A global semiconductor shortage, spurred by insatiable demand and the COVID-19 pandemic, has made graphics cards all but non-existent. There are rumors swirling about recently-banned Chinese cryptocurrency miners easing up on GPU demand, but the shelves here in the U.S. are still pretty bare.
While AMD has continued to assure the public it’s working on supply, the process could take months. After all, AMD and Nvidia don’t manufacture their own graphics processors — companies like TSMC and Samsung do, and they’re facing pressure from multiple markets that are equally starved for supply.
Nvidia’s prediction is more dire: The company expects supply will remain tight well into 2022. Nvidia has even resurrected older GPUs, such as the GTX 1050 Ti and RTX 2060, but that’s done little to mitigate shortages.
If your goal is to actually play games (as opposed to mining Ethereum or straight-up scalping) then we have a few suggestions that may help keep you in the game until GPU supplies return to normal.
Buying a pre-built gaming PC
For those not totally familiar with gamer parlance, you might hear someone refer to something called a “pre-built,” which is just shorthand for a desktop PC that’s already assembled for you.
The term has been coming up recently because the pre-built market is flooded with people trying to get access to the GPUs inside. Scalpers will part the rest of the system out on Ebay or Craigslist. And while that is definitely one way to get a new graphics card, we generally wouldn’t recommend investing in a pre-built PC unless you intend to use the entire machine.
That said, if you are in the market for a whole desktop computer and you can afford to be a little spendy, then pre-built PCs are still an option. Bear in mind that prices have risen here as well, and you have less control over individual components, but it’s an option nonetheless.
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A good place to start may be Newegg’s ABS series of gaming PCs. For instance, the ABS Challenger ALI521 comes equipped with Nvidia’s GTX 1660 Super and an Intel i5-10400F CPU, for around $1,000. Or, if you’re looking to step up to something with the RTX 30-series, there’s the ABS Master Gaming PC that pairs an Intel i7-9700F with an RTX 3060 for $1,300. These price tags are a bit inflated given the hardware on offer (9th-gen and 10th-gen Intel parts, for instance) but the presence of 16GB of RAM on both systems, plus the NVMe storage on the Challenger ALI521 help make the prices a bit more digestible.
What to look for
Aside from a new GPU, one of the biggest advantages to buying a pre-built machine is that you’re consolidating all of your warranties and customer support under one roof, with one company. Before adding a purchase to your cart, be clear on warranty terms and length. A 1-year warranty is standard; anything more than that is great, and anything less means you should probably shop elsewhere.
As it pertains to warranty coverage, be wary of any company that would void a warranty over standard practices, like enabling XMP profiles for memory kits. Companies like Falcon Northwest offer some of the most expensive pre-builts you can buy, but they also come with 3-year warranties.
Outside of warranty coverage, it’s important that you’re getting a well-balanced system, and one that doesn’t blow too much of its hardware budget in areas that don’t make sense — such as RGB lighting or specialty RAM for overclockers. You also want to be sure that the components offered maintain a certain level of parity and aren’t seriously mismatched. For instance, Ryzen processors are particularly sensitive to memory configurations, so avoid systems like this that pair them with only a single stick of RAM at a seriously inflated price.
Locating a good deal on pre-built right now can be a bit of a challenge, but generally speaking, there are a few places you can look. If you're looking at Newegg’s ABS systems we previously mentioned, be sure to check what bundle combos are on offer. These deals change frequently, but can include free games or free (budget) high-refresh rate monitors.
If you’re looking for deals elsewhere, Origin PC always runs monthly promotions on its laptops and desktops. These promotions can vary month to month, but usually offer things like free shipping, Visa gift cards, free games, or even select component upgrades on certain systems.
Speaking of component upgrades, CLX, which is Cybertron’s gaming focused brand, is always offering monthly specials on hardware. These range from free power supply upgrades, speedier RAM kits, CPU upgrades, or instant rebates on select graphics cards. Currently, CLX is offering rebates on AMD’s RX 6700XT and 6800XT GPUs.
HP also offers weekly deals on its website, and you can usually find some of its Omen-branded gaming machines there. Corsair also has something of a bargain bin, where it mostly tries to pedal its stock of pre-builts with older GPUs, such as Nvidia’s GTX 10-series.
Gaming laptops are far more capable than they used to be. Desktop adherents may balk at the idea, but a gaming laptop with an RTX 3070 (or even a 3060) paired with an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard can be a surprisingly potent and flexible setup.
There are actually a lot of good gaming laptops on the market right now, but machines from Asus’ ROG line or from MSI are pretty good bets, especially when it comes to thermal management. Last year, Asus began using liquid metal thermal compound for all of its 2020 ROG-branded laptops, and that practice has carried into 2021 as well. Liquid metal offers a significant improvement in thermal conductivity over standard thermal compounds, and goes a long way in helping to provide a cooler and quieter experience.
Asus' ROG Strix G15 Advantage Edition pairs AMD’s Ryzen 9-5900HX CPU and Radeon RX 6800M GPU, plus a 300Hz FHD (1080p) display, for a price tag of $1,650. The Asus ROG Strix Advantage Edition uses the aforementioned liquid metal thermal compound for both the CPU and the GPU, as well as Asus’ revamped vapor chamber cooling design.
If you’re looking to save a few hundred dollars and you’re fine with a more modest (but still capable) GPU, then there are still options that offer Nvidia’s last-gen RTX 20-series and GTX 16xx-series. MSI’s GF75 Thin 10SCXR-617 can be had with a GTX 1650 for $815, while the MSI GF65 Thin 9SEXR-839 with an RTX 2060 6GB is going for a little over the $1,000 mark.
When shopping around for older stock of Nvidia’s graphics cards, pay special attention to the price, noting how many features overlap and how it relates to models with current generation graphics cards. For instance, here’s an example of two MSI gaming laptops that are otherwise identical sans the GPU. One offers an RTX 2060 for $1,250, while the other offers an RTX 3060 for $1,300.
Try game streaming
There will probably be a lot of people out there who have a perfectly good PC, and would like to spend between $300 and $500 on a nice graphics card. For these people, spending around $1,500 on a nice pre-built PC or a gaming laptop just isn’t financially viable. For these people, game streaming might be the right answer.
While not ideal for competitive shooters or fighting games where latency is key, single-player games and all the other online games that don’t require fighter-pilot reaction times will work just fine.
It is true that the first waves of game streaming were lukewarm at best, but now things are starting to get serious. Microsoft is building Xbox game streaming right into TVs and Amazon’s Luna service recently opened up to all Prime members. It’s all happening.
The best deal in game streaming? Microsoft’s xCloud and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. For the cost of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate — $15/month — you can get access to over 100 titles, and Microsoft has even put its seal of approval on the popular Backbone mobile gaming controller. With support for Android, iOS, and Windows 10 PCs, you don’t even need a console to get started.
Sony’s PlayStation Now, priced at $10 per month, offers a comparable value. Its ecosystem isn’t as broad as xCloud, only supporting Windows 10 PCs, PS4, and PS5 consoles. However, PlayStation Now offers the biggest streaming library we know of, coming in at over 800 titles spanning the PS2, PS3, PS4, and PS5. If you’re keen to play PlayStation exclusives and don’t own a PlayStation console, this is the best way to do it.
Nvidia’s GeForce Now service is another one which has been fairly well received, though it doesn't offer a content library of its own. Rather, GeForce Now logs into your Steam account and lets you play those games on a powerful remote machine. If you’re looking for the best hardware on offer in game streaming and you have a games library to bring with you, GeForce Now is hard to beat. For $5 per month, you can gain access to RTX-based servers capable of delivering ray tracing.
The bottom line
While we all would like to have a new RTX 3080 graphics card, we don’t really need one in order to keep playing the games we love. And while we may have to make some compromises in the meantime, it’s a better alternative to paying a scalper or fighting the cryptocurrency miners.