GPU Peekaboo: The shortage of discrete graphics cards, explained by Alex Tucker


Washington, DC– As February fades into its last days, many professionals and PC hardware enthusiasts remain frustrated. The reason? Much like many other products, discrete graphics cards, or GPUs, a vital element for high end computers, remain out of stock.

In September, Nvidia, the world’s largest discrete graphics card manufacturer, released 4 new next-generation graphics cards. AMD, their biggest competitor, hit back in October with their lineup, eventually expanding it in the following two months. Despite it being multiple months since the release of these GPUs, they are still not available for suggested retail price outside of rare occurrences. Even older, lower-end GPUs remain hard to find. As of now, one popular mid-range model, the 1650 super, is out of stock at Best Buy despite even being 50 dollars above standard price.

But why? The reason is a cornucopia of events that on their own would create a shortage, but all of them have happened at once.

The problem started with an unprecedented global pandemic. This has disrupted many supply chains, and GPUs have not been spared. A major component in the most recent graphics cards, GDDR6 VRAM, the most recent type of memory required for graphics cards, has been disrupted. This is partially due to the pandemic making national and global supply chains unstable because of the interruption to manufacturing and distribution.

There is also a demand issue. While this is more speculative, it is reasonable to assume that more people are looking into upgrading their computers, as they are spending more time on them. Furthermore, last generation Nvidia graphics cards were far less efficient than their current counterparts. They were based on a less efficient Turing architecture, which forced a poor price-performance ratio. This most likely caused many to skip that generation, instead waiting for current generation Nvidia cards. (While AMD also manufactures discrete GPUs, their market share is significantly smaller than Nvidia’s.) Scalpers have also eaten up what could go to legitimate purchasers. Thousands of cards have gone into their hands for millions of dollars of profit and loss to the consumer.

Finally, cryptocurrency mining, which relies on graphics cards, has seen a massive increase in interest. The price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed to $48,000 USD at the time of writing, far higher than the 20,000 dollar peak at the top of the 2018 hype-fest. Other currencies such as Ethereum have followed suit. Thus why miners have snapped up card after card to cash in on the crypto boom.

The GPU shortage is one of many that has taken place during the pandemic — the infamous toilet paper fights come to mind. But this one is poised to last much longer, with Nvidia predicting that supply will be short throughout Q1 2021 and many speculators giving up on the 30 series entirely and waiting for the 40 series. Seems like the third generation wasn’t the charm.

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