Gaming is one of the activities that traditionally drives the acquisition of high-end, premium computing hardware, but this doesn’t mean that you’re out of the loop if you’re on a tight budget. The proliferation of next-gen GPU hardware and the fast product cycles common in the industry mean that you can get quite a lot of pixel-pushing power without having to spend your college or retirement fund. While you might not be able to run the latest games at max resolution and all effects turned on, you should be able to enjoy almost every game at more reasonable graphical settings with one of the budget cards we recommend.
1. GeForce GTX 950
The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 950 features 2 MB of GDDR5 memory and a core clock of 1024 MHz for a price of around $150 although you can find rebates and sales to bring the price down to around $130 or so. This GPU delivers fine performance at 1080p resolutions and outperforms the similarly priced AMD Radeon R7 370. Certain third-party partners, like Gigabyte and eVGA, offer superior overclocking potential, so your actual performance with those cards will probably be slightly better than benchmarks at factory settings might indicate.
GeForce GTX 950 Advantages:
• Can be easily overclocked
• Rebates/discounts available
• Good mix of value and performance
2. GeForce GTX 750 Ti
If you want to grab a bargain-basement card that’s nevertheless adequate for casual or moderate gaming, then the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti is worthy of your attention. It sports 2 gigs of GDDR5 RAM and can be overclocked from its base speed of 1020 Mhz, just like its big brother, the GTX 950. Another benefit is the fact that this board consumes much less power than other cards that deliver similar performance. You can get the GTX 750 Ti for around $110, so it’s a solid choice if money is a bit tight.
GeForce GTX 750 Ti Advantages:
• Ultra-low pricing
• Superior power efficiency
3. Radeon R9 380
AMD fanboys will be pleased to note that there’s a solution for cash-strapped aficionados of Team Red: the Radeon R9 380. It performs better than the GeForce GTX 750 Ti and GTX 950 described above despite running at a slightly slower clock speed. PC Gamer has named this the “best budget graphics card” in an article from the middle of June. The reasons it doesn’t completely blow the competition out of the water include its high power consumption and a price tag in the neighborhood of $175, which is pretty reasonable but is on the luxury end of the budget category.
Radeon R9 380 Advantages:
• Best performance in its price range
• 2GB and 4GB models available
Stay tuned to the latest announcements from the graphics card industry because the arrival of new GPUs will tend to drive the price of older models even lower. It’s very likely that the cards we’ve described will continue to drop in price, and other products will be bumped down from the mid-priced tier into the budget division. Of particular note is the upcoming Polaris architecture from AMD, which should push the cutting edge even further while making older cards more affordable.