Until something changes, we will assume the worst about the supply-and-demand curves of the current graphics card market. The most pessimistic sign of things to come, sadly, comes from GPU manufacturers themselves, as both Nvidia and AMD have begun pricing new products a bit more in line with market realities.
January has already seen some woeful GPU launches. The mildly tweaked RTX 3080, now with 12GB of VRAM instead of 10GB, arrived earlier this month at an MSRP of roughly $1,200—a whopping 42 percent jump over the highly reviewed launch model’s suggested price. On the other side of the price spectrum, last week’s AMD RX 6500XT, at an MSRP of $199, has proven quite underwhelming thus far in reviews. Between its 64-bit memory interface, its 4GB of VRAM, and its penalties for PCIe 3.0 systems, the card’s performance pales even in comparison to the $199 RX 5500XT… which launched in 2019.
Not wanting to be left out of the latest low-end headlines, Nvidia arrives this week with the RTX 3050, which continues the longtime GPU manufacturer practice of repurposing “binned” GPUs. The card’s $249 MSRP is the lowest yet in the RTX desktop series, below the $329 MSRP attached to the nearly one-year-old RTX 3060 but above the $229 MSRP of 2019’s GTX 1660 Super. I get the feeling that this GPU is the monkey’s paw proposition PC gamers get when we scream things like, “Please produce more graphics cards!”
Starting with the verdict: This is a 1080p card
Will you find RTX 3050 cards in the wild, let alone at prices 25 percent lower than the 3060? We’re not optimistic. But if you do, be warned: even with proprietary tricks like Nvidia DLSS in its pocket, the RTX 3050 will still generally leave you fiddling with settings menus to get modern games running at 60 frames per second… at 1080p resolution. This is a card that, for the most part, maxes out at 1080p for reasonable PC performance, not only for the newest games but for some of the best games of the past seven years.
If your PC’s GPU is particularly long in the tooth and you’re happy maxing out your favorite PC games at 1080p resolution, you might—out of desperation—want to head to a brick-and-mortar shop when the RTX 3050 goes on sale. Retail outlets historically do a better job with “one GPU per customer” limits and other reasonable measures than online ones do.
Additionally, I recommend setting a price limit somewhere around the $329 mark, since OEMs may choose to pile onto Nvidia’s MSRP with extras like ornate fans and overclock promises—and we know at least one overclocked RTX 3050 model will launch at a $329 price. But that recommendation is more about market concerns than it is about this GPU being a bargain in any sense of the word.
GTX 1070 flashbacks
Depending on the game or benchmark in question, the RTX 3050’s closest performance peer on the market is the Nvidia GTX 1070, which launched at roughly $379 back in June 2016. If we lean on Ars Technica’s usual battery of tests, which largely examine in-game performance, the results align remarkably close to that older card:
Unlike the RTX 2060 Super, which provided performance upticks across the board compared to the GTX 1070, the RTX 3050 simply cannot muster the same progress this many years later. For some rendering scenarios, the silicon shortcomings of the RTX 3050 are very noticeable.
But the above and below charts emphasize something that is critical in any graphics card benchmarking tests: how a GPU handles overkill settings and higher resolutions so that a given workload is GPU-specific and can be compared across cards. That default scenario sadly assumes that you have a lot of choices in the marketplace. In the here and now, however, seeing that the RTX 3050 disappoints in all-settings-maxed 1440p situations isn’t necessarily useful; you can’t expect to buy a rival card that is either cheaper or more likely to be future-proof.
If you’re still reading this review, you’re likely eager to just get a working graphics card with 1080p performance as a baseline. Will the RTX 3050 cut it? In a word: mostly. I have found that its strengths emerge on a case-by-case basis, but there are few legitimate 1440p applications.