Whether you’re on the hunt for PS5 restock, Xbox Series X restock or an Nvidia RTX 3080, you’ve probably had a pretty miserable time of it. Game consoles come and go within minutes, from retailers large and small. GPUs from Nvidia and AMD seem even scarcer, with enthusiasts camping out in front of stores, or simply paying exorbitant prices for third-party gear.
On the one hand, we expect newly released electronics to be scarce. Eager early adopters almost always snatch up all available stock on a hot new gadget. But then, over time, the demand levels off and the supply increases, and you can walk into any store and walk out with a smartphone, or a game console, or a computer part.
And yet, gadget-hunting in 2021 feels different so far. More than six months later, finding a PS5 or Xbox Series X requires setting aside hours of your day to constantly refresh a page, and hoping against hope that scalper bots don’t steal a console right out of your shopping cart. GPUs like the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 and the AMD RX 6800 are even rarer, thanks to shady cryptocurrency miners. After all, who’s got time to play fun games when you can strike it rich with Dogecoin?
Unfortunately, as 2021 continues, it’s beginning to look more and more like game consoles and GPUs won’t be widely available anytime soon, largely due to the worldwide semiconductor shortage. For the moment, high-end gaming systems are, essentially, rare luxury goods, instead of everyday consumer items. And the sooner we start viewing them as such, the happier we’ll all be.
The great semiconductor shortage
The reason why no one can find a PS5, Xbox Series X or GPU is almost disappointingly prosaic. It’s because manufacturers can’t supply enough parts to get them built.
Everything boils down to a type of computer component known as a semiconductor. To simplify things considerably, semiconductors help bridge the gap between metallic conductors and nonreactive insulators. They’re the reason why our electronics don’t short out from too much current, or fail to function from a lack of current. In products that rely on sensitive computerized equipment — game consoles and GPUs, yes, but also cars, washing machines and cameras — semiconductors are arguably as integral as the microchips themselves.
At present, the whole world is living through a severe semiconductor shortage. If you guessed that it’s largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you guessed correctly. Many factories either shut down, or didn’t run at full capacity, for quite some time last year. To exacerbate matters further, consumers didn’t buy much when the pandemic began, leading manufacturers to cut their semiconductor orders. Not only has demand outstripped supply; the supply itself is smaller than it realistically should have been.
There are other reasons for the shortage, too, from then-president Donald Trump’s restrictions on the Chinese semiconductor trade, to a fire at a Japanese manufacturing plant, to reduced global shipping causing bottlenecks. In other words, the semiconductor shortage is a perfect storm of public health, international relations, logistics and bad luck.
The bottom line for consumers is that we can’t buy what we need, whether it’s a new Xbox or a new car. And since creating and distributing semiconductors is a complicated, global endeavor, fixing the supply chain isn’t as simple as “making more PS5s.”
What can you do?
If you’ve been glued to Twitter, hoping against hope for the next PS5 restock, or perusing your local Best Buy every morning in hopes of an RTX 3080 resupply, you’re very well aware that the odds are against you. The demand for new gaming gear is huge; the supply of new gaming gear is extremely limited. The demand should decrease slightly as more and more people actually find the hardware they’re looking for. But with each new restock still selling out within minutes, it doesn’t seem like the situation is improving quickly enough to make a difference for most prospective buyers.
At the risk of being the resident Tom’s Guide doomsayer, I don’t see the situation for PS5, Xbox Series X or high-end GPUs improving much within the next few months. Readers have two options for dealing with this bad news. They can redouble their efforts, making our friend Matt Swider’s Twitter profile (which tracks console restocks day and night) into their homepage, setting up accounts at every major retailer in advance, keeping multiple machines glued to the Best Buy home page all day, and fighting off the thousands of other people in exactly the same position, every single day, until something clicks. And, to be honest, if you treat finding a new console like a second job, you can probably secure one. It’s not hard; it’s just very tedious.
The other option, of course, is just to accept that now is not the right time to buy new gaming gear. The last year has admittedly thrown off our perception of what feels “normal,” but it is not normal to treat consumer hardware like orchestra seating for a one-night-only concert. You shouldn’t have to fight off hordes of scalpers and turn your computer desk into a Dr. Strangelove-style war room just to play the next Ratchet & Clank.
Granted, I felt fine about telling people to simply work through their backlogs back in November, when it seemed like restocks were just around the corner. Now, there’s a tinge of desperation to it. But there’s just no surefire way to get new hardware right now. If you want to join the fray, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of frustration and disappointment. Even if you ultimately find a new console, I can’t promise it’ll be worth the hassle — particularly since there are very few next-gen console exclusives, or PC games that take full advantage of new GPU technologies.
The semiconductor shortage is an unpleasant fact, but it’s still a fact. Hardware manufacturers can’t simply will more consoles and GPUs into existence. And while tech sites thrive on innovation, hacks, workarounds and tricks, there really aren’t any here — or at least none that are guaranteed to work.
However you choose to weather the console and GPU shortage — through your backlog, through buying new games on PS4 and Xbox One, or through leaning into other hobbies in the meantime — weathering it may indeed be your best option.
And, if all of that fails, there’s always the Nintendo Switch. For now.