Forget that Software. In 2021, cryptocurrencies are devouring the world. Thanks to miners looking to get rich in cryptocurrencies like Ethereum and Dogecoin, prices are skyrocketing in the mainstream graphics card market, if you can even find a graphics card in stock.
Lite Hash Rate GPUs are for gamers
Hoping to make it easier and cheaper for gamers to upgrade their rigs to the latest AAA titles, NVIDIA has announced new “lite hash rate” (LHR) versions of existing RTX GPUs. These cards are designed to make it harder to mine cryptocurrency without reducing game performance.
This is already the second time in 2021 that NVIDIA has tried it. The company’s plans exploded dramatically in March 2021 when the company accidentally unlocked its own software-based anti-mining protections for the RTX 3060 graphics card. Now the company is trying again with a much bigger campaign against mining, and it’s not coming too soon.
If you look at the major online retailers, you will see, for example, that NVIDIA GTX 1650 prices start at around $350 and top out at around $600. This is for a graphics card that was released in April 2019 and reviewed a year later with an original MSRP of $150.
The reason these cards are priced so high is that major retailers are completely out of stock and sell out quickly when they receive shipment. Third-party sellers, on the other hand, are looking to make a quick buck with big markups.
The retail inventory reduction is happening because 2021 has been a weird year for graphics cards. The pandemic and social distancing were still strong at the start of the year, increasing the demand for entertainment with people staying at home. Then there were supply chain issues, international shipping slowdowns, and finally, our friends who were looking to make a fortune from their underground mining operations.
What is Cryptocurrency Mining?
Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Dogecoin are produced by what is known as mining. This means that computers try to earn digital coins by calculating math problems as quickly as possible. These math problems are part of the blockchain system, the ledger that tracks transactions for a specific cryptocurrency. Whoever can verify a transaction first by solving the math problem is presented with a new, freshly minted coin.
Needless to say, anyone who mines enough of these coins can make a quick buck. Consider, for example, that a single Ethereum digital coin is worth around US$2,700 at the time of this writing. However, mining requires electricity and you need the right hardware to mine cryptocurrency quickly and profitably.
Graphics cards are currently the ideal hardware for mining the trendiest cryptocurrencies. GPUs are designed to solve math problems because to run a video game they have to compute tons of math in parallel operations. This fundamental characteristic makes them ideal for cryptocurrency mining.
Bitcoin, the ancestor of cryptocurrencies, was also mined with GPUs at one time, and it also put pressure on the mainstream graphics card market. However, specialized hardware that was even better for Bitcoin mining, called ASIC rigs, relieved the market. ASIC platforms for other cryptocurrencies have not taken off in the same way for reasons beyond the scope of this article.
The bottom line is that most cryptocurrencies, with the exception of Bitcoin, are largely mined by graphics cards. Often a single miner may have dozens of cards running around hoping to produce some serious money. Multiply that demand for tens of cards by thousands, and you’ll see why mining contributes to the current shortage.
NVIDIA’s LHR fight
Hoping to put more cards in the hands of gamers rather than cryptocurrency miners, NVIDIA announced its LHR program as of mid-May 2021. This program means that newly manufactured RTX 3080, RTX 3070, and RTX 3060 Ti graphics cards can detect when they are being used for Ethereum cryptocurrency mining. When this happens, the cards deliberately reduce their speed (hash rate) to solve Ethereum-related math problems by around 50%. Since these RTX cards were originally released without a reduced hash rate, newer LHR models will be labeled as such on the box and in product listings.
The LHR program makes these cards less useful to miners, but NVIDIA doesn’t leave miners out. To cope with the mining frenzy, NVIDIA also announced GPU models specifically for the cryptocurrency market which could also reduce the demand for ordinary consumer cards.
NVIDIA claims that gaming performance will not be affected with LHR cards, as they are only designed to slow down Ethereum workloads. Ethereum is a popular currency and there are many Ethereum-based projects and clones. But Ethereum is not the only coin type emphasizing GPU demand. Dogecoin, for example, is not based on Ethereum. Presumably, an LHR graphics card would not detect its mining.
Even if it reduces demand from miners, it’s unclear whether the LHR program will bring graphics cards back to store shelves. The RTX 3060 with anti-mining protections again sold out quickly when it was released earlier this year. There’s no reason to think the same won’t be true with NVIDIA’s other RTX cards, especially if there’s a lot of pent-up demand from gamers.
Nonetheless, LHR is a step in the right direction and will hopefully make graphics cards easier to obtain.
This assumes, of course, that NVIDIA doesn’t shoot itself in the foot again and release a software update that kills anti-Ethereum mining protections.