Your computer is assembled from a dozen different components. The graphics processing unit (GPU)
is one of them. It’s the artist of the bunch, tasked with creating all the visuals that are displayed on your monitor which means it’s integral for PC gaming.
Are you excited to explore the alien runs of Anthem
? Or what about the post-apocalyptic subways of Metro: Exodus
? It’s the GPU’s job to paint these landscapes in vivid detail so that you feel like they’re living, breathing worlds. A lower-quality GPU usually amounts to a less immersive gaming experience.
Hardcore gamers know that a high-caliber GPU can cost an arm and a leg. In other words, prices range from $700 to $1,000. That could be more expensive than your whole tower desktop. But is it the price you have to pay these days? If you skip out on upgrading your GPU
, will your PC graphics look like a PlayStation 2 game? Those days were fun, but gaming has moved forward.
Never fear! We are here to help. If you’re worried that you don’t have the dough to upgrade to a quality graphics card, set your worries aside. We’ve created a list of the best graphics cards for gamers on a budget. These are all powerful GPU’s, but they won’t steal all your life savings.
What makes a good graphics card?
The best graphics cards:
1. Have more memory space so they can receive larger amounts of information
2. Have more electrical power so they can process visuals faster
3. Have stronger ventilation to prevent overheating
Doing these three things, and doing them well is why some graphics cards more efficient (and possibly more expensive) than others.
Think of all the different visual components that make a video game a video game. Let’s use Grand Theft Auto V as an example. The setting of the game is the city of Los Santos (a fictionalized version of Los Angeles). Think about all the visual details in Los Santos:
- Buildings (each with a unique shape, color, and texture)
- Landscape elements (grass, trees, mountains, pavement)
- Inhabitants (roaming vehicles and pedestrians)
- Light elements (weather, time of day, shadows)
- Combat effects (gunfire, explosions, car crashes)
- Heads-up display
Los Santos has a massive amount of visual information that has to be processed. First, the GPU must receive and read all the game’s visual instructions. Then it needs to arrange the pixels on your monitor to display the visuals. And, because a video game is “moving,” the GPU needs to update the screen anywhere from 30 to 60 times per second to give the illusion of real motion.
Why are graphics cards so expensive?
Okay, so now you know the 3 qualities of a good graphics card. But a card needs to be built with the right hardware to maximize these qualities. The hardware affects the price of the GPU.
1. Integrated memory vs. dedicated memory
A GPU is built with either integrated memory or dedicated memory. What’s the difference?
An integrated card relies on your computer’s memory. The very same memory that your computer uses to launch applications and browse the web is also used by the graphics card to create visuals.
A dedicated card has its very own memory that’s exclusively used to create visuals. Dedicated cards are usually better for gaming. With its own memory system, a graphics card can process and create more visuals at once than if it was only given a slice of your computer’s memory. Dedicated cards are more expensive because they’re built with their own memory hardware .
2. Memory bus
When you’re playing a PC game, your computer processor sends instructions to your graphics card on what to display. The instructions enter the graphics card through the card’s memory bus.
Imagine that each instruction the processor sends is a car. And imagine the GPU memory bus is a highway. Remember how many visual details there are in Grand Theft Auto V? That’s a lot of instructions - which means, in that particular case, there would be a lot of cars on the highway.
The ideal highway would have many lanes. A greater number of lanes enables the cars to travel without congestion. But if the highway has fewer lanes, there’s bound to be lots of traffic when you have a large number of cars.
Likewise, memory buses have “lanes” that receive information. These lanes are constructed from wires and conductors. Larger-sized memory buses have more lanes, and so they can accommodate a larger amount of incoming and outgoing information. They also cost more to build.
3. Random access memory (RAM)
What happens to the instructions after they’ve passed through the memory bus? They’ve got to be processed by the GPU. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of tasks that the GPU must perform, and it can usually only do a few of them at a time. The instructions are queued and wait their turn to be processed.
It’s important that your processor has high-capacity random access memory (RAM). RAM refers to the number of tasks that your GPU can keep queued at one time.
Let’s say that you’re painting a landscape (that’s basically what a GPU is doing, right?). You’re holding your paint palette and you’ve got four or five different paints on it. You can paint faster if you have a larger paint palette. After all, a larger paint palette can fit more paint on it. You won’t have to constantly switch back and forth between two or more palettes. Nope, you can fit all the paint you need on a single palette and you won’t ever have to leave the easel.
Higher-capacity RAM allows the GPU to fit more paint on its palette. It can queue and process more instructions at a given time, so the visuals are created faster. Again, hardware size equals power. High-capacity RAM sticks have more conductors and components, and so they’re larger and more expensive to build .
4. Clock speed
Okay, we’ll speed this up now that we’ve gotten through the big concepts. Clock speed refers to how quickly the GPU can process the instructions. What influences the processing speed?
In a computer, all data amounts to electric pulses. When your GPU executes an instruction, it emits electric pulses that ultimately tell the monitor how to arrange the pixels. The monitor reads the pulses like Morse code. The fastest GPUs can emit billions of electric pulses per second .
To operate at those speeds, a GPU must be built with all the right wires and conductors. Yup: more required hardware, therefore more expensive.
5. Ventilation system
Electric pulses are energy, and energy produces heat. When you’re playing a game that’s taxing on your GPU, your system is bound to overheat if it’s not built with the right ventilation system. Of all the hardware we’ve mentioned, the ventilation system will probably be the most noticeable to gamers. Gamers can feel the heat of the computer, and they might be able to hear the fan running as it tries to cool the system.
The fan is definitely one of the most important parts of the cooling system, but the graphics card also needs to be designed with vents that facilitate air flow and allow heat to escape the casing.
The most expensive cooling systems will:
- Have a large, sturdy fan
- Facilitate air flow
- Be relatively quiet, even when on full speed
Something to remember
Your PC gaming performance isn’t determined solely by the GPU. In reality, you also need a good gaming monitor
and a quality computer processor, too
. Your GPU could be a speedster, but that’s no good if your processor or your monitor can’t keep up with the pace.
If your processor can’t send off the game instructions to the GPU fast enough, you might suffer from texture pop-in - when certain visual details are not loaded in time, and they suddenly “pop into” the frame after not being there.
If your monitor doesn’t refresh the display at a fast-enough rate
, you might suffer from screen tearing. This is when multiple frames are drawn onto a single frame. It usually happens when the GPU is processing visuals faster than the monitor can display them .
Be sure that your other computer components
can match the quality of your GPU so you can have the best possible visual experience while you’re gaming.
Best budget graphics cards for gamers
Without further ado, here’s our list of the best GPUs for gamers on a budget. We took into consideration all the aforementioned hardware and specs. And the price, of course.
1. NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 or GeForce RTX 2070
GeForce® RTX is NVIDIA’s new and powerful GPU that’s built for high-performance gaming. What’s great about GeForce RTX is that there are a variety of models for you to choose from.
Both the 2060 and 2070 series are budget-friendly. The 2060 series
is slightly more so. Here are the specs for the GeForce® RTX 2060
- Clock speed: 1365 MHz
- Memory bus width: 192-bit
- RAM: 6GB
All right, so the RAM capacity could be a little higher (8GB is always preferable) and the processor isn’t the fastest on the market. But this is a dedicated card. None of the computing power is being used to do anything other than to create the visuals. The 192-bit memory width is also impressive, and many of the 2060 models have 2 or 3 built-in fans.
If you’re willing to spend a little more, the GeForce® RTX 2070
series is great, too. Here are the specs for the 2070 base model:
- Clock speed: 1620 MHz
- Memory bus width: 256-bit
- RAM: 8GB
With the 2070 series
, the clock speed is a little faster and the RAM capacity is a little higher. The whopping 256-bit memory width could make this worth the extra $100. Most of the 2070 models are equipped with 3 fans. Not all the specs jump right off the board, but you’d be hard pressed to find another graphics card of such a quality build at such an affordable price.
2. AMD Radeon™ RX 590
The Radeon RX 590
series by AMD is another graphics card that has a solid, gaming-optimized build. Here are the specs for the base model of the RX 590
- Clock speed: 1469 MHz
- Memory bus width: 256-bit
- RAM: 8GB
If you’re disappointed because the GeForce RTX 2070 is just out of your price range, rejoice! This graphics card is the perfect middle ground between the RTX 2060 and 2070. The processor isn’t quite as fast as the 2070, but it’s faster than the 2060 and it matches the 2070 in memory width and RAM. And the price is fantastic. This might be one of the best-quality GPUs under $400.
3. Intel® Core™ i9-9900K Processor
The Intel Core i9
(8th Generation) is a processor with integrated memory. With a processing speed of 3.60 GHz, this is one of the fastest processors on the market. The graphics processing speed is only 350 MHz, but it’s working in conjunction with the ultra-strong processor.
Still not convinced? Let’s take a look at some of the advanced software that Intel has built into the card. The i9-9900K processor has 8 cores
, each core capable of handling 2 queued tasks simultaneously. Basically, the processor can perform 16 tasks at once. It’s also built with Turbo Boost Technology, which gives the processor large speed boosts so long as there’s no imminent risk of overheating. With these features, the graphics processing can actually be maxed out at a whopping 1.20 GHz. That speed is capable of handling the most visually extensive PC games.
A word of caution: the processor has no built-in fan or heat sink, so you’ll have to make sure that your tower desktop has a good ventilation system.
Best GPU Under $200
4. NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti
If you’re looking for a good budget graphics card under $200, look no further than the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti
series. There are a few different models you can get, but most of them come with a single fan and 4GB memory. The clock speed of nearly all the 1050 Ti models
hovers around 1300 MHz - very admirable for the price. A few models even come with 2 fans.
You really don’t have to break the bank to get a high-quality graphics card. Just remember that the best gaming rigs
have not only good GPUs, but also quality processors and monitors to boot. Running a PC game really is a team effort as far as computer hardware is concerned. Save some money on your graphics card and you’ll have more of it to spend on your other computer components.
About the Author: Zach Cabading is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Zach is a content creation specialist based in Southern California, and creates a variety of content for the tech industry.