6 things to consider before buying a used graphics card

6 things to consider before buying a used graphics card

Who doesn’t love a good deal? Especially if it’s on something that’s basically new or lightly used. We’ve been devoid of any such deals on graphics cards for the last few years, thanks to a combination of supply shortages, logistics woes, and booming cryptocurrency demands, but there’s finally good news! The GPU market has taken a nosedive, meaning that brand new retail Nvidia and AMD graphics cards are cheaper than ever. They’re still expensive, however, and GPU miners hurting from crypto’s crash are trying to sell off their hardware at significant discounts. So we now turn our attention to the used graphics card market.

There are deals to be found with used GPUs, but there are risks involved too. And is it even a good time to be shopping? We’re going to cover the top things that you need to know before buying a used GPU, ranging from the current market conditions to what you should look for with the graphics card itself. If you’d rather avoid all the potential headaches associated with buying a used graphics cards, our roundup of the best GPUs for PC gaming can help you find the best new cards to suit your needs as well.

1) Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 4000 and AMD’s Radeon RDNA 3 – coming soon?

One of the reasons that current-gen GPU prices are dropping so fast is the imminent arrival of Nvidia and AMD’s next generation GPUs. No official release dates have been released to date, so it’s difficult to pin down exactly when we are seeing something new, though AMD says its new RDNA 3-powered Radeon GPUs will debut sometime in Q4 (October through December). Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 4000-series is also heavily rumored to launch sometime this year.

Regardless of whether Nvidia or AMD strikes first, expect the biggest, baddest next-gen GPUs to launch first, such as the GeForce RTX 4090 and 4080. We’d be more likely to see more affordable graphics cards, like the RTX 4070 and below, next year.

What does that mean if you’re looking at picking up a used GPU? Second hand prices will continue to fall, and could decrease even more sharply when the next generations of graphics cards are announced. Even if you don’t have plans to buy an RTX 4090, its mere existence means you can likely get much cheaper pricing for a used GeForce RTX 30- or Radeon 6000-series GPU.

2) Mining GPUs hitting the market

Many of the used graphics cards currently hitting the used market were used for crypto mining. With the recent downturn in cryptocurrency profitability, there has been a massive increase in these becoming available for sale. Some will be disclosed by the seller, but many will not.

Should you be worried? We cover the details more fully in our guide to whether you should buy a used mining GPU. But (spoiler alert) you’ll probably be fine, and here’s why:

Some may be GPUs bought during the last few months before the “crash,” so may still be close to new.Most hardcore cryptocurrency miners will underclock and power limit their graphics cards, and good owners will also keep an eye on temperatures.GPUs historically have not shown any significant degradation or long-term issues from being mined on. You’re likely more easily to damage it by overclocking for gaming in some cases.

Having said that, the most important thing is to ask the seller some pointed questions. If they say a used GPU was used for mining, ask them in what type of environment was the system in. Was it hot all of the time? Did it have good ventilation, airflow, and dust control? Was it handled carefully? What voltage and clock speed tweaks did they make? The answers will give you good guidance. If you’re not comfortable buying a used mining GPU, that’s OK too. Just move on. The market is flush with options right now, including discounts on new graphics cards.

3) Beware GPUs with GDDR6X memory

We covered above how you’re generally fine buying a used mining GPU, but there are some very important technical details you should give some extra attention. Some high-end Nvidia RTX 30-series graphics cards use hot and powerful GDDR6X VRAM. It’s particularly taxed by mining, given how memory-intensive mining is, and some models have suffered from heat issues if they came with poor thermal pads from the factory. It’s a more pronounced concern for Nvidia’s own Founders Edition cards.

This disassembled RTX 3090 Founders Edition reveals the card’s GDDR6X memory chips.

Thiago Trevisan/IDG

GPUs utilizing GDDR6X includes the GeForce RTX 3070 Ti, 3080, 3080 Ti, and 3090. The monstrous RTX 3090 Ti features an improved VRAM design and is less likely to suffer from these issues. AMD’s rival Radeon offerings, on the other hand, use typical GDDR6 (no X) memory so you don’t need to worry about those.

The most crucial one (by far) to be careful with is the big guy here, the GeForce RTX 3090. An inexperienced crypto miner who is unaware of the VRAM issues may have run their RTX 3090 nonstop, with the memory constantly being thermally throttled to its 110C cutoff temperature. The GDDR6X memory temperatures on healthy GPUs should ideally run well under 100C. (In fact, 94C or below in a good airflow environment is even better)

Some custom RTX 3090s had decent out of the box thermal pads, but some did not—even amongst graphics cards with the same model, from the same brand. I’ve tested lower-end 3090s that had wonderful temperatures—and some higher-end models that were abysmal due to bad stock thermal pads, and vice versa. Ask the seller about this. Some gamers may be unaware of VRAM issues if they didn’t mine with their graphics card, and that’s likely OK, but questions are always good before purchasing.

4) Stress test the GPU

If you have a friendly seller, you could ask them for 3DMark scores to verify performance, or even ask them to run the GPU for a while in Heaven Benchmark. That will tell you if the GPU is stable and at least performing to spec.

If you buy the GPU from a used market place that has a good return policy, such as a store open box or eBay, test it yourself. Our guide to benchmarking your graphics card can help. Make sure there are no visual artifacts or other aberrant behavior that would crash it using the above referenced benchmarking software, and try playing a mixture of fast-paced and visually intensive games. If a used graphics card does have problems, you’d have a return policy to fall back on with those places.

If you buy a used graphics card directly from the previous owner, off sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, getting a return may be tougher. It’s best to ask them to provide benchmark results before the sale if possible, and let you know of any potential issues.

5) Physical conditions matter

The eyeball test is your best friend. Does something look off or damaged in the picture of that used graphics card? It can have real life consequences. That GPU fan blade with the missing tip might seem innocent enough, but when it’s spinning, the oscillation is likely to create lots of vibration and cooling issues.

Thiago Trevisan/IDG

Has the seller opened the GPU or applied new thermal pads? While new pads can theoretically improve temperatures, inexperienced users who try and change them out can also possibly damage the GPU itself if they’re not careful.

If the GPU looks clean, without damage, and the seller has the original box in nice shape, those can all be great signs.

Don’t overlook some specific situations where you can save loads of money, though. Sometimes a GPU may just be cosmetically damaged without performance problems, and you can save lot of money because of that if you don’t mind a few scratches on the shroud. You can also save more cash if you buy something you know you can repair (such as the fan blades if you’re handy and know what you’re doing). Overall, however, a clean, nicely kept GPU is generally ideal.

6) Choose your source wisely

Not all used GPUs are sold the same way. There can be large monetary differences and safety net protections depending on where you go.

First, one of the safer ways to get a cheaper “used” graphics is to look for open box offerings from physical retailers. If you’re lucky to live near a Micro Center, you can even physically inspect the GPU, put a warranty on it, and return it if it’s not working right. You’ll save compared to a new GPU, but it may still cost slightly more than elsewhere. You can often find similar open box items on Amazon, Newegg, and similar retailers. Make sure you’re covered by a solid return policy If you can’t inspect it beforehand.

Next, there are various online market places such as eBay. These can typically have good return policies, product pictures, and seller feedback so you have a higher chance of getting something good. You may pay more due to the fee structures, but you’ll still save over new.

The cheapest route is likely a direct person to person sale, often found on places like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. While you can often score the cheapest pricing on used GPUs this way, there are a lot of precautions that need to be taken for your own safety, such as meeting in a public place. The good news is that you can often physically inspect the graphics card, but it may be harder to get your money back if something goes wrong later. Good pricing, but buyer must use more caution.

Certain GPU brands may also have warranties that apply to a second owner with some limitations, such as EVGA. Your mileage will vary here, so be sure to research the exact brand you’re buying as they all differ.  

Buying a used GPU: It’s not so bad!

GPUs can last for years if taken care of, and the last few years have inflated GPU pricing to astronomical levels. But at long last, the tide is turning. At the end of the day, there can be tremendous price savings if you’re savvy when buying a used graphics card. If you take precautions, you can often score a great deal—especially in a suddenly soft market where sellers are eager to get rid of their units. Be sure to check out our roundup of the best graphics cards for PC gaming so you’re armed with the knowledge you need whether you’re buying new or used.

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