When should you upgrade your PC's graphics card? The sage advice is to wait until you're no longer happy with your current setup, but there's an important corollary that's often overlooked: Don't spend a lot of money on a new graphics card right before new GPUs are slated to launch. Or you can flip that around: The best time to pick up one of the best graphics cards is right after they launch — at least, once the supply reaches the point where there's no obvious price gouging going on.
To be clear, we're not talking about all graphics cards being a bad purchase decision. Traditionally, Nvidia and (to a lesser extent) AMD launch their new architectures with high-end and extreme performance parts, and then mid-range and low-end parts come later. With that in mind, we're specifically talking about purchasing an expensive GPU right now; it could be many more months before we see mainstream and budget GPU updates.
We've been talking about this for what seems like ages, but there are three major GPU launches slated to occur this year: AMD's Big Navi / RDNA 2 / Navi 2x, Nvidia's Ampere / RTX 3000 series, and Intel's Xe Graphics. Let's look at the past couple of generations of graphics hardware to get an idea of what we can expect from the upcoming AMD and Nvidia launches, as well as an idea of how they'll impact prices on current-gen hardware.
How Much Faster Will Ampere and Navi 2x Be?
Each new generation of GPUs is expected to surpass the previous generation; that's a given. But by how much? Here's what has happened with the most recent Nvidia and AMD GPU launches.
The GTX 980/970 (Maxwell architecture) launched in 2014, the GTX 980 Ti came in 2015, and the GTX 1080 Ti and other Pascal architecture GPUs arrived in 2017. Then Nvidia released the first RTX Turing architecture GPUs in late 2018. Generally speaking, Nvidia's graphics hardware cycle is usually about two years between major releases, with 'refresh' updates occurring on the off years — sometimes it's three years (for example, from GTX 980 to GTX 1080), but let's not get too hung up on things.
In terms of performance, we've recently tested all of the major GPUs of the past three generations from AMD and Nvidia. You can see the full results in our GPU hierarchy, but let's give some hard numbers. First, let's look at the upgrade from Maxwell (GTX 900-series) to Pascall (GTX 10-series).
Overall, the GTX 1080 was 70% faster than the GTX 980 — 62% faster at 1080p, 70% faster at 1440p, and 78% faster at 4K. The story was slightly better with the GTX 1080 Ti vs. GTX 980 Ti: The 1080 Ti was 75% faster overall, 69% faster at 1080p, 75% faster at 1440p, and 80% faster at 4K. Finally, from the GTX 970 to the GTX 1070, the gains were slightly lower: It was 65% faster overall, 55% faster at 1080p, 64% faster at 1440p, and 74% faster at 4K. However you slice it, for the three high-end families, we're looking at roughly a 60-70% generational improvement.
The gains from Pascal to Turing weren't quite as expansive, largely because Nvidia spent a lot of GPU space on the ray tracing and DLSS hardware. Across our test suite, the RTX 2070 outperformed the GTX 1070 by 61% overall (49% at 1080p, 64% at 1440p, and 69% at 4K) — that's actually pretty similar to the Pascal generational upgrade, but 2070 did better than some of the other GPUs. The RTX 2080 was 'only' 39% faster than the GTX 1080 (29% at 1080p, 40% at 1440p, and 45% at 4K). And the RTX 2080 Ti vs. GTX 1080 Ti? It was 31% faster overall (19% at 1080p, 32% at 1440p, and 39% at 4K).
Of course, if we were to include ray tracing and DLSS performance improvements, the gains would be much larger. It's also important to note that running at 1080p for the fastest GPUs has become increasingly limited by CPU performance. Looking at 4K, where most games are still completely dependent on GPU performance (at least on our testbed), Turing RTX GPUs were still 40-45% faster for the top cards, and as much as 70% faster for the 2070.
The AMD side of things is a bit harder to pin down, with a mix of midrange-only and high-end-only architectures. Sticking with just the high-end parts, the RX Vega 64 was 47% faster than the R9 Fury X (47% at 1080p, 46% at 1440p, and 45% at 4K). Or if we go with the more mainstream ($400-ish) priced GPUs, the RX Vega 56 was 57% faster than the R9 390 (56% at 1080p, 59% at 1440p, and 53% at 4K), and the RX 5700 XT vs. RX Vega 56 was 32% faster (29%/33%/34% at 1080p/1440p/4K).
The bottom line is that generational improvements from AMD and Nvidia GPUs are typically 30% at a minimum, and often 50% or higher. There's every reason to expect Ampere and Navi 2x to deliver similar gains, which means potentially getting 50% better performance for the same level of graphics card if you just wait a few months before upgrading.
What about Pricing?
The problem with the above performance discussion is that prices are a major unknown. Nvidia prices were relatively static between Maxwell and Pascal — about $30 more if you don't count the Founders Edition 'tax' — but from Pascal to Turing the high-end GPUs jumped 30-40% in prices, while the top model (RTX 2080 Ti) cost over 70% more than its predecessor!
AMD has been more consistent with its pricing, with the most expensive GPU never really going above $700, and high-end $400 options being relatively consistent. Then again, as we just pointed out, the generational performance improvements from AMD weren't necessarily as large, which is likely a big part of the lower prices.
The good news is that, with both AMD and Nvidia launching new high-end GPUs this year, we expect to see more competitive prices. Or we hope to see competitive prices at least. TSMC's 7nm technology definitely costs more than the older 12nm tech, and the new GPUs could be relatively large. More expensive wafers with larger chips would mean higher prices, but without hard specs, we don't know exactly where they'll land.
Ideally, we'll see prices stay at the same targets, so $700 for the top parts (i.e., RTX 3080 and RX 6900), $500 for the step down (RTX 3070 and RX 6800), and $350 for the 'mainstream' part (RTX 3060 and RX 6700). Those names may be slightly off, and we could see Nvidia and AMD push prices higher. We'll have to wait and see, but waiting is basically free (minus opportunity cost).
One thing you shouldn't count on is radically reduced pricing on current-gen graphics cards. Besides AMD's Polaris GPUs, which have been hanging around for ages at very low prices (likely as a result of overproduction for cryptocurrency mining that then fell apart), we'll likely see supplies of current cards dry up pretty quickly when the next generation GPUs arrive. In fact, there are indications that's already happening — prices on many GPUs are trending up, as inventory gets cleared out in preparation for the incoming hardware. You might score a modest sale, but it usually takes a lot longer for significant discounts (on used hardware) to materialize.
What If I Really Need a New GPU Today?
Sometimes, you just can't wait for the new parts to arrive. Maybe your current graphics card just went belly up. Maybe you're trying to get into PC gaming for the first time and you don't want to wait a few more months. Or perhaps the government stimulus check just arrived and it’s burning a hole in your wallet. If you simply must buy a new graphics card today, here's our advice.
First, Big Navi and Ampere are more likely to arrive at the high-end / extreme price and performance segments. If you're looking at a budget to mid-range graphics card, it could be a while longer before the next generation parts arrive. The above discussion is mostly a warning for anyone thinking about plunking down a wad of cash on something like an RTX 2060 Super / RX 5700 XT or above.
One sensible option is to buy a modest GPU that can hold you over until September. If you're building (or own) an Intel PC, you could even try to get by running integrated graphics — though let's be real, UHD Graphics 630 struggles in many games at 720p and minimum quality. We'd strongly encourage looking around for a used graphics card that can suffice for the interim. Cards like the GTX 970 are by no means state of the art, but you can find them on eBay for about $100, or you could even get a new RX 570 4GB for about $120. If you're willing to spend just a bit more, the GTX 1650 Super costs $160 and is probably your best bet for a budget GPU — or AMD's RX 5500 XT 4GB is nearly the same performance and price (after rebate) and is a viable alternative.
Besides used cards and budget GPUs, the fastest GPUs we'd seriously consider right now are the RX 5600 XT and the RTX 2060. Both offer similar performance — the 5600 XT is a bit faster and a bit cheaper, but the RTX 2060 does support ray tracing and DLSS, which may prove important in the long run. In terms of sheer overall value, factoring in performance, price, features, and efficiency, those are two of the best options right now. The GTX 1660 Super is also still worth a look, though I think the 5600 XT is a better overall value.
You can also look at selling your slightly used graphics card in a couple of months and upgrading to a high-end part. You'll never get back your initial investment, but a $150 GPU purchased today will still likely net you $100 in September. Or if you buy something like an RX 5700 XT or RTX 2060 Super today for closer to $400, you might still get $300 from it in September off eBay. Either way, we're expecting major improvements from Ampere and Big Navi, so the prudent advice is to wait for them to arrive before taking the plunge on a high-end GPU.
Note: As with all of our op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom's Hardware as a team.