Finding the best budget graphics card is about finding the right balance between game performance and cost.
As software becomes more demanding, gamers will need stronger graphics cards. It's that simple. But then how do gamers keep up with the constant upgrading necessary to play new AAA releases, especially when on a budget? The solution is a budget graphics card. Since card manufacturers release new models so often, the older ones often get their prices reduced, even though they still offer great performance and value.
People who buy budget graphics cards often have different priorities than people who are willing to pay good money to get the best performance they can. Value is the key word. But it’s often a different kind of value than what you get from a $10 pair of jeans that you wear when doing car maintenance.
The best budget graphics card has a short window during which it is able to run most games without any major compromises, followed by a much longer road to retirement. Budget gamers don’t have qualms about lowering the graphics settings, as long as the card doesn’t sound like a broken blow-dryer and doesn’t run like a hot oven.
The amount of RAM at your disposal is a good indicator of how well the card is going to cope with increasing performance demands of future PC games. But don’t get too hung up on it either. As long as you can live with textures set to Low or Medium, you will be fine.
Unless you plan on replacing your best budget graphics card every two years or so, buy one with a very good cooler. It’s inevitable that every last ounce of performance will be squeezed out of your card, and the last thing you want is to experience additional slowdowns as a result of thermal throttling.
Below is an overview of our picks for the best budget graphics cards on the market followed by a buyer's guide for purchasing a new budget graphics card. Further down are in-depth reviews for each budget graphics card including descriptions and pros and cons.
AMD RX 460 2GB
AMD RX 470
NVIDIA GTX 1060 3GB
Budget Graphics Card Buyer’s Guide
1. Finding Value
Budget gamers should think about what “playable performance” means to them. The native screen resolution for most current games on PS4 is 1080p at 60 frames per second.
Xbox One is the same with a few exceptions. The “Far Cry 4” native resolution for Xbox One is 1420 x 1080p at 30 fps. (http://www.ign.com/wikis/xbox-one/PS4_vs._Xbox_One_Native_Resolutions_and_Framerates)
PC games are capable of much higher resolutions and frame rates, but that requires a high-end GPU among other things. For the best budget graphic cards, 1080p at 60 fps seems like a reasonable ceiling.
At the very least, a budget graphics card needs to be able to outperform the computer system's integrated GPU.
2. Integrated vs. Dedicated GPUs
Assuming your system is less than about 6 years old, you'll already have an integrated graphics card on Intel CPUs and on the motherboard for AMD APUs. While both companies have made massive improvements in their integrated GPUs, these are mostly good for running 2D graphics and non-demanding games like League of Legends. Gamers will need more support for 3D.
In recent years, Intel CPUs have been outperforming AMD APUs, but AMD is threatening to come out with a new processor (Zen) in 2017. How the next AMD integrated GPU will perform is unknown.
Dedicated or discrete GPUs are the separate kind. People also interchange the terms “video” and “graphics” when describing these cards. On Google searches, “video card” is the most popular term. Users can turn off the integrated GPU on their system through the BIOS when they install a discrete graphics card.
Gamers wanting to play current titles such as “Far Cry Primal” will need a dedicated GPU. The website “Can You Run It” is a convenient place to find the minimum and recommended system requirements for today's games.
3. Getting the Best Frame Rate
When the frame rate of the display during a game gets too low, the image stutters. This is generally what people mean when they say a game is running slowly. Refresh rate is another way of describing how fast video updates on a screen.
Most monitors have a refresh rate of 60Hz, meaning the video updates 60 times per second. High-end monitors and high-end graphics cards can raise the refresh rate higher than 60Hz. The current 4K resolution trend is riddled with wild hype about refresh rates, as Geoffry Morrison of CNET explained.
Along with installing the latest drivers for their GPU, gamers can bump up the frame rates by lowering the graphics settings in their games. The fancy scenery will evaporate, but the game will become more playable. Michael Crider of Digital Trends wrote more about tweaking game settings.
4. The Importance of Video Memory
Gamers often talk about bottlenecks when it comes to the addressable memory on a graphics card. The GPU chip can be super fast, but that's useless if the memory on the graphics card can't keep up.
Graphics card memory and the GPU chip work differently than a CPU and motherboard RAM do, as Michael Byrne of Motherboard Vice explains. The greater the memory bandwidth on a graphics card, the less chance there is of a bottleneck. As PlayTool says, memory bandwidth is really the measurement of the VRAM speed.
For the best budget graphics cards, the game performance difference between 2 GB of VRAM and 4 GB of VRAM is insignificant when running at 1080p resolution or lower. Just make sure to get a card with GDDR5 memory.
Even high-end video cards don't see much change in average frame rates between 4 GB and 8 GB as Scott Wasson of The Tech Report showed.
5. What About Overclocking?
Graphics card makers seem to have fully embraced the idea of overclocking. Not only do they offer free benchmarking software, they also offer programs that allow users to tweak card settings.
There are two main reasons to overclock a GPU. Overclocking can improve game performance, and it can allow users to get more value from their graphics card. This means you won't have to upgrade to a more expensive graphics card as soon.
The overall process for overclocking a GPU is easy but time-consuming. First, establish a baseline for performance with a benchmarking program, then tweak some of the board's settings using software and finally run another benchmarking program to see whether performance improves. After you think the board is overclocked as much as possible without any immediate software crashes, it's time to test the stability of the system. That test can take hours, but you don't have to stick around to watch it.
Most competitive gamers are already obsessive about software and firmware updates, but it's still a good idea to start with the latest drivers on your graphics card before attempting to overclock.
For budget GPU buyers, an older card with newer drivers likely will deliver better performance than when it was first released. Unlike with just-released graphics cards, there has been enough time to work out most of the bugs in cards at least 1 year old.
6. Does The Board Manufacturer Matter?
Prices and board configurations vary greatly among the partners so check the official lists to make sure you don't buy a knockoff graphics card.
If a board from one partner does not fit your case configuration, another partner's might. Some companies overclock their graphics cards right out of the box, which can be convenient for end users who don't want to tweak settings or switch out cooling solutions for their graphics cards. Sometimes, end users can overclock those cards further.
One cool thing about having several partners sell the same reference card is the companies use a variety of color schemes and cooling solutions to differentiate their products from the competition. If you really want to get fancy, MSI and Gigabyte tend to have most swanky designs.
7. Benchmarking Through Performance Indicators
There is no single spec that shows which card is faster. Benchmarks and real game play are the true measures of graphics card performance. Sometimes, cards with higher bandwidth win, but other times cards with more VRAM win. It's the combination of the features plus a bunch of factory tweaking that determine overall performance.
Beware of marketing. Some of the lamest graphics games out there come in beautiful, shiny boxes. Graphics card partners often hype their products with slick-sounding features such as “Twin Frozr V” or “Windforce Technology.” The Nvidia GeForce GT 740 featured “TXAA Technology” in 2014. About a year later, the mighty GeForce GTX Titan X was boasting “MFAA Technology.”
One thing you should keep in mind is that new graphics cards come out way more often than CPUs. Nvidia and AMD continually replace cards at specific price points, and usually, the improvements are minimal. Like with CPUs, those who buy the newest, top versions are overpaying.
This is important because it makes budget graphics cards that much better. Keeping on the look out for the best deals and bang-for-your-buck cards are well worth it.
8. Future Proofing
We know that the natural tendency for a gamer on a budget is to buy the cheapest graphics card out there, but sometimes that's not the best option.
When you're buying a budget graphics card, you need to buy a card with some headroom. In other words, you want to be able to play the current games on the market, and any releases in the foreseeable future.
Without future proofing, gamers will have to replace their graphics cards too soon. This not only wastes money, but also time. You don't want to go through the hassle of replacing your graphics card every couple of months.
9. Model Number Means a Lot
Specs are not everything in a good GPU. Just because you're going for a cheaper and more affordable graphics card does not mean you should get something that is horribly outdated. Usually, cards that are older tend to be significantly worse than their newer upgraded models even if the specs of the older model look better. So don't get bogged down by all the fancy specs. But fear not, all of the graphics cards on our list have passed a vetting process and are guaranteed to bring you the most performance for your dollar. That's why they're the best budget graphics cards currently on the market.
10. More is Not Necessarily Better
Though the idea of running multiple graphics cards at the same time might sound appealing - it's not really all that effective. Usually, you only get 40% - 50% extra processing power which means you're paying 2x the price for 1.5x the power. At that point, you're better off simply getting a better budget video card or upgrading to a mid range graphics card. Double GPUs are only really necessary for multi-monitor 4k gaming, but if you're on the market for a cheap graphics card then that's probably not something you're ready to do just yet.
11. Lets Talk About RAM
Contrary to popular belief, you don't actually need a lot of RAM on your video card to do most things, including gaming. If you have a standard monitor you'll be fine with just a single gig of RAM. It's not until you get into hardcore gaming, 4K displays and ultrawide monitors that you even need to really consider having a sizable amount of RAM. What does matter however, is the type of ram. GDDR5, for example, is exponentially better than GDDR3 or GDDR4. So even if you ever have to decide between 3 gigs of GDDR3 RAM or a single gig of GDDR5 RAM - go with the GDDR5. That is not to say that anything less than GDDR5 is bad, especially when you're on a budget. But it's just something to think about as you're shopping for the best budget video card.
Best Budget Graphics Card
Below are the best budget graphic cards for gamers. Most can run current games at 1080p resolution with normal settings, and a couple toward the end cost less but are better for 720p resolution gaming.
Before you decide on a card though, its important to check its specs to make sure it will fit into your case. Many of the graphic cards' spec listings on Nvidia and AMD partner sites say the board will block a second expansion slot, which means they won't be compatible with all cases.
Similarly, newer motherboards have room built in for thick PCIe boards, but older motherboards might not, so it's worth checking out your motherboard's layout first and comparing to the graphics card's specs.
Polaris, AMD’s new graphics architecture, has been highly anticipated by all fans of Team Red. With it, AMD takes their first steps into the world of 14nm FinFET manufacturing process. All Radeon400 series cards support DirectX 12 and Vulkan, a spiritual successor to OpenGL. Present is also the support for AMD FreeSync, game streaming, HDMI 2.0b and DisplayPort 1.3.
There are currently three members of the RX-family on the market—RX 460, RX 470, and RX 480—and they all should, theoretically, fit in the sub-$200 category. The problem is that the cheaper 4GB version of the Radeon RX 480 is almost impossible to find, which is why we exclude it from our list of the best budget graphics card.
Best Budget Graphics Card: Contender #1
AMD Radeon RX 460 2GB/4GB - BEST NEXT GEN
The RX 460 is marketed as an eSports-oriented gaming graphics card aimed at players who don’t require the highest level of graphical fidelity but need stable, high framerates. Customers can choose between two versions: 4GB and 2GB. The 4GB version retails for around $150, and the 2GB version can be found for as low as $110.
For a budget card like this, 4GB could be seen as excessive, but it does provide some extra room for graphical modding of games such as Skyrim and Fallout 4. Owners of less powerful PSUs will appreciate the low power consumption of just 75W. However, in most configurations, you won’t be able to run the card without an external six-pin PCI-E plug.
Like all Polaris cards, the RX 460 supports Vulkan and DirectX 12, standards used by a steadily increasing number of next-gen games such as Doom and Hitman. Depending on how game developers take advantage of these new APIs, players can see significant performance boosts that leave the likes of the GTX 950 behind. It also doesn’t hurt that the RX 460 supports DisplayPort 1.3, HDMI 2.0b, and ultra-high-definition content.
- Price - $110 for the 2GB model
- DisplayPort 1.3, HDMI 2.0b
- Low power consumption (75W)
- Newer than R9 380/GTX 950
- Still need external PCI-E plug
Best Budget Graphics Card: Contender #2
AMD Radeon RX 470 4GB - BEST AMD ENTRY
The RX 470 is a full-fledged 1080p gaming video card, and can max out most titles at 60 frames per second. In games that take advantage of DirectX 12 and Vulkan, the card tends to score higher than even the GTX 1060 3GB from Nvidia. It’s DirectX 11 performance doesn’t quite hold up to the GTX 1060, but its support for modern standards such as HDR, HDMI 2.0, and Display Port 1.4, and AMDFreeSync makes up for it.
The only off-putting thing about the card is AMD’s puzzling pricing strategy. The RX 470 delivers 8 to12% less performance than the RX 480, according to PCWorld, but the 4GB version of the RX 480 doesn’t cost much more at all. The performance gap further widens with the overclocked SapphireNitro+ RX 480, decreasing the value of the RX 470 in the eyes of gamers and potential customers. Well, at least in theory.
In practice, the 4GB version of the RX 480 is nearly impossible to find, leaving members of Team Red with no choice but to go for the less powerful RX 470 or the more expensive 8GB version of the RX 480. Either way, the RX 470 is still an incredibly solid GPU and merits its spot as the best budget graphics card.
- 1080p gaming
- DisplayPort 1.4, HDMI 2.0b, AMDFreeSync
- Pricing - almost as expensive as the RX 480 with worse performance
- Hard to find
Best Budget Graphics Card: Contender #3
For a little more than $200, the R9 380 is a respectable card. You can play current games at 1080p resolution at 60 fps and depending on the title, you can even use high-quality, in-game detail settings.
For a competitive, online gamer, the R9 380 is more than adequate. More importantly, the R9 380 should be able to reliably play current games for at least another year. Even Witcher 3 looks good and plays well without crashing at normal settings.
Overclocking and tweaking game settings with the R9 380 for current titles will be more about enhancing play than trying to make the games playable.
One thing to note about this card is it outperforms the more expensive Nvidia GeForce 960 on 3DMark Fire Strike. This very popular benchmark/bragging site is a good source for performance comparisons. (https://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/3dmark)
If you're looking for solid performance at a decent price point, this is the card for you.
- Total video memory: 4GB of GDDR5 at 5700 MHz
- Memory interface: 256-bit
- Memory bandwidth: 182 GB/sec
- Good at 1080p resolution
- Newer than GTX 960
- May be slow after the next two cycles of game software innovations
- Longer form factor
- Not as many partner cards as GTX 960
Best Budget Graphics Card: Contender #4
With the AMD R7 360, gamers can still play some current titles at 1080p with low in-game settings. For gaming at normal settings, you'll most likely have to drop down to 720p resolution. On the other hand, the R7 360 does have an abnormally high memory bandwidth for this low-end price range, which may have an impact on performance.
When people talk about entry-level graphics cards, the R7 360 definitely fits that description. If you are just trying out gaming and not concerned about being competitive online, this graphics card may be a good choice.
For example, If you're into free multiplayer online battle arena games, the R7 360 will definitely perform with no problems. (http://www.mmobomb.com/games/moba)
The R7 360 should outperform the integrated GPU on current Intel Skylake processors so even if you just want to improve Facebook game performance and Microsoft Office refresh rates, this may be a good choice.
- Total video memory: 2 GB of GDDR5 at 6500 MHz
- Memory interface: 128-bit
- Memory bandwidth: 104 GB/sec
- Very overclockable from reference model
- Small form factor
- Too slow at 1080p resolution with most current games
- Loud fan with some partner models
- Minimum 500W power supply
After the big bang that was the launch of the Radeon RX 480, Nvidia lacked a competitive offering to entice graphics card buyers on a budget. It took the company only a week to announce the GeForceGTX 1060, starting at $250. According to their own claims, the GTX 1060 is even faster than their 2014high-end model, the GTX 980.The trouble is that those extra $50 look like a ton of money to most buyers looking for an affordable graphics card. Nvidia’s solution was to cut down the amount of RAM in half and make a few additional smaller adjustments to create the 3GB version of the GTX 1060, priced at just $200.
Rumors are also floating around that Nvidia is preparing to launch the GeForce GTX 1050, their most affordable Pascal based graphics card to date, in October. The card should compete directly with the RX 460. We are definitely going to take a look closer look at it when it’s out. Depending on its performance, perhaps you'll see it appear as one of our picks for best budget graphics card.
Best Budget Graphics Card: Contender #5
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 3GB - THE NEW STANDARD
Compared to the full-sized, 6GB version of the GTX 1060, the budget model differs in a couple of key aspects. Aside from the lower amount of RAM, Nvidia reduced the graphics card’s CUDA cores to1152 from 1280.
In practice, this results in an approximately 10% decrease in performance, which turns out to be a big deal as the 3GB version is 20% cheaper than the 6GB version. What has stayed the same is the thermal design power (TDP) of 120W.
With these specs, the GTX 1060 3GB can smoothly run any current game at 1080p and at 40 to 60 frames per second. Overclocking can improve the performance even further, without noticeably affecting its temperature. This makes the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 3GB the king of the upper end of the budget graphics card category.
- Best performance of budget cards (almost as good as GTX 1060 6GB)
- Lower CUDA cores than 6GB version
Best Budget Graphics Card: Contender #6
Nvidia GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB - OLD BUT GOOD
It seems that the Nvidia GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB, which is based on the Maxwell architecture and features 640 processor cores and support for DirectX 11.2, has been around for ages. The truth is that the card was released in 2014, but is still relevant because of its amazing price and peak power of just 60W.
This is your last chance to get playable performance at 1080p resolution with current games. It costs a little less than the AMD R7 360 depending on the Nvidia partner you choose.
Unfortunately for Nvidia, the similarly priced RX 460 offers 32% higher gaming performance, according to HWBench, support for DirectX 12 and Vulcan, and a nearly identical TDP of 75W. Still, if you can find the GTX 750 Ti on eBay and want to stick with Team Green, the 750 Ti is still a great option.
Luckily, because this card is so popular, there is also good deal of information about tweaking and overclocking the GPU, so make sure to check that out before buying.
One cool thing with the the GTX 750 Ti is it doesn't need an external power supply unit since it uses so little power. If you own a Dell desktop for example, you're probably limited by the lack of power supply connectors, so this card will be particularly attractive. It can also work in a home theater setup or Steam Box
- Total video memory: 2 GB of GDDR5 at 5400 MHz
- Memory interface: 128-bit
- Memory bandwidth: 86.4 GB/sec
- Good at 1080p resolution
- May be obsolete for many new games
- Released in 2014
- DirectX 11.2
Best Budget Graphics Card: Contender #7
At $40 less than the AMD Radeon R9 380, this budget graphics card will still play games well at 1080p resolution, although you'll probably need to keep your gaming settings at normal to get decent frame rates.
For those married to Nvidia, the GTX 950 is about the closest you can get to the Radeon R9 380 in terms of performance without going over in price.
The included GeForce Experience tweaking software offers a number of optimization options to improve latency. While It's usual hard to measure, the lower your latency is, the faster a mouse click result will display on the screen. This is obviously important for competitive gamers.
If you need a shorter form factor, check out the partner cards. Some have one fan, while others are long enough for two.
Beyond specs and benchmarks, another practical way to gauge a graphics card's worthiness is by watching game play videos on YouTube. Strike Shark recorded one of him playing “Far Cry 4” in 2015, while using the GTX 950. Check it out below.
- Total video memory: 2GB of GDDR5 at 6600 MHz
- Memory interface: 128-bit
- Memory bandwidth: 224 GB/sec
- Good at 1080p resolution
- Early 2015 release
- Started out as a budget card
- Full-size card by some partners
Best Budget Graphics Card: Contender #8
For those happy with 720p resolution, the GT 740 is an inexpensive solution. However, there is a lot of variance among versions of this model so beware of cards with DDR3. It's a good idea to buy a model with 4 GB of GDDR5 to future proof for the next couple waves of game releases.
On the other hand, newer Intel CPUs with integrated graphics may outperform this card. So if you have a Skylake processor, it would be a good idea to wait until you can afford a better dedicated GPU.
The GT 740 is a viable solution for a gamer with a system that is a couple of years old and a case without much room to spare. The real downside of the GT 740 is overclocking options are pretty limited because voltage and power limit adjustments are not supported.
- Total video memory: 4 GB of GDDR5 at 5000 MHz
- Memory interface: 128-bit
- Memory bandwidth: 80 GB/sec
- Small form factor
- Too slow at 1080p resolution
- No GeForce Experience support
- Released in first half of 2014
Budget graphic card value depends on a gamer's circumstances. For example if you wanted to buy a new Intel Skylake processor, but couldn't afford a high-end graphics card, you would still want something better than Intel's HD 530. In that scenario, you can invest in a budget card as a temporary solution, and upgrade later.
LinusTechTips often advises gamers to wait on buying a new graphic card until they can afford a model with more capabilities. The argument against that is if you don't currently have a playable graphics card, you'll miss out on a bunch of gaming in the meantime.
For example, with a little more than $100, a gamer can get his money's worth playing on a GT 740 for six months or so.
The RX 460 2GB has successfully made the GTX 750 Ti 2GB obsolete, with its superior performance, the ability to draw all power from the PCI-E slot, and support for modern technologies. If you only have a little over $100, the RX 460 2GB is the card to get. The 4GB version is great if you happen to buy it while it’s on sale or want additional future-proofing.
The situation is much bleaker for AMD near the higher end of the budget category.
The GTX 1060 3GB has around a 20% lead in performance for games that don’t take advantage of Vulcan while requiring almost 30% less power, compared to the RX 470 4GB. The 1 extra GB of RAM and superior low-level API performance isn’t nearly enough to steer the verdict in AMD’s favor. Either way, if you're looking for the best budget video card, you can't go wrong with any of our top picks.
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