GeForce 7900 cards scarce but not rare

Many of you have been frustrated about the fact that GeForce 7900 GT cards have been difficult to find at online retailers in the past few weeks. We've seen various brands of 7900 GT cards go in and out of stock at retailers like Newegg, and availability of cards for purchase has been far from constant. Meanwhile, Radeon X1800 XTs are in stock across the board at a range of online vendors. Clearly, NVIDIA and its board partners have a problem keeping online retailers supplied with 7900 cards.

This situation has been particularly perplexing in light of what happened with the GeForce 7800 GTX 512. Stocks of those cards ran out well before the GeForce 7900 series was launched, causing a virtual drought and skyrocketing prices on the few boards available for sale. On the eve of the GeForce 7900 launch, NVIDIA owned up to having gotten its forecast wrong on the 7800 GTX 512 and promised we would not see a reprise of these problems with the 7900 series. Yet here we are.

We contacted NVIDIA to find out what they had to say about 7900 availability, and we received the following carefully worded statement:

We have no issues with production of either board. We have a steady supply going to system builders, OEMs and to the retail channel daily. Supply is steady at these customers and has not dried up. We move our enthusiasts boards as fast as we make them because we are the GPU of choice in those segments. Look for more to hit this week or next week, but do not look for them to linger in a warehouse.
Steadiness of supply, of course, doesn't mean adequacy, so we weren't quite sure what to make of this statement.

In order to get some additional clarification, we spoke with Ujesh Desai, NVIDIA's General Manager of Desktop GPUs, about the status of GeForce 7900 supplies. Desai was consistent with NVIDIA's official statement on the issue, characterizing the current supply of 7900s as a steady, constant stream of new products flowing to board makers and then to various sales channels, including e-tailers, retailers, and PC OEMs. He said NVIDIA is shipping "hundreds of thousands" of GeForce 7900 GPUs and that chips continue coming from the fab—and boards from the factory—with no yield or production issues.

So why aren't 7900 GT cards more readily available at online vendors? Desai had several answers, one with an intriguing inherent tension in it: he said NVIDIA had no control over whether board partners chose to prioritize one sales channel over another in shipping cards to their customers—but he accepted NVIDIA's responsibility for the overarching issue, regardless.

Desai also pointed to the question of market share. NVIDIA sizes up the market by looking at past sales data for GPUs overall, and then draws up chip forecasts based on the share of that market it wants to capture. He claimed 7900 supply is on track with NVIDIA's forecasts, but cards are still difficult to keep in stock. Meanwhile, he suggested, the widespread availability of competing Radeon cards could be because the ATI products simply aren't selling very well in comparison. To bolster this argument, NVIDIA pointed out TigerDirect's top sellers list for video cards, which currently has the BFG GeForce 7900 GT at #3 and the Radeon X1900 XTX—the only ATI card in the top 10—at #6. NVIDIA suggested we check with online vendors to confirm the proportion of Radeon to GeForce sales.

We weren't able to get any e-tailers to go on record with proportional sales data on ATI and NVIDIA cards, but we did get a clear sense that the picture NVIDIA painted of the situation is fairly accurate. GeForce 7900 cards are outselling the ATI-based competition by well over four-to-one ratios at some online vendors, amazingly enough. The supply is substantial, too: shipments of 7900 cards are arriving on palettes and selling out within the space of a day or two—sometimes less. Vendors are not satisfied with the volumes of cards they are getting, of course; they would like more. But this is not a simple case of extended, persistent lack of product from NVIDIA and stellar supply from ATI. NVIDIA appears to be moving many more high-end GeForces through e-tail than ATI is high-end Radeons.

This news seems jarring in light of the fact that the latest GeForces and Radeons looked pretty evenly matched in terms of overall performance in our latest round of tests. However, it tends to make more sense when one considers that ATI's revamped product lineup hasn't yet fully materialized at anywhere near the cards' suggested prices, and in the interim, ATI lacks a viable competitor to the GeForce 7900 GT between $300 and $400. The Radeon X1800 GTO is a solid alternative to the GeForce 7600 GT at about $249, but it's only recently begun to show up on virtual store shelves.

[Update: Some folks have pointed out that the Radeon X1800 XT 256MB looks like a great option at about $289 on Newegg right now. So ATI's new lineup is starting to show up in e-tail, and it has a strong 7900 GT competitor in it.]

Another possible reason for the Radeons' relatively weak sales could be that PC enthusiasts are making their purchase decisions with an eye toward the GeForce cards' performance per watt advantage. I raised the question of efficiency in an extended conclusion to my review of the 7900 series, and no one seemed to pay a bit of attention, judging by the utter lack of feedback I received in email and article comments. Perhaps those issues matter more to folks than the response seemed to suggest.

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