The Best Graphics Card for Surviving the Bitcoin Era
Bitcoin is volatile. Other cryptocurrencies, like Ethereum, rocket to the moon before chaotically tumbling back to Earth. Unstable prices, the lure of a waiting fortune, and good old FUD contribute to the rise in cryptocurrency mining.
Application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) miners led the first crypto-mining boom. Ethereum and Ethereum-based altcoins lead the second. And it is GPUs, not ASIC mining hardware, that is powering the second boom.
The regular graphics cards that we use to bring Skyrim and Rocket League into our lives are also powering the booming cryptocurrency market. As such, GPU prices (much like cryptocurrencies) are stratospheric right now.
But it isn’t all gloom. There are still some great GPUs out there that cryptocurrency miners aren’t using—meaning you can pick them up for a reasonable price. Let’s find out what they are!
Crypto-Mania Strikes GPUs
Bitcoin’s staggering price rise caught a lot of people by surprise. As of February 2018, Bitcoin is experiencing its first major bear market since reaching the intoxicating $20,000 per coin mark. Don’t let that crash fool you, though. Miners are still mining.
Most cryptocurrency miners, however, do not use regular computer hardware. Mining many Bitcoin alternatives requires a specialized ASIC miner using the Scrypt encryption algorithm. As the difficulty of mining cryptocurrency increases, so too does the price of new ASIC hardware and the amount of power required to mine. (Mining difficulty increases to ensure a new block is found and mined every 10 minutes; more miners with more power means a higher difficulty and vice versa.)
Conversely, Ethereum-based cryptocurrencies use different algorithms that allow mining via regular (albeit, powerful) GPUs. We’ve previously looked at how to build an efficient Ethereum-mining rig , as well as the best off-the-shelf Ethereum mining systems . But even now amateur and professional miners alike are switching to other cryptocurrencies in search of profit. Ethereum-based cryptocurrencies still have a difficulty level, but it increases slower than Bitcoin.
Examples of GPU Price Increases
The sustained growth of GPU mining has seen the price of certain GPUs rapidly escalate. For instance:
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 Ti: Rose from around $450 at the end of October 2017, to around $750-775 at the end of January 2018. 40 percent increase.
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti: Rose from around $750 at the end of December 2017, to around $1125 at the end of January 2018. 50 percent increase.
- Radeon RX 580: Rose from around $300 in mid-December 2017 to around $500 at the end of January 2018. 66 percent increase.
You can check out more GPU price trends at PC Part Picker.
These three GPUs have a high hash rate. In crypto-mining, a higher hash rate usually leads to higher returns. The hardware can match algorithmic hashes faster, meaning they can confirm transactions (one of the primary functions of cryptocurrency mining), find new blocks for mining, and add value to the network.
The GPUs above are valuable to miners. In fact, a significant number of GPUs have sufficiently high hash rates that miners are scooping them up as soon as they hit the market. But you should be able to get your hands on one of the following GPUs at a decent price—and finally, play some great video games!
The Nvidia GTX 1050 is a budget Nvidia GPU that still retails around its original market price. While the GTX 1050 is firmly marketed at the budget PC gamer, there are still a huge amount of amazing games available to you. These include Mafia 3, Watch Dogs, Dishonored, and Assassins Creed Black Flag—all excellent titles that run on a 2GB GPU. Best of all, the GTX 1050 comes in either single or dual-fan configuration, with the former great for budget micro-PC builds.
The Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti is the younger-but-more-powerful sibling to the GTX 1050. The GTX 1050 Ti packs an altogether beefier 4GB VRAM (in comparison to the 1050’s 2GB). This means many of the best games of the last few years on relatively high settings, depending on your system RAM and CPU. The extra power does come at a cost, though. The GTX 1050 Ti usually retails for around $100 more than its counterpart; a worthwhile boost, however, if it is within your budget.
I’m bundling the GTX 980 and 980 Ti together. They both have 4GB VRAM, and despite being superseded by the GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 respectively, both cards still pack a huge punch. Cryptocurrency miners don’t tend to use the older 900 series cards as they use about twice as much power for some mining operations.
When it comes to purchasing a GTX 980 or GTX 980 Ti, second-hand is your best bet, as Nvidia does not produce many new cards from this series. It is worthwhile though as the GTX 980 and 980 Ti can handle VR games (as well as gaming at 1440p).
The Radeon RX 560 is an entry-level 2GB AMD GPU that directly competes with the Nvidia GTX 1050 and 1050 Ti. Like its Nvidia counterpart, the 2GB GPU allows 1080p gaming with some restrictions, but there are still a host of excellent games available. Furthermore, the RX 560 2GB comes with AMD CrossFire support, as well as three display options. Another consideration is size; the RX 560 2GB features dual-fans making it larger than the Nvidia model, but that also keeps your card cooler, too.
The RX 560 comes in two flavors: 2GB and 4GB. The 4GB version is bulkier but ultimately vastly more powerful. The RX 560 4GB handles most recent gaming releases well and will continue to for at least a couple more years. Furthermore, the 2GB VRAM boost doesn’t usually cost the world and, if it is in your budget, I would strongly suggest the 4GB version.
The AMD R9 380 was a popular card at the time of its release, costing much less than its Nvidia equivalent while delivering a similar level of performance. The 380 and 380X deliver solid gaming performance for a wide range of relatively modern games, but you won’t be maxing out the latest and greatest release at 1080p. The 380X has a slight performance boost over the standard 380 by way of faster clock speed, but both cards suffer from the limitations of their architecture (both cards were built using AMD’s at-the-time aging Tonga GPU architecture).
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible finding an R9 380 online brand new. The best place to acquire them is from used sources—although that’s without a warranty. Generally, prices range from $150-300, which makes them particularly useful to gamers.
Time for Gaming!
As mining efficiency changes, as does the demand for new and powerful GPUs. In mid 2017, Ethereum and other altcoin values dropped, sparking a mass sell-off of mining rigs. The market was suddenly flush with GPUs—but the hardware was highly suspect, having been run at 100 percent capacity for weeks at a time.
Other mining nuances make a difference, too. Just as Bitcoin mining recalibrates its difficulty, as does Ethereum increase its “epoch.” Each epoch requires more memory. As the epoch memory requirements rise, as does the need for more powerful hardware. At some point, 8GB GPUs will cease to function as the most popular GPU mining hardware, the focus shifting to massive 12GB GPUs (like the Nvidia Titan XP).
Unfortunately, an Ethereum epoch takes time. Furthermore, this basic analysis isn’t considering the rise of other Ethereum-based cryptocurrencies. When the Ethereum epoch becomes too intensive, miners will simply switch algorithm to another coin—and so the process continues.