My oldest son wants to build up a computer on a budget. I think he wants something a little better than the laptop I got him a couple of years ago, but I think he’s also curious about what goes into building or upgrading a PC. Right now, it’s easy to find brand-name i5-3570 PCs for very little. With a video card and an SSD, they become very respectable machines. But what’s the best video card for an i5-3470?
The onboard video in an i5-3470 is roughly equivalent to a Geforce 210, which is about the cheapest discrete video card on the market today. You won’t see any noticeable improvement unless you put in something at least equivalent to a GT 710 or R7 240.
Best is always relative
Of course if you’re willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a video card, it’s going to outperform the cheapest card on the shelf. But there’s no point in putting a $1,200 video card or even a $500 card in a midrange PC from 2013. The CPU becomes a bottleneck at that point, and if you’re messing around with a PC of that age, you’re not after peak performance. You’re after value.
And an i5-3470 is certainly serviceable today. It outperforms a Pentium G5400,which was Intel’s budget CPU circa 2020. An 8th- or 9th-generation i3 outperforms the i5, but you can get the whole system, or nearly a whole system, for the price of just the i3-9100 CPU alone.
The question, therefore, is what cards will bring that i5-3470’s performance up to the level people expect in 2021?
The value option: Nvidia GT 710 or AMD R7 240
The only reason to put a $30 video card like an Nvidia GT 210 in an i5-3470 is if you already own the card and the card has a video output you want to use and the system’s onboard video doesn’t. You don’t get any performance gain, and an adapter to convert between some combination of Displayport, DVI, and HDMI usually costs $7.
The value comes in at the GT 710 or R7 240 level. Cards based on these chips cost around $40-$45. They outperform the built-in video in an i5-3470, and slightly outperform the built-in video in a Pentium G5400.
The combination of a cheap off-lease i5-3470 plus a GT 710 or R7 240 won’t quite match the performance of a brand-new i3-9100 desktop that costs $450 as of mid 2020. But it will be very close while costing much less.
These aren’t intended as gaming cards. They’re fine for less demanding games like Minecraft and Rocket League. That said, an i5-3470 teamed up with one of these cards, 16 GB of RAM and a nice SSD makes for an outstanding budget system that will outperform anything you could buy ready built for $450 or even $600. And the build quality will be higher too. It’s like buying a 2013 Lexus sedan instead of a new mid-size sedan. It’s used, but it was a better car to start with and even with some miles on it, it’s probably a better car now.
The mid-tier option: Nvidia GT 1030
The Nvidia GT 1030 is about the lowest-end card a gamer or coin miner would consider. But it’s a favorite among upgraders because it’s a gaming-class card, it can fit in either a low-profile case or a minitower, and it has low power demands. It will run fine on the stock power supply and doesn’t require any auxiliary connectors. If you have a low profile desktop, the GT 1030 is unarguably the best video card for an i5-3470.
The cheapest I’ve ever seen these cards is around $80, and a more typical price is $90-$100.
AMD RX 460 or GT 1050 Ti
For a bit more performance, you can pick up an AMD RX 460 or GT 1050 Ti. These cards will outperform a GT 1030, but generally won’t fit in a low-profile case. Used RX 460s or GT 1050s can sometimes sell for a bit less than a GT 1030 because they’re high-profile cards, so they’re only an option in a minitower. If you don’t have a minitower, you can consider a case swap. They also may take up two slots. A tower probably has the room to spare, but keep that in mind. The upside to these cards is they still don’t need an auxiliary power connector and should still work with the stock power supply.
AMD RX 580 or GTX 1650
This seems like a logical cutoff point. With a power supply upgrade, cards of this class will still work in an i5-3470 and give smooth playback at high detail in titles like Apex Legends and GTA V. At high detail, the i5-3470 itself comes close to being the bottleneck, so there’s little point in putting a card higher than this price range in a rig like this. Since one of these cards may cost twice as much as a used i5-3470 PC itself, some would argue it doesn’t make sense to spend this kind of money on a PC in this class.
I’m probably in that camp. But a used i5-3470 with a power supply upgrade, this card, a generous-sized SSD, and maxed out to 16 GB will still cost slightly less than the typical new i3-based PC you’d find at a retail store. And while the newer i3 is a faster CPU, everything else about the i5-based system will be better.
And once the 3470 starts feeling sluggish, you have some options. You can replace the 3470 with a faster CPU. Or if like me, you don’t like the fragile pins on modern Intel-based motherboards, you can buy a slightly newer used system in a couple of years, and move the video card, power supply, and SSD to that system.