Now that we’ve got the CPU picked out we can look at the our rigs engine. The Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU. This is were all the real work happens. It makes nice shiny things appear on our screens, it runs hot and when you’re on a budget, it tends to run loud. I mentioned in the Best Cheap CPU For A Gaming PC 2018 – Picking A Processor article that we would be spending a little extra on the GPU but I found a pair of sub $100 cards that will get the job done for bottom of the barrel PC gaming. They’ll match the graphics of a console at the very least, and should usually be able to output at a higher resolution.
Like CPUs, there are two major competitors in the enthusiast GPU market. AMD, what don’t they make?, and Nvidia. Unlike their rivalry with Intel, AMD vs Nvidia is a lot closer in terms of quality and price. A nice healthy competitive market is great for us, the consumer. The pricing this time will top out at around $180.
Nvidia Vs AMD Who makes the Best Cheap GPU
We won’t be settling for a second-rate experience, if a card couldn’t output a playable frame-rate on a recently released game I dismissed it out of hand. There are cards cheaper than the ones I recommend, but you’d have to game on a lower resolution than 1080p, and if you’re going to have to do that you may as well buy a console.
Here we are again faced with a decision, Nvidia or AMD? I went with AMD on my rig, at the time the price to performance ratio was fantastic. Usually Nvidia make the better cards though, in terms of raw performance data and power consumption, but that only seems to hold true for the more expensive cards, on the cheaper side of things AMD rules supreme.
Let me take a brief aside to talk about visual quality in gaming before we go into the article proper. At its most basic level games are made of pixels, and geometry. When a video card renders object, depending on the resolution, the edges of the object appear jagged. It’s called aliasing and it looks horrible to me. So when I run games I tend to turn down the graphic settings and use a better anti-aliasing method. All of the GTA V tests used no anti-aliasing so be aware of that when you go to test the games yourself.
First up a look at the bottom of the barrel, the R7 360. It’s a nice card, comfortably hitting playable frame-rates on high in Grand Theft Auto V, with a good Intel processor, expect far lower frame-rates with an AMD CPU. It’s the cheapest on the list & AMD’s crimson drivers are new, meaning I haven’t had the time to look through all of the features of it yet, but personally I don’t like it much. They run fine, and they have a wealth of options but performing the tasks that I’m used to, refresh rate stuff mostly, just isn’t as intuitive as it used to be. The Crimson driver does make it easier to add post process effects into games, easier than the old catalyst driver anyway, but I wouldn’t do that with this card unless the game in question is from ten years ago.
In the same price point from Nvidia is the GTX 750 Ti. Costing at minimum $99.99 it is another fine choice. Again it hits playable frame-rates on Grand Theft Auto V though it is a little slower than the R7 360, not by much though. The drivers from Nvidia are much better in terms of overall choices. When it comes to these two cards the only thing that matters is the price, if you find one cheaper than the other when you go to buy then get the cheaper one, the experience will be pretty much the same.
A little higher up the totem pole is the R9 380. This is the real entry-level GPU as far as I’m concerned. Its starting price of $169.99 makes it far more expensive than the R7, but the quality difference is astounding. There isn’t much this card can’t handle in modern games, except maybe the post processing effects, but it even makes a brave stab at them. And again, it hits very playable frame-rates in GTA V, regardless of processor choice.
The comparative card from Nvidia would be the GTX 950. The starting price of $139.99 makes it seem more attractive at first glance, but the performance difference is too large for me to recommend this card over the R9 380. The same high quality back-end as the GTX 750 Ti doesn’t save it either. It’ll still run what you want it to run though. Plus the lower power draw means a saving in the PSU, power supply, purchase. It’s a better card than the R7 and the GTX 750 Ti, but not as good as the R9 380.
Moving on to the heavy weights of the light weights. From AMD we have the R9 280X. In the spirit of openness, this is my card. It may be a last gen revamp of a card from two generations ago, but it terms of power to price it is still the best of the best. I also have an FX-4350 so I can give you the exact benchmark details on Grand Theft Auto V with a low-end CPU. It ranges from 45-79fps on the in-game bench-marking tool with high settings and no anti aliasing. The lowest price I’ve been able to find is $173.98, so you’re paying the budget equivalent of a premium for the card. But I can personally attest to the effectiveness of this particular budget combo.
Lastly we come to the comparative Nvidia GPU. The GTX 960. A fine card, especially for the price, starting at $164.99. It outclasses the R9 380 in every way, from back-end to performance to price. If you’re thinking about one of those two cards then get this one. But for ten bucks more you can get the 280X, and sadly this card falls a mite short. It does have comparable performance in games like “The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt” and “Far Cry 4” but in most games it can’t match the 280X.
The Future of Graphics Cards
2016 will be an exciting time for GPUs. This year we will see the release of the next generation of hardware from both AMD and Nvidia. Not just reiterations on an old design but the kind of upheaval we haven’t seen for a long while. Die shrink. This years GPUs will get a new process node, 16nm for Nvidia and 14nm for AMD. This means 2016 cards will be much more efficient and have way better graphics performance.
Not only that but both companies will be adopting high bandwidth memory as well. HBM is essentially stacked ram chips within the cards, allowing for much faster data transfer. AMD has already released cards with this tech, but the new cards will feature HBM-2, with double the storage and faster transfers. Don’t let this discourage you. The entry-level cards will probably remain the same for the next 12 months, and upgrading to a better card doesn’t require buying a new motherboard unlike upgrading a CPU.
Best Cheap Graphics Card in 2016
The verdict, for the bottom of the barrel cards get which ever you find the cheapest, prices can vary wildly from site to site and month to month, they are both great GPUs at their price point. Between the R9 380 and the GTX 950, the 380 is the better GPU, but price is still a factor. If you’re between the R9 380 and GTX 960, get the 960. Finally, if you’ve got the cash in your pocket and don’t want to upgrade until around Christmas, get the R9 280X. The R9 380X is the same GPU though, so if you find one of those cheap somewhere that’ll do.
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Remember to take a look at all the articles in this series on building a budget gaming computer.