Want to build a PC with the most up-to-date parts? Good luck. The industry has been grappling with a component shortage for years, but the problem was laid bare in 2020 as the pandemic delayed shipments just as people retreated to home offices and started shopping for the gear they needed to keep their businesses afloat.
Then, as new GPUs hit the market, scalpers—some of whom were trying to make ends meet after having lost jobs during the pandemic—used bots to scoop up the sought-after cards and sell them at inflated prices. Others turned to GPU-intensive cryptocurrency mining.
Chipmakers and retailers have taken steps to fight the scalpers and crypto miners, but execs still predict the supply will remain tight into 2022. Here’s how we got here.
Years in the making: As our sister site ExtremeTech explains, pre-2020 GPU shortages trace back in the near term to limited yields on 16nm GPUs in 2016 and cryptocurrency-related demand in 2017 and 2018. (Mining setup in your mom’s basement, anyone?) At the same time, Intel was dealing with a slightly more complicated CPU shortage.
Nvidia gets spooked: As COVID-19 cripples the global supply chain, Nvidia lowers its revenue projections for Q1 2020 by $100 million. Turns out, it didn’t have much to worry about, but more on that later.
The pandemic goes global. Shortly after the World Health Organization officially declares COVID-19 a pandemic, cities lock down, borders close, and millions are laid off. Major retailers swap indoor shopping for curbside pickup, and those who have money to spend turn to online shopping, overloading sites like Amazon, where ship dates for PC parts quickly slip to late April.
Everyone needs a PC. The Zoom life begins, and for many people, sharing one family computer no longer does the trick. Chromebook and tablet sales boom, and we kick off what will become the biggest year for PC demand in a decade, putting added pressure on chip makers.
Xe HPG, anyone? Intel announces it will compete with AMD and Nvidia by releasing its first discrete graphics cards for PC gaming in 2021.
The GPU-apocalypse begins. Nvidia launches the first of its next-generation graphics cards, the GeForce RTX 3000 series. The RTX 3080 Founders’ Edition earns our Editors’ Choice award as the new king of 4K gaming and the next great step in GPU evolution. But even if you have $699 to spare, this GPU is hard to come by.
RTX 3090? Also impossible to buy. A week after the 3080 launches, the RTX 3090 graphics card faces similar supply issues. Scheduled to hit Nvidia’s website at 6 a.m. PST, the 3090 is almost immediately listed as out of stock.
Enter the scalpers. With most of these GPU sales happening online, scalpers quickly crash the party, tapping into bots that can snap up available inventory before the average person has time to click “add to cart.” We speak to people selling access to their bots for a couple hundred bucks. Many buyers are tech-savvy but out-of-work people looking to make a few bucks. One such buyer claims to have scored 42 GeForce RTX 3080 cards in seconds. Later, we rent our own bot, and find it underwhelming.
Best Buy steps in. With the bot situation out of control, and cards winding up on eBay at massively inflated prices, Nvidia stops selling the RTX 3080 and 3090 Founders Edition graphics cards via its online store, and shifts sales to Best Buy in the US.
Nvidia: Yep, things are bad. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang warns that RTX 3000 cards will be hard to buy for the rest of the year, citing the massive demand, which he compares to other popular product launches, including Windows 95.
RTX 3080 20GB and RTX 3070 16GB tabled. As of October, Nvidia was selling (in theory) a GeForce RTX 3080 with 10GB of GDDR6X memory, and taking pre-orders for the RTX 3070 with 8GB of GDDR6 memory. It was also planning to release a 20GB RTX 3080 and a 16GB RTX 3070 in December. Facing continued supply constraints, Nvidia opts to delay those launches.
RTX 3070 saves the day? Only in our hearts. Nvidia’s RTX 3070 went on sale in late October, but the card immediately went out of stock across major retailers, leaving consumers—including us—annoyed, but not surprised. Too bad, because in our review, we found the 3070 to be a fierce follow-up to the RTX 3080. “Nvidia’s beautifully engineered RTX 3070 Founders Edition is a practically perfect graphics card,” we wrote. It earned a rare, five-star rating and our Editors’ Choice award as the best video-card value of this, or any, year.
AMD steps in. In late October, AMD reveals the first three Radeon RX 6000 Series “Big Navi” cards, setting a Nov. 18 launch date, and making AMD look seriously well-armed on the high-end gaming graphics front for the first time in many years. But we had concerns.
More targets for scalpers. Ahead of the holiday season, we see the launch of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, both of which open up another revenue stream for scalpers. We try our hand at inventory-tracking apps to score the consoles, as well as hard-to-find GPUs. But scalpers earn an estimated $43 million in profit by reselling the PS5 and GPUs on eBay in fall 2020, despite people trying to troll them with fake listings.
Instant sellout. An AMD exec suggested its new GPU rollout would go better than Nvidia’s, but retailers weren’t as optimistic, and come launch day, AMD’s Radeon RX 6800 and 6800 XT were snapped up immediately, prompting complaints about a “paper launch”—which is when the quantities are so limited that no one can get the products; they can only read about the new hardware via press release.
“Big Navi” is consistently inconsistent. In our tests, the Radeon RX 6800 posted some impressive results in certain benchmarks, but its uneven performance in others (notably, older games) made it a difficult Day One graphics-card recommendation versus the GeForce RTX 3070. The RX 6800 XT, meanwhile, posted record-breaking results in specific benchmarks, but also produced inconsistent frame rates on several games, and driver-stability issues. Both earned 3.5 out of five stars.
Cryptocurrency boom. Who needs a new iPad when you could get a fat crypto wallet for the holidays? The price of Bitcoin jumped from $10,000 to $30,000 in Q4, while Ethereum increased from $350 to $740 during the same time period. Great for investors who got in early, but bad for PC builders now doing battle against scalpers and would-be crypto millionaires looking to buy powerful GPUs to mine their virtual currencies.
Insufficient investment in 200mm wafers. As the year comes to a close, ExtremeTech does a deep dive into why so many tech products are in short supply. One word: wafers.
Combatting the bots. Retailers get serious about fighting bots. Newegg implements a lottery system to give customers a better shot at nabbing must-have products. And Walmart tells PCMag exclusively that it’s verifying that PS5 orders are not automated before shipping them.
Tariffs in effect, bigly. Trump-era tariffs, which impose a 25% duty on electronic components imported from China—including graphics cards, motherboards, PC desktop cases, and power supply units that output more than 500 watts—go into effect. As a result, PC makers warn of possible price increases, though some make plans to move production out from China to neighboring areas, including Taiwan and Southeast Asia, to avoid the tariffs.
Nvidia tries to rein in the cryptocurrency miners. The GeForce RTX 3060 graphics card arrives with a cryptocurrency mining limiter focused on Ethereum. No Bitcoin? “Ethereum has the highest global mining yield for any GPU-mineable coin at the moment and thus is likely the main demand driver for GPUs in mining,” Nvidia says. The feature has a bit of a bumpy rollout when it’s discovered that Nvidia’s own driver could thwart the limiter; Nvidia quickly removes the offending driver.
US moves to build chips. Concerned about the US becoming too reliant on foreign chip makers, President Biden signs an executive order intended to help the US create a more resilient and secure supply chain. “Over the years we have underinvested in [semiconductor] production—hurting our innovative edge—while other countries have learned from our example and increased their investments in the industry,” the White House says.
RTX 3080 grift rolls on. GPU prices on eBay reach ridiculous new heights. Who exactly is spending $2,400 on a $699 RTX 3080?
Nvidia is doing just fine. In Q4 2020, Nvidia’s revenues reach a record $5 billion, up 61% from a year earlier.
AMD to crypto miners: go nuts. AMD says it won’t restrict the cryptocurrency-mining capabilities on its PC graphics cards. “We will not be blocking any workload, not just mining for that matter,” AMD Product Manager Nish Neelalojanan tells PC Gamer.
Midrange Big Navi: a bummer with older games. AMD’s crypto statement comes alongside the launch of the Radeon RX 6700 XT. In our review, we find it’s a solid competitor to Nvidia’s midrange GPUs—if you stick to recent, optimized titles—and give it a 3.5 out of five stars. It’s still impossible to buy and resell prices quickly get out of hand.
Lite Hash Rate reporting for duty. Nvidia expands its Ethereum mining limiter to more RTX 3000 graphics cards—except its Founders Edition GPUs. RTX 3060 Ti, 3070, and 3080 cards will ship with the Ethereum mining limiter, labeled on the box as “Lite Hash Rate,” or LHR.
Intel’s foundry play. Intel makes a new push into the foundry business, which will involve manufacturing custom computer chips for tech companies and Western governments. It tips a $20 billion investment in two new factories at Intel’s existing campus in Chandler, Arizona.
You wanted a GPU in 2021? That’s cute. Nvidia’s CFO predicts that chip demand will outstrip supplies for much of 2021, while Taiwan-based TSMC, which makes chips for AMD and consoles, says the shortage could last into 2022. Michael Dell is even less optimistic.
How much is that bot in the window? We try our hand at the world of botting, laying out some cash to see if we can land a GPU. It doesn’t go well, in part because AMD and Amazon catch us in the act.
Hope on the horizon? Ethereum says it’s preparing to phase out GPU-intensive mining in the coming months. PC users hope miners will quit the market and resell their graphics cards on third-party marketplaces. Others say don’t get your hopes up—the mining community might simply migrate to another cryptocurrency.
Spotted: Intel’s DG1 desktop graphic card. Best Buy lists a prebuilt desktop running Intel’s first desktop graphics card in over 20 years. The $749 system comes from LA-based CyberPowerPC, and contains an Intel Iris Xe “dedicated graphics” card with 4GB of video memory, according to the specs.
All the 4K gaming firepower…for all the money. In our review, we find that Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3080 Ti Founders Edition is another stunning addition to the RTX 30 Series Founders lineage, and a monster for 4K gaming. Just be prepared to pay a disproportionate premium over the RTX 3080 for the extra muscle.
Camping out at Best Buy. To fend off bots, Nvidia decides to sell the RTX 3080 Ti Founders Edition exclusively at 81 Best Buy stores in the US. We stopped by a store in West Los Angeles, where people camped out overnight to grab one of the coveted GPUs. It was a fruitless endeavor for many, however, as each Best Buy store seemingly only got 64 GPUs, or about 5,000 for the entire country.
Bringing 4K gaming closer to the mainstream. In our review, we find that Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3070 Ti Founders Edition is a sturdy upgrade to the original RTX 3070 and a wise option for 4K play in moderation. Its higher price pits it against the Radeon RX 6800, which tops it at times—but the GeForce card ultimately prevails.
12 million. John Peddie Research estimates that Nvidia and AMD collectively shipped 12 million desktop cards in during Q1 2021, about 80% of which were from Nvidia. The firm, however, warns GPU makers not to overreact to the shortage, pointing to 2018, when a crypto bust left Nvidia with tons of unsold inventory.
DG2-512. After posting an Xe HPG teaser video emerged in the spring, Intel senior vice president Raja Koduri tweets a photo of the company’s “Xe HPG” PC gaming graphics card, codenamed DG2, which is expected in late 2021.
If you’re tired of doing battle against the bots and can’t afford to pay inflated prices on eBay or other online marketplaces, these simple tricks can help pump up your frame rates and keep your old card chugging a little longer.