Should you buy a used graphics card? Every few years, cryptocurrencies seem to go nuts and the best graphics cards all disappear into the eager hands of miners. Combined with the pandemic already causing GPU shortages in 2020, the past nine months have been a terrible time for PC gamers looking to upgrade their most critical component. If you need a new graphics card, turning to the used market might seem like a good idea, but right now even that presents problems.
The GPU shortages are so bad that cards from two or three generations back continue to sell on eBay at drastically inflated prices. Basically, if it’s currently tracked on our GPU benchmarks hierarchy, it’s going to be overpriced. Let’s take just one quick example. The GeForce GTX 1060 6GB launched way back in July of 2016 — five years ago! The initial launch price for the Founders Edition was $299, with third party cards starting at $249. Toward the end of 2019, you could find used GTX 1060 6GB cards on eBay for around $150–$175. Today, using the same methodology as we use in our GPU pricing index, average prices on eBay for sold GTX 1060 6GB cards were $314 over the past two weeks — for an old card that might not even function properly!
It’s a similar story for other GPUs, but we’re skipping ahead a bit. Here are the things you should know when you’re considering buying a used graphics card.
Price and Performance: Searching for a Deal
There’s a process to determining what GPU you should buy, and it starts with knowing your budget and setting realistic performance expectations. Whatever budget you’re considering, keep our GPU benchmarks hierarchy handy. That’s the best way to see how the various GPUs from different generations stack up. You won’t find a card that performs like a $700 GPU for $350 right now, but you might find a $400 card that performs like a $500 card in some cases. At least, that’s the hope.
Some time in the next few months, we’ll probably start to see more used GPUs hitting places like eBay as the China shutdown of crypto mining farms continues. The sage advice tends to be that you should skip buying a used card, as you don’t want to inherit someone else’s problems just to save a few bucks. Except, we’re potentially not talking about saving just a few bucks. The GeForce RTX 3060 is an attractive latest generation GPU, with performance that isn’t too far off the GTX 1080 Ti — it’s only about 5% slower, plus it supports ray tracing and DLSS. Our latest look at eBay prices still pegs the RTX 3060 at $742, 2.25x more than the official MSRP. Meanwhile, the GTX 1080 (slower than the 3060) goes for around $442, and the GTX 1080 Ti costs around $625.
If you can get similar performance while saving $125–$300, just by purchasing a used card, that might be worth considering. If you don’t want to lose ray tracing and DLSS support, the RTX 2070 (non-Super) performs nearly on par with the RTX 3060 12GB, so it might be worth a shot. Except, right now it costs about $755. An older card with less memory for more money isn’t a good idea.
In other words, you need to determine whether a used card represents a deal or not. And a “deal” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s selling at an extremely low price. For the time being, MSRPs are a bit of a joke — they’re worth remembering, but most cards will sell for more than the original price right now. Maybe that will change in the coming months, but a good deal today would be a current-generation card that costs within 25% of its MSRP, or a one-generation old card that’s right around MSRP.
There’s good news in that eBay prices for the latest generation GPUs (Nvidia Ampere and AMD RDNA2) all dropped about 15% in the past month. We expect older generation cards will drop in price even more quickly since those cards are less desirable (see below). The RTX 3060 as an example is only a bit slower than a GTX 1080 Ti and uses 30% less power. By those metrics, a used GTX 1080 Ti would only make sense if the price was less than the cost of an RTX 3060, particularly if you can get the latter new (which you probably can’t right now, since RTX 30-series cards remain sold out everywhere we’ve looked, at least in the US).
Assume the Worst and Prepare for it
There’s no way to tell what the previous owner(s) might have done with a graphics card when you’re shopping online, so our advice is to assume the worst. Don’t trust the seller to give truthful information. Any listing that says it was “never used for mining” at this point is probably a lie. Some sellers will actually tell you that a card was used for mining, but even then we’d assume maximum overclocks and redlining, with cards potentially pushed beyond safe limits. We’d also be wary of “like new,” “open box,” or even “factory sealed” listings, as all can be faked.
Murphy’s Law is in full effect here. If something could have been done with a GPU, it probably was. But that doesn’t mean a card can’t be salvaged. Thermal pads and thermal paste can deteriorate over time, and dust can build up in the fan blades and heatsink fins. It’s possible a bit of cleaning and TLC will make a card that was struggling run like new. Factor in the cost of new pads and even new fans, as well as the time required to clean a card.
There’s an exception to this, however: If you can meet up in person for a purchase, you can tell a lot about a card just by looking at it. Check for dust, and check to see if the screws holding the card together have been removed. (Those “warranty void” stickers do actually have some benefit.) If someone has a card in hand and it looks clean, especially in the nooks and crevices, there’s a good chance it wasn’t mining flat out for a couple of years.
Graphics Card Age Matters
Like any product, age can make a big difference. We’re not dealing with antiques, where older means better. It’s more like buying a used car. If something is only a year old, even if it was driven hard, it should still have a warranty and is less likely to have serious problems. A car that’s ten years old with over 120,000 miles on the other hand could just be asking for trouble.
If you find a reasonable deal on an RTX 3060, worst-case, it’s been used 24/7 for mining since late February 2021. While 24/7 mining will put more wear and tear on a card than gaming four or five hours a day, we’d still expect a card that’s less than a year old to run games without any serious issues. A GTX 1080 Ti meanwhile could have been used on and off for mining over the past four years. And even without mining, it might be a dirty mess.
In short, buying a used GPU that’s from the latest generation tends to be safer than buying a previous top-tier GPU from several years back. You might get lucky with a pristine GTX 1080 Ti, or you could end up with a 1080 Ti on its last legs, with VRMs or other components on the board that are starting to go bad. Plan accordingly.
Also, if you’re digging deep in the bargain bins, do note that AMD has now officially retired all R9 300-series and earlier GPUs, along with the R9 Fury / Nano cards. Only RX series cards still have active driver support. Nvidia has also retired driver support for GTX 500-series and earlier GPUs, and it announced that it will retire Kepler support (GTX 600- and 700-series GPUs) later this year. It probably won’t matter too much, at least in the short term. But Windows 11 and future games may not run on older cards. If you want to play the latest releases, you’ll want at least an RX 400-series AMD GPU or a GTX 900-series Nvidia GPU.
Pay Close Attention to Return Stipulations
Generally speaking, if you buy something off eBay, even if the seller says “no returns accepted,” you can still ask for a refund if the product doesn’t work. But it’s better to deal with someone that has a normal 30-day return policy.
Related to this, you’ll be better off buying something from within your country of residence. While returning a faulty product to China might be possible, it takes a lot longer, and shipping will probbaly cost more. Plus, it might take a week or more to get to you in the first place, which isn’t fun if you just want a working graphics card.
You should also look at the seller’s history. Don’t buy anything from a brand-new seller, particularly if the deal looks too good to be true — it probably is! Someone with hundreds or thousands of past transactions won’t want to damage their reputation. Many graphics card companies also have eBay stores, which should be safer than other options (assuming they have any inventory in stock).
AMD or Nvidia
We’ve discussed AMD vs. Nvidia elsewhere, but that’s a look at the current state of affairs. If you’re buying a used graphics card, particularly one that’s more than a couple of years old, things could be quite different. You’ll want to pay attention to features, so ray tracing as an example is only supported on Nvidia’s RTX series or AMD’s RX 6000-series parts — not that you need ray tracing to play most games. DLSS also requires an Nvidia RTX card. Check the GPU power consumption as well, and make sure your PSU can provide enough juice for whatever card you’re considering.
Outside of those aspects, we don’t have any major concerns with buying an AMD or Nvidia card. Again, it goes back to performance and price as the main considerations. If you find a card that delivers the performance you want at an acceptable price, the GPU brand isn’t usually a critical factor.
Also pay attention to VRAM, which has become more of a factor with the latest games. GPUs with 4GB or less VRAM may limit the settings you can select in some games, and can even struggle to run some recent releases at low-quality settings. AMD tends to offer more VRAM for a similar price compared to Nvidia. Basically, if you want to play the latest games, 6GB should be the absolute minimum.
Stress Testing and Benchmarking
If you find a used card that meets all of your criteria and you decide to buy it, there’s still one final step once the card arrives: Test the hell out of it! Our graphics card reviews and benchmarks can give you some idea of what to expect in terms of performance, assuming you have a similarly fast CPU and system, but stability is just as important as speed for a used part.
We recommend breaking out some strenuous benchmarks once you get the card, to verify it works properly. 3DMark might suffice, but it’s most useful if you have a paid version where you can tell it to loop a test sequence 50 times. FurMark is a good torture test, but any demanding 3D game can suffice. You’ll want to have some other utilities running to check GPU temperatures, fan speeds, and power use. In fact, we have a whole article on how to test your graphics card.
The point is that you want to throw some serious work at the GPU to ensure it runs properly. If it doesn’t, the sooner you can ask for a refund and return the card, the better. You should also check clock speeds and memory speeds. If you’re only seeing 1500MHz while gaming on an RTX 2070, or your memory runs at a lower speed than it should, something is wrong. (You can quickly find the core specs for AMD GPUs and Nvidia GPUs on Wikipedia.)
If you run HWInfo64, MSI Afterburner, or some other utility and log the results, look for a decline in clocks accompanied by a fast ramp in temperatures. It’s not unusual to see 70–80 degrees Celsius on many GPUs, but anything above 80C tends to be worrisome. This does vary by GPU (e.g. AMD’s RX Vega cards tended to use more power than competing GPUs), so do some research as well, but we prefer to keep our GPU temperatures in the 70s.
Final Thoughts on Buying a Used Graphics Card
If reading this has you worried that you’ll spend a bunch of money on a used graphics card only to end up with a non-functional lemon, we’ve done our job. Given what we’ve seen from cryptomining over the past few years, we’d be hesitant to buy a used card as well. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and if your main GPU just went belly up or you’re hoping to get into PC gaming for the first time, you might need to consider a used GPU.
Dealing with a local seller (e.g. via Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist or similar) might offer you more peace of mind in some cases, but once you pay cash it becomes far more difficult to get a refund. eBay and auction sites aren’t necessarily great either, but eBay tends to side with buyers far more often than sellers. Shop from an established eBay seller with a long history (years of activity) and good feedback, and you probably won’t get burned.
Given the choice between buying a new graphics card for MSRP and saving a bit of money by going with a previous generation card that might perform a bit worse, normally we’d advise PC gamers to suck it up and spend the extra money. But in a world where it’s still virtually impossible to buy a brand new GPU without paying exorbitant prices, buying used might be your only option for a while longer.
Here’s hoping the GPU shortages end sooner than later and we can put this all behind us once again, but we’re not holding our collective breath.
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