In the last few weeks, two major launches have defined the GPU space on the desktop PC – the Radeon RX 6500 XT and the GeForce RTX 3050.
One of these is awful in general and the other is awful at the price it is available at.
The ongoing chip supply crisis and demand driven by idiotic crypto bros has meant that getting graphics cards from the current generation has been an act of patience and will for nearly 18 months now, since the RTX 3080 first launched back in September 2020 (yes, it was that long ago!). Everything conspired against the average gamer wanting a GPU upgrade – an iffy generation of low performance increases that came before from both Nvidia and AMD, a new rise in cryptocurrency mining due to massively increased efficiency on the newest GPUs, and the impacts of COVID-19 on supply chains, reducing everything from silicon wafer supplies to interposers, PCBs, and various on-board components necessary to the functioning of a video card like capacitors and inductors. Couple that with both major GPU brands pushing product into higher value channels (Nvidia’s datacenter and ML business sells silicon for around 30x the price of a gaming GPU and AMD has Ryzen CPUs and lucrative contracts with Sony and Microsoft for the current-gen consoles), and everything sucked, and has sucked for a long time.
One of the biggest impacts has been in the ways in which the rollout of the full product stack has been handled. Nvidia was content to release as they usually do, only to then double-back when they got down to the RTX 3060, instead releasing additional refreshed versions of their higher-end 3080 and 3070 cards at premium markups. AMD slow-rolled almost every step – their first launch was in November/December of 2020 with the RX 6800XT and non-XT followed closely in that window by the RX 6900XT, and since then, they’ve basically stutter-stepped and waited for months between launches, finally pushing out the RX 6700 lineup and the RX 6600 lineup over 2021. For the mainstream audience, it has been years since the last mainstream-level GPUs launched, and since even those went insane with the rush on GPUs in late 2020 through now, if you’ve needed an affordable GPU to power a gaming rig, your options have been extremely limited, likely used, and marked up to a price point beyond the actual value – paying higher than MSRP for used cards has not been uncommon in this circumstance.
Finally, with this year’s CES, we got the low-end of both lineups, the typical lowest point available as a standalone card you can personally buy from both manufacturers – their “5 lineup” as I call them. This generation, both cards are spaced apart slightly by some spec choices that create interesting gaps between the two.
At the high-end this generation, AMD went with a VRAM blitz, using larger base memory pools (the full 6800 and 6900 lineups have 16 GB of VRAM) coupled with the Infinity Cache, an on-die small pool of memory designed for tasks that need rapid swaps, which increases the effective speed of the memory. As AMD has gone down their stack, they’ve generally had more VRAM than their Nvidia tier-equivalents, save for the 6900 XT (beaten by the RTX 3090’s 24 GB) and the RX 6600 XT (12 GB on the RTX 3060 compared to 8 on the AMD card, although the 3060 Ti has 8 GB because nothing can make sense or scale normally this generation). At the point of the 5 lineup, this inverts again, with the Geforce RTX 3050 having 8 GB of VRAM to the RX 6500 XT’s 4 GB. At this point, 4 GB of VRAM is too small for fully modern games – if you’re trying to get close to either the Xbox Series machines or the PS5, that won’t cut it. However, for older games and most 1080p gameplay, it’s generally okay – not the best experience, but not the worst.
However, where things differ wildly is in the performance. The Radeon RX 6500 XT is abysmally bad for the price being asked, offering 25% less than the MSRP-equivalent Geforce RTX 3050 and being so bad that it drastically underperforms AMD cards from last-gen, including the Radeon RX 5500 XT it ostensibly replaces. This is down to some very limiting decisions by AMD – the 4 GB of VRAM are squeezed onto a 64-bit memory bus with only a 16 MB Infinity Cache to attempt to make up the difference, and then the GPU is limited to PCI-Express 4.0 with only 4 lanes of connectivity (compared to the normal 16 lanes a graphics card would have). This means any communication it needs from the CPU is slow and can be bottlenecked very easily. To make matters even more worse (how is it possible?), they’ve removed the hardware video encode/decode hardware (correction: the hardware decoder is still present but without support for new format AV1.), so even that barebones task of watching a streaming video is not hardware accelerated as we’ve grown to expect from GPUs for over a decade now!
Nvidia’s Geforce RTX 3050, on the other hand, is fairly straightforward. It too has a neutered PCI-E interface, but with 8 lanes instead of the 4 of the Radeon competitor and this in practice only bottlenecks the card in older systems with PCI-E Gen 3 (a very real possibility for an upgrader in this price range, but the bottleneck difference is relatively small). The RTX 3050 performs reasonably well and has the normal suite of encode/decode hardware for video handling, which isn’t something I’d normally even think to mention but AMD has put forward a brave new world for us all, so hey!
Of course, the real challenge here remains with the market conditions that we’ve been stuck with for almost two years and with the likely future continuation of at least some of those factors. These cards should both be around $250 in theory, which means that the RTX 3050 is an obvious winner, but both cards are seeing markup – in the case of the RTX 3050, cards are reaching near $600 and some even higher than that, while the Radeon RX 6500 XT is…hovering around $260-$270 because no one wants it (and no one should buy it, indeed). The challenge, of course, is that recommending the RTX 3050 is hard at $600, because it is vastly over what it should be (for the RTX 3080 I got in December 2020, before tariffs and further shortages hit the market, I paid $800, and that card is over twice as fast!), and recommending the Radeon RX 6500 XT at all is difficult (seriously, do not buy it).
I wish I had something more insightful to say here, some element of hope – maybe the crypto-crashes that recently went down will help return some element of normalcy to the GPU market, maybe tariffs will pull back down, maybe other intermediary supply chain issues will resolve so that there aren’t also shortages of little power circuitry, and all of that would be nice, but the market remains flying unreasonably high.
As a long-time PC guy, I fucking hate the current GPU market, even as I got my RTX 3080 prior to the real insanity. The $200 price range has been skated from for a long time, and while a card with an MSRP of $200 would not sell at it today for a myriad of reasons discussed above, the problem is that both GPU manufacturers have effectively decided to leave that space behind and ratchet prices up. Every generation since the 9xx from Nvidia in 2015/2016, they’ve been pushing prices higher and higher on the 5-series cards – they only even had a 5-series last generation by yoinking out all the ray-tracing hardware out of the die and producing unique silicon without the bells and whistles, and even the baseline for most of the GPUs in that lineup exceeded the $200 mark!
One thing that really did help draw me in to PC gaming is that there used to be something in that lower tier I could work to obtain easily enough. As a teenager, I bought a Geforce 2 MX for gaming with part-time job money, and I don’t even know what card someone in that same situation would be able to get that would be worth it right now. The sad thing is that the Radeon RX 6500 XT could be it with some tweaks, but it just has too many compromises and extremely cut-corners – everything that could have made it at least decent was shaved out in the name of profit, and what’s left is a glorified laptop integrated GPU that was carved out to fill a niche incredibly poorly – a low-width memory bus, slow memory, not enough memory for modern games, no video encode and missing AV1 decode hardware, and a card that is perpetually in need of more PCIE bandwidth it will never get. That being the only available and affordable card in the space right now is a travesty, because it means that for as awful of a product and big a cash-grab as it is, AMD is going to sell these cards to someone. They don’t deserve these sales, but we have reached the point of the pandemic supply problem where people purposefully cash-in by making a card that is a poison pill – anyone who knows to read reviews will avoid it like the plague, but there are plenty of teens building a first PC who will fall for it and get it, and that sucks.
Alas, until we have an end in sight for the supply chain woes that have rippled through the world, I guess I feel lucky that it took nearly two years of this before someone made such a blatantly bad product.
If you want to buy a Geforce RTX 3050, a link to one is here. (As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)