There's no denying that the ongoing semiconductor shortage has made it a challenging time to get your hands on a new GPU. Even if you can, you're often forced to pay well over the recommended retail price for it, with demand heavily outweighing available supply and thus creating a lucrative market for some unwelcome price gouging. It's what makes new releases of GPUs, such as the RTX 3050, so tricky. On paper, the latest graphics card from Nvidia delivers--it's a good GPU for 1080p gaming at high refresh rates, with the bonus of ray tracing and DLSS support. But if you can't find it for the price it's meant to be sold at, does that even matter anymore?
The RTX 3050 sits at the bottom of Nvidia's current line of new GPUs, positioned as this generation's budget card alongside significantly more expensive options such as the RTX 3060 and RTX 3070. It's evident that the price cut comes with its own share of concessions made on the hardware side. The GA106 GPU that the RTX 3050 uses is a slightly smaller version of the one in the RTX 3060, suggesting that Nvidia is making economical use of silicon it previously might have kept off shelves. That said, you're not going to get close to the same performance, even with the 8GB of GDDR6 VRAM that is shared between the two tiers of cards.
For starters, the RTX 3050 limits its memory to a 128-bit bus, drastically reducing its effective memory bandwidth to just 224GBps. This comes into play when trying to hit higher frame rates at 1440p, where the available memory on offer hits the mark but just doesn't have the raw speed to keep up. Elsewhere, the 2560 CUDA cores and 12 billion transistors initially make the RTX 3050 sound more like a replacement for the RTX 2060 from last generation, but its much lower Tensor Core count and effective memory bandwidth keep it well behind in real-world applications.
GTX 1060 Ti
That isn't to say that the addition of both Tensor and RT cores should be overlooked, especially if you're planning to upgrade from an older GTX 1060. These are the bits of hardware that make ray tracing and DLSS possible, both of which are big features for a budget card. While ray tracing performance does require some sacrifices in other graphical settings (more on this later), it's DLSS that continues to be the biggest benefit to even the weakest cards in Nvidia's Ampere lineup. The RTX 3050 slightly outdoes the raw performance of older cards such as the GTX 1660 Ti (which we didn't have to test ourselves), you'll be able to get more out of it for longer thanks to the performance DLSS can claw back, even if you're just running games at 1080p.
The RTX 3050 doesn't feature a reference design from Nvidia, so the one we were supplied with for testing comes from Gigabyte. This RTX 3050 OC Gaming Edition is a dual-slot card, featuring a triple-fan design that is overkill for the 130W TDP of the card, even at its boost clocks. The design features a premium look, however, with a nice metal backplate and a cut-out over the furthest fan down the card to allow air to get flung upwards into your chassis for better airflow (a design Nvidia has been using on its own Founder's Edition cards).
The over-engineered cooling does mean the RTX 3050 stayed whisper-quiet during testing, never going over 76 degrees Celsius on the core when stressed to its limit. The card also features a 0RPM fan mode when the GPU is idle, which is a nice touch in a budget offering. There's even a splash of RGB with an illuminated and addressable Gigabyte logo on the side of the card for traditional mounting.
Methodology and test bench
Performance is where the real strengths and inescapable weaknesses of the RTX 3050 come to bear, especially if you're hoping for a GPU that will power your gaming at 1440p for the foreseeable future. The short of it is that this new card is more suited to 1080p gaming in most respects, especially when you're looking to run the most modern titles at above 60fps. The good news is that, on that playing field, it does remarkably well, as results in graphically demanding titles such as Forza Horizon 5, Metro: Exodus Enhanced Edition, and more show.
Our testing took place in the same machine as the one used for the RTX 3080 Ti (although we won't be comparing results to that card, for obvious reasons). Because we didn't have access to either the RTX 2060 or AMD's latest budget offering, the RX 5600 XT, we couldn't do comparisons to those either, but a GTX 1060 we did have on hand offers some context into the performance gains you can expect if you missed out on Nvidia's last generation of GPUs. Testing was done on the following system:
- MSI Mortar B550M Motherboard
- AMD Ryzen 5 5600X 6-core/12-thread CPU clocked at 4.65GHz
- Noctua NH-U12S CPU Cooler
- Corsair Vengeance DDR4-3200, CL16 RAM (2x16GB dual-channel DIMMs)
- Corsair Hxi Series HX850i (80mPlus Platinum) PSU
- Intel 660p 2TB NVMe SSD
Testing was done across numerous titles, both modern and slightly older, all of which allowed us to test features such as ray tracing, DLSS, and more. These include Cyberpunk 2077, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Metro: Exodus Enhanced Edition, Borderlands 3, Gears Tactics, Forza Horizon 5, and Hitman 3.
If you are looking for a GPU that might just tide you over until the semiconductor shortage subsides, but want to make use of a new 1440p display, the RTX 3050 can fill that gap if you're struggling on much older hardware. In the performance results for Forza Horizon 5 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it's clear that you can enjoy frame rates higher than 60fps if you're willing to drop down a handful of settings from their maximum. That isn't the rule across the suite, however, with more demanding titles such as Metro: Exodus and Cyberpunk 2077 showing that, in some cases, you might be better off locking your frame rate to 30fps for stability.
That's especially true if you plan on throwing ray-traced workloads on top of a 1440p resolution. This is where the RTX 3050 really buckles under the pressure, and it's just not the right card for something this demanding. You can, however, claw back a lot of performance if you combine that with DLSS, which is where the RTX 3050 can make a lot of sense as an upgrade. In some cases, you can almost double your performance when choosing the Performance preset, which doesn't hinder image quality too much at 1440p. Even at 1080p, there's additional performance to be gained, although with such a low resolution already you'll be best served by sticking to Quality and Balanced presets.
Still, with DLSS you can count on breezing through ray-traced games at above 60fps at 1440p, as results in both Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Metro: Exodus show. You can run into some memory bandwidth issues, especially when navigating a world as detailed and large as Cyberpunk's Night City, but DLSS at least gives you more room to customize your settings without sacrificing too much.
In truth, it’s the features that Nvidia has made standard across its RTX line that make the RTX 3050 worth it, even with its less-than-stellar traditional rasterization performance when compared to previous budget offerings. There's no question that DLSS puts the RTX 3050 a cut above AMD's latest budget option (with many other reviews of the RX 6500 XT indicating there's many more problems in rasterized workloads there, too). The problem then is just whether you can find an RTX 3050 for the $250 that Nvidia is planning to sell many of them for, which skews its value proposition based on what the market eventually decides it's worth.
With cryptocurrency mining still alive and kicking (and the 8GB of VRAM present on this card making it an alluring option), there's little chance that the RTX 3050 will fly low enough on the radar to be excluded from the current climate of scalping and price gouging. It's impossible for us to know what it will eventually settle on in terms of price, but at its MSRP there's a strong case to make for the weakest card in the RTX 30 series line depending on your current setup. It's an easy recommendation if you held off on a 20-series card, with its latest hardware allowing you to finally take advantage of DLSS and ray tracing.
If you're looking for an upgrade path from Nvidia's last generation of cards, the RTX 3050 isn't really a good option. Even if you're still managing with an RTX 2060, the performance uplift won't be noticeable in most cases, so there's no reason to be thinking about paying more than retail price for a similar experience, and only a slightly convincing argument at MSRP given how the two cards can regularly trade blows. The RTX 3050 might have been the card to buy now because it's one of the only ones you can find, but it shows that even when pickings are slim you need to think carefully about whether it's worth the premium.
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