Happy 5th Birthday to Pascal and the Ongoing Disaster of GPU Availability
Five years ago, GPUs based on Nvidia’s Pascal microarchitecture went on sale to customers. The GTX 1080 and slightly later GTX 1070 were incredibly interesting products for enthusiasts, thanks to a mixture of excellent performance improvements, good power consumption, and the addition of much stronger DirectX 12 support than we’d seen with Maxwell.
Unfortunately, Pascal’s launch also presaged the beginning of the end of reasonable GPU availability. As of this writing, we are eight months into a thoroughly precedented GPU shortage that began in September 2020. While the pandemic can be fairly blamed for the silicon shortage of 2020 – 2021, this is the third such shortage since Pascal debuted in 2016.
The retail channel GPU market has been undersupplied and overpriced for 29 of the 60 months since Pascal launched. Over the same time period, Nvidia has gone from making $5 billion a year (FY 2016 revenue: $5.010 billion) to making $5.66 billion in its most recent quarter. Out of that $5.66B, $2.06B of it came solely from gaming. Part of the problem here genuinely is the higher demand that the pandemic has put on GPU availability and the associated yield issues. Part of the problem is the explosion of cryptocurrency mining — a situation that may be partly ameliorated by the launch of new cards that are less effective for mining in the very near future. Part of it is that Nvidia has likely chosen to prioritize laptop shipments over desktop retail channel shipments based on how the market has shifted. Every desktop GPU can go into an OEM system or a self-built rig. GPUs sold into the laptop market only benefit gamers who can afford to pay OEM prices.
Nvidia is not the only company responsible for this state of affairs; AMD GPUs have been even tougher to find at retail than Nvidia cards. Laptop sales exploded during the pandemic, desktop sales dropped, cryptocurrency boomed, scalpers started using bots, and as a result, there are no GPUs to buy in-channel to speak of from either company.
Normally, I like writing these retrospectives. It was interesting to look back at the G80 in 2016 and see how much the introduction of programmable GPUs changed the future of gaming. I’d like to be writing a story about how Pascal represented the pinnacle of pure rasterization performance while the more recent Ampere microarchitecture polished the ray tracing performance Turing introduced back in 2018.
In 2021, Pascal mostly appears notable for heralding the death of reliable GPU pricing as opposed to, say, its much-improved DirectX 12 support. Nvidia’s self-inflicted wounds on Turing pricing are partly responsible for this, and the company did course-correct in 2019 with the RTX “Super” GPUs. But Turing GPUs were never as popular (or as good a value) as Pascal was, and its adoption numbers reflect that. Customers were looking forward to Ampere as the antidote to this problem. Nvidia intended Ampere to be the antidote to this problem.
Ampere, needless to say, has not been the antidote to this problem.
In a year where customers can’t buy the latest Ampere cards and Turing was overpriced and not terribly popular, lauding Pascal without acknowledging these facts feels a bit tone-deaf. According to the Steam Hardware Survey, the two most popular GPUs in-market are the GTX 1060 and 1050 Ti. Four of the top 10 GPUs are Pascal-derived. RTX 3xxx series adoption continues to be terrible, measured in terms of month-on-month gains. The SHS is a problematic way to track GPU market share, but nothing it says about Ampere adoption is good.
There is some hope that GPU availability will improve once cards that can’t hash cryptocurrency as effectively become available. If this occurs, Ampere availability might improve in the back half of the year. If it does not, and Nvidia does not increase supply to the desktop market, gamers may be forced to choose between paying top-dollar for a boutique OEM system or waiting until at least 2022 to upgrade.
It is not clear if these changes will impact the long-term evolution of the PC market. At the very least, they are raising the price of being a PC gamer. So long as the Xbox Series X and PS5 remain difficult to find at retail, the impact will be limited. If the next-generation consoles become more commonplace and GPUs do not, it may not be.
On Pascal’s fifth birthday, I’d like to offer up congratulations for the excellent microarchitecture it has been, while also offering a wish for its upcoming 10th birthday, in 2026. Come May 27, 2026, I’d very much like to write something as close to the following as possible:
“In the 120 months since Pascal launched, the retail channel GPU market has been overpriced for just 30 of them.”