It's a terrible time to buy a graphics card

Not too long ago we warned of a potential impending surge in graphics card prices. Unfortunately for those looking to upgrade graphics cards or buy a new GPU, that prediction has come true, and then some. Right now is the worst time in the history of graphics cards to buy or upgrade this all-important gaming component.

I've run through the list of current generation GPUs, and I've even looked at previous generation GPUs. The price changes in the past two weeks are staggering. Here's the full rundown, starting with Nvidia and then moving to AMD, from highest performing to lowest performing parts.

Note that many of the cards are only showing prices from third-party resellers, as Amazon and Newegg rapidly sell out of their inventory (often at lower prices). If you're interested in buying a GPU, I'd recommend putting a "notify" alert on it and be ready to order ASAP if it comes back in stock at a reasonable price.

All the current Nvidia graphics cards

GTX 1080 Ti 11GB: Launched with a suggested price of $699, the best deals we saw last year brought prices as low as $650. Right now, however, virtually all vendors are completely sold out, and that includes direct purchases from Nvidia. But you can find GTX 1080 Ti cards if you're willing to shell out $1,300 or more, which is the lowest price we could find right now on Newegg and Amazon. That's stupidly overpriced, so if you're even thinking about going that route, just go buy a Titan Xp from Nvidia for $1,200—and it's slightly faster as a bonus!

GTX 1080 8GB: While the Founders Edition launched at the same $699 price as the 1080 Ti that would later follow, the official MSRP for the card is now $549 for the Founders Edition and starts at $499 for custom designs. We saw GTX 1080 cards as low as $470 during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sale, whereas current pricing now starts at $880 at Newegg and $800 at Amazon (though many of the Amazon cards aren't actually in stock at that price, so more likely you're looking at $900 or more). The 1080 is a great card for gaming, but you simply don't want to buy at these prices.

GTX 1070 Ti launched in early November, with an official price of $449, and it was mostly available at that price through the end of December. I wasn't blown away by performance, since it's a bit slower than the 1080 for only a bit less money, and that goes double now. The cheapest 1070 Ti at Newegg costs $900, slightly more than a faster 1080, while you can theoretically find it for $765 at Amazon—just not with Amazon Prime, where the lowest prices are over $1,000. Pass.

For a card that's nearly two years old, the GTX 1070 continues to perform well. In fact, if you stocked up on GTX 1070 cards when they were at their lowest price of around $350 in early 2017, you could make some good money reselling the cards now. Working cards start at $500 on eBay, while Amazon prices start at $750 (again without Prime) and Newegg's cheapest card costs $890. If you're serious about spending that much money on a graphics card, you should just skip straight to the GTX 1080, or perhaps the Titan Xp.

The mainstream GTX 1060 6GB has been one of our go-to recommendations since it arrived in July 2016, and even at its prior worst last May it could be found for about $330. But this is supposed to be a $239 card, or $299 if you want the Founders Edition. Newegg's least expensive 1060 6GB starts at $450 (with several models to choose from), or you're looking at $500 or more on Amazon. I didn't mention this above, but Nvidia is also sold out of its 1060, 1070, and 1080 cards right now.

The GTX 1060 3GB has always been the slightly lower performing and more affordable GPU, though the reduced amount of VRAM has always been a bit off-putting. Normally a $199 card, at its lowest the 1060 3GB was selling for around $175, but right now it costs $350 or more on Amazon, or 'only' $290 on Newegg—though I suspect that price might not last. Again, we can't in good faith recommend this GPU at these prices, so we recommend stepping down another rung on the performance ladder.

Even the normally budget-friends GTX 1050 Ti has been hit by the cryptocurrency mining craze. This was launched as a $139 graphics card, with performance effectively matching the previous generation GTX 960 4GB almost perfectly. I was a bit underwhelmed, but at least you could mostly find the card at MSRP during the past year. Now, however, the card starts at $180 at Newegg, or $249 at Amazon. Yeesh.

How low can we go? The bottom of Nvidia's GTX 10-series is the GTX 1050 2GB, which was launched as a $109 card—and it very much lives up to that budget price, with performance matching the previous generation GTX 950, barely averaging 60 fps at 1080p medium in our benchmarks. The good news is that the 1050 2GB has been least affected by mining, so you can still find it for $130 on Amazon, or $140 on Newegg (with a $10 mail-in rebate bringing it down to $130). That's still nearly 20 percent more than MSRP, however.

What about the GT 1030? If you just need something to get by until GPU prices correct, this may be your best bet—assuming you can't just pillage an old GPU from some other system. The GT 1030 starts at $75 on both Amazon and Newegg, which is only about $5 more than the launch price of the cards. The problem is, performance is really weak—it's slower than the GTX 750 Ti in most games, which launched nearly four years ago—though at double the price. If you can't find something else as a temporary solution, though, the GT 1030 may suffice—just remember that it only has half the performance of a GTX 1050 Ti, so it will only work for lighter games and/or lower resolutions.

The AMD story is no better

Moving over to AMD, it's almost not worth talking about Vega—almost. The RX Vega 64 theoretically launched with a $499 price ($599 when sold in the Black Pack that includes a few games), but we never actually saw that $499 price in any practical volumes. The card has mostly been selling for $700 or more, in part due to constrained supply (it's a big card that probably doesn't yield all that well), and in part due to demand from miners. Right now, Newegg is completely out of stock of RX Vega cards, while Amazon only shows one in stock, with a price of only $1,800. Actually, Newegg does have a liquid-cooled Radeon Frontier Edition with 16GB HBM2 for $1,600, and an air-cooled Frontier Edition for $900, which would obviously be the better buy. And now that I've pointed out the $900 card, it will probably go out of stock. Move along, folks, nothing to see here!

Dropping down to the RX Vega 56, these have been difficult to find in general. Amazon currently shows an XFX model for $900, which might not be so bad… except this card generally competes with the GTX 1070/1070 Ti in gaming performance, and it's supposed to cost $399.

As with all other cards, AMD's RX 580 GPUs have been hard hit. When the updated Polaris 10 launched last year, the RX 580 8GB was supposed to cost $239, with the 4GB card selling for $199. Good luck finding anything like that now! Newegg has the 8GB cards for $530, with the 4GB cards starting at $500—more than double the launch price yet again. Amazon is no better, with prices close to $600 on the 8GB models, and around $500 for the 4GB cards.

The RX 570 was originally going to be the more popular Polaris 10 relaunch, with a price of $199 for the 8GB model and $169 for the 4GB cards. And these were definitely popular, only more with cryptocurrency miners than gamers. The 8GB RX 570 costs nearly as much as the 8GB RX 580, starting at around $550 on Amazon—Newegg is completely sold out. The 4GB models are in a similar boat, with a minimum price of $490 on Amazon, and $579 on Newegg. Even if you were willing to pay those prices, you should just opt for the RX 580 right now.

Like the GTX 1050 Ti, the RX 560 is supposed to be a budget-friendly card, and the good news is that it mostly is—at least when compared to the above options. Nominally a $109 card for the 2GB model and $119 for the 4GB cards, Newegg currently shows prices just $10 above that level, which is at least somewhat tolerable. Amazon is an additional $10, which may also work if you don't want to go through the Egg. Performance is pretty marginal in many cases, mostly matching the GTX 1050, so this is a card for less demanding fare, or perhaps 1080p low to medium quality on more demanding games.

Dropping another step brings the RX 550 into play, which is slightly cut down from the RX 560 in shader counts and clockspeeds. It's available for $100 even for 2GB models, at both Amazon and Newegg, but for the extra $10 I'd suggest going for the RX 560 instead.

A quick look at the used card market

What's truly mind boggling to me is that many older generation cards are actually priced close to their original MSRP, even when used. The GTX 970 starts at about $260 on eBay (once you get past the non-working cards), and the R9 390 goes for $415 or more—which is about $100 more than the card cost during most of its retail life. The R9 380 4GB also sells for over $200 in most cases, more than it's retail price two years ago, and the GTX 980 Ti still sits at $500 and more.

If you've been hanging onto an old GPU that you're not actually using (for mining or gaming), you might consider selling it while the prices are so high—though of course eBay and PayPal will take their pound of flesh (around 14 percent) of the proceeds. And if you're not looking to sell, used cards really aren't something I would recommend buying, especially at the currently inflated prices.

Additional food for thought and hope for the future

So what's a gamer in need of a graphics card to do? I can only come up with a few good options. One is to beg for old (working) hardware from a friend or family member to get by until prices come down. The slightly less humiliating approach would be to grab an ultra-budget card like a GT 1030 or similar and wait a few months. About the only good news I can share is that most cryptocurrency prices have dropped around 20 percent in the past two days, thanks to rumblings that China and South Korea are looking to ban and/or regulate cryptocurrencies. That's not the first time that has happened, however, though the long-term outlook is still difficult to gauge.

If you're curious for an alternative (as in, it's not all doom and gloom) take on cryptocurrencies, I've been reading True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier recently. What's interesting is that the book contains numerous essays, mostly written in the 90s, looking forward to the future. Several get into privacy concerns, and how digital cash could radically alter our economy and ways of doing things. While the "four horsemen of the infocalypse" are routinely trotted out to tell us about how bad people are doing terrible things with cryptography and we should give up our rights in order to be protected (the four horsemen are drug-dealers, child pornographers, terrorists, and the mafia—or other similar fear-mongering topics—according to Timothy May), there are plenty of reasons to boycott that rationale.

30 years later, we are living in a radically changing world, and cryptocurrency could be the proverbial opening of Pandora's Box. Clearly, there are powerful forces at work in the Bitcoin and cryptocurrency world. And no matter what governments might say, certainly not all of those forces are boogeymen that are out to get you. It's painful to see these things impacting our gaming hobby, and the market has been so volatile that it's impossible to accurately predict where it's heading, but it's exciting nonetheless. Cryptocurrency, or at least strong cryptography, in a sense is part of the Net Neutrality story. If you're in favor of a free and open Internet, you might want to consider the wider ramifications of where the freedom of digital currencies might take us.

But whether cryptocurrencies become part of our future or not, one thing is certain: at some point, graphics card prices will reach a new level of normalcy, and we're not there yet. Prices will have to come down, because even miners can't justify paying the current rates. That is, unless Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies resume their upward momentum, but every exponential growth curve eventually ends. Just look at Moore's Law. I suspect in the world of economics, that end will come sooner rather than later.