The Gilded Age of GPUs seems to be upon us in recent times, with exciting performance emanating from Nvidia, AMD, and soon-to-be Intel. Unfortunately, most of these releases also carry with them Vanderbilt level pricing, making even an oil tycoon blush. This has kept the excitement focused solely on high-end gaming enthusiasts. But wait, there's more! Nvidia and AMD have finally released GPU options that supposedly cater to the entry level with the GeForce RTX 3050 and the Radeon RX 6500 XT, respectively.
We're going to compare these GPUs based on pricing, availability, and performance. We'll warn you beforehand though, this will be a bloody street-level fight, challenging what entry level and budget mean in 2022. The goal post has been moved—is simply being able to buy a GPU that's available, enough to justify its existence? (For our guidance on graphics cards at every price point, see our complete roundup of the best GPUs for PC gaming.)
Nvidia RTX 3050 vs. AMD RX 6500 XT: Price
Nvidia's RTX 3050 will lure you into a false sense of security with the US$249 MSRP, as you'll soon find them closer to US$400 to US$500 at most retailers. The AMD 6500 XT sounds friendly at US$199, but most models will run you US$269 to US$299 with realistic pricing.
Yes, both are priced considerably more than their predecessors were. Both also will have sporadic pricing changes depending on the GPU market. This is what we've come to expect with the great GPU drought, but there is a key factor that explains the existence of these cards at their respective price levels.
This one word dominates the landscape and dictates what options we have to choose from. On the Nvidia side, any RTX 3000 GPU seems to sell instantly—even when priced above its original MSRP. AMD pricing has also skyrocketed, leaving nothing on the table for the entry level.
The Nvidia RTX 3050 follows a more traditional path of pricing and availability: Everything tiers and scales as you'd expect in respect to the rest of the RTX 3000 lineup. Yes, it's also capable of mining crypto currency, albeit not impressively, so that adds to the pricing pressure and lack of availability.
How about on the AMD side? The 6500 XT is in a category of its own entirely, with some hard performance sacrifices having been made with the goal of supplying more GPUs.
The Radeon RX 6500 XT and its pricing exist for one reason only: To have a GPU available for a somewhat reasonable price. It is not attractive to crypto miners, with only 4GB of VRAM, theoretically opening it up more for the gamer market too. Will the ends justify the means, however? Crypto miners won't want it, but should gamers consider it? Let's talk performance to better answer this question.
If you've ever seen the meme This is fine, where a dog seems content to be sitting in what is a hot, burning room—that's the overall situation with graphics cards right now. Is it fine to be paying US$300, US$400, or even US$500 for a 1080p level GPU in 2022? Not really.
RTX 3050 vs. 6500 XT: Performance
The genesis and reason for existing of the Radeon RX 6500 XT make it a non-suitable competitor for Nvidia's GeForce RTX 3050. Yes, they both are entry-level recent releases, but the similarities stop there. The 6500 XT is competing more with its own ability to be purchased in the market rather than performance metrics. The RTX 3050 is a slimmed-down RTX 3060; the 6500 XT was not originally intended for the discrete GPU market in the same way, having originally been designed for laptops before the Great GPU Drought commenced. The 6500 XT has many compromises you should be aware of, such as only 4GB of VRAM, only two outputs for monitors, PCIe speed limits, etc. It also features a very small GPU die size, however which may aid production in greater numbers.
Let's first discuss the RTX 3050, which is a competent 1080p-level GPU. It has 8GB of VRAM and allows for some advanced technology such as ray tracing to be utilized. It also retains all the great software Nvidia has developed for its GPUs, such as NVENC encoding, DLSS, etc.
Looking at performance data from Brad Chacos's excellent review of the RTX 3050, we can see that it dominates the 6500 XT easily in Watch Dogs Legion—and pretty much every other title, especially with our maxed-our testing settings. The 6500 XT is more limited to the Medium or High level settings at most; highest and ultra are not part of its repertoire.
In Rainbow Six Siege, the performance difference is drastic and illustrates the massive gap in performance between the 6500 XT and everything else.
Interestingly enough, the step-up Radeon RX 6600 presents itself as a reasonable alternative to the RTX 3050. It's more widely available, and generally within the price range of the RTX 3050 in retail. It's certainly a more compelling performance option versus the 6500 XT. And better news—if you're an owner of an AMD RX 5600 XT or RX 5700 from previous years, there's no need to upgrade unless you take a leap to the Nvidia RTX 3060 level and beyond.
What if ray tracing is enabled? This is a notoriously punishing option, but the RTX 3050 surprisingly handles Shadow of the Tomb Raider competently. The 6500 XT with its many restrictions does not perform well here, as expected, but the RX 6600 once again shows promise.
Yes, the Radeon RX 6500 XT is technically the cheapest ray tracing capable GPU, but it's not usable in a practical sense.
Keep in mind you may also want to enable Nvidia's DLSS or AMD's FSR technologies, which can give you a nice bump in performance in games that support it. (They were not active during these benchmarks in order to make the tests fair.)
Power and other things to know
The RTX 3050 doesn't need a nuclear power plant to run, unlike its big brethren (I'm looking at you, RTX 3090). The AMD 6500 XT is even more efficient, so that means both are cooled easily and generally quiet.
The Radeon RX 6500 XT has a very limited selection of video ports.
The RTX 3050 will supply you with the Nvidia options and technologies you're used to, but the 6500 XT has many more limitations that are uncommon.
First, you'll be limited to just a single HDMI port and a single DisplayPort on the Radeon RX 6500 XT. You'll also have only four PCIe lanes, and hampered performance on PCIe Gen 3 as a result. Most GPUs use 16 PCIe lanes as the norm. (Our Radeon RX 6500 XT review includes both PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0 performance benchmarks at Medium graphics settings if you'd like to know more.) 4GB of VRAM and lack of any hardware encoders mean that this GPU is a no-go for content creators, too.
The verdict of David vs. Goliath: Sorry, Goliath won
No sugar coating is necessary. Nvidia's GeForce RTX 3050 is a far superior GPU to the Radeon RX 6500 XT on almost every single measurable metric. It's like comparing Jupiter to Pluto. Sorry bud, you're not a real planet.
Is the AMD RX 6500 XT a real GPU, though? Actually, it is. It's not a very good one, but it does serve some purpose, for some people. Even considering that you're more likely to find it for US$250 to US$300 instead of US$199, there may be literally no other option until you get over US$400. And even if you do, those options may not even be in stock at those prices.
Yes, the Radeon RX 6500 XT is controversial. But we must step away from the numbers and analyze more factors in the market and the real world.
Imagine this scenario: You're building a PC but have a budget you're sticking to. Your GPU option is either a US$199 to US$250 RX 6500 XT that's in stock, or spending hundreds more on a highly inflated, but better-performing GPU (if you can even find it). Some people don't want to double their GPU budgets, so the 6500 XT can be an option for them if they plan to stick to 1080p and Medium to High settings. It isn't a complete potato, after all. It can run games at 1080p just fine if you're careful about how hard you push it.
The US$300 Xbox Series S may still be the best option for gamers on a budget, and Microsoft's Xbox ecosystem spans PCs and consoles. Image: Thiago Trevisan/IDG
The RTX 3050 flew out of stock everywhere quickly, and it's currently selling for over US$400, much more than its ostensible US$250 MSRP. The Radeon RX 6500 XT is still available, but also for US$50 to US$100 more than MSRP in most cases unless you can find a US$199 unicorn.
If you can stretch your budget, the much more sensible solution that seems to have good stock would be stepping up to the AMD RX 6600 or 6600 XT. These are certainly much better than the 6500 XT, and in most scenarios surpass the RTX 3050. They can be found in the US$400 to US$550 range much more easily, certainly.
Still, for many people this still isn't an option—going from US$199 to over US$400 is a considerable price hike. That's why for a select group of people, the 6500 XT can tide them over until an upgrade is easier in the future. Unfortunately, it seems high GPU prices are here to stay for now, so upping one's budget is needed.
The high-end GPU market may be in a Gilded Age in terms of performance, but the budget PC gaming market is in the dark age right now. If none of the above options make sense to you at their current prices, you're not alone. The best advice for budget gamers may be this:
You can….gasp….just buy an Xbox Series S for US$299 and get some pretty good gaming performance for the buck. Microsoft's console is hands-down the best value for the dollar in today's market. It's still a PC technically too, right?