. And you'll probably have buyer's remorse in a few months when the newer cards catch up to demand. If at all possible, waiting for one of the new GPUs 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 GTX 1660 Super might seem feasible, but of those, only the 5500 XT is anywhere close to $200 ($220 right now). The RX 5500 XT 8GB is faster than the GTX 1650 Super and is really the only remotely viable budget option right now, but we still don't like the idea of paying more today than several months ago for a card that's only looking comparatively slower as time marches on.

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...

While our headline isn't fully accurate in the sense that if you could buy one of the recently launched Nvidia RTX 30-series or AMD RX 6000-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.

Jarred Walton is a senior editor at Tom's Hardware focusing on everything GPU. He has been working as a tech journalist since 2004, writing for AnandTech, Maximum PC, and PC Gamer. From the first S3 Virge '3D decelerators' to today's GPUs, Jarred keeps up with all the latest graphics trends and is the one to ask about game performance.