This might sound a bit flowery, but graphics cards are the springboard of our gaming entertainment. Without them, we’d be stuck with a horrible on-board graphics chip like some kind of pleb. Thankfully, that isn’t the case.
Of course, a lot of people look at the GTX 1080, see the associated price tag, and immediately swear off PC gaming as being too expensive. As you may well know (if you’ve read the title of the article), you can absolutely get a cheap graphics card that has some really great performance. No longer do you have to break that piggy bank you’ve been saving money in for the past two decades.
Instead, you can find yourself a cheap graphics card for less than $200 that can play almost any game at mid to high setting on 1080p. If you know how to optimize your Windows 10 for gaming, you won’t run into any major troubles.
So, what are the best budget graphics cards? 🤔 💭
Best Choice: Sapphire Radeon Nitro+ RX 590 8GB
Pros & Cons
- 8 gigabytes of GDDR5 Ram
- Can play everything at 1080p
- Massive power draw
- Not much overclocking possible
- GPU: Polaris
- Clock Speed:
- Core: 1469 MHz
- Boosted: 1545 MHz
- Dimensions: 10.23” x 5.31” x 1.69” (260 x 135 x 43 mm)
- Power Draw: 225w
- Ports: 2 x HDMI; 2 x DisplayPort; 1 x DVI-D
Sapphire Radeon Nitro+ RX 590 8GB Review
While a lot of people might not think of Radeon graphics cards off the bat, AMD has actually managed to do quite well in the low to the mid-tier range graphics card. At the very top of that mid-tier rang comes the RX 590, easily matching, if not besting the GTX 1060.
While it’s true that the clock speeds on the GTX 1060 are generally higher, the RX 590 comes with an extra whopping 6gigs of ram compared to similarly priced GTX 1060s, and 2gigs more than the highest-end ones.
Similarly, it used 256-bit channel memory, vs the 192-bit channel memory of the GTX 1060. What all that means to the non-technical folks, is that even though the GTX 1060 can run faster, the RX 590 can handle a bigger load.
Now, being able to handle more might not have meant much a few years ago, but nowadays with most AAA games requiring a minimum of 4gigs of Video Ram (VRAM), and a recommended of 6 gigs of VRAM, you can see how the RX 590 has an advantage.
What’s interesting here though, is that the RX 590 comes with a dual BIOS mode, which allows you to run the card at two different clock speeds depending on what you’re doing. In quiet mode, the card runs at the base clock speed, which means less heat and much less fan usage, so it is actually a very quiet card.
On the other hand, if you want to boost performance you can go to the default BIOS which overclocks the card and spins the fans to a clearly audible level.
Unfortunately, the RX 590 does have a major issue, which is how terribly power hungry it is. As you’ll see in the rest of the article, the 225-watt power draw is immense, being 40 watts higher than the second-highest card on this list. In terms of performance per watt, it’s abysmal, with the GTX 1060 being 70%-80% more power-efficient, which says a lot.
Of course, finding the perfect card at this price range is nearly impossible, and the higher power draw of the RX 590 is offset by it’s increased VRAM and dual bios modes. Considering that the cheapest GTX 1060 is about $10 more expensive, and has only 3gigs of VRAM, the RTX 590 is an excellent choice for 1080p gaming.
Premium Pick: EVGA GeForce GTX 1660 Ti XC Gaming 6GB
Pros & Cons
- 1845 MHz boosted clock
- GDDR6 Ram
- Lack of ray tracing and tencor core compute
- GPU: Turing
- Clock Speed:
- Core: 1500MHz
- Boosted: 1845 MHz
- Dimensions: 6.3 x 3.15 x 13.78 inches
- Power Draw: 130w
- Ports: 1 x HDMI 2.0b; 1 x DisplayPort 1.4; 1 x Dual-Link DVI-D
EVGA GeForce GTX 1660 Ti 6GB XC Gaming Review
If you want to go for a bit of a wild ride in funky town, you might consider the GTX 1660, a card which literally just came out a few months ago. Lying somewhere between the 10 series and the 20 series, the GTX 1660 features the performance of the 20 series, but with the lack of ten (AI) cores and ray tracing of the GTX 10 series and below.
One big positive of the GTX 1660 is that it comes with GDDR6 ram, rather than GDDR5, and that’s going to offer a large performance increase over the previous generation of cards.
Of course, it still uses the 192-bit memory bus, which means you can only get a maximum of 6 gigs of RAM, put it right at the edge of the line. Of course, just because it trails a little behind the RX 590 in terms of memory, it still packs a punch.
The high clock-speed of the XC Gaming means that you’re getting a massive 300Mhz more which translates to overall better performance and make the memory disparity much less of an issue.
Interestingly, even though it has a higher clock boost than the RTX 2060, due to how the architecture works you only get about 85% of the performance, which still isn’t bad considering how good the RTX 2060 is. To frame it a bit differently, the GTX 1660 offers roughly 5% more performance and 50% more memory for roughly 66% of the price of the highest-end GTX 1060.
So you can probably see at this point why the GTX 1660 shows up on this list, as opposed to the GTX 1060 since you might be able to get the latter cheaper, the former offers better performance per dollar. As for actual uses cases and without all the technical mumbo jumbo, the GTX 1660 should handily run any game at 2k at max or almost max settings.
If you're interested in seeing more options for the best graphics cards under $300, check out our article on that.
Best Value: MSI Radeon RX 570 Armor 8G GDDR5 OC
Pros & Cons
- Best value per dollar at this price range
- Great Overclocking potential
- Fan speeds can get annoyingly loud at full RPMs
- GPU: Polaris
- Clock Speed:
- Core: 1168 MHz
- Boosted: 1244MHz
- Dimensions: 9.6 x 5.11 x 1.53 inches
- Power Draw: 150w
- Ports: 1x HDMI; 1x DVI-D; 3x DisplayPorts
MSI Radeon RX 570 Armor 8G GDDR5 OC Review
Alright, so far we’ve looked at the higher end of the budget graphics cards and that may not be for everybody. What if you’d rather just get the cheapest graphics card you can, while still having reasonably good performance? Well, AMD and MSI come to the rescue with the RX 570 Armor OC.
Much like the rest of AMD's 500 series, the RX 570 comes with 8 gigs of VRAM, which if you’ve been following along so far, you’ll know is a great feature to have. Of course, the problem lies in the clock speeds, with the core clock speed not being that great and the boosted clock only slightly better than that.
Thankfully, the cooling on this graphics card is excellent, and you actually have quite a lot of potential for overclocking, that is, if you can get over the loud fan noise. Surprisingly, at idle the card can stay at a cool 30°C - 35°C degrees, with full load pushing it up to 65°C degrees, although fan speeds will be at 100%, both in terms of RPMs and annoyance.
Of course, if you can get over the fan noise, and your computer case has good internal cooling, you can push that 65°C to 75°C and maybe even 80°C-85°C. Incidentally, graphics cards are made to handle these high temperatures or maintain safe GPU temperatures so no need to worry. My GTX 1080 regularly runs at 80°C-85°C at full load (and 50°C at idle) so it’s perfectly fine.
So, as you can see the RX 570 treads the line between being a pain and being wonderful pretty well. While you might not be able to play all 1080p games at the highest setting, you should at the very least hit medium settings, and hit medium to high often enough to make this graphics card worth the money you’re spending.
Best Cheap Pick: XFX Radeon RX 580 GTS XXX Edition 8GB GDDR5 OC+
Pros & Cons
- VR ready
- One of the best graphics cards for 1080p
- Not that much of an upgrade from the RX 480
- GPU: Polaris
- Clock Speed:
- Core: 1366 MHz
- Boosted: 1386 MHz
- Dimensions: 10.63 x 4.88 Inches
- Power Draw: 185w
- Ports: 1 x HDMI 2.0b; 1 x DL-DVI-D; 3 x DisplayPort 1.4
XFX Radeon RX 580 GTS XXX Edition 8GB GDDR5 OC+ Review
If you’re considering the MSI Radeon RX 570 Armor, you might want to consider the XFX Radeon RX 580 GTS XXX Edition instead, especially if you don’t want to play around with overclocking too much.
Comparatively speaking, there’s actually not too much difference between the RX 580 and RX 570, much to its detriment. Even worse, there’s also very little difference between the RX 580 and the RX 480, further muddying up the issue. It’s a big mess is basically what I’m saying.
As you can see, the differences are very minor, and it makes very little sense to upgrade. That’s where the operative word comes into play: “Upgrade”. If this is your first time buying an RX series graphics card, it makes sense to go directly to the RX 580 or RX 570, especially since the price difference is really minor.
As for picking the RX 580 over the RX 570, it makes sense if you don’t want to play around with overclocking. The cooling on the former is not as good as the latter, and the card already comes overclocked, so the overclocking potential is minimal or even non-existent.
Of course, the RX 580 does have a higher power draw which is a drawback, but that’s pretty much on par for AMD cards (just look at the RX 590).
So what it basically all boils down to, is that the RX 580 is a great card if you want to hit the higher end of graphical settings at 1080p, while the RX 570 hitting the medium settings. What you go for depends on the games you play and the type of budget you have. My advice? If you play a lot of AAA games, then go for the RX 580 (or the RX 590 if you can save up for it).
Budget Graphics Cards: Buying Guide
As you can tell, choosing a graphics card isn’t easy, especially if you don’t have the technical know-how to differentiate between the important bits. Luckily, we have things like GPU scaling to help us during if we can't budget thousands of dollars for a gaming rig.
While you can find massively long tech specs for everything, if you want a quick rule of thumb, these are the three things to look for:
Just like it sounds, clock speed determines how fast a GPU can run. The higher the clock speed, the better.
Also, you’ll notice that a lot of graphics cards come with the letters ‘OC’ appended to them, that stands for ‘Overclocked’, which is when the manufacturer basically overvoltages the GPU to run faster (yes, it’s exactly that comically correct). You can overclock a GPU yourself, or even a CPU for that matter, but unless you have the experience, you could potentially fry your processor and have a very expensive paperweight.
While there are guides out there, if you don’t have the experience, go for a factory overclocked processor, and if you simply must try it for yourself, then do it on the hardware you don’t mind losing. Anyway, check our guide on how to overclock your GPU properly.
Memory just means the type of RAM that is being used by the graphics card. You see, every graphics card has its own dedicated RAM, called Video Ram. This ram helps the GPU temporarily store assets that it uses to render a scene, such as meshes, bitmaps, graphics, etc.
Now, about five years ago VRAM wasn’t important, but with the increasingly high demands of AAA games, VRAM has taken a much more central role. In most cases, you really don’t want to buy a graphics card that has less than 4GB of VRAM, with the ideal setting at 6GBs. The highest you’ll find on consumer graphics cards is 8GB, and that certainly would be the best option if you can afford it.
While this one isn’t as important, aside from environmentally friendly reasons, generally a larger power draw means more heat is created, and more heat means more cooling is required. Generally speaking the hotter something runs, the more powerful the fans need to be and the louder they get.
Also, you should always be conscious of the power draw, since that will directly correlate to the kind of power supply you need to get.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will graphics card prices drop?
Yes and no. The high-end graphics card will always be expensive when they first come out, but as they spend longer and longer time on the market, their prices will drop. For example, when the GTX 1080 came out, it cost $699, but you can find versions of it for $599.
Also, the GPU shortage phenomenon is currently influencing the market and you might want to wait it out.
What graphics card do I need?
That depends a lot on what you’re playing. If you play a lot of AAA games, then something in the mid to high tiers like the GTX 1070 or the RX 580 is probably what you’ll be aiming for, assuming you are gaming at 1080p.
Are graphics cards compatible with any motherboard?
Yes, any graphics card can fit in any motherboard, with the caveat that it might not run at full speed if you aren’t using a 16x PCIe. Also, you should be aware that smaller motherboard such as Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX tend to fit in smaller towers where a graphics card might not fit.
Can a graphics card be upgraded?
The graphics card itself can’t be upgraded, but you can remove the one you have and replace it with a newer one. This is a delicate procedure and you might want to consult our guide on how to install a graphics card.
I really hope that I’ve given you a little bit of insight into how cheap good graphics cards can be. There’s a lot of naysayers out there who just want to be ugly about PC gaming as a whole, and there’s no need to on that bandwagon, especially when it’s provably false. Yes, PC hardware is more expensive, but you don’t need $1k to get yourself a decent gaming PC.
That being said, if you’re really just gagging to throw a bunch of money away, why not check out our article on the best graphics cards for gaming. Also, check out our list that features some outstanding games that support Nvidia’s SLI.