Buying an NVidia RTX GPU(at MSRP) in early 2021
My experience through 2 months of utter insanity that is the current GPU market
As a gamer, getting your hands on a decent GPU in 2021 is an absolute marathon that will leave you exhausted and dispirited. While it might seem like a first-world problem, being able to get a nice GPU when I needed is something I always took for granted and I was sorely disappointed when I tried to buy one at the beginning of this year.
There is a global chip shortage that is severely bottlenecking GPU production and scalpers with armies of bots are securing stock off of every stock drop before any human could and then selling them for up to 3X MSRP on eBay and other sites, adding to the frustration of us normal people who can’t justify dropping $1000 on a card normally priced at $350.
But by golly, I actually managed to successfully ‘order’ one; I don’t have it in my hands yet, but in this race actually being able to place an order at retail price gets you halfway there.
Now that my watch is ‘over’, I thought I’d take some time to write up the entire process I went through and all the tools I used to try and buy a GPU. While the way I actually managed to place an order was one of the most unlikely, I think that all the methods I used could help someone to finally get one. I was actually aiming for an Nvidia RTX 3060, 3060 Ti or 3070, but you could apply these methods to all the cards out there, although the RTX 3080 is looking somewhat like a sci-fi myth at this point.
Getting notifications for online stock drops
It’s almost impossible to buy a GPU online these days without having some way of getting notified when they are in stock on various online retail sites. I used a few methods to get notified when stock became available:
This was the first method I used. Distill is basically a browser tool that will watch web page elements for changes, so if you’re watching the ‘Add to Cart’ button on pages (which, for GPUs, is almost always ‘Out of stock’ 😢) it will keep refreshing pages on your browser and checking whether that element changes. I actually managed to get in on a Best Buy drop using this method (but of course, I couldn’t order on time).
This requires you to have a browser window running all the time. Technically, you could set this up to run on a Raspberry Pi and configure it to send out text notifications (distill.io does this for a monthly fee), but I figured I’m not going to be buying GPUs in my sleep so I just set it up on my PC which is on during the day anyway. Distill has a remote server option that you can pay for (so it doesn’t run the check on your local browser) but this doesn’t work very well as it’ll end up checking for stock where their servers are and not at your local store.
atr-stonks Discord server and NerdSpeak Twitter alerts
These two are managed by the same set of great people. You can join the Discord server here, and find on them on Twitter here. Twitter notifications seem to come through faster than the Discord notifications, but the community on Discord is great to get info on how to react to online stock drops and just vent in general. They have a bunch of notification bots for retail stock drop alerts and more importantly, dedicated humans who are extremely reliable with their info. It was actually a NerdSpeak Twitter alert that helped me order a card.
There are a bunch of other ways to get online stock drop alerts, but these were the main two I used.
Buying Online: Get ready to tear your hair out
If you’re hoping to buy a GPU online (seeing as we buy almost everything online these days), you need to be aware of how stock drops work on different online retail sites. The Discord server I listed above gives good breakdowns on how these happen and how to order, but I’ll break it down for you too:
Amazon is the most unreliable way to try and get a GPU at MSRP online, because they seem to have this weird ‘in stock/out of stock’ Schrödinger state. Most of the time the card will not go in to your cart at all and even if it does, they’ll tell you it’s out of stock when you go to checkout. You need an insane amount of luck to land a GPU on Amazon in its current state because it doesn’t seem to have any anti-bot measures in place and cards sell out before you can even blink. Adding insult to injury, Amazon seems to have very small stock drops on items (I think it might be as low as 1 or 2 at a time).
Best Buy restocks on Tuesdays and Thursdays around 11am EST in general, although this timeline has deviated quite a bit sometimes. Best Buy does have some anti-bot measures in place in the form of a locked ‘Add to Cart’ button. Once stock becomes available, you click on ‘Add to Cart’ once and then wait in a queue to click on it again once it becomes clickable. I’ve never had much success with this but there are a lot of people who managed to secure GPUs through Best Buy. Once you actually get a GPU in your cart, you have to be quick to check it out because there have been cases where in-cart items disappeared if you took too long to checkout. A lot of people recommend having your shipping info, payment info etc to be stored on Best Buy beforehand and that you should always be logged in if you want to act on a stock drop. Another recommendation is to open multiple browsers (preferably, completely different browsers like Firefox and Chrome) and get on the queue on all of them separately once the stock drop happens. I’ve gone through about 4 Best Buy stock drops and never had the Add to Cart button become available for me, but a lot of people have succeeded in this, so don’t let it discourage you.
Ah, the Newegg Shuffle. Newegg giveth, and Newegg taketh away. The Newegg Shuffle is a ‘Popular Product Shuffle’ which is basically a raffle for a bunch of select items that Newegg runs a few times each week. You go to the shuffle website, sign up for the items you’d like, and after the time period ends Newegg will email you whether you got selected or not. If you get selected, the item(s) you wanted to buy will already be in your cart, and you can checkout within a given time limit. There are a lot of people who’ve had success with the Newegg Shuffle, but looking at my emails it seems I have entered 16 times and never had any success. I’ve heard about people who entered 25–30 times and never got through either. However, if you’re looking for a GPU, the Newegg Shuffle is one of those things that you can have as an ongoing thing that you try every now and then without having to worry about refreshing pages and clicking on Add to Cart buttons like an old Wild West outlaw with an itchy trigger finger.
Zotac are a GPU manufacturer and they sell the GPUs they build on their website. There are a lot of GPU buyers that swear by the Zotac Store; but I am not one of them. For one thing, their stock usually drops in the middle of the night to early AM and is gone in about 5 minutes while most people are asleep. For another, Zotac runs an old Magento site that is not built for scale. They have a separate third-party DDOS blocker that won’t load the page for a while, but that doesn’t help anyone. The server not being able to respond properly to a bunch of people frantically clicking on ‘Add to Cart’ and ‘Checkout’ buttons has taken a toll on this site, and many a hopeful buyer have been cruelly turned away by inane server-side errors. My gut feeling is that you have to be lucky to score a card on this site, but not as lucky as you have to be to get one on Amazon.
EVGA manufacture and sell their own GPUs on their website too, but they’ve taken a different approach than Zotac; they maintain a notification queue. Against each item that is out of stock, you can hit a button to join the queue and wait for your place to come up the next time stock is available. Of course, these queues seem to be backlogged all the way to December 2020, and the 3080 queue looks like it’s stuck in October. A bunch of people with way too much time on their hands and the heroism to carry the fate of gamers everywhere on their shoulders compiled a spreadsheet and form to determine where the EVGA queues are right now, though this really depends on how well people are filling out the form. While getting on the EVGA queue guarantees you a long wait, it doesn’t hurt to try it out.
Buying physically: Get ready to thrash it out on the frontlines
Now, if hitting F5 on your browser and waiting for stock drops isn’t your thing, you can try Microcenter. While Microcenter sells GPUs online as well, they focus on selling in-store first, and this is the sales outlet that a lot of GPU buyers will swear by.
The first thing you need to in order to be able to buy from Microcenter is to have a Microcenter store within a reasonable distance from you. If you have to travel more than an hour to get to a Microcenter, you need an iron will and lots of time on your hands to make that journey multiple times. Microcenter stores get two supply trucks each on every weekday, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Now, if you’re a hopeful GPU buyer, you need to go to a Microcenter when these trucks arrive and stand in line outside the store. People stand in line before the store opens for the morning truck and start queueing up around 11.30am each weekday for the afternoon truck. If you’re hoping to buy the ultra-mythical super rare S-tier RTX 3080, you’re going to have to line up early. I spoke to a Microcenter salesperson and was told that some people queue up as early as 5am (this was with below-freezing temperatures in February) for the morning truck, and half of them will leave as soon as the store opens because they were hoping to buy 3080’s and there were none in the supply truck that day. If you’re hoping to buy a more (relatively) common card like a 3060, 3060Ti, 3070, or 3090 however, you can afford to join the line a little late and still have a good chance of getting a card if they’re in supply that day. I was on the queue a couple of times but lucked out, and then decided I couldn’t make that time commitment every day. However, if you have average luck you could get a card at a Microcenter within a few visits. There is an unofficial Microcenter Discord server, where fearless warriors standing in line each day will report back on the availability on cards so us lesser mortals can rush out and grab them. The Discord server is organized so that you can get on channels related to specific Microcenter stores you’re interested in, so you only hear about stock drops in your area. This is, in my opinion, the most reliable way to get a GPU if you can put in the time to make some trips to Microcenter on different days.
An alternate method: Through a small, privately owned business
In a world full of scalpers selling at ridiculous prices and mainline retailers selling to whoever is buying, OG10KTech are a breath of fresh air. This small PC builder and parts retailer based out of Westerville, Ohio maintains a queue that you can prepay for a GPU and get on. However, being a small retailer, they don’t get as much stock as larger ones would, so if you get on their queue, prepare for a wait. Another thing is that they seem to have been overwhelmed with orders that is really affecting the speed they can operate their small business at. However, the owner does regular streams on Twitch where he tries to keep buyers updated on the status of queues. He is also working on a digital queue where you can go and check where you are (he used to have this on his old site, but it is taking some time to migrate this queue to the new one). If you like supporting a small business, tired of scalpers and bots buying from all the large retailers, and are willing to wait a while without a lot of information, this is a good option for you. There may be other small retailers that do something similar to this, but I’ve never heard about anyone else.
So how did I get my card?
I got mine through the unlikeliest of methods and one I’d never have imagined: through Amazon. I got a NerdSpeak Twitter alert that there were MSI 3060’s available on Amazon, I tried once and got an ‘out of stock’ at checkout, but the second time the order went through. Now, this by no means is a guarantee that Amazon won’t decide to suddenly ‘cancel’ my order, but I am hopeful, and I have stopped card hunting for now.
So that is my tale of the absolute rollercoaster ride I went through to try and buy an NVidia RTX GPU in 2021. I hope this write up helps other would-be GPU owners out there. It contains all the information that has helped me, that I have found out from various sources over the past 2 months.
Good luck out there! It’s a crazy world, especially if you want a new GPU.
Update: I got my card in the middle of April!
So far, it’s been great. Godspeed to all you GPU hunters!