It shouldn't be this hard to get into PC gaming. In fact, it hasn't been this hard to get into PC gaming for a long time. From fervent bots and silicon shortages, to an up and coming OS that makes demands of your PC you probably didn't know existed, there's seemingly no escape from the newly-installed barriers that block the way into PC gaming nirvana.
Whether you're upgrading, replacing, or rebuilding your own PC, or have been forced to listen to one of your many friends complaining about their various predicaments in Discord, you'll know all too well of the awkward and unfortunate graphics card drought. It's wormed its way into PC gaming's very being like dust to a tempered glass side panel. And no more have the shockwaves of that drought been felt than in the entry-level market.
Or should I say lack thereof.
Where have all the budget GPUs gone?
It's not like PC gaming has always been at a loss for great budget options. AMD's Polaris lineup really did work wonders in its price range only a few years ago—to think the Radeon RX 580 could be found for under $200 regularly, and don't even get me started on the RX 570. Shockingly affordable at times, the competitive price-to-performance of these cards spurred Nvidia to launch competitive lineups of budget GPUs for years after, and vice versa, and we assumed at the time this would continue long into the future.
But those budget GPUs have petered out in recent years. So much so that neither AMD or Nvidia offer a single discrete graphics card under $300 in either of their current-gen lineups.
There's probably an article's worth of explanation as to why there's such a dearth of cheap silicon today, but it inevitably boils down to the same damned supply issue that's causing havoc for supply of the graphics cards that actually do exist. And capitalism. If you have a finite number of GPUs you can make, and all the expensive ones you've released sell out in record time, why would you make cheaper ones?
When at a loss for one of the key components of affordable PC gaming, the hobby's well-maintained second-hand market would usually come to the rescue. Yet so has it been sapped of its lustre by those profiteering from a rollercoaster cryptocurrency boom and bust cycle.
So forgive me for believing that, in such dire circumstance, Nvidia might be right to resurrect the RTX 2060, a move not yet confirmed but often alluded to. Much like the 16-series was to the 20-series, so too could the RTX 2060 be something of a budget alternative to the expense of the RTX 30-series. This time with DLSS support to aid it on it's way to higher frame rates in 2022. That all depends on what might be the price tag of the oft-rumoured old graphics card, though. And if it, too, is snapped up for mining.
How to buy a graphics card: tips on buying a graphics card in the barren silicon landscape that is 2021
In the meantime there's the option of an AMD APU, such as the $359 Ryzen 7 5700G, which does represent a moderately more affordable way into PC gaming if you never consider adding a discrete GPU into the mix. Such a chip, one which combines both CPU and mild-mannered GPU under one heat spreader, is sure to get you up-and-running on a slimmer budget, at the very least.
However, we're still yet to see AMD make these a worthy adversary to their own console SoCs, most of all the one found within the $300 Xbox Series S. And that's incredibly frustrating to have to admit as a PC gamer.
That said, we're only talking gaming performance here. Everything else you might want a PC for—working, editing, browsing, etc.—then yes, the APU is the way to go inside a pared-back machine. Similarly, for affordability in software, the PC has lots to offer.
Which raises a point on the duality to PC gaming today: while PC hardware has unfortunately flopped on price to performance, the pendulum has swung entirely the other direction for PC gaming software. Steam sales, free games, and services like Games Pass offer the option of spending less on your games—assuming you don't get addicted to filling out a library of games you'll never play or leave your subscription running all month without ever using it.
Windows 11 puts pressure on PC gamers to upgrade potentially still decent CPUs
There's no more pivotal a piece of software than your operating system and we're about to move onto Windows 11, a shiny new OS for the modern age.
Well, some of us are. As it turns out, Windows 11 is extremely picky about what it gets installed on, and it simply won't work on every Windows 10 device going today. The official cut-off is anything before Intel's 8th Gen processors and AMD's Ryzen 2000-series processors, with a few strange exceptions.
Simply put: a whole lot of gaming PCs don't make it. You could potentially still choose to install the Windows 11 ISO file on such a machine, but then you might not be in line for any security updates, which could open you up to more issues than sticking to regular Windows 10.
Not only that, you might be blocked by anti-cheat software, such as Riot's Vanguard.
But an unsupported CPU does not a bad PC make. I still consider a Core i7 6700K to be a decent chip for a modern PC. I used the very same processor for three of the past five years, and now it's in my partner's PC, which she uses for work, gaming, and streaming. I'll admit it's not the flashiest chip around, but it feels wrong to be writing it off just yet when it's adequate, at least.
And most especially during a silicon shortage.
Perhaps I'm laying too much of a stake in people's desire to upgrade to Windows 11. But we all want the new shiny thing, as proven by the massive demand for the latest tech, and barricading off the flashy new OS feels another kick in the teeth for gamers without the budget to throw at a desirable upgrade.
Not to mention we've already seen Microsoft wobble on whether a new feature like Direct Storage would be arriving on Windows 10 or be exclusive to Windows 11. What does it look like if more features and game support is tied to the new OS after launch?
I don't wish to lay the blame at anyone's door necessarily—the world can't build enough chips and security is important. But, damn, if it doesn't feel like PC gaming has slammed the door shut on what it truly means to be a PC gamer at anything other than the painfully expensive, enthusiast end of the market.
So what's the advice to budget gamers then, better start saving or buy an Xbox Series S? Well, at least there are some gaming laptops to sink your teeth into at a not altogether high price. Yet it still just feels like a step backward when it really felt as if the hitherto inclusive world of PC gaming tech was on the right track for so long.