While researching information for our recently updated video cards report, I noticed several forum posts from users who said they'd saved big money by buying used graphics cards for their gaming computers. Sounds great! (Especially if you spend as much money as I do on PC components.) But digging even deeper, I found several other posts from users who bought used video cards and got stuck with defective hardware. Is it worth it to buy gaming-level video cards used for a lower price? I decided to find out.
The risks of buying used
Video cards are complicated pieces of technology -- hence their expense -- and faulty hardware, while far from common, is also far from rare. Additionally, many enthusiasts use software to increase the clock speeds of the graphics processors that power video cards. The heat generated by overclocking can kill a card if left unchecked, and if the previous owner tweaked the card's voltage levels to new heights, the lifespan of the video card could be reduced in rare cases.
The problem is, none of those issues can be seen visually. The only way to tell if a video card works is to see it in action.
User forums offer the best information
I quickly discovered that no major publications had tackled the used graphics card question. Fortunately, users in many major enthusiast forums -- including the Steam, Alienware, Overclock.net and TomsHardware.com forums -- posed the question to their cohorts. Responses were somewhat mixed, but most users said they wouldn't be comfortable buying used. The naysayers cited concerns about warranties and the overclocking issues mentioned above.
The forum members offered up helpful buying advice for those who do want to buy used, however. First and foremost, they say to see the card actually running in a PC before laying out your cash. Run a benchmarking utility -- such as Unigine's Heaven DX11 Benchmark, which is free for personal use -- during the trial to make sure the card is in full working order. If you buy a used graphics card online, stick to sellers with high ratings and good feedback.
Warranty status could be the difference maker
One of the major points of differentiation between competing video cards is their warranties, and that factor is magnified when you're buying used. The major risk of buying used -- defective hardware -- is greatly mitigated if the original manufacturer will just fix a problematic card.
Warranties based around receipts or registrations often aren't transferable. However, a few warranties stand out when buying used video cards. Asus, Gigabyte and MSI guarantee cards for three years from their manufacturing date, using the card's serial number rather than a proof of purchase. Additionally, XFX cards originally purchased after 2007 but prior to 2012 received a "double lifetime" warranty that is transferable to a second owner, but the original owner needs to fill out a form online in order for the protection to transfer.
Amazon.com sells used graphics cards, and they're covered by the company's A-to-Z Guarantee, which lets you return defective items to the seller within 14 days of receipt. That window should give you plenty of time of test a card out and determine if it's broken.
So should you buy used graphics cards?
After doing the research, I side with the majority of forum users -- I'll stick to buying new video cards. It's the only way to know for sure that the card hasn't been mistreated and it's the only way to pocket a warranty for most brands. Plus, used cards usually aren't all that cheap, often selling for around 80 percent of the cost of new ones -- and many new cards come with rebate forms that reduce the price gap even further. Our video card report discusses all the top-rated makes and models from both AMD and Nvidia.
If you do decide to buy used, be sure to pick up a card that's still covered by a warranty, even though that significantly narrows down your brand options. Either see the card running if you're buying from a local seller or use Amazon.com's guarantee to offset the danger of being stuck with a dud out of the (slightly worn) box. Many video card manufacturers don't have the best reputation for customer service, so it's better to avoid trying to cash in a warranty if you can.