How to game on a pc when you can’t find a graphics card

Don’t want to get scammed by a scalper or pay more than double for a new GPU? We have some tips to help you keep gaming without emptying your wallet.

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Even today’s low-midrange graphics cards are hilariously overpriced, so your best bet is keeping that card and tweaking your games to perform “well enough” with the hardware you have.Photograph: Getty Images

The GPU shortage keeps getting worse, thanks to surging demand from gamers and cryptocurrency miners, alongside a host of other factors. Prices continue to skyrocket to satirical levels, and Nvidia says the shortage will likely last through all of 2021—which means you may not get that upgrade until next year at the earliest.

That’s a long time from now, which means it’s time to make some compromises. Here are the next best ways to get your fix when you can’t build a new system.

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Let’s get one thing out of the way: If you’re flush with cash but just can’t catch a GPU before bots scrape them all up, you should consider buying a prebuilt PC or a gaming laptop. As a PC builder for over a decade, I never thought I’d utter those words, but given the current conditions, it’s your best bet for getting top-tier graphics performance today.

Since OEMs like Dell, HP, and others get their own allotment of graphics cards to sell in their systems, they tend to have a bit more supply than retailers selling stand-alone cards—though you may still need to wait a few weeks for the machine to show up on your doorstep. I’m hesitant to narrow these options down to one or two given the fluctuations in price and shipping delays that may occur throughout the rest of this year, but I’d start by looking at big-box options like the Dell G5 and HP Omen 30L, as well as more customized system integrators like iBuyPower, Maingear, CyberPower PC, or NZXT BLD. You could also go with something like the Alienware Aurora R12 and Corsair One for a more compact machine, as long as you’re willing to deal with the more challenging upgrade paths that come with the smaller form factor. We have a whole guide to the best desktop PCs for gaming, along with what you should know before you buy.

Speaking of difficult to upgrade, gaming laptops are also a viable option these days. If you haven’t checked out the space lately, you might be surprised at the quality available. The days of hulking, battery-strained behemoths are starting to shrink in the rearview mirror as well-built “thin and light” laptops have become more popular. Asus’ ROG Zephyrus G14 is an incredibly popular midrange model that works well for daily use, while the MSI G66 and Razer Blade 15 sport mobile RTX 3080 chips for the best graphics you’ll find in a notebook. You can see more recommendations in our guide to the best gaming laptops. It may seem like heresy to a desktop user, but if you hook it up to your existing monitor, keyboard, and mouse, it’ll do the trick.

If you have a PC with an aging-but-borderline graphics card already, consider yourself lucky. At least you have a working card. Even today’s low-midrange cards like the GTX 1650 are hilariously overpriced, so your best bet is to keep that card and tweak your games to perform “well enough” with the hardware you have.

You’ve probably already tried turning graphics settings to low, and if that isn’t quite enough—or if it makes the game look too ugly—you might try some of today’s fancier graphics-scaling features. The gaming community is all abuzz about features like DLSS, and while it is great—it’s the only reason I’m able to get close to 60 frames per second in Cyberpunk 2077 on my 2060 Super—it’s only available on newer RTX cards. On older cards, though, you could try:

Image sharpening: Both Nvidia and AMD offer sharpening features in their drivers, which allow you to run a game at a lower resolution, then sharpen the image to make it look more crisp—getting you a better-looking image with barely any loss in performance. Some games may even have AMD’s CAS solution built in, so check your game’s settings to see if this is available, then turn it on and crank the resolution or scaling down as far as you can before things start to look bad.

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Looking for game patches and other hidden tweaks: Finally, remember that some games are terribly optimized when ported to PC, and you may be able to get much better performance from your existing card by fixing the game itself. Plenty of games have community-made patches that aim to increase performance, while others may have hidden config file tweaks that help you out. Search around for the game in question to see what other players have discovered.

One of these techniques alone may not be enough to tip the scales, but when used in tandem, they can add up to a noticeable performance boost—without making the game look like garbage.

Graphics cards may be prohibitively expensive, but you know what isn’t? Running a really long Ethernet cable from your PC to your router. Coupled with a subscription to a streaming service like Nvidia GeForce NOW, Google Stadia, or (for select beta testers) Microsoft xCloud, you can play games with high-end graphical effects on even the lowest-end PC.

These services may not have garnered the best reputation when they first came out—and sure, playing on your local machine is almost always going to provide a better experience, thanks to the lower latency and lack of video compression. But in an age where gaming hardware is nearly impossible to come by, a streaming service becomes much more compelling, provided you have a decent network connection, which is where that Ethernet cable comes in.

Even with a connection, latency may not be up to snuff for truly competitive online games, but those tend to have lower hardware requirements anyway, so you can run those locally while streaming graphically intense titles over your service of choice. If the latency is making you miss more headshots than you’d like, consider that a good excuse to turn down the difficulty. You can always cancel if and when you get your hands on that elusive hardware upgrade.

Finally, I know you don’t want to hear it, but listen: There are probably a host of games from the past year or even decade that you haven’t gotten around to playing yet. Look at your backlog—those games are begging to be played now that you’re forced to wait for better hardware.

Some games didn’t get the attention they deserved at launch, like Titanfall 2 and Spec Ops: The Line, and will run perfectly fine on systems sporting hardware from that era. Indie games can often run on darn near anything, and I’m willing to bet you have a copy of Celeste, Hollow Knight, or Night in the Woods that you got for free in some bundle. And don’t get me started on the retro games you’ve been avoiding—I finally played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the first time, and it’s probably the most exciting and interesting game I’ve played in a few years. You don’t have to play the game everyone’s talking about to have a good time.

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None of that’s even to mention the console games you’ve avoided for fear of betraying your PC roots. Haven’t played God of War or Spider-Man yet? Craigslist is littered with PlayStation 4s for affordable prices (heck, even the PS5 is easier to get than a graphics card). It may not be a PC, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And you might just be surprised at how much fun you can have digging into the archives.

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