The great graphics card shortage of 2021

Geforce Graphics Card
Geforce Graphics Card

PC gaming, in particular, is having a renaissance. The Steam game platform saw records broken for all its peak statistics in 2020 – 21% more games purchased, and 50% more hours played.

But it means avid gamers are facing a big problem: graphics cards, the heart of a gaming PC, are incredibly hard to get hold of.

For months, we’ve seen gamers compete for supply, camping out in front of stores, crashing websites and most of all, paying hugely inflated prices in the hunt for high-end gaming.

What’s the problem?

An office PC might work fine with built-in graphics power, but if you want to do any serious gaming, a dedicated graphics card (GPU) is a must. It can be half the cost or more of a gaming PC.

Better lighting, higher resolution output, and more frames per second – the key to ultra-smooth gameplay – are all usually determined by the GPU.

That’s a big deal for gamers like Leonora Tomlinson-Bennett, who works in the gaming industry and dabbles in streaming.

She was “quite excited” about the release of Nvidia’a new 3000 series of cards in September.

“Part of my job is content creation, so I’ll go into the game and capture content – and obviously if you want to present that [publicly], you want it to look the best it can.”

One of the reasons demand is so high is that the new cards are actually much better than many expected, with performance improvements of anywhere from 50-90% over the previous generation.

At the same time, new games like Cyberpunk and stretching the limits of older PC cards.

“They’re a massive step up and my graphics card is really quite outdated,” Leonora explained.

She’s been unable to find the high-end RTX 3080 card she wants, and has had to resort to paying in advance for a not-quite-as-powerful 3070 on back-order.

“I’m on the waiting list. I think I’m something like number 3,000 in the queue.”

The shortage hit the ultra-top end, too. Several people told me they’d wanted a 3080, starting at £649.

But the shortage meant some shelled out on the semi-pro 3090, at a whopping £1,399, because it was the only high-end card available.

Why is there a big shortage?

There’s no single reason for the huge demand.

Early last year, Chinese manufacturing was temporarily limited due to the coronavirus outbreak; later, shipping delays hit the electronics market; and the price of Bitcoin has made “mining” – using GPUs – more lucrative.

All this has led to some remarkable scenes. In the US, when lockdown restrictions were lighter, people were queuing around the block at electronics retailers or camping overnight, hoping to secure one of a handful of cards that might be delivered in the morning.

Retailers handed out vouchers to those in the top slots of the queue, while dealers tried to buy those spots – not the actual cards – for hundreds of dollars. And shoppers created sign-out procedures to allow for toilet breaks and food runs.

But for most people, buying limited stock online has been the only option.

Is it getting better?

The two main graphics card makers – Nvidia and AMD – can’t make product fast enough.

“Gaming demand is off the charts,” Nvidia’s chief financial officer, Colette Kress, said during CES. “Our overall capacity has not been able to keep up”.

She warned that supply “will likely remain lean throughout Q1.”

Credits – BBC Technology News