Every CPU, GPU, and Console Debut This Fall Was Effectively a Paper Launch

When AMD launched its new Radeon 6900 XT yesterday, it didn’t just re-enter the high-end GPU market. It also put the final, beautiful paper crown on a fall season filled with a virtual blizzard of it, from multiple manufacturers.

Nvidia kicked off this unwelcome trend when stocks of new consumer Ampere cards ran dry seconds after launch and haven’t refilled since. Both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are nearly impossible to source. There was some hope that AMD might have better availability on the Radeon RX 6000 series than Nvidia did with Ampere, since it uses TSMC instead of Samsung, but early stocks of these cards are only being replenished slowly, if at all. The Ryzen 5000 series of CPUs are not easy to find, either. The Nintendo Switch has been scarce since the pandemic began, and it’s not even new hardware. This last is not a paper launch, obviously, but it’s another example of a tech product that’s very difficult to find.

The companies behind these products would undoubtedly quibble with the phrase “paper launch” since 1). They hate it and 2). You can technically buy some of these products, if you’re very quick, very lucky, or willing to pay a monthly fee for an automated bot for a somewhat higher chance of scoring one. I’m willing to grant that the situation isn’t a paper launch in the strictest sense, but if you’re an ordinary person hoping to snap up some of today’s hottest tech, the distinction isn’t a particularly meaningful one. Either way, hardware that’s supposed to be readily for sale at MSRP is not, and the companies that have spoken about a public timeline for changing that have all indicated it won’t happen until several months from now.

COVID-19 has driven this situation in two different ways. First, it’s slowed or halted the movement and production of goods in various countries at various times. Second, consumer and corporate demand for computers has exploded, and console demand may have surged as well. Last-gen console hardware sales actually rose early in the pandemic, which is virtually unheard of in a new console launch year. Lockdowns have driven a great deal of additional interest in video gaming on every platform.

Past COVID-19, there have been rumors that yields on Samsung’s 8nm node were poor, while allocations for TSMC’s 7nm are said to be tight overall. These factors remain relevant, even in the face of the pandemic, because we have historical proof that low yields at the foundry can make GPUs hard to find on the ground all on their own. Back in 2016, it took Nvidia and AMD months to meaningfully supply GPUs to the consumer market. TSMC builds most of AMD’s product stack in CPUs (and all recent chips), its Radeon RX 5000 and 6000 GPUs, the Xbox Series X SoC, and the PlayStation 5 SoC — plus all of the contract manufacturing it handles for other companies.

Finally, there’s the unknown impact of bots. The use of bots has surged this year and while it’s impossible to estimate the exact impact of these automated scalping tools, the one place where you can find all of the hardware above is on eBay, at vastly inflated prices. There have also been a number of reports claiming that the number of bots being deployed to score desired hardware like the RTX 3080 has skyrocketed.

It is impossible to put the blame for this on any single company or foundry — there are just too many variables in play — but the situation still sucks. Corporate promises of stocked shelves have given way to admissions that supply and demand may not meet until late Q1 2021. AMD, Microsoft, Nvidia, and Sony may have felt they had little choice but to launch their new hardware, for various reasons, but it’s hard to argue the decision constituted an advantage for consumers when the only way to guarantee you’ll get cutting-edge hardware before Christmas is to pay a scalper 1.5x – 2.5x over retail for the privilege. I won’t say that’s the only way you’ll land a hot-ticket item this year, but it appears to be the only way to guarantee it.

I’m also not sure we should think about the GPU market the same way we talk about CPUs or consoles. Microsoft and Sony’s unusual decision to launch the next-generation with games so far away is an interesting way to approach the market, but we know almost nothing about shipments or sales thus far to predict the impact. Nintendo’s Switch has been hot for eight months now, so limited availability is, at least, not new. But the current situation in GPUs isn’t just bad — it’s bad, stacked on top of earlier bad, which stacks on top of still-earlier bad stretching all the way back to Pascal’s launch in 2016.

The GPU Market Has Never Run This Hot For This Long

Consider the GPU market since Nvidia launched Pascal in May 2016. All of the links in the paragraphs below point to stories written during the relevant period, allowing you to verify the pricing shifts I’m going to describe.

It took AMD and Nvidia most of 2016 to work out the kinks with shipping Polaris and Pascal in adequate volume. From late 2016 – May 2017, availability improved and prices fell towards where they were supposed to be, according to GPU MSRP’s. Then, the cryptocurrency market exploded again. From June 2017 – February 2018, GPU prices were ludicrously high, and they didn’t approach normality until May of that year. Pascal spent most of its first two years’ priced well above where the GPU was supposed to be — and so did AMD’s equivalents.

Pascal went out on a high note late in 2018, because a flood of GPUs hit the market at the same time Nvidia raised prices with Turing. By February 2019, the Pascal cards were vanishing from the market and prices on the new Turing GPUs and AMD’s Radeon VII were high enough that we called the new generation “the least-appealing upgrade in GPU history.” Price, as opposed to performance, was the overwhelming reason why.

Nvidia kept prices high until AMD re-entered the market with the 5700 and 5700 XT. From mid-2019 through mid-2020, GPU prices generally conformed to expected MSRPs,

Image of current RTX 2080 prices on Amazon.com. You can see them surge in late summer, when NV stopped production.

There’s some variation, here: Nvidia Turing GPU prices started to jump in the summer, along with rumors that the company had halted production. AMD cards seem to have started to rise only recently, but anything upper-range — 5700 and up — is also currently selling for inflated prices.

In the 55 months since Nvidia launched Pascal, GPUs from AMD, Nvidia, or both have sold at dramatically inflated prices in roughly 23 of them, with some allowance for slippage and some variance between AMD and Nvidia at any particular time. Based on predictions from multiple semiconductor firms, we shouldn’t expect easy availability or normal pricing much before ~March 2021. By Pascal’s 5th birthday, the GPU market will have run hot to red-hot for 26 months out of 60. Another way of saying that is, “For 43 percent of the time over five years, you haven’t been able to buy a GPU for anything like what AMD or Nvidia claim you can.”

It’s one thing when prices spike for a week or a month, but we’re talking about a situation in which GPU prices have been well above MSRP almost half the time, for half a decade. If these periods of time had occurred contiguously, you might have been stuck waiting to purchase an upgraded GPU or replace a dead one at a reasonable price for over two years. The total amount of time that GPU prices have spent inflated from Pascal’s launch in May 2016 to May 2021, assuming markets do cool off by March 2021, will be barely shorter than the entire period of time it ruled as Nvidia’s flagship architecture.

This raises questions about how much faith reviewers and readers should put in GPU MSRP pricing going forward. For now, no one has any choice but to ride out COVID-19, but this pattern of 4-6 month periods where GPU prices make a mockery of their supposed MSRPs needs to stop. The alternative is that we start quoting the launch price you should expect to pay from Amazon, Newegg, and Spankster69 over on eBay, with priority and emphasis given to the latter.

I’m not going to pretend there’s a simple, flawless solution to the problem, but whether it’s through adopting verified pre-order systems or simply through stockpiling far more hardware prior to launching a card, AMD and Nvidia need to address this. The pandemic will end. Low initial yields, periodic surges in demand, and automated scalping won’t. Gaming enthusiasts and professional users deserve better than an asterisk promising a launch in one month with actual availability arriving six months later.

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