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Australia and New Zealand to launch ‘travel bubble’ April 19 in pandemic milestone

New Zealand will allow quarantine-free visits by Australians from April 19, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday, creating a “travel bubble” for the neighbouring nations that have closed their borders to the rest of the world to eradicate COVID-19.

Though most Australian states have allowed quarantine-free visits from New Zealanders for months, New Zealand has continued mandatory quarantine from its neighbour, citing concern about small COVID-19 outbreaks there.

The virus has effectively been eradicated in both countries, with minor outbreaks a result of leakage from quarantined returned travellers. Australia has recorded about 29,400 virus cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began, while New Zealand has had just over 2,100 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.

“The Trans-Tasman travel bubble represents a start of a new chapter in our COVID response and recovery, one that people have worked so hard at,” Ardern told reporters in the New Zealand capital Wellington.

“That makes New Zealand and Australia relatively unique. I know family, friends and significant parts of our economy will welcome it, as I know I certainly do.”

Other neighbouring countries have proposed special travel zones, but the New Zealand-Australia arrangement is among the first that does not involve mandatory COVID-19 testing.


New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces conditions for quarantine-free travel with Australia on Tuesday. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald/The Associated Press)

About 568,000 New Zealand-born people live in Australia, according to 2018 figures, equivalent to 2.3 per cent of Australia’s population and Australia’s fourth-largest migrant community.

Australia supplied 1.5 million, or 40 per cent of arrivals in New Zealand in 2019, the year before the pandemic shut borders, contributing $ 2.3 billion Cdn to its economy, according to New Zealand figures. Arrivals were forecast to reach 80 per cent of that level by early 2022, Ardern said.

“Tourism operators can now take bookings with confidence and scale up their staffing,” said Chris Roberts, CEO of New Zealand travel industry body Tourism Industry Aotearoa.

‘Flyer beware’

Flights to and from some Australian states could still be suspended if there were local outbreaks, Ardern warned. She said travellers must wear masks on flights and undertake New Zealand contact tracing, while the travel bubble did not apply to people transiting via Australia from other countries.

The bubble would operate under a “flyer beware” system, with no new support from the New Zealand government for people stuck in Australia by cancellations at short notice, Ardern said.

Travel would operate state-by-state, and would follow a virus risk traffic-light system, with travel as normal in green-light zones, halting for 72 hours in orange zones and halting for an extended period in red-light zones.

Air New Zealand Ltd and Qantas Airways Ltd said they would ramp up flights between Australia and New Zealand to more than 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, reducing the airlines’ cash burn when they are almost wholly reliant on domestic markets for revenue.

“I’ll certainly be digging out my passport for the first time since I joined the airline to head across the ditch to see my family, and I’m especially looking forward to meeting some of my grandchildren for the first time,” said Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran.

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NASA Picks SpaceX to Launch SPHEREx Space Telescope

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SpaceX already has a number of lucrative contracts with NASA thanks to its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, not least of which is the recently realized Commercial Crew Program. NASA isn’t just using SpaceX for crewed flights, though. The agency has just awarded SpaceX another cargo contract, this one to deploy the upcoming SPHEREx space telescope. This instrument will scan the entire sky over two years, but it won’t start the work until 2024 at the earliest. 

SPHEREx is part of NASA’s Medium-Class Explorers (MIDEX) program along with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and almost a dozen other missions stretching back to the early 90s. SPHEREx is a particularly tortured acronym that stands for Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer. That means SHPEREx will map the sky in near-infrared, which is beyond the limit of human vision. 

The total cost of SPHEREx launch services from SpaceX is $ 98.8 million, a sizable chunk of the expected $ 395 to $ 427 million NASA has allocated for the project. TESS is designed to observe objects up to several hundred light-years away, but SPHEREx should be able to scan more than 300 million galaxies and 100 million stars in the Milky Way using its spectrophotometer. 

The Falcon 9 is NASA’s choice to send SPHEREx into space in 2024.

SPHEREx could help scientists better understand how galaxies form and evolve. Every six months, SPHEREx will use its 20cm telescope to create a map of the entire sky in 96 different color bands. NASA believes SHPEREx will be able to gather important data on the presence of water molecules and organics in distant star-forming regions. This will help NASA identify targets for future study with more powerful instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope. In particular, NASA is interested in gathering data that will clarify the “epoch of ionization,” a period in the early universe when the first stars and galaxies formed and reionized the neutral hydrogen that dominated space at the time. SPHEREx will also look farther back at the very beginning in search of evidence for a theorized property of the Big Bang called inflation. 

Although, even the chronically delayed Webb should beat SPEREx to space. NASA has yet to begin construction of SPHEREx, which will be a joint effort of NASA JPL and Caltech. The launch is currently scheduled for June 2024 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

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CDPR Apologizes for Cyberpunk 2077 Launch, but Explains Very Little

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Late on Wednesday, CD Projekt Red co-founder Marcin Iwinski posted a video in which he apologized for Cyberpunk 2077’s abysmal console launch. Iwinski took responsibility for the decision to launch the title and its subsequent unacceptably poor performance on the base Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

The video covers three broad topics. First, there’s the apology. Second, Iwinski offers some comments on “how the situation looked from the inside.” Third, he gives some detail on what players can expect in the future as far as updates and improvements. As far as the apology is concerned, Iwinski’s comments are clear and concise. There’s no real dodging, as far as responsibility.

His explanation for how the console version got so screwed up, however, leaves something to be desired. According to Iwinksi, the reason the Xbox One and PS4 look so bad is that the company put almost all its effort into prepping the launch on PC. It assumed, according to Iwinksi, that it could simply turn detail levels back down and have an acceptable product to work with.

This is in direct contradiction to multiple statements CDPR made over the course of Cyberpunk 2077’s development. The company told gamers that the game was constantly evaluated on all platforms. It told gamers that they could expect a good visual experience relative to what the console systems were capable of. During its October investor call, CDPR told investors that there were no problems with the console versions other than minor, normal bug fixing.

It’s nice to know that the console versions weren’t being evaluated, but there’s no explanation of why employees, executives, and board members of the company misrepresented the state of game development over a sustained period of time.

Iwinski does give us a hint at what isn’t working well on last-gen systems. According to him, getting data to stream in properly in Cyberpunk 2077 when running on the base consoles was more difficult than the company assumed due to the need to constantly improve the streaming engine. He also claimed that “our testing did not show a big part of the issues you experienced while playing the game.”

The only way CDPR didn’t experience the issues of its players is if CDPR didn’t playtest the game or didn’t listen to its playtesters. The console versions are instantly bad. The PC version, while vastly better on high-end hardware, was still very buggy at launch. Supposedly, the company believed that it could genuinely bring the Xbox and PS4 versions of the game fully up to snuff by launch date.

I flatly don’t believe this. Or, rather — I believe it, in the sense that some executives may have been willing to throw the console version of the game under a bus to hit their sales targets, to the point that they convinced themselves a game as catastrophically broken as CP2077 on Xbox One / PS4 could be fixed in a few short weeks. Maybe some people arrogantly believed there was no need for serious playtesting or bug-fixing cycles, but if so, that was highly motivated and suspect reasoning.

I cannot claim to have worked in game development, but I’ve worked on a multi-team modding project that sank several thousand hours of collective effort into a product we released for public download, and I’ve worked on my DS9 remastering project for most of a year. In both cases, I absolutely had a sense of when I might or might not be able to write a new story or release an update / new version. When you’re as deep in bug-fixing hell as CP2077 clearly was, right up until the moment it released, there’s no way you’re going to magically clear those problems and launch an acceptable game.

Either someone at the company knew about this, and that person got silenced, or the company is so poorly organized, necessary information about the state of its product failed to reach the people who most needed to hear it.

The developers actually assigned to fix the console version would have known the game wasn’t going to be ready for December 10. Marcin Iwinski says that “we” believed the game would be ready to launch. He doesn’t clarify if that refers to other people in corporate leadership, or if that was the opinion of the programmers who were actually working on the game. I wouldn’t bet on the latter.

Finally, we’ve got some news on what’s happening next. The January update will drop within 10 days, but the update coming in February was only described as arriving “in the following weeks.” After this round of work is done, the company will get started on the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 enhancements, which will now likely be delayed into 2021.

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NASA Will Launch Europa Clipper on Commercial Rocket

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Many planetary scientists believe that Europa might be our best bet to find evidence of alien life in our own backyard. Although, it’s a big backyard, and the planned Europa Clipper mission needs a powerful rocket to reach the Jovian moon. Congress previously required that this mission launch on the massively delayed Space Launch System (SLS), but the most recent NASA budget has untied the agency’s hands

Europa Clipper is an ambitious long-term robotic mission that aims to study Europa up close by way of multiple orbital flybys. NASA hopes to launch the spacecraft in 2024, sending it on a six-year journey to Jupiter. Once there, the spacecraft will spend at least four years swinging past Europa to scan its entire surface. The probe will also have tools to characterize the suspected sub-surface ocean below the cracked ice sheet. 

The ongoing issues getting the SLS rocket complete has added uncertainty to the Europa Clipper timeline, and NASA wasn’t allowed to explore alternatives. This restriction is thanks to congressional vote trading — a former US representative from Texas pushed funding for the Clipper mission, and he got Senate support from Republican Richard Shelby by including the SLS mandate. Shelby’s home state of Alabama has a large number of aerospace contractors that stood to benefit from the SLS. 

NASA has urged Congress to reconsider that mandate, and it looks like the message finally got through. In the recently passed budget, the NASA section includes a modification to the SLS mandate — it’s not gone, but NASA has much more latitude to explore alternative ways to get the Europa Clipper into space. While NASA will still have to use the SLS if it’s ready in 2024, the agency can instead use something like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy if the SLS is still running behind. 

Clipper

The Space Launch System was pushed by Congress as an alternative to the Constellation program that the Obama administration canceled in 2009. In return, the administration got the Commercial Crew Program, which recently succeeded in sending astronauts into space. The SLS is slated to be the most powerful rocket in the world when complete, but it’s an expensive single-use vehicle with a projected launch cost of more than $ 2 billion. A Falcon Heavy launch would save NASA about $ 1.5 billion. Although, the SLS does have enough power for a direct flight to Jupiter, whereas the Falcon Heavy launch would involve some planetary slingshot maneuvers. 

It’s unclear which direction NASA will go — the SLS is currently expected to have its first test flight in 2021 with a crewed mission in 2023. If that holds, NASA could still use the SLS for Europa Clipper. Thankfully, the agency won’t be hamstrung in the event of more delays.

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Cyberpunk 2077’s PC Player Base Has Shrunk 79 Percent Since Launch

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Cyberpunk 2077’s launch may have been a dumpster fire, but it was undeniably a successful dumpster fire; the company reported 13 million copies sold after taking refund requests into account. The game ran far better on PC than on consoles from launch, but new data suggests PC gamers are quitting in higher-than-expected numbers.

A report from GitHyp, a website that bills itself as a front-end for various gamer statistics, notes that while the game launched at over a million players, its total number of players of late has been much lower.

Even this graph actually understates things — yesterday’s maximum daily player count was only 155,000. GitHyp notes that while this isn’t necessarily unusual for a single-player game, open-world titles tend to be much stickier and to engage players for a longer period of time. Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t following this same trend line. GitHyp notes that the Witcher 3, while putting up much lower numbers in an absolute sense, held on to a larger percentage of its player base. It took The Witcher 3 three months to lose as much of its player base as CP2077 has lost in one.

Is this a long term problem for the company? I suspect not. First, with 13M overall sales, CDPR is going to be well-funded for quite some time. The company claimed it recouped development costs on preorders alone, and the 5M+ additional sales, plus what’s sold since it released that statement, is going to put them solidly in the black.

Second, I suspect a lot of players are waiting until the game is in better condition. If you were planning to play the game on a reasonably high-end PC, the issues swirling around the PS4/Xbox One mostly don’t apply to you. But the game is still buggy, even on PCs. CD Projekt Red has announced that it will put out a major patch in January, followed by a patch in February. If I was a PC player unhappy with the current state of the game, and I knew two large patches were coming, I’d probably just wait until they dropped and see how much the game improved. Visit forums talking about the game, and even a lot of people who are unhappy with the title today expect CDPR to fix it in the future. Given the long-term evolution of The Witcher 3, that’s not a crazy assessment.

A lot of the criticism of Cyberpunk 2077 that isn’t based on bugs or the console problems has pointed out that the plot, setting, and quests often feel incomplete or loosely stitched together. Combat and overall difficulty have also been criticized. These are issues that CDPR can address to some degree, either with patches or DLC. There’s a lot more precedent for believing the company will fix the game, based on how titles like No Man’s Sky, Final Fantasy XIV, Battlefront II, Destiny, and The Division 2 evolved after launch. One of the relatively new trends in gaming has been the emergence of titles that are not allowed to fail, and publishers willing to pour money into them until they’ve been rescued from the bottom of the bin.

Cyberpunk 2077’s launch will go down in history as a cautionary tale of how unscrupulous actors will mislead investors, the public, and reviewers about the state of a game. It may also evolve into a beloved title, especially if patches, DLC, and the eventual addition of multiplayer are seen as redeeming the game.

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SpaceX Plans to ‘Catch’ Super Heavy Rockets With Launch Tower

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Up until now, SpaceX rockets have always landed by deploying legs around the rocket as it returned to earth. If new remarks from Elon Musk are accurate, the company wants to get rid of that method to save weight. Future spacecraft may not sport legs at all.

The Super Heavy launch vehicle is the first-stage launcher for the second-stage craft known as Starship. Super Heavy will still use its engines to control its descent, similar to the current Falcon 9, but it will use its grid fins to control orientation in flight.

According to Musk, SpaceX believes it doesn’t need legs to land the rocket safely. After a reader asked Elon if a user-created video captured the Super Heavy descent profile accurately, the founder of SpaceX dropped this announcement:

“We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load” doesn’t sound like the kind of statement that gets people hot and bothered, but context is everything, and an awful lot of SpaceX fans are excited about the idea. An equally large group of them, including the author, are a bit puzzled by it. It isn’t clear what it means to have the launch tower “catch” the Super Heavy. Launch towers don’t exactly fall down if you breathe on them, but I’ve never heard of using one directly to catch a rocket (even a depleted, first-stage rocket).

The implication seems to be that the rocket bears its own weight directly on the grid fins and that the “catch” is more about lining up the rocket with the launch arm in a way that allows them to interlink again, as opposed to using the launch arm to somehow brake or control the Super Heavy as it descends.

According to Elon, the goal is to enable the reuse of the same rocket in under an hour. This is rocket re-usability of the sort envisioned by sci-fi writers who predicted Earth-Moon or Earth-Mars shuttles leaving every hour on the other, with little more than a refueling required before the next journey.

It’ll be a long time before we reach anything like that speed, if ever. The first Super Heavy boosters to land successfully will be carefully analyzed before being allowed to launch again. Currently, the world-record holder for the most-reused rocket is B1049, a SpaceX booster that has launched and been recovered successfully six times.

But Super Heavy doesn’t need to refly in under an hour to revolutionize space travel. NASA’s best record for putting the same Shuttle into orbit is 55 days, and most of the refreshes took considerably longer.

A reusable rocket that could launch once per month would be a dramatic leap ahead of anything NASA achieved with the Shuttle (and with the benefit of a few more decades of R&D in computing and material engineering). A reusable rocket that could launch every week would revolutionize the cost of space transport. It goes without saying that “under an hour,” if it were possible, would shake things up a bit.

Feature image is the Starship, the Super Heavy’s second stage. 

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CONCACAF to launch Women’s Nations League as World Cup qualifying

CONCACAF is revamping its senior women competitions, changing its World Cup qualifying process and following the men by creating a Women’s Nations League.

CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, says its new football calendar, which begins in 2021 and includes major centralized summer tournaments in 2022 and 2024, will provide more matches and competition for its members.

CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, a Vancouver native, said the new competitions create a development pathway for all member associations “while at the same time creating strong and competitive finals events to showcase the very best of women’s national team football in our region.”

Fellow Canadian Karina LeBlanc, CONCACAF’s head of women’s football, said the new competitions “will accelerate the growth of the women’s game in CONCACAF and I can’t wait for them to get started next year.”

A new World Cup qualifying format sees the U.S. and Canada, the top two CONCACAF nations in the August 2020 FIFA rankings, skip preliminary-round play and enter the final eight-team round of qualifying.

Thirty other CONCACAF nations will be drawn into six groups of five with each team playing four matches, two at home and two away. This group stage will be held in FIFA international match windows in November 2021 and April 2022.

Should more than 30 CONCACAF countries participate, a play-in will be held ahead of the group stage.

The six group winners will join the Americans and Canadians in the final round, scheduled for July 2022. The eight will be split into two groups of four with the top two finishers in each advancing to the knockout rounds.

The final round of competition will determine the CONCACAF teams going to the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023. But how many is unclear at this stage.

The 2023 World Cup is being expanded from 24 to 32 teams, with the exact breakdown of participation by confederation yet to be announced. CONCACAF had three spots and a playoff for a fourth team — Panama lost to Argentina — for the 2019 World Cup in France, with Canada, the U.S. and Jamaica eventually representing the region.

WATCH | Christine Sinclair on record-setting goal:

Canadian soccer star Christine Sinclair talks about making history with her 185th goal and has a message for the next generation. 2:56

The inaugural Women’s CONCACAF Nations League is set for FIFA windows in September, October and November 2023, with a play-in in April 2024. The centralized finals event is slated for June 2024.

Like the men, teams will be split into groups within three leagues playing home and away matches. The three group winners in the top league will qualify directly to the finals event in the summer of 2024.

Winners of the groups in the second league and runners-up from the top league will have a chance to qualify for the finals via a play-in. CONCACAF teams that compete in the 2024 Olympics will skip the group stage and will receive a bye directly to the finals.

The finals event will feature six CONCACAF teams which qualify through the group stage and play-in, four guest teams from other confederations and two 2024 Olympic-qualified teams.

The 12 teams will be split into three groups of four.

After single round-robin play, the three group winners, three group runners-up and two best third-place finishers will qualify for the knockout stage which will consist of quarterfinals, semifinals and a final.

CONCACAF says its Olympic women’s qualifying will be structured through this new calendar of competitions, adding further information will come at a later date.

CONCACAF qualification for the Tokyo Olympics saw regional tournaments in Central America and Caribbean determining five teams to join Canada, Mexico, and the United States at the final qualifying tournament.

The eight-team 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship served as a qualifier for the 2019 World Cup in France. Canada, Mexico, and the United States qualified automatically for the CONCACAF tournament with two teams from Central America and three from the Caribbean joining them from regional qualifying competitions.

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Every CPU, GPU, and Console Debut This Fall Was Effectively a Paper Launch

When AMD launched its new Radeon 6900 XT yesterday, it didn’t just re-enter the high-end GPU market. It also put the final, beautiful paper crown on a fall season filled with a virtual blizzard of it, from multiple manufacturers.

Nvidia kicked off this unwelcome trend when stocks of new consumer Ampere cards ran dry seconds after launch and haven’t refilled since. Both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are nearly impossible to source. There was some hope that AMD might have better availability on the Radeon RX 6000 series than Nvidia did with Ampere, since it uses TSMC instead of Samsung, but early stocks of these cards are only being replenished slowly, if at all. The Ryzen 5000 series of CPUs are not easy to find, either. The Nintendo Switch has been scarce since the pandemic began, and it’s not even new hardware. This last is not a paper launch, obviously, but it’s another example of a tech product that’s very difficult to find.

The companies behind these products would undoubtedly quibble with the phrase “paper launch” since 1). They hate it and 2). You can technically buy some of these products, if you’re very quick, very lucky, or willing to pay a monthly fee for an automated bot for a somewhat higher chance of scoring one. I’m willing to grant that the situation isn’t a paper launch in the strictest sense, but if you’re an ordinary person hoping to snap up some of today’s hottest tech, the distinction isn’t a particularly meaningful one. Either way, hardware that’s supposed to be readily for sale at MSRP is not, and the companies that have spoken about a public timeline for changing that have all indicated it won’t happen until several months from now.

COVID-19 has driven this situation in two different ways. First, it’s slowed or halted the movement and production of goods in various countries at various times. Second, consumer and corporate demand for computers has exploded, and console demand may have surged as well. Last-gen console hardware sales actually rose early in the pandemic, which is virtually unheard of in a new console launch year. Lockdowns have driven a great deal of additional interest in video gaming on every platform.

Past COVID-19, there have been rumors that yields on Samsung’s 8nm node were poor, while allocations for TSMC’s 7nm are said to be tight overall. These factors remain relevant, even in the face of the pandemic, because we have historical proof that low yields at the foundry can make GPUs hard to find on the ground all on their own. Back in 2016, it took Nvidia and AMD months to meaningfully supply GPUs to the consumer market. TSMC builds most of AMD’s product stack in CPUs (and all recent chips), its Radeon RX 5000 and 6000 GPUs, the Xbox Series X SoC, and the PlayStation 5 SoC — plus all of the contract manufacturing it handles for other companies.

Finally, there’s the unknown impact of bots. The use of bots has surged this year and while it’s impossible to estimate the exact impact of these automated scalping tools, the one place where you can find all of the hardware above is on eBay, at vastly inflated prices. There have also been a number of reports claiming that the number of bots being deployed to score desired hardware like the RTX 3080 has skyrocketed.

It is impossible to put the blame for this on any single company or foundry — there are just too many variables in play — but the situation still sucks. Corporate promises of stocked shelves have given way to admissions that supply and demand may not meet until late Q1 2021. AMD, Microsoft, Nvidia, and Sony may have felt they had little choice but to launch their new hardware, for various reasons, but it’s hard to argue the decision constituted an advantage for consumers when the only way to guarantee you’ll get cutting-edge hardware before Christmas is to pay a scalper 1.5x – 2.5x over retail for the privilege. I won’t say that’s the only way you’ll land a hot-ticket item this year, but it appears to be the only way to guarantee it.

I’m also not sure we should think about the GPU market the same way we talk about CPUs or consoles. Microsoft and Sony’s unusual decision to launch the next-generation with games so far away is an interesting way to approach the market, but we know almost nothing about shipments or sales thus far to predict the impact. Nintendo’s Switch has been hot for eight months now, so limited availability is, at least, not new. But the current situation in GPUs isn’t just bad — it’s bad, stacked on top of earlier bad, which stacks on top of still-earlier bad stretching all the way back to Pascal’s launch in 2016.

The GPU Market Has Never Run This Hot For This Long

Consider the GPU market since Nvidia launched Pascal in May 2016. All of the links in the paragraphs below point to stories written during the relevant period, allowing you to verify the pricing shifts I’m going to describe.

It took AMD and Nvidia most of 2016 to work out the kinks with shipping Polaris and Pascal in adequate volume. From late 2016 – May 2017, availability improved and prices fell towards where they were supposed to be, according to GPU MSRP’s. Then, the cryptocurrency market exploded again. From June 2017 – February 2018, GPU prices were ludicrously high, and they didn’t approach normality until May of that year. Pascal spent most of its first two years’ priced well above where the GPU was supposed to be — and so did AMD’s equivalents.

Pascal went out on a high note late in 2018, because a flood of GPUs hit the market at the same time Nvidia raised prices with Turing. By February 2019, the Pascal cards were vanishing from the market and prices on the new Turing GPUs and AMD’s Radeon VII were high enough that we called the new generation “the least-appealing upgrade in GPU history.” Price, as opposed to performance, was the overwhelming reason why.

Nvidia kept prices high until AMD re-entered the market with the 5700 and 5700 XT. From mid-2019 through mid-2020, GPU prices generally conformed to expected MSRPs,

Image of current RTX 2080 prices on Amazon.com. You can see them surge in late summer, when NV stopped production.

There’s some variation, here: Nvidia Turing GPU prices started to jump in the summer, along with rumors that the company had halted production. AMD cards seem to have started to rise only recently, but anything upper-range — 5700 and up — is also currently selling for inflated prices.

In the 55 months since Nvidia launched Pascal, GPUs from AMD, Nvidia, or both have sold at dramatically inflated prices in roughly 23 of them, with some allowance for slippage and some variance between AMD and Nvidia at any particular time. Based on predictions from multiple semiconductor firms, we shouldn’t expect easy availability or normal pricing much before ~March 2021. By Pascal’s 5th birthday, the GPU market will have run hot to red-hot for 26 months out of 60. Another way of saying that is, “For 43 percent of the time over five years, you haven’t been able to buy a GPU for anything like what AMD or Nvidia claim you can.”

It’s one thing when prices spike for a week or a month, but we’re talking about a situation in which GPU prices have been well above MSRP almost half the time, for half a decade. If these periods of time had occurred contiguously, you might have been stuck waiting to purchase an upgraded GPU or replace a dead one at a reasonable price for over two years. The total amount of time that GPU prices have spent inflated from Pascal’s launch in May 2016 to May 2021, assuming markets do cool off by March 2021, will be barely shorter than the entire period of time it ruled as Nvidia’s flagship architecture.

This raises questions about how much faith reviewers and readers should put in GPU MSRP pricing going forward. For now, no one has any choice but to ride out COVID-19, but this pattern of 4-6 month periods where GPU prices make a mockery of their supposed MSRPs needs to stop. The alternative is that we start quoting the launch price you should expect to pay from Amazon, Newegg, and Spankster69 over on eBay, with priority and emphasis given to the latter.

I’m not going to pretend there’s a simple, flawless solution to the problem, but whether it’s through adopting verified pre-order systems or simply through stockpiling far more hardware prior to launching a card, AMD and Nvidia need to address this. The pandemic will end. Low initial yields, periodic surges in demand, and automated scalping won’t. Gaming enthusiasts and professional users deserve better than an asterisk promising a launch in one month with actual availability arriving six months later.

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Xbox Series X Launch Is Microsoft’s Biggest Ever, Causes ISP Traffic Spike

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In the run-up to the Microsoft Series X launch, Microsoft made it clear that it would not be outmaneuvered two launches in a row. The Xbox Series X’s overall specs are better than the PlayStation 5 in several particulars, and it offers features like universal backward compatibility that the PlayStation 5 doesn’t have to the same degree. Microsoft also targeted a wider spread of price points than Sony did — while both companies offer a pair of consoles, Sony chose to target $ 400 and $ 500, while Microsoft went for $ 300 and $ 500. The difference between the two is that the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition ($ 400) lacks only a Blu-ray drive, while the Xbox Series S is meaningfully less powerful than the Xbox Series X and explicitly targets 1080p gaming.

Clearly, the company’s targeting paid off. Microsoft has announced its largest launch in history, with more consoles sold (no numbers yet) than in any previous generation. The Xbox Series S, in particular, seems to have drawn new gamers into the Xbox fold. Microsoft notes that more new gamers joined on this platform than in any previous launch. A total of 3,594 different games were played across 24 hours, indicating that the player base definitely took advantage of backward compatibility. The company is also touting high conversion numbers — 70 percent of Xbox Series S|X consoles are attached to new or existing Game Pass members.

Microsoft, of course, is scarcely going to tout numbers that don’t back up its argument, but there’s some independent confirmation that the launch was huge. According to UK ISP Virgin Media, it experienced record-breaking traffic on the day of launch, as gamers set up consoles, downloaded updates, and got to playing. The company served 108PB of data on Tuesday, November 10, or an average of 20GB per customer: “At the peak of recorded traffic, the equivalent of 48 Assassin’s Creed Valhalla games were being downloaded every second.”

The sizeable traffic was driven by the 60GB + 8GB update/release of Assassin Creed: Valhalla, a 30-65GB Call of Duty: Modern Warfare update, an 85-130GB preload for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, and a 65GB Destiny 2: Blue Light update. What this works out to, in aggregate, is an awful lot of data to download. Other UK ISPs like TalkTalk and OpenReach either set records or nearly set them. The upcoming launch of the Sony PlayStation 5 is also expected to set records.

The Xbox Series S has some drawbacks, but it drew more new gamers into the Xbox ecosystem than any previous launch, according to Microsoft.

The question of which console will sell better over the long run is an interesting one. Going into this generation, Sony is clearly the odds-on favorite. The PS2 utterly dominated its generation, and while the PS3 was badly hampered by its rocky start, it eventually out-shipped the Xbox 360. The PS4, of course, has decisively out-shipped the Xbox One by a more than 2:1 margin.

There are a number of early “Which is better” articles, but they mostly come down to the margins of both ecosystems. Xbox has Game Pass and Quick Resume, while Sony has a larger catalog of exclusive titles, but also less backward compatibility. It also has a better haptic controller, though we don’t know how much use players will get out of the feature long-term. Xbox Series X is faster than the PS5 on paper, but the current game available on both platforms gives the XSX a lead in only some modes. For whatever reason, the PS5, not the Xbox Series X, actually leads in the highest-performing game mode. In other modes, the XSX’s lead is 8 percent or less.

This is a pretty good result for gamers because there are no bad choices on the market right now. The XSX and PlayStation 5 are both powerful, they’re both fast, and they both have a back catalog of games you can play Day 1. We should expect both companies to report exceptional launch figures. The pandemic has driven greater interest in gaming throughout the entire year, and that’s scarcely going to end now that new platforms have debuted. With COVID-19 infections booming across the United States, indoor entertainment is at a premium relative to everything else.

More practically, consoles typically always sell well at launch. Nintendo’s Wii U is the poster child for this effect — the company launched the device on November 12, 2012, and had sold 3.06M of them worldwide by December 31, which wasn’t too shabby. Thereafter, sales fell off a cliff. Nintendo didn’t break the 6 million mark until March 2014.

Given the pandemic and the potential for limited consumer availability, it’ll be some months before we have any idea which platform is proving more popular, long-term. Both Microsoft and Sony are likely to sell every console they can ship, turning the entire affair into more of a pandemic supply chain benchmark than a referendum on console ecosystems.

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The PlayStation 5 Will Only Be Available Online for Launch Day

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If you were hoping to line up outside a big box store on November 12th or 19th to buy a PlayStation 5, you’re out of luck this year. Sony has announced that PlayStation 5 systems will only be available online.

The company writes:

No units will be available in-store for purchase on launch day (November 12 or November 19, depending on your region) – please don’t plan on camping out or lining up at your local retailer on launch day in hopes of finding a PS5 console for purchase. Be safe, stay home, and place your order online.

Gamers who have pre-ordered for pick-up at their local retailer should still be able to do so at their designated appointment time, under the retailer’s safety protocols. Please confirm the details with your local retailer.

Objectively, this is probably the right call, as far as tamping down on the spread of the pandemic. Standing long hours in close quarters isn’t the best way to socially distance and in the United States, at least, COVID-19 cases and deaths are both heading upwards once again, with over 100,000 Americans diagnosed in a single day and deaths per day once again clearing 1K. Sony is clearly taking a cautious route to market here, emphasizing safety globally rather than attempting to maximize in-store sales. It’s the right call, from a public health perspective — but it is going to make it harder to buy a PlayStation 5.

The problem of bots has begun to get some attention in recent months after flying under the radar for years, but it’s not realistic to expect Sony’s worldwide distributor network to have implemented anti-bot protections in a matter of a few weeks. Even if some major sites have stepped up to the plate that quickly, the issue hasn’t received enough attention. There have also been rumors of low PlayStation 5 production for months, though in this case, “low” is relative — Sony’s supposed targets for PS5 production were still higher than any previous six-month ramp, and any adjustments the company has made may be strictly nominal.

It’s also difficult to forecast what demand for the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will look like because they’re launching under such unusual circumstances. The pandemic has driven people indoors, which increases the chance that they’ll want to buy a gaming system of some sort. But COVID-19 has played hell with manufacturer shipping dates all year, and that’s before we talk about any yield or manufacturing issues that Microsoft and Sony might be encountering. That’s not to imply that either company has a specific problem, but every issue is going to be under a magnifying glass given the overall state of things.

The strangest thing about this generation of consoles is how it’s debuting without any next-generation games to really speak of. I’ve only had a week to spend with the Xbox Series X, but the games you can currently play on it are current-generation titles that don’t tap features like ray tracing. This, again, is thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it does make it a little odd to review a brand-new system in 2020.

If you want a PlayStation 5 this year, spamming refresh on your browser and keeping a constant eye on sites like NowInStock.net may be the best you can do. With no retail availability at all, it seems likely that bots will capture a higher percentage of the launch volume.

The other major piece of PlayStation-related news today is that the console’s M.2 slot won’t function at launch. This isn’t necessarily a surprise, since PS5 guru and hardware architect Mark Cerny had implied storage might not be available until after launch, but if you’re budgeting for purchases, there’s little point to immediately buying an SSD. The Verge investigated the issue but found no evidence that Sony’s compatibility program has even started yet. In order to serve as expanded storage for the PlayStation 5, drives will need to hit specific performance levels and can’t have a heatsink too large to fit into the case. It is not clear how many current commercial drives will meet the PS5 standard, and we’ll obviously have to wait for the post-launch period to find out.

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