Good luck finding a high-end computer graphics card anywhere as cryptocurrency soars

·4 min read

Estevan, Yorkton – If you were looking to custom-build a high-end computer for either work, or more likely, gaming, perhaps to put under the Christmas tree, good luck. You probably had an impossible task in trying to secure one of the key components, the video card. This winter, they are more scarce than Beanie Babies or Cabbage Patch Kids, back when each of those were a craze. At least you could fight someone in the store for one. When it comes to several models of video cards, there’s nothing left to even fight over.

A video card is a key component of a computer. While nearly all computers have the ability to handle essential graphics, if you want the ability to do really-high end stuff – gaming, video editing, run three or four monitors, you need a high-end video card. Video cards do the immense calculations that have taken computer graphics from the blocky polygons of yore to nearly photo-realistic environments.

And it is precisely because of their immense computational capabilities that they are in demand. More on that in a minute.

These days most high-end computer parts are ordered online for a small set of retailers, with Newegg.ca, Amazon.ca, Bestbuy.ca, CanadaComputers.com being with some of the leaders. There are two major manufacturers of the guts of the graphics cards, the graphics processing unit, or GPU. Nvidia is the market leader, and it recently released its 3000 series of video cards this fall, following the 2000 and 1000 series in recent years. AMD, with its Radeon series, is in second place.

You can spend hours on those websites looking for 3000 and 2000 series Nvidia cards, only to find “out of stock” for nearly all of them. The very few that remain are priced very high compared to what bleeding-edge cards were a few years ago. Even the very few two-generations old 1000 series Nvidia cards out there are priced even higher today than when they were the bleeding edge several years ago.

Datamining

It’s likely no small coincidence that this shortage of video cards coincides with the recent resurgence of cryptocurrency value. On Dec. 22, one Bitcoin equaled $30,194, or US$23,411. Those are just shy of the all-time high numbers achieved a little earlier in the month.

That immense processing power of GPUs is used by “Bitcoin miners” to “mine Bitcoin,” or other cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are based on a technology called “blockchain,” and it requires immense processing power that graphics card excel at. Instead of creating realistic looking soldiers in Call of Duty games, cryptocurrency miners apply that hardware to process blockchain, “mining” their cryptocurrency of choice (and there are many to choose from).

Asked if cryptocurrency demand is affecting video card supply, Denea MacNiven, a computer tech and salesperson with Estevan’s House of Stationary said, “I think that’s a big part of it.

“It requires an insane amount of power to mine.”

She added that with the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people have been working from home for the last nine months. That’s mean people upgrading older computers or requiring higher-end video cards to power multiple monitor setups.

“Bitcoin definitely has an impact,” she said.

They usually special order video cards. But as Shaun Peterson, manager of PC Place in Yorkton, has found, there’s nothing to be had in the distribution chain.

Looking up if there’s anything at all in the distribution chain in Canada on Dec. 22, he said, “There’s just nothing.”

“Prices are definitely inflated,” he said, noting that a Radeon 5600XT is now around $480. That’s roughly comparable to an entry-level Nvida 3060 of the current generation of Nvidia cards.

Other than entry-level or high-end workstation cards, the only product available, he noted, is in stores’ inventories. You can’t find it in the supply chain.

However, Peterson is skeptical that the supply shortage is related to cryptocurrency demand.

“When there was a big Bitcoin mining boom previously, it was obvious that people were buying cards for Bitcoin. I don't know that this isn't necessarily Bitcoin-related. Or at least, you know I haven't seen any of the indications of that, that I saw the last time Bitcoin was extremely high, and people were actively trying to mined Bitcoin,” Peterson said.

He noted, “It’s not something you can do profitably in your garage, anymore.”

In the early days of Bitcoin, a person could set up a computer, even an old one with a decent video card, and have it datamine around the clock. But as it becomes more difficult to mine cryptocurrency, those operations are no longer tenable.

Peterson said now datamining is done where power is cheap, with large arrays of purpose-built datamining computers in sea cans.

It’s more likely a shortage of graphics memory chips acting as a restraining factor, according to Peterson.

Brian Zinchuk, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Estevan Mercury