Getting a top-tier GPU in mid-2021
Unless you’re a PC gamer or cryptocurrency miner, you might have missed the drama around GPU unavailability and scalper pricing. I was largely unaware of it myself before my son announced he wants to build a PC.
A recap of what’s up
Long story short, due to COVID-19 the supply chain for graphics card components (mostly chips) is broken so complete card availability is low.
On top of that the second crypto bubble is now in full swing so a lot of people want to mine some wealth. Many of the miners are heavily invested in it and so incentivized to automate purchasing graphics cards whenever they become available.
On top of that the supply chain for complete graphics cards has been taken over by scalpers who milk the miners by buying off all supply and instantly putting it back on the market for inflated prices, often more than 3X the MSRP (manufacturer suggested retail price) in Europe.
On top of that third-party card manufacturers raised prices anyway to ride this wave and get ahead financially in face of the low sales due to low production numbers due to low chip availability.
On top of that Nvidia and AMD themselves ride this wave by both rising prices and by supplying third-party manufacturers mostly with high-end GPUs which are higher margin.
The end result is that cards are mostly unavailable anyway, and when they appear for 3X MSRP prices, they sell like hot cakes anyway. And while there’s hope on the horizon, it will probably take many months before the situation gets back to normal.
Let’s Get the GPU First
I decided we won’t start building the rest of Stanley’s PC until we secure a GPU because there’s no point to a gaming rig otherwise. On June 3rd, while on a bike trip, I was observing the imminent release of the GeForce RTX 3080 Ti. The official store that sells for MSRP was saying “Available Soon” most of the day, and then suddenly before refreshes it went straight from “Available Soon” to “Sold Out":
I knew we were in trouble. This meant there was automation involved. Worse yet, the product was then taken out of the official website entirely, to be replaced by third-party GPUs that were over 2.5X more expensive. This felt like more than anybody should be paying for a single component of a PC. So I looked at AMD Radeons instead.
Turns out they’re very competitive these days, save for raytracing performance which is better on high-end RTXs. In fact here’s a screenshot of a test of RTX 3070 Ti by Hardware Unboxed:
The Radeons, especially 6900 XT and 6800 XT looked pretty good. And what I noticed too was that they were scalped less, probably due to being less useful for miners? Instead of 2.5X - 3X MSRP I’ve seen prices oscillating at 2X MSRP. Still obscene but gave me hope I might be able to find one under 2X MSRP. And it felt less terrible to overpay for high-end product than overpay for one that’s already kinda outdated by the time you get it.
I believe cryptocurrency is evil. Since so much of this issue was caused by cryptocurrency mining, I felt there’d be some sick justice in it if I managed to finance the GPU purchase with my left-over crypto I kept since the last bubble in late 2017. Turns out it ballooned up to around 2,000 EUR so that became my upper bound for this purchase. Instead of buying a GPU to mine crypto, I sold crypto to buy a GPU.
But by then I knew I had to arm up with some automation, so I used some Python skills, and wrote a simple script to notify me about product availability in a few stores. Running looked like this:
And it sent notifications through Pushover that looked like this:
So you’re probably thinking: gee, I’m sure what comes next is victory through coding skill. Haha, no.
The script sent just one notification over the next week, and by the time I clicked through to the store the card was sold out again. Clearly the scalper automation was making entire purchases, not just notifying about availability. I wasn’t willing to go that far, both because that’s much too much work and because a bug in that code could land me too much product or the wrong product, or both. Nah, not interested.
But by then I was pretty familiar with a bunch of official online stores for the EU market by AMD, ASUS, Gigabyte, and so on. They listed links to retailer websites so I went through some of those and found one local Polish store with an RX 6900 XT by Gigabyte that was around 1.5X MSRP. The markup was mostly what Gigabyte itself put over the AMD MSRP so it looked like a good deal. I couldn’t believe it.
I waited one day, and even called the store up to confirm the card was new, not a return, not a “removed from a pre-built”, and so on. All checked out so I bought it:
Still curious why this store would be stocked with a well-priced product at this point in time, I spent some time digging and from what I can tell, the answer is as simple as terrible SEO. The store is largely invisible in search engines.
Wouldn’t a GeForce RTX Be Better?
If I could get it, probably. Raw gaming performance is pretty similar save for raytracing performance. That being said, Nvidia wins for productivity tasks through its CUDA parallel computing platform which is widely used by third-party software. However, this wasn’t the deciding factor for this particular build so not a deal breaker.
There’s also DLSS, Nvidia’s “deep learning super sampling” technology that allows improving framerate in games by rendering in a lower resolution and then scaling it back up in a way that’s barely noticeable. Since the RX 6900 XT manages to natively render games at 4K, this is currently not an important feature. And AMD is rolling out its own variant of this.
UPDATE: GPU Availability Is Improving Since
As of late June 2021, GPU availaiblity is improving but prices for the top tier ones aren’t really changing yet. In fact, in the mean time, the Radeons seem to have risen in price and RX 6900 XT in particular is still tricky to get.
Should you be upgrading your existing GPU right now? Probably not, I’d wait a few months. However, with cryptocurrency prices being so unpredictable, and semiconductor shortages still being troublesome, we might not be out of the woods yet.
Does the GPU work? Oh yes, it works very well. You can read up about the rest of the PC build in the main article about it.