Here Are Your Options for an Affordable GPU in 2021

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The semiconductor shortage shows no signs of slowing down and GPUs of every stripe have been difficult to find for months, to the point that prices are now the most-skewed they’ve ever been. It’s never been harder to buy a video card than it is right now, and even five-year-old budget cards are selling for 1.5x above MSRP.

We’ve spent some time sorting through the market to surface the best deals we can find. There may not be any truly good deals right now, but there are some that suck less than others, and one GPU family, in particular, that’s a rather ironic good deal.

None of the options available are great, but there are still some valid ways to maximize your performance per dollar. Due to age, we do not recommend any GPU with less than a 4GB frame buffer if you want to play modern titles at 1080p. 3GB cards may handle this resolution, but they may not. 2GB cards probably won’t, under any circumstances. 3GB cards will likely still support 720p at playable frame rates.

Hawaii, Tonga Are Your Best GPU Options in 2021

The launch of the AMD R9 290 and R9 290X was supposed to be a moment of triumph for Team Red over Team Green. AMD’s Hawaii, which launched in late 2013, was a decisive blow against Nvidia’s Kepler microarchitecture. Unfortunately, lopsided cryptocurrency demand destroyed AMD’s price model and drove consumers out of the market. Nvidia’s cards weren’t used for mining and maintained normal prices.

Right now, there’s a sharp delineation between the earlier model GCN hardware that AMD shipped in 2012 – 2013 and even the prices on later Fury-class GPUs. Fury-class cards and Maxwell-based GPUs like the GTX 980 are still running well above where used cards should be. Hawaii, on the other hand, is much cheaper (though still more expensive than where it ought to be by this point in its life):

This is what affordable looks like, in 2021.

There are Hawaii-class GPUs (R9 290, 290X) selling for between $100-$200, and cards like the R9 390 can sometimes be found on eBay for under $250. The R9 290 and R9 290X are the best values we’ve seen available today, as far as striking a balance between still-playable frame rates and affordable prices. Here’s Anandtech’s Bench report showing a 1050 Ti versus an R9 390X — the R9 390X was only modestly faster than the R9 290X, and it decisively outperforms the 1050 Ti. The R9 390X is far more expensive than the 290X, which is why we prefer the earlier model.

Blue is the R9 390X, orange is the 1050 Ti. Knock 10% off the R9 390X to approximate the R9 290X and it’s still much faster than the 1050 Ti.

Power consumption on 28nm GCN-based cards of this vintage is not great, but we’ve been reduced to stopgaps and catch-as-catch-can, so you may have to sacrifice some features you’d otherwise prefer. Your top GPU choices in this category are going to be the R9 290, R9 290X, R9 390, and R9 390X, but the latter two are very hard to find for reasonable prices. The R9 380X may present a lower-end alternative, with some available in the $90 – $120 range, but we do not recommend even attempting to dip lower.

Be advised that AMD has dropped support for pre-GCN GPUs from its drivers. We don’t recommend considering anything from AMD that isn’t based on GCN or above.

Nvidia’s Older Cards Aren’t as Well Positioned

There are some good prices to be found on older Nvidia hardware, but VRAM buffer size is a concern when buying a 2013-era GPU for 2021 gaming. No GPU with a 2GB memory buffer is going to handle modern titles at 1080p. This knocks out a lot of older Nvidia cards, and even 3GB GPUs like the GTX 780 or 780 Ti may very well choke due to VRAM limits. A 3GB buffer may still be enough for 720p gaming on these cards.

The GTX 680 and GTX 770 can sometimes be found with a 4GB VRAM buffer, but the 4GB variants are often over $150 and AMD Hawaii-era cards can be found for less. You might also be able to snag a 4GB GTX 960 for a reasonable price, though the overall performance level will not be high. We do not recommend wasting time with GPUs like the GTX 950 or cards that predate Kepler. Even the highest-end cards from these previous families are too old to offer much useful performance.

AMD’s tendency to equip its high-end GPUs with more VRAM than their Nvidia counterparts may not have done much for its cards when they were new, but it definitely makes them a better deal eight years after the fact. If you absolutely demanded we pick an Nvidia target, it’d be either a 4GB GTX 770 (provided you can score one for $120 or less) or a 3GB GTX 780 Ti if and only if you’re comfortable playing in 720p. The 780 Ti can be had for $130 – $160 used and we’d recommend it more readily if the 3GB VRAM buffer wasn’t such a concern.

Tips and Tricks

If you intend to buy an AMD Hawaii GPU, we recommend looking for one of the quieter aftermarket cards built around the R9 290, R9 290X, R9 390, or R9 390X. AMD’s original default blowers for these cards were rather loud.

AMD R9 290 - 2

This GPU is not quiet.

It may also help to repaste the GPU. Thermal paste can dry and degrade over time and OEM cards aren’t known for their amazing applications of the stuff. Pay attention to the power supply requirements of old cards — the R9 290X still required a 500-600W PSU, for example.

Right now, there’s a clear premium being placed on even older GPUs with more than 4GB of VRAM, and on newer GPUs made after 2015. Better deals are sometimes available if you target legacy high-end cards with a 4GB VRAM buffer, especially GPUs that were part of AMD’s high-end Hawaii and Tonga families from 2013 – 2015.

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