When I got into PC gaming, there was something really great, almost magical about the hobby.
Sure, the high-end was up with $1,000 CPUs from Intel, exponentially more expensive RAM configurations, and high-capacity hard drives, but it was so much more fun to be in the mid-range, to mix and match to optimize your experience. Building fancy rigs for a pretty penny is fun – don’t get me wrong – but there is a certain finesse and art to building a gaming PC for $1,000 or so that really fires on all cylinders such that you don’t miss the small performance increases an exponential increase in spend would have netted you.
So it is thusly a shame that the current market is losing the midrange GPU segment.
When I was a 19-20 year old, my first GPU that I picked out for my own build was a GeForce 7900 GS. It was a mid-range card designed to be two steps down from the top of the stack – good, but not as high of VRAM or memory bandwidth, not as many shader units, but perfect for my use case. It was around $200, making it the most expensive component in a build that came in around $900.
Today, the lowest-end current tier cards you can get are still over $300, and that has a lot of effects on the accessibility and popularity of PC gaming.
Sure, if you look to last generation, there are some lower-priced cards, but even the lowest tier prior to “office GPU” from Nvidia and AMD are around $150 to start, without taking into account scalping and the current market absolutely ruining prices (not a topic for today).
So it kind of floored me when AMD announced their Radeon RX 6700 XT today at $480.
It seems, on paper, like a pretty good card, and I don’t have any strong performance reason to object. It’s generally at or exceeding the RTX 3070 in AMD’s benchmarks for an MSRP of $20 less, and it has 12 GB of VRAM coupled with a higher-than-expected 96 MB of Infinity Cache on-die. Coupled with a maximum clockspeed of 2424 MHz, it neatly jumps over the PS5 RDNA2-derived GPU, with 4 more CUs and a higher peak clockspeed. At $480, though, it is a bit of a tough pill to swallow.
When I was younger and getting into PC gaming, the market segment that was always the most exciting was sub-$300. It took literally a decade of PC hobbying for me to buy anything outside that price category, and my first foray out of it was the $349 Geforce GTX 970 before leapfrogging it 3 years later for a GTX 1080 Ti.
The truth is that for all the bluster around xx80 Nvidia GPUs and 12-16 core monster AMD CPUs, most gamers and most people just aren’t in that price or performance bracket. Most gamers would, right now, be well served with a 6-core CPU, 16 GB of RAM, and a basic mid-range tier GPU. Thus, the problem I have with the current lineups from Nvidia and AMD is that this category kind of doesn’t exist anymore.
For years now, both manufacturers have been sliding the scale up on pricing. Nvidia’s vaunted xx60 range, their mid-range cards, used to start around $199, a price which made them highly sought after. By the GTX 760, it was $249, then the 960 brought it back to $199 before the 1060 spiked it to $299 if you bought a “Founder’s Edition” or $249 otherwise, with the RTX 2060 bringing it higher still to $299. The current RTX 3060 starts at $329.
AMD hasn’t has as much room to price creep because they’ve been competitively impotent for quite some time, but with the Navi cards, that has changed. The RX 5700 lineup pushed north of $300 and was the first AMD GPU in those price brackets for years, and today’s announcement of the RX 6700 XT at $479 means there is an $80 gen-over-gen price increase, nearly a 25% leap in price.
These are the product categories that would have been in that $200-$300 bracket not that long ago, but are now priced -up for no discernable reason other than that they will sell every card and they don’t have to go cheaper. Nvidia’s closest card is priced at $500, so they can get away with it. Nvidia can price there because the last-generation equivalent of that $500 card cost $1,200, itself a ridiculous 150% of the price of the flagship that came before it, despite offering 130% the performance at best.
The reviews of the recently-launched Geforce RTX 3060 suggest that there just isn’t much improvement there either, and those with a 2060 or even a 1660 would be better served by waiting for next-gen parts or a 3060 Ti at a much higher price. The card is…fine, like, the benchmarks aren’t bad. It just feels bad knowing that for those in that once-coveted price bracket, the competing card from Nvidia is likely to either be an RTX 3050 that will come in where the 60 card was a generation or two ago, and it will offer pretty lackluster performance that will only beat its prior competition by virtue of the fact that there was no RTX xx50 card, instead giving way to a paltry GTX 1650 lineup that wasn’t great and before that the GTX 1050 Ti, which was fine but also again a very neutered card as that point in their product stack always is.
Meanwhile, AMD’s pricing is up way further ahead of where they normally are, which makes me wonder just how much cost reduction lower-tier cards will even offer. Last generation, the RX 5700 XT was a $400 card, with the RX 5700 coming in at $350. Under the current pricing, I see no way that the RX 6700 is less than $400 itself, and that leaves a theoretical 6600 and 6500 family with a lot of room before even grazing a midrange price point.
While this post is primarily for the GPU side of things, it’s worth noting that the CPU market is seeing this happening too. Even in the Intel-only competitive era, the Core i7 7700k CPU, their top mainstream CPU, launched at $303 per unit, which in Intel prices still ends up being about $350 to the end consumer. Today, $350 buys you…the entry level 6-core in the current Ryzen lineup or a mid-range 8-core i7-10700k from Intel. Both of them are great CPUs with outstanding gaming performance, but again – in the past, I would have more and better options at lower price categories, where now, this is the midrange and both of these CPUs have a number of products above them in their respective product stacks.
All of that is without even touching on the availability situation on all sides, as ongoing silicon shortages, other component shortages, and even non-component supply issues (a draught in Taiwan is causing shortfalls in manufacturing as water is a key part of the process!).
Right now, as much as I love it as a hobby, building a new PC is a fucking shitshow, frankly. Most parts are difficult to come by, marked up by higher base MSRPs and demand-based pricing hikes, impacted by tariffs that further increase pricing atop all of that, and even then, unless you’re willing to be in 18 different Discords, Telegram groups, and have Twitter alerts on for retailer and stock tracker accounts, the best PC you can source is likely to be an 8-core Intel CPU with a two-gen old graphics card that is marked up by around $100, with RAM that is getting spiked in pricing as DRAM supply begins to dry up again, and the rest of the system is going to be pretty good with decent parts at decent prices because the rest of the market isn’t getting spiked so badly. Ouch. And to be fair, the PC I rattled off here won’t even be bad – it’ll be a good gaming experience that will play just about everything, but it will be too high of a cost because you won’t have wiggle room of supply to move to better parts.
Right now, Nvidia and AMD want to play off that price increases are uncontrollable things that are happening against their wishes, and some of that is true. The number of cards being sold above MSRP is due to other factors. However, those base MSRPs are set by these companies, and those are notably higher, even such that it escapes simple inflation. Compounding matters, neither brand has a clear roadmap forward to solid $200 cards – Nvidia will likely start between $280-$300 when and if they get to an RTX 3050 series, while AMD still has a long way to drop to get to $200, and given their pricing at present, I suspect it won’t be until a theoretical RX 6500 where the first digit of the price is 2, much less close to an actual $200.
And I mean, maybe I’m not the best advocate for that price tier, because I don’t buy in it very much, but I think it is a critical part of the market that is needed to get people into the hobby. Right now, no PC is going to beat the consoles of the current gen on performance and price – you can win on performance if you spend a ton and you can win on price and get a system that can sort of play games, but isn’t going to make for a spectacular experience. When I was getting into PC building, that $1,000 total system price point was so good for DIY builds, because you could get an above-average system with top-quality midrange parts that were around half the price for around a 10-20% performance reduction, giving you so much bang for your buck. Now, the price range at which you get that sweet spot is higher, with the individual components getting you there costing more. Sure, assuming you can get an RTX 3060 and Ryzen 5 5600X at MSRP, with a reasonable motherboard, memory, and 1TB NVMe SSD, you could get close to that $1,000 price, but the performance on-offer isn’t going to scale to meet the high-end as well as it once did, not to mention the higher base price of those individual components.
In short – I think that the midrange price segment is crucial to getting new people into building their own PCs, and it sucks really bad that none of the major part suppliers for CPUs or GPUs have much interest in maintaining a viable product stack there like they once did.