This guide will tell you about TOP-8 best budget graphics cards, their essential features as well as recommendations for the application of each of these models. Whether you are going to upgrade an old PC, play 4k resolution videos, do gaming at medium or max settings, you will find here a model that will suit your needs. A comparative chart will narrow your choice while an F.A.Q section will provide you with answers to most common questions asked by consumers.
When gamers go to design their own PCs, they tend to prioritize CPUs above all else, and that’s actually folly. See, the thing is, a powerful CPU is important for handling intricate game logic at high speeds and handling dispatches to other hardware.
But when it comes to graphics, the most important two components are available RAM (to hold large maps and assets), and the GPU, or graphics processor unit. This is called a “graphics card” more casually.
What You Will Learn From This Guide:
- History of GPUs
- How do budget graphics cards work?
- What to look for when buying a product?
- What GPUs can do
- Who needs a decent GPU?
- My personal experience with graphic cards
- Budget graphic cards for upgrading old PC
- Budget graphic cards for playing 4k resolution videos
- Budget graphic cards for simple games: WoT, Dota2, HS, CS:GO
- Budget graphic cards for 2016-2018 AAA games when gaming at medium settings
- Budget graphic cards for current games in full HD run at max settings
History of GPUs
Once upon a time, in both game consoles and computers, there was no GPU. Game consoles had a simple framebuffer chip (this stored pixel data, and converted it to an analog output signal for the TV). Many computers did as well. Later, as plug and play cards became a thing, this hardware was able to grow, and become upgradeable by becoming a “graphics card”. This was not a GPU though.
The first GPU, in actuality, was Nintendo’s “Super FX chip”, which was an extra processor on board certain Super Nintendo/Super Famicom cartridges. This was developed in part by a man named Cuthbert with Argonaut games, in an effort to get rudimentary 3D graphics to work at a passable speed on the game system.
Historically, this first 3D title was called “Star Fox” in the US and Japan, “Star Wing” in Europe and Australia. After this, “3D Accelerator” chips became a commercially-available thing the populace could add to their computers to get not just true 3D power, but enhanced, high-quality 2D graphics as well as video and higher color depth that would otherwise be impossible.
Today, “graphics cards” as they once were, no longer exist, GPUs completely replacing them in all computing devices with displays. Even the garbage integrated GPUs in motherboards are vastly more powerful than old hardware they replaced.
How Do Graphics Cards Work?
Being budget cards has no bearing on the fundamental science behind how these objects work. A GPU is basically three components – a dedicated coprocessor designed with multiple parallel fixed-logic computations in mind, an additional fast-access simple-paged RAM bank, and a signal generator.
In order to put graphics on the screen, there is a pipeline that starts with the game logic executed by the CPU (non-fixed logic chip). It uses an interface library such as Vulkan, DirectX, or OpenGL to then send instructions to the GPU. First, graphical assets are loaded into the GPU’s RAM bank.
Following this, drawing instructions related to this data is sent to the GPU’s video processor itself. This will include plotting the pixel data of 2D assets, as well as calculating and culling vertices, and plotting textures across faces. Then, any shader language (which can add lighting and other effects) are executed, before everything is rendered to a flat frame buffer, and sent to the screen.
This is, of course, a simplification of how these processes work, and even electronics engineers find this sort of thing challenging to fully wrap our brains around in instant totality.
What To Look For When Buying A Product?
Your goals for graphics are one of two broad factors that affect the card you want. However, it can be a little more specific than that. Let’s take a look at these factors more closely.
- Onboard Memory – The more memory a card has, the more complex and vast the graphical assets it can handle. Basic data is loaded into system memory, but active visual assets go into video RAM. Thus, you want at least 2GB for passable gaming, 4 if you can get it.
- Clock Speed – Like a CPU, the faster the clock speed, the higher a frame rate, and more responsiveness it can provide. These standards aren’t quite as high as a CPU, ranging up to around 2GHz at most, with budget ones tending to be below that.
- Output Ports – Most people like to have more than one monitor – I for one have six across two GPUs, for instance. So, opting for a card with two contemporary output methods at least is desirable. These would be a combination of HDMI and DVI. Adapting HDMI and DVI across one another requires a very simple, affordable set of adapters you can get for pennies from many online outlets. Some also provide SVGA – this is pretty much a useless medium now. Don’t buy a card that only has SVGA.
What GPUs Can Do
GPUs can do a lot of things, beyond just providing high-end gaming graphics. The parallel nature of GPU architecture also allows rapid solutions to simple mathematical operations. While the actual name of this varies from one GPU brand to another, this is commonly referred to as CUDA programming.
A common use of this is for cryptocurrency mining, but it’s also highly useful for simulations and advanced mathematical modeling.
Who Needs a Decent GPU?
If you don’t do heavy graphical things with your computer, then you can get away with a somewhat lighter GPU, as long as it can meet the requirements of the base operating system. Even cheap modern cards will suffice to run Windows 10, and to handle 1080p video, for the most part, to stream YouTube and Netflix, as long as you’re not using a limited interface like SVGA or S-Video.
However, while you might think fans of 4K video and gamers are the main people in need of GPUs with some power, you’re missing an important demographic – artists and designers. GPUs provide additional power for responsive art both in 2D and 3D, allowing for high-DPI images with lots of colors and complexity.
My Personal Experience with Graphic Cards
I fancy myself something of an artist (if I may be so egotistical), and I have today, over the years, I’ve experienced what it’s like to try to draw high-resolution stuff with a weak video card. The lag is terrible, causing line work to suffer.
Also, while I am not, myself, much of a modern gamer (the AAA genres in vogue now aren’t my cup of tea), I am an avid user of emulators for past game consoles, including as recent as the Wii U. Without a powerful enough GPU, you can’t run these things.
As for caution with a GPU – be aware of the fans. I believe I mentioned one time how a sticker falling off of a power supply jammed a fan on a GPU, causing it to die. That’s not the only incident with these fans, and let me share something really stupid I did to a GPU before that one.
I bought a budget (for the time) GPU, but one good enough for my graphical needs then. However, with the fan on it, it needed more power than my PSU could provide. Well, I was in no mood to buy a new PSU as they were expensive all around back then. So, since the fan was modular, I just took it off, figuring the heat sink would be enough, that machine already had plenty of fans and ventilation.
The boy was I wrong. In the middle of a game of Mario Kart 64, that card literally exploded. There was smoke, there were sparks, you name it. GPUs need fans. If it doesn’t come with one, you should probably mount one on there. Just, trust me on this!
Best GPUs for Different Uses
So, let’s now take the time to talk about the best budget GPUs for some different use cases. It really depends on what you want to do, so we’re going to look at these products in a little different of a way than we usually do.
I expect this will be more informative in this particular case.
Budget Graphic Cards for Upgrading Old PC
This is something of a niche scenario because most people will simply build a newer budget PC, rather than upgrade an old existing one. However, more computer-centric people have a tendency to not like to orphan their old electronics and will go out of their way to try to squeeze as much power out of them as they can. In the case of older machines of a few generations ago, there’s a definite plateau when it comes to your graphics card.
The MSI Gaming GeForce GT 710 2GB card is a good example of getting a little more life out of old hardware. This is actually not a bad GPU, and it’ll run games made before 2016, though you will find yourself having to fiddle with the settings in some cases. It has a decent amount of RAM, but it’s not the fastest thing in the world.
It supports OpenGL 4.5 and DirectX 12, so if you do enough tweaking, you’d be surprised the games that you can get this to run if you make the right compromises in your settings and frame rate requirements. MSI is regarded as a secondary brand, but in all truth, they make decent stuff, and their price is often right.
This aftermarket card will definitely squeeze some more life out of old machines, allowing you to make emulation cabinets or media boxes.
MSI Gaming GeForce GT 710 2GB: Check the current price
Budget Graphic Cards for Playing 4k Resolution Videos
If you’re all about high-resolution streams and videos, or you’re into video production yourself, you don’t need the latest word in gaming GPUs to get the job done. You’re generally not crunching vertexes, running high-demand shaders, or doing a lot of UV calculations for video, even if you’re producing your own (and thus running mutators on things).
That said, I think the Gigabyte GeForce GT 1030 GV-N1030SL-2GL is a good card to go with. It can do rapid batch-crunching of video mastering and compositing, and it can handle high-definition video streams with no real sync problems or lag. It can game passably too, running stuff from before 2017 at medium settings.
This is an ancestor of my beastly dual 1080i card setup, but I didn’t experience this one at the time of it being new – I was an AMD fanboy back then due to having bad luck with Nvidia cards (which just happens sometimes). Looking back, this was better than the competing Nvidia of the generation, so I was frankly missing out. For modern use, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of it for video.
Gigabyte GeForce GT 1030: Check the current price
Budget Graphic Cards for Simple Games: WoT, Dota2, HS, CS:GO
Not all modern games require powerhouse graphics. For those who are more into simpler games (at least simpler visually), there are two cards I am comfortable recommending. The thing is, these are online-focused games, and for the moment, these tend to be lighter on graphics so they don’t bottleneck the connection when swapping and synchronizing entities on the maps.
First, the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050, another ancestor of my own card, can surprisingly hold its own with a lot of modern games that aren’t obsessed with cinematic levels of CG graphics. Games like Dota2, WoW, CS:Go, PUBG and even some slightly more demanding ones like Smite and Overwatch will run surprisingly smoothly on this card. The only downside is this thing is absurdly loud, due to its less than efficient fan design. Still, if you want an nVidia chipset on a budget, this one will definitely fit the bill for your online gaming hobby.
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050: Check the current price
Next is the comparable XFX AMD Radeon RX 550 with a stunning 4GB of memory. I had one of these when they were the latest and greatest, and this thing ran early Xbox One and PS4 graphics, if you dropped them from maximum to medium settings, believe it or not. This one’s also a bit loud, making an odd “vroom” sound intermittently as the fan oscillated. But this will handle modern casual online games resplendently. However, watch the drivers for this as one of them that was released actually can break several games, so keep an eye on versions, and don’t let the driver’s auto-update run.
XFX AMD Radeon RX 550: Check the current price
Budget Graphic Cards for 2016-2018 AAA Games When Gaming at Medium Settings
A lot of people are more than satisfied with medium settings on contemporary games, as even at those settings, they’re still quite stunning compared to the generation before. There are three really nice cards that can assist you in getting a good budget experience in this regard, so let’s take a look at them.
First is the ZOTAC GeForce 1050 Ti Mini, with its potent 4GB of GDDR5, is a force to be reckoned with. You can actually achieve higher settings with this card if you’re okay with dropping everything to 30 FPS, which many people will be fine with. The 1050 Ti is edging into territory where you can only improve so much moving forward. As I said, I missed out on 1050 at the time, but having seen them in action now, I can promise you, you’ll get your money’s worth out of this card.
ZOTAC GeForce 1050 Ti Mini: Check the current price
Up next is a little boost, with the EVGA GeForce 1060, with 3GB of GDDRS, which is based on the chipset the first revision of the Xbox One and PS4 are based. So, if you’re aiming for their initial release quality, this card will do it, provided your CPU can keep up with the demands of the game logic, and page management. I’ve used one of these, building a high-end multi-arcade cabinet (modern arcade games can be quite demanding). I am confident in this card’s ability, though it’s not going to run the latest, greatest games at high settings. It almost will, but it just doesn’t quite make it, stalling out.
EVGA GeForce 1060: Check the current price
Finally, let’s talk about the MSI Gaming Radeon RX 570, offering a whopping 8GB of GDDR5 video RAM. This puppy is a beast, but it’s a little too slow for high-end SPIR-V Vulkan shaders, or 60FPS 4K HDR gaming. It, like the 1060, comes close, but it’ll stall out when too high a mipmapping or shading routine hits it. But for medium-level modern gaming? Oh, it runs circles around a lot of other cards, being just that bit beefier than Nvidia’s offerings from that period. It’s a bit of a tug of war, between AMD/ATI and Nvidia, one outmatching the other depending on the generation. This is a late entry in its generation, though, and Nvidia had already moved on to the next generation when AMD put this one out. Watch the fans on this one, they make it top heavy.
MSI Gaming Radeon RX 570: Check the current price
Budget Graphic Cards for Current Games in Full HD Run at Max Settings
If you want ultra modern HDR games at max settings, there’s really only one solution I could call budget. This kind of gaming requires a serious card, and they tend to be very expensive, especially since crypto mining has caused GPUs to go up in price for really dumb reasons. That said, the card we’re going to look at is shockingly powerful for what it is, and would probably have been the card I’d chosen if I’d built my recent machine.
The XFX Radeon RX 580 GTS XXX Edition clocks in at a massive 1386MHz, with 8GB of GDDR5, and full readiness for VR, if that’s your kind of thing. This bad boy also provides output for over four monitors, which is a big thing for a lot of heavy computer users, and even provides HD audio intermix through the HDMI out.
This is a loud GPU, the fans are very powerful. Watch those fans, if you open your machine while it’s running, they’ll damn near take your hand off, or at least it feels like it. This thing produces way more heat than I like, as anyone with a major computer rig can vouch for it turning rooms into saunas after running for a little while.
XFX Radeon RX 580: Check the current price
Comparative Chart of Graphic Card Effectiveness
MSI Gaming GeForce GT 710 2GB card
Gigabyte GeForce GT 1030 GV-N1030SL-2GL
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050
XFX AMD Radeon RX 550
ZOTAC GeForce 1050 Ti Mini
EVGA GeForce 1060
MSI Gaming Radeon RX 570
XFX Radeon RX 580 GTS XXX Edition
Which is the best budget graphic card for gaming?
If you want maximum gaming settings, that Radeon RX 580 is probably going to be your best bet, but as this has demonstrated, it depends on your goals. There’s no single one right answer for this question.
Which one is best for video editing?
Honestly, the 1060 is probably the best one for that. It’s not the best for video viewing, but it’s the fastest one for rendering and plotting of 2D samples, which is why a lot of retro gamers value that GPU for their interests.
Will graphics cards work without drivers?
Yes and no. Windows, at least, has what’re known as WDMI drivers, which will work on a basic level with most graphics cards and other devices. However, “working” doesn’t mean working well. You need the drivers to get proper power and graphical quality out of a card. You can usually find compatible drivers on the company’s website, and most companies do keep copies of old drivers available.
Can I upgrade my graphics card?
Yes, though to what extent depends on your supporting hardware. The latest, greatest GPU won’t work on a ten-year-old computer, obviously. But of course, you can upgrade it, it is a plug and play PCI card, after all. They can always be upgraded. But if you mean can components on the GPU’s PCB be updated? Not usually, no.
Why are they so expensive?
Well, for one, fabrication of chips is an expensive endeavor, but the reason they’re so expensive lately, compared to the past, is because of this crypto mining nonsense. Since GPUs are the fastest way to crunch brute force numbers like that, they’re in high demand, which jacks the price up, as manufacturers aren’t increasing the available supply to meet this rather silly demand.
Pros & Cons of Using These Products
Like PSUs, these are an unavoidable component, so rather than looking at the precise pros and cons, let’s just list a few issues you will have to contend with.
- If they shake loose, your system will crash.
- Fans eat a lot of power and can be loud.
- GPUs are expensive, and drivers update constantly, which can be annoying.
- As a programmer, working with GPUs is an involved process, especially if you’re being universally compatible. This means games can vary wildly in how well they work with some architectures.
I am confident one of these GPUs will suit your needs. It really does depend on what you want your computer to do, but you can still get good graphics support on a budget if you’re smart!