A Better Way to Buy a Better Bang for Your Buck

Performance per dollar” and “bang for your buck” are terms thrown around frequently in enthusiast communities, but their meanings aren’t very helpful in the real world. It is best to base performance per dollar on a metric relating cost to a quantifiable performance measurement such as framerate in a game, but that fails to account for so many variables and constants in the price of a system build or an upgrade that it is not applicable to most situations. I would like to propose that quantifying value is not possible in a vacuum and is entirely dependent on other components. It is something that varies for each and every system, and there is no master list of “best value” components.

This piece was inspired by a particular chart in a TechSpot review of the RTX 2060 and by a post on the /r/AMD subreddit celebrating AMD’s RX 570 and 580 reaching the top of this “dollars per frame” chart. Logically, you want this value minimized, either because the graphics card offers unusually high performance for its price or because its price is unusually low for the performance it offers. But I would like to counter TechSpot’s review and /r/AMD’s unbiased discourse and instead say that although the RX 570 tops that chart, it does not provide the best value because the chart does not reflect any product’s value in any meaningful way. A computer’s value is holistic, and individual components’ costs must be considered in the larger context of the entire system.

Before beginning, I’ll preface this with some disclaimers: first, I am ignoring used prices. Tracking these is way too difficult and variable to even bother, and new hardware has its perks anyway. Second, I am considering a flexible budget. I am not discussing the fastest system for $n$ but rather discussing how to determine which component offers the actual best bang for your buck, assuming you’ve got the bucks to spend. Third, graphics cards are a bit messy because they are easy to overclock in software for “free” performance, and aftermarket cards often run at factory-overclocked settings compared to the reference models. My list might not reflect reality exactly, but it should be close. Fourth, I am only looking at general-purpose performance. If specialized features are required, like AVX or SGX instructions in a CPU, or any of NVIDIA’s technology like RTX or CUDA, then they must be considered. Entire product lines or even manufacturers can be written off because they do not support a feature that your workload needs, even if in general-purpose workloads they actually do provide a better value.

Constructing a “Frames per Dollar” Table

First, we need data. Let’s consult TechPowerUp’s review and benchmarks of the RTX 2060 Founders Edition, and let’s truncate their data so it’s easier to manage and reflects realistic purchasing choices. Let’s assume that a user seeking an upgrade owns a GTX 1050 Ti. There is no logical reason to purchase a slower graphics card; the user wants an upgrade, after all. So let’s only look at more powerful current-generation graphics cards and, as a baseline, the GTX 1050 Ti.

Options for a Graphics Card Upgrade
Graphics card
GTX 1050 Ti
RX 570 (4 GiB)
RX 580 (8 GiB)
RX Vega 56
RX Vega 64
RTX 2060
RTX 2070
RTX 2080
RTX 2080 Ti
A list of some current-generation graphics cards tested by TechPowerUp that upgrade a GTX 1050 Ti.

Second, let’s assume that the user has a 1080p monitor right now and wants to upgrade for silky-smooth high-framerate gaming. We’ll focus on the 1080p performance summary only and normalize it to the GTX 1050 Ti rather than the RTX 2060. Members of our truncated list of graphics cards achieve the following relative performance across a nice selection of games.

+ Performance versus GTX 1050 Ti
Graphics card Relative performance
GTX 1050 Ti 100%
RX 570 (4 GiB) 147%
RX 580 (8 GiB) 166%
RX Vega 56 237%
RX Vega 64 255%
RTX 2060 263%
RTX 2070 303%
RTX 2080 353%
RTX 2080 Ti 400%
The list of graphics cards and their average 1080p gaming performance relative to a GTX 1050 Ti.

And third, let’s try to figure out a fair way to price these. MSRP isn’t a good option in my opinion, especially because AMD’s graphics cards have been out for well over a year and have received price cuts; using MSRP would artificially reduce their values by using a high price which is rarely encountered anymore. I’ll take the average of the cheapest three examples of each graphics card as cataloged by PC Part Picker. This ought to balance out both short supplies and deep sales, but at the very least it gives us a snapshot of the market on a particular day.

+ Cost of Upgrade Options
Graphics card Relative performance Estimated price (Jan. 2019)
GTX 1050 Ti 100% $0
RX 570 (4 GiB) 147% $142
RX 580 (8 GiB) 166% $188
RX Vega 56 237% $383
RX Vega 64 255% $400
RTX 2060 263% $350
RTX 2070 303% $482
RTX 2080 353% $698
RTX 2080 Ti 400% $1227
The possible upgrade options and their estimated prices at the end of January 2019.

Great! We don’t particularly care about the GTX 1050 Ti’s price because the user already owns it. In effect, it costs $0 because it has been paid for already.

Now that we have price and performance, we can relate them. “Frames per dollar” isn’t a good metric here because we don’t have framerates. Remember, TechPowerUp’s performance summary averages performance across a lot of different games. Instead, I’ll be using the GTX 1050 Ti itself as a unit of performance and relating that to cost, i.e., creating a metric that describes the money spent for 100% of a GTX 1050 Ti’s performance. I’ll also be reordering the table so the best (lowest) values are on top.

+ Relative Performance versus Cost
Graphics card Relative performance Estimated price (Jan. 2019) Cost per "GTX 1050 Ti unit"
GTX 1050 Ti 100% $0 $0
RX 570 (4 GiB) 147% $142 $96
RX 580 (8 GiB) 166% $188 $114
RTX 2060 263% $350 $133
RX Vega 64 255% $400 $157
RTX 2070 303% $482 $159
RX Vega 56 237% $383 $162
RTX 2080 353% $698 $198
RTX 2080 Ti 400% $1227 $307
The upgrade options sorted by the price of each "GTX 1050 Ti unit"-equivalent performance measurement.

For a more direct comparison to the TechSpot rankings, I have scaled all the results so the magnitude of the RX 570’s value metrics in our rankings and theirs are equal to 1.

The Chip Collective/TechPowerUp versus TechSpot Value Metrics
CC/TPU data, scaled ($/1050 Ti) TechSpot, scaled ($/FPS)
RX 570 1 1
RX 580 1.18 1.07
RTX 2060 1.38 1.30
RX Vega 64 1.63 1.69
RTX 2070 1.66 1.67
RX Vega 56 1.68 1.36
A comparison of The Chip Collective/TechPowerUp data and the TechSpot data which determine value as a function of price and performance.

The RX Vega 56 and RX Vega 64 positions are flipped between the two datasets, but the rankings are otherwise not changed and are qualitatively the same. The RX Vega graphics cards’ reordering can be explained by the small $17 difference in their prices found here and the much larger $80 difference found in the TechSpot article; this small difference simultaneously makes the RX Vega 56 a worse value and the RX Vega 64 a better value. Both datasets agree that the RX 570 and RX 580 are indeed the most powerful graphics cards per dollar spent and that the RTX 2060 is indeed a better buy than either RX Vega card or the RTX 2070. TechSpot came to the following conclusion about the RTX 2060 using their dataset:

TL;DR: The new GeForce RTX 2060 is without question the best mid-range graphics card you can get your hands on, and at $350 it basically eliminates the $500 RTX 2070 which was just 11% faster on average and at most up to 16% faster. We have a lot more data, including our cost per frame figures and closing thoughts below, but we wanted to get that out of the way.

Based on its $350 MSRP, the RTX 2060 comes at a cost of $4.06 per frame. The GPU provides a slightly better price to performance ratio than the GTX 1070, Vega 56 and the Radeon RX 590. It also makes it around 22% more cost effective than the RTX 2070, so that’s obviously a step in the right direction. 1

Thanks to some slight differences in my method of determing price and TechPowerUp’s benchmark results, the RTX 2070 in our dataset is both a bit cheaper and a bit more powerful relative to the RTX 2060. But using the same interpretation of value as TechSpot, I do agree that the RTX 2070 is made obsolete by the RTX 2060. The RTX 2070’s performance difference does not justify the relatively-large price increase. On the other hand, the RX 570 is an even better value against the RTX 2060 in my dataset, costing 27% less rather than 23% less for the same performance. Thus, I also agree with /r/AMD using the same interpretation. The RX 570 does indeed offer the best performance per dollar out of all graphics cards.

But I left out one option:

For the low price of $0, the user can also choose to “buy” an upgrade offering exactly one GTX 1050 Ti worth of performance by not upgrading. Sticking with the existing graphics card offers infinitely many performance units of itself per dollar spent. Therefore, not upgrading at all provides an infinitely better value than any purchase.

Wait, what?

Yeah, I know, division by zero is bad. Anyway, remember when I said this a couple charts ago?

In effect, [the GTX 1050 Ti] costs $0 because it has been paid for already.

The option of not upgrading at all is always present and perfectly valid, but it is rarely discussed. In my opinion, this renders any value metric based on price and absolute performance completely useless in the real world.

Ultimately, when you buy computer components, you buy them for their performance, their ability to do some kind of work. A hard drive stores some amount of data, a graphics card renders some amount of frames, and so on. When you upgrade, you buy a new component for its additional performance. If you buy a new hard drive, you can just stick it in an empty drive bay and plug it into an unused SATA port. Hard drives are perfectly content to add their capacity to the entire system’s pool. Thus, 100% of the hard drive’s absolute performance provides additional performance for the system.

However, buying a new graphics card requires replacing the old (let’s be honest, multi-GPU technologies are dead). You cannot plug a new graphics card into a spare PCIe slot and expect its performance to add with the old. So the old graphics card is removed. Its performance is gone. When buying a new graphics card, you are partly rebuying the performance of the old graphics card. You are spending money on performance that you already own! I claim that the existing performance has a value of $0, equal to the cost of not upgrading at all. The money you spend on an upgrade that requires replacing a component is only spent on the new performance.

It’s probably easiest to demonstrate this idea with a graphic:


GTX 1050 Ti
RX 570 (total)
RX 570 (increase)
RTX 2060 (total)
RTX 2060 (increase)

The RX 570’s entire $142 price tag is spent on a small increase, while the RTX 2060’s $350 price tag is spent on a much larger increase. Spending 2.5 times as much on the RTX 2060 provides 3.5 times the performance increase of the RX 570. Let’s modify the last data table we made to reflect this idea. Instead of looking at the price of a GTX 1050 Ti unit, we will instead be looking at the price of GTX 1050 Ti units beyond the first and reordering the table based on this new metric. I’ve also noted the change in rank for each.

Relative Performance versus Cost, v2
Graphics card Estimated price (Jan. 2019) Relative performance Cost per GTX 1050 Ti unit Additional performance Cost per additional GTX 1050 Ti unit
GTX 1050 Ti $0 100% $0 0% N/A
RTX 2060 (+2) $350 263% $133 163% $214
RTX 2070 (+3) $482 303% $159 203% $238
RX Vega 64 (+1) $400 255% $157 155% $258
RTX 2080 (+3) $698 353% $198 253% $276
RX Vega 56 (+1) $383 237% $162 137% $280
RX 580 (8 GiB) (-4) $188 166% $114 66% $286
RX 570 (4 GiB) (-6) $142 147% $96 47% $299
RTX 2080 Ti (=) $1227 400% $307 300% $409
The cost per unit of absolute performance compared to the cost per unit of increased performance.

With the exception of the RTX 2080 Ti due to its frankly ridiculous price, every single graphics card becomes a better value except for the RX 570 and RX 580. Why?

They’re the weakest two upgrade choices. Looking closer, you’ll see also notice that the more-powerful RX 580 dropped fewer ranks than the RX 570 and that their positions relative to each other flipped. The new table favors the more powerful graphics cards because a greater portion of their absolute performance provides an increase; a smaller portion of their performance is already owned. However, this does not favor more expensive graphics cards, as indicated by the RTX 2080 Ti’s unchanged position at the bottom of the list. Although it offers the highest performance, its price is just too high for it to offer a good value here.

This is why the RX 570 and 580 are such bad values using the new metric: they do not upgrade the GTX 1050 Ti enough to justify their prices. Don’t compare the RTX 2060’s and RX 570’s absolute performance. That implies the RX 570 offers 28% more “performance per dollar.” It is much more useful to compare the additional performance that the GTX 1050 Ti can not achieve. Suddenly, the values flip, and the RTX 2060 offers a 28% better value instead.

This also means that even the RTX 2080 Ti and its $1200 price tag may offer the best bang for your buck in reality. If you own a GTX 1080 Ti and want to upgrade to Turing, TechPowerUp’s data suggests that the RTX 2080 Ti offers about three times the additional performance that the RTX 2080 provides, but at less than double the price.

CPU Upgrades: Dependent on More than One Component

“Bang for your buck” doesn’t just apply to GPUs. Let’s consider three users: one who owns a Ryzen 5 1500X, one who owns a “Coffee Lake” Core i5-8400, and one who owns a “Kaby Lake” Core i5-7500. All these people would like to upgrade to 8-core CPUs and are considering the Ryzen 7 2700X and the Core i9-9900K. They’ve done their research, and sites like Reddit are very sure that AMD’s cheaper 8-core processor is the better option due to the ethereal performance per dollar measurement.

Now, it should be immediately clear that “performance per dollar” metrics relating CPU performance to the cost of the CPU alone would not accurately reflect the Ryzen owner’s or Coffee Lake owner’s situation. After all, one of the two upgrade options is compatible with each of their existing motherboards after a quick BIOS update while the other requires purchasing a new, expensive component. The “performance per dollar” metric doesn’t even reflect the Kaby Lake owner’s situation because, while a new motherboard is needed with either CPU, two same-price motherboards cost different fractions of their respective CPU’s price and affect value differently.

Using data from the “CPU tests” and “1080p gaming” summaries of TechPowerUp’s i9-9900K review, I’ve made tables comparing the values of the two 8-core CPUs and demonstrating how the value changes when the cost of the motherboard is included rather than ignored.

Upgrading from the Ryzen 5 1500X
New CPU Core i9-9900K Ryzen 7 2700X
Motherboard cost Ignored $150 $0
Upgrade price $530 $680 $310
General CPU increase 86% 55%
Cost per percentage point $6.20 $7.90 $5.60
1080p gaming increase 21% 12%
Cost per percentage point $25 $33 $26
The values of upgrades from a Ryzen 5 1500X to 8-core CPUs, with the cost of the needed motherboard both considered and ignored.

If we compare the value of the Core i9 and the Ryzen 7 as CPUs alone, we see a small win for the Ryzen 7 choice. The cost per percentage point of extra gaming performance is close to even, but in general CPU tasks, Ryzen 7 is about 10% cheaper. It’s not much, but it’s a small win for AMD.

However, once we consider the price of a new Z390 motherboard to go along with the Core i9, the entire cost of upgrading to it becomes much more expensive, more than twice the cost of upgrading to the Ryzen 7! The relative cost of the Core i9 increases significantly, and the Ryzen 7 becomes the very obvious winner.

Budgeting $150 for a motherboard is pretty arbitrary, I admit, but there are several reasons to consider this price point. Only the top-tier Z390 and X470 chipsets support both unlocked CPU multipliers and a bifurcated PCIe graphics link to allow, for instance, multi-GPU setups. Q370 supports bifurcation, and B450 supports unlocked multipliers, but neither supports both. More expensive motherboards also tend to offer better VRMs, and 8-core CPUs when overclocked definitely need them.

Next up, let’s take a look at the Coffee Lake user.

Upgrading from the Core i5-8400
New CPU Core i9-9900K Ryzen 7 2700X
Motherboard cost $0 Ignored $150
Upgrade price $530 $310 $460
General CPU increase 54% 28%
Cost per percentage point $10 $11 $16
1080p gaming increase 5% -4%
Cost per percentage point $103 N/A N/A
The values of upgrades from a Core i5-8400 to 8-core CPUs, with the cost of the needed motherboard both considered and ignored.

There’s a small problem: Ryzen is simply not as good in gaming as Coffee Lake, even with more cores and nearly three times the hardware threads available. We’ll ignore gaming then and focus on general CPU tasks. There, when considering only the cost of the CPU, it’s close, and the Core i9 only wins by about 10%. But once the motherboard is factored in, the cost advantage of AMD’s cheaper CPU is nullified, and upgrading to it costs within $100 of upgrading to the Core i9. The Core i9 goes from a small win to a major one, costing 40% less per percentage point.

Finally, let’s check in on the Kaby Lake user.

Upgrading from the Core i5-7500
New CPU Core i9-9900K Ryzen 7 2700X
Motherboard cost Ignored $150 Ignored $150
Upgrade price $530 $680 $310 $460
General CPU increase 97% 64%
Cost per percentage point $5.50 $7.00 $4.80 $7.20
1080p gaming increase 17% 8%
Cost per percentage point $31 $40 $39 $55
The values of upgrades from a Core i5-7500 to 8-core CPUs, with the cost of the needed motherboards both considered and ignored.

This is the upgrade that I find most interesting. Comparing the costs and relative values of just the CPUs indicates that the Ryzen 7 offers a better value in general CPU tasks while the Core i9 offers a better value in gaming. Overall, it’s a wash. Without knowing more about the user’s workload, it is impossible to confidently tell them which 8-core upgrade is better for them.

But this changes once the motherboard is considered. Although both upgrades now cost $150 more, they do not cost the same percentage more. The Core i9 upgrade costs 30% more, but the Ryzen 7 upgrade costs 50% more. (Remember, this is money that would have been spent originally, but it is not factored into any review’s price to performance metrics.) The Core i9 closes the gap in general CPU workloads and widens its lead in gaming performance, and therefore offers the better value if the extra $220 can be budgeted.

Contrasting all this, TechPowerUp’s review claims that the Ryzen 7 2700X offers 45% more “performance per dollar” than the Core i9-9900K, but this metric is not accurate for anybody. The motherboard’s cost must be taken into account, either because a compatible motherboard is owned for one processor or because a compatible motherboard is owned for neither processor. And even if all options being considered are compatible pending a BIOS update, we just go back to a situation like the first one with the GTX 1050 Ti owner upgrading their graphics card.

“Performance per dollar” cannot exist in a vacuum.

Even though AMD offers the cheaper 8-core, and even though its performance is competitive with Intel’s equivalent, it does not necessarily offer the better value for a system upgrade. Telling newcomers that AMD or any other company offers a better bang for their buck than the competition is flat out wrong. It is not a statement that generalizes well to all users and all situations, and I hope I have just proven that it applies to no user in any situation. Although I did not consider an upper limit on a user’s budget in this piece, I do not believe that the term “bang for your buck” necessarily implies a fixed budget. If spending a little bit extra now allows delaying an expensive upgrade later, trying to stretch that budget may be something to consider.

Full System Builds

Have you ever realized just how many low-end processor models are available and how little their performance differs? Intel’s Pentium Gold line provides good examples.

List of Pentium Gold CPUs (Coffee Lake)
Pentium Gold MSRP Frequency $/GHz
G5400 $64 3.7 GHz $17.30
G5500 $75 3.8 GHz $19.70
G5600 $86 3.9 GHz $22.00
G5400T $64 3.1 GHz $20.60
G5500T $75 3.2 GHz $23.40
A list of Coffee Lake processors using the Pentium Gold branding and estimates of their price to performance.

These can be divided into standard and low-power “T” groups. The “T” CPUs are rated for a lower 35 W TDP (let’s be honest none of these break 30 W package power at any point), though they are priced the same as their full-power counterparts. The G5400 offers the best price to performance, providing 3.7 GHz for just $64. It only gets worse moving up the stack. Each additional 100 MHz costs $11. The low-power CPUs show the same trend, but the starting $64 CPU is 600 MHz slower.

Clearly, the Pentium Gold G5400 is the best value of the five and should always be chosen. Spending 35% extra for a measly 5% more performance is ridiculous! Who would even consider the G5600? The only exception is for situations in which energy and heat are extremely important considerations. Then, the G5400T becomes the best choice.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. We’re building a system, an entire computer. That costs a lot more than $64 or even $86. Even though no parts are being replaced and this is a brand new box, we still cannot calculate price to performance using the CPUs alone and call it a day. We need to consider the cost of every other component. That means the motherboard, memory, and power supply at a bare minimum. It’s a good idea to use a case, and a hard drive is needed unless you’re booting off a network. A discrete GPU might be required too depending on the workload. CUDA-accelerated software can leverage an NVIDIA GPU for instance, and integrated graphics aren’t ideal for gaming. Aftermarket cooling isn’t required with these Pentiums but is a possible expense. Networking hardware like multi-gigabit Ethernet or WiFi, assuming they aren’t included with the motherboard, also drives up the price. Depending on how it’s licensed, software may fit here too. OEM licenses for Windows are single-use, for instance.

All of those components are things that you need and can’t avoid buying. Regardless of the CPU chosen, they will likely cost the same. If you have parts on hand, great! You’ve just saved money and might even get a better value out of the cheaper CPU.

Instead of coming up with hypothetical parts lists, I will instead lump everything into one number. That’s the cost of the bits that aren’t the CPU. It doesn’t matter what they are exactly, just that money is spent on them.

We can create three linear equations of the following form to estimate the price to performance of the whole system in terms of money spent per CPU clock cycle.

$costPerGHz=\frac{costCPU+costSystem}{GHzCPU}$

Plugging in the values for the low-power Pentium Golds above, we get two equations.

G5400T $costPerGHz=\frac{64+costSystem}{3.1}$
G5500T $costPerGHz=\frac{75+costSystem}{3.2}$

This yields the following graph.

The intersection at x=277 indicates that the two CPUs provide equal value for a system with non-CPU components totalling $277. If the system costs less, the G5400T is the better choice. More, and the G5500T is better. This means that a G5400T system which costs $341 offers the same bang for your buck as a G5500T system which costs $352. Yes, the CPU costs 17% more for just 100 MHz, but the entire system only costs 3% more.

Now let’s look at all three full-power Pentium Golds.

G5400 $costPerGHz=\frac{64+costSystem}{3.7}$
G5500 $costPerGHz=\frac{75+costSystem}{3.8}$
G5600 $costPerGHz=\frac{86+costSystem}{3.9}$

Plotting these equations yields a second graph.

Interestingly, all three lines intersect at x=343. This means that a G5400, G5500, or G5600 will provide the same bang for your buck in a system with non-CPU components summing to $343. Below that and the G5400 is superior. Above that and the G5600 is superior. But at no price point does the G5500 offer a better value. Including the CPU cost, a G5400 should be used in systems totalling $407 or less, a G5600 should be used in systems totalling $429 or more, and a G5500 should only be used in systems totalling $418.

Is this simplified? Sure. Would spending the extra money used for the higher tier of CPU be better used elsewhere? Maybe. It depends on the workload. For a basic gaming machine it might be smarter to dump $22 into a faster graphics card instead, but then at that point we can fix the cost of all non-GPU components and construct the same plots. The main thing to take away from this is that a computer requires a lot of expensive components that are necessary for its operation but do not necessarily affect performance. Like the CPU upgrade discussed above, factoring in other components’ costs such as the motherboard’s will affect how value is quantified.

Conclusion

A component’s value varies depending on the others around it. Anybody who tells you that x hardware offers y% more performance per dollar in z application is lying to you, and if you base the choice of each component on the traditional contextless performance per dollar measurements, odds are good that you’re shorting yourself on performance for the money spent. The cost of a computer needs to be viewed holistically.

When upgrading, the current hardware you own should be taken into account. Small upgrades provide poor value even if the new component offers fantastic performance for its price. When building, components that don’t affect performance buffer the costs of the ones that do. That CPU or GPU that costs 50% more for 5% more performance? If the extra 50% is only 4% of the whole system’s cost, the expensive option offers an objectively and quantifiably better value for that particular system no matter how many reviews or Reddit users tell you its price to performance is worse.

Finally, I only discussed consumer systems. But think about servers and workstations. Think about the operating costs involved for a moment. Think about the salary of the sysadmin maintaining it, or the engineer or graphic designer using it. Think about the thousands of dollars spent on software licensing. Suddenly, Intel’s Xeon and NVIDIA’s Quadro and Tesla aren’t really that much more expensive than AMD’s EPYC, Radeon Pro, and Radeon Instinct. When all the other costs are high enough, an extra ten thousand spent on hardware might just be a rounding error, and a million-dollar server might just offer the best bang for your buck after all.