Gizmos

The Soul-Killing, Wallet-Emptying Struggle to Buy a Video Card During a Pandemic

A harrowing tale involving eBay sellers, silicon wafers, and—obviously—Bitcoin.

An Nvidia GeForce RTX 30 video card with a yellow starburst behind it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Nvidia.

“Are you sure you want this?” the salesman asked me.

It was the day before Christmas, and I was in a large electronics store looking to buy a video card for a computer I was assembling. The card was two generations old, the salesman warned me, not exactly cutting-edge. There was a note of parental concern in his voice, as if in addition to his commission my entire digital future depended on my choice. But video cards, even older ones, had become almost impossible to find; this was one of the last the store had in stock. And at $250, in a market where high-end cards go for $800 or more, the price was right for a casual gamer like me. I told him I definitely wanted it, and rushed off with my purchase like I stole it.

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The long days and nights of quarantine life have been a boon for leisure activities, particularly the indoor kind now. More people are buying computers, video game consoles, TVs, and other electronic distractions, hoping to stave off pandemic despair. But if you’ve tried to build a computer recently, you might have run into a problem: Finding a good video card, especially the coveted GeForce RTX 30 series produced by Nvidia, has become an enormous challenge since its introduction last fall. Whenever an online retailer manages to bring in another shipment, shopping bots snap them up almost immediately for reselling on auction sites, where they tend to appear at 50 to 100 percent markups. (The latest Xbox and PlayStation models—which also feature powerful GPUs, the chips that do most of the processing for video cards—are similarly hard to find.)

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The result is that, at a time when people are desperate for simple pleasures like gaming, video cards—which have become important components for playing the latest titles with high graphical fidelity—have become a logjam in the computer supply chain. And despite Nvidia promising a more budget-conscious $329 version of its 30 series cards this February, it could take even longer for gamers in search of a new card to get one. Even the older RTX 20 and GTX 16 series are now scarce, selling at a premium online. (The one I snagged was a GTX 1660 SUPER.) Nvidia’s main competitor, AMD, is also experiencing a shortage of its latest Radeon RX 6000 line. Maybe not since the days of Tickle Me Elmo or Beanie Babies has a consumer commodity been so sought after—and its price so inflated—on secondary markets.

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Over the last couple of months, I’ve become weirdly obsessed with the video card shortage, learning how it connects to everything from sloppy silicon production in Asian factories to the surging industry of Bitcoin mining. (With Bitcoin on its biggest bull run since 2017, mining—which requires powerful computer hardware—has become profitable again.) My own interest developed as I researched how to build a new desktop computer. As someone told me, putting together a computer now is basically like assembling Legos: relatively easy for any hobbyist (and, also like Lego, prone to very expensive consumer rabbit holes!). Sites like PCPartPicker.com offer invaluable information about parts and pricing, but eventually you land in the same dilemma as even the most seasoned PC builders: How do you get a card without giving in to scalpers?

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Every product shortage has its shady middlemen and con artists—remember the early-pandemic hand sanitizer guy?—and it’s been no different with video cards. It’s tough to find any older GTX or RTX video card for under $400 online, while new models go for anywhere from $800 to more than $2,000. On eBay, I found dozens of listings for photographs of video cards, many of them with multiple bids, a few of them for more than $1,000 (not counting hefty shipping fees). Some of the promised photos are laminated or framed; others are simply JPGs that will be emailed after the auction closes. The listings contain all of the technical information that a typical listing for a video card would have, with a small added proviso about this being a picture, not a real item. Almost invariably, the sellers then claim that they are fighting bots and scalpers—scamming the scammers—and that they don’t want human beings to bid on their items. If you’re enough of a sap to fall for this, well, too bad. (In the weeks I’ve been monitoring eBay auctions, these sketchy photo listings seem only to have proliferated—a surprising failure on eBay’s part for a marquee product category.)

Others are leveraging the scarcity in different ways. Companies selling so-called prebuilt PCs—the kind of desktop machine you might buy from HP or Lenovo, or from a gaming-oriented brand like Alienware or iBUYPOWER—are one of the few ways one might even get hold of a new video card, occasionally for a reasonable price (somewhere in the range of $1,500 for a finished machine). Sensing opportunity, some would-be resellers have snapped up gaming PCs to take out the video card and sell it on the secondary market. On occasion, this pays for the entire original PC purchase.

There is a kind of bourgie, call-the-manager elitism in this overheated market. It’s a reflection of both manufacturers’ outsize promises and consumers’ own demands. In order to justify the rising costs of video cards, manufacturers tout RAM speed, computational architectures, and other engineering doodads. The latest fixation—one that’s been pushed hard by the gaming community as well—is ray tracing, a method for lighting video games that’s being heralded as the next step in photographic realism. Nvidia’s RTX 30 cards, in particular, do well with ray tracing, which has become a watchword for those who want to play triple-A titles like Cyberpunk 2077 at the highest settings. (The card I bought doesn’t support ray tracing, which may in part explain the salesman’s doleful concern.) It’s worth noting the irony in buying a $1,000 video card to play a $60 game like Cyberpunk, whose much-hyped launch was marred by a spate of bugs that left the game unplayable for some users. In truth, if you want to play computer games at anything less than the most eye-popping resolution and graphical detail, many second- and third-generation video cards are just fine.

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Still, inflated consumer expectations don’t account for everything; when it comes to the video card drought, there is blame to go around. Across the electronics industry, from PCs to microchips for cars, increased demand, insufficient manufacturing capacity, and a pandemic-induced supply chain crunch have led to widespread delays and shortages. Nvidia has reportedly not gotten enough silicon wafers from Samsung’s foundry, leaving it deprived of raw materials. Bitcoin miners have bought up huge numbers of video cards because their sophisticated GPUs are well suited to the complex calculations that mining requires. Bitcoin mining is no longer done on a few computers in someone’s apartment; industrialized operations in China and other areas where energy is cheap feature mining rigs with thousands of video cards working in tandem. That’s created its own black market. In December, someone stole 40 boxes of RTX 3090 cards, valued at $336,500, from a Chinese factory. (Nvidia has sold dedicated cards for cryptocurrency mining in the past, and an executive recently raised the possibility of doing so again, a bifurcation of the market that gamers would likely welcome.)

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Like smartphones or other luxury gadgets that run the treadmill of planned obsolescence, video cards are being constantly introduced in new variants, with new features. In the case of Nvidia, the company designs the chipset and components and then licenses them out to brands like MSI, Asus, and Gigabyte. These brands in turn add their own flourishes, like overclocked memory, extra fans, or RGB lighting. Consequently there are hundreds of variations of Nvidia’s cards—if you can find one—with each touting its distinctive qualities that make it better than the other guy’s. (AMD has a more vertically integrated approach to the manufacturing and sale of its cards, which appear under the AMD brand.)

For all of this consumer-pleasing variety, the video card shortage could last well into this year, especially if the most recent Bitcoin boom continues. If you’re patient or willing to settle for a lesser model, you might find your appetites fulfilled. In the meantime, it is, as one Reddit user recently said, “the worst time to buy computer hardware in years.”

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But the status quo isn’t so bad. Even a committed gamer doesn’t need to spend weeks, as I did, trawling internet forums for inventory restocking alerts for the chance to pay through the nose for a card that, while an improvement on earlier models, will not transform my leisure life. The hype has indeed gone too far when photos of a product sell for almost as much as the thing itself. If there is any lesson here, perhaps it’s that our sense of entertainment and play has become way too wrapped up in our consumerist appetites. Somewhere along the way, the fun—along with a great deal of disposable income—is lost. There’s peace in acknowledging you don’t need something.

Or as that Redditor said: “I think I’ll just blow up aliens in my present resolution for a while.”

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