Want to know the real reasons you can't buy a new graphics card right now? Sadly the only hope for gamers on the bleak cryptocurrency horizon is that the decline of the market continues to the point where the green team have to release the gaming variants of the Nvidia Volta GPU architecture.
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January has always been an incredibly depressing month. You get paid early in December, due to the Christmas break, but that just goes towards paying off the crippling credit card debt you racked up guilt-spending on presents for family members you never see. And then you empty your wallet on New Year’s Eve partying like it’s 2099.
You might then join the plastic alcoholics testing their will - and the patience of others - engaging in the folly of ‘Dry January’. As if it wasn’t already dry enough. Still, with our cash reserves depleted we’re all living the hermit life until that end of the month paycheck when we can finally indulge again.
Yeah, January’s a bitch.
But this January was even worse, because none of us PC gamers have been able to exorcise those retail demons. Mostly because of miners, all our favourite GPU toys are now three times more expensive than they were in the Black Friday sales we scoffed at pre-holidays for their rampant commercialism, and that’s if we can even find stock of that perfect unicorn of a graphics card we’ve been saving for.
A pox on your house, cryptocurrency!
But January’s been just as bad a month for the cryptocurrency folk too, with untold billions wiped off the value of Bitcoin with widespread news of investigations, scams, and thefts tarnishing the once just utterly dreadful name of cryptocurrency. It seems to happen at the start of each year, but considering the meteoric rise of virtual currencies last year, the consistent rate of decline is still pretty drastic.
It’s still not really a crash, such is the continued volatility of this adolescent market, and this dip needs to continue driving the prices down to early-2017 levels if we want it to catalyse Nvidia’s release of their next-generation graphics cards.
But it’s not just the miners responsible for stealing away all of our graphics cards, and driving the prices of the meagre stock that’s left beyond our means, or the realms of sanity - there are other nefarious forces at play.
Obviously, the rise of cryptocurrencies, and the profit to be made from mining with consumer-class GPUs, has meant large-scale mining outfits have been rocking up to graphics card manufacturers and buying pallet-loads of stock direct from the back doors of the factories that produce them. But you’ve also got mining groups throwing money straight at the distributors and retailers too.
We’ve spoken to industry veterans who say that some outfits are going around to all the big European distributors and retailers and giving them each a chunk of cash, £50K for example, to act as credit against their accounts. Then the first of those to fulfil a big GPU order, as and when stock rolls around, gets to keep the money.
The companies buying up as much stock as they can is one of the main reasons there is a lack of graphics cards available to us non-mining normies, but it’s not the only one. The sad truth is that graphics card manufacturing took a massive hit towards the end of last year as memory supply dried up.
AMD’s Dr. Lisa Su alluded to this in their recent earnings call about the 2017 financials:
“At this point we are not limited by silicon, per se, so our foundry partners are supplying us. There are shortages in memory, and I think that is true across the board, whether you are talking about GDDR5, or you’re talking about high bandwidth memory. We continue to work through that with our memory partners, and that will be certainly one of the key factors as we go through 2018.”
So, while there are potentially enough actual GPUs to go around, there aren’t enough memory chips to drop onto the boards in order to make into fully functional graphics cards. It’s a nightmare situation where demand is going through the roof, but supply is dropping.
And this is all playing into the hands of another group who are responsible for driving up prices and dragging stock away from us gamers - the people speculating on the high price of graphics cards. There’s a special place in hell for this bunch. They’re not miners looking to generate an income by using the cards, and they’re not gamers hoping to boost their frame rates, they’re just tools with lots of money seeing an opportunity to profiteer on a dire situation.
They’re buying up all the graphics card stock they can find and selling it on again with a gross margin added on top for acting as the middle men. Our industry sources are saying they’re contacted every other day by individuals offering thousands of cards for sale, with a hefty mark-up, as they tout their wares around to the highest bidders.
Don’t blame the miners as they’re just using the same hardware as us for a different cause. If you want to get pissed at someone for the current situation save your ire for these scumbags.
But none of this is really helping AMD or Nvidia. While they are selling all they make, and the crypto gold rush has potentially saved AMD's Radeon Technologies Group, the super-high margins being added on to the card prices doesn’t make for extra cash going into their coffers. In fact, it could be creating a bit of a timebomb if the current crypto-dip carries on apace. If we do end up hitting early-2017 levels in the cryptocurrency exchanges then we may end up seeing a glut of second-hand graphics cards flooding the market.
To begin with the prices will remain stupidly high for these seriously burned-in, post-mining cards, but as more and more appear the prices will have to drop. And those prices will drop faster than the new GPUs, which will now start to become available at retail, so a good many gamers, burnt by the price gouging, will pick up second-hand cards instead.
AMD and Nvidia get nothing from a growing second-hand market, which is what may spark the green team into action and a consumer variant of Nvidia’s Volta technology might just appear out of the gloom. Or maybe it’s this Ampere architecture we’ve heard next to nothing about. At this point it’s mostly speculation, guesswork, and hope.
But there is no hope when it comes to pricing. Are we ever going to get graphics cards back down to the pre-crisis levels? That’s looking increasingly unlikely as the whole crypto-mess has been disguising another layer of hardware depression that’s been settling on my bones during this fresh, doom-laden year.
Component pricing is screwed.
At the most basic level, the silicon wafers from which all our GPUs, CPUs, and memory are built from are constantly increasing in price. The companies supplying the silicon wafers got burned in the global economic collapse of a few years ago and have been holding back increasing supply in case it happens again. As demand edges skyward they can start charging whatever they like. Wafer prices rose 20% in 2017 and the wafer makers are actively planning to increase prices another 20% in 2018, and more again in 2019.
Memory will continue to be in huge demand as smartphone ownership is likely to become seen as a global, inalienable human right, and potentially mandatory, over the next year or so. And all those mobile selfie machines need memory. Lots of memory. And Apple and Samsung have a lot more call on those manufacturing facilities than the likes of AMD or Nvidia.
Everything else that gets jammed onto your graphics card’s circuit board is getting more and more expensive too, from VRMs to capacitors. So the likelihood of us ever seeing a graphics card a normal human being can afford is pretty frickin’ minimal.
It’s looking like a dire situation, with little to no respite in sight. Maybe we’ll get new graphics cards this year. Maybe they’ll even be priced at a level that means you don’t need to secure a personal loan against your internal organs for the privilege. But there’s no guarantee. Even if Nvidia do decide to get their next-gen GPUs out it’s possible memory shortages will still mean manufacturing remains tight.
And what if the new cards are really good at mining?
Good Lord, I’m spiralling into a pit of hardware depression now. The Lord? My cat. I call him the Lord. I am kind to him. Anyways, that’s it. I can’t type anymore, I feel the need to chow down fistfuls of Prozac and go fetal, such is the prospective state of the PC hardware market right now.