This fall was a blizzard of hardware and console announcements from practically every major company, all timed to launch just before the holiday shopping season. Nvidia wowed us with new graphics cards. AMD hit the ground running with new processors and its own graphics cards. Intel’s Iris Xe integrated GPU was impressive, not to be upstaged by Apple’s equally impressive M1 processor. And of course we can’t forget about the Xbox Series X and PS5. This could’ve been a year gamers and hardware enthusiasts would remember—one for the history books.
Instead, global supply chain disruptions and scalpers helped ensure as few people as possible got their hands on any of these incredible new devices and components. Those who did manage to snag what they wanted discovered their hardware wasn’t without its challenges (see: Cyberpunk 2077 bugs and lack of M1-compatible software for new Macs).
The graphics card scalpers drew the most ire this year by far, helped by the fact that Nvidia/AMD and partnering companies didn’t initially take enough measures to prevent bots from buying up new cards the microsecond sales opened. In return, legitimate buyers revolted, artificially inflating auction bids by thousands of dollars with bots of their own.
In our own post-RTX 3080 launch investigation, we discovered a handful of unique eBay usernames were able to bid more than 10 times in a single minute, totaling $135,124 and accounting for 14% of the total amount for bids overall. Those same users participated in 67 different RTX 3080 auctions. That tactic seems to have worked; eBay started pulling those listings for violating its own policy against price gouging, but not all of them.
That didn’t stop other scalpers from trying again once other graphics cards launched. The RTX 3070, RTX 3060 Ti, Radeon 6800 XT, and Radeon 6800 were not safe. Seeing the 3060 Ti being scalped irked me in particular because there were sellers posting their Micro Center receipts as proof of purchase—and people are still trying turn a profit on those cards.
Throw in supply chain disruptions due to a global pandemic combined with folks racing to build a new PC—there’s not much else to do during lockdown, after all—and you’ve got a nasty recipe for hardware scarcity. Power supply units and SSDs were scarce for a time, as were Intel Core i9-10900K processors. Those have bounced back a bit, but not much. AMD Ryzen 5000 series processors are facing a shortage, too, and let’s not forget about how hard it still is to get a new Xbox or PS5 right now.
It’s not just consumers that can’t get their hands on parts. System builders are having a hard time, too. According to a report from Reuters, there’s a global chip shortage right now, which affects computers, smartphones, TVs—anything that uses a processor.
For Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), one of the largest chip foundries in the world, that’s a major problem. TSMC provides chips for AMD, Apple, Huawei, Intel, Microsoft, Sony, Qualcomm, Broadcom, and nearly 500 others. But as Tom’s Hardware reported, TSMC can only process a certain number of 5nm and 7nm wafers. The chip manufacturer’s clients sign purchase agreements for X-number of chips months in advance, so it’s not like Nvidia, AMD, Apple, Intel, or anyone else that gets their chips from TSMC can suddenly produce more hardware overnight.
U.S. lawmakers have also exacerbated the chip shortage by banning top Chinese chipmaker Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), from getting U.S.-made equipment and raw materials. There was also a factory fire at Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM) in Japan, which slowed down chip production. Ongoing strikes at French chipmaker STMicroelectronics have slowed down production.
The pandemic didn’t lead just to supply chain disruptions. Lockdown boosted demand for even basic hardware, making laptops hard to find as well. Schools across the country transitioned to remote learning due to the pandemic, and offices shifted to work-from-home policies, sending demand to unprecedented levels. Unhoused students in particular, who already struggled getting computer access pre-pandemic, were worse off throughout 2020.
All of this is not going to go away once the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1. The demand for hardware and laptops will ease once students return to the classroom and workers return to the office—and maybe scalpers will move onto other products and prices on consoles and graphics cards will go down, too.