When Will NVIDIA Corporation Bring Maxwell to the High End?

When it comes to the performance, power, and area of a given computer chip, one of the biggest determinants is the transistor technology that it is built on. The ability to pack more components into a given area for the same cost has been the key driver of innovation in the world of computing, and NVIDIA's (NASDAQ: NVDA  ) graphics processing units have certainly benefited from this trend. However, as transitions to next-generation transistor technologies have become more difficult, chip design houses have needed to make better use of the technology that they have.

Say hello to NVIDIA's Maxwell
A couple of months ago, NVIDIA released a graphics card called the 750 Ti based on the Maxwell GPU. Maxwell is built on the same 28-nanometer high-K/metal gate manufacturing process that the prior-generation Kepler GPU was built on, but thanks to some pretty slick architectural improvements, NVIDIA was able to roughly double the amount of performance that it got per watt (this is a measure of power).

Source: NVIDIA via AnandTech.

It's not all about process technology
While NVIDIA is likely to show an even more dramatic performance/watt improvement as it moves this design to the 20-nanometer manufacturing node, the key takeaway here is that architecture -- that is the actual design and implementation -- is arguably more important a factor when it comes to energy efficiency than the underlying transistor technology.

Now, at some point, after you've optimized your design on a given process technology, you simply run out of ways to improve performance without blowing either your power or your financial budgets. However, as NVIDIA has shown here, it is unlikely that the first design on a given manufacturing technology node is the "optimal" one.

When do we get a high-end Maxwell?
The GTX 750 Ti is a superb low-cost discrete graphics card, but the question on PC gamers' minds is just when does the company plan on releasing a high-end version of Maxwell? The GTX 680 -- based on the Kepler architecture -- launched in April 2012 and its successor, the GTX 780 (also based on Kepler, but a beefier variant with more graphics cores), launched in May 2013. Neither NVIDIA nor archrival Advanced Micro Devices (NASDAQ: AMD  ) has announced new GPUs, but it would seem likely that both companies will be doing something at some point during the year.

Interestingly enough, AMD noted on a recent conference call that it would be releasing 20-nanometer product next year. NVIDIA and AMD have typically moved to new process nodes at roughly the same time (actually, AMD has traditionally been more aggressive on that front), so if AMD isn't releasing a 20-nanometer GPU this year, odds are good that NVIDIA won't, too. This leaves an interesting question: When, if at all, will NVIDIA launch a higher-end Maxwell?

A new 28-nanometer GPU in late 2014?
At this point, if NVIDIA or AMD plans to launch a new GPU architecture on 28-nanometer, these will probably launch in either Q3 or Q4. If this were to happen, then these products would either have a fairly short life cycle before being replaced by 20-nanometer variants during the first half of 2015 or the 20-nanometer products won't come until later in 2015.

At this point, it is unclear as to what path both NVIDIA and AMD will take here, but given that NVIDIA already did the work to bring Maxwell to the 28-nanometer node, it would be unusual to see them not fully leverage that investment with larger, high-end gamer-oriented products later this year.

Foolish bottom line
NVIDIA's Maxwell in the GeForce 750 Ti has proven to be a great product on a performance/watt basis and is a testament to the importance of strong micro-architecture and design. With 20-nanometer proving to be a 2015 proposition for most companies, it'll be interesting to see whether NVIDIA brings its Kepler design to the high end on 28-nanometer and, if so, how long those products will remain on top before the transition to 20-nanometer.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 14, 2014, at 12:11 PM, TEBuddy wrote:

    Ashraf the author says "the key takeaway here is that architecture -- that is the actual design and implementation -- is arguably more important a factor when it comes to energy efficiency than the underlying transistor technology."

    OMG, you are kidding me right. Just over the last couple years you have been publishing nonsense saying the process technology was THE KING of effieciency. And when you were confronted with the sentiment that design was more important you took it as attacks. Have you finally grown up and gained some perspective? Now that you have I assume graduated from school. Did nVidia have to teach you this lesson, because an intelligent person couldn't have come to this conclusion previously?

    You are amazing, i'm sure its impossible for you to feel shame for the way you have written in the past. That is to say it was unprofessional and inaccurate.

  • Report this Comment On May 14, 2014, at 12:33 PM, H2323 wrote:

    He is a fan of Intel and Nvidia, this is not about objective investing, it's about what he likes. Marketing can be very powerful on some peoples minds.

  • Report this Comment On May 14, 2014, at 12:55 PM, jwtrotter wrote:

    Gee, and those that blindly follow AMD without question are any more objective? Give me a break.

  • Report this Comment On May 14, 2014, at 8:29 PM, TEBuddy wrote:

    Those that follow AMD don't write articles that trash talk Intel so much as those Intel fanboys like to dump on AMD. The Intel fanatics come to AMD articles, but the AMD fans/investors typically stick to AMD articles and don't jump into Intel articles just to be trolls. So which is worse, trolls or optimistic investors?

  • Report this Comment On May 14, 2014, at 11:58 PM, dudebro wrote:

    Hey Ashraf! Blew my mind that I was looking for information about new gpus, stumbled on this article, and found that you're the author! Hope you're doing well. Used to make movies in your driveway haha! I enjoyed the article. Thanks for the info, dude. Keep up the writing.

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Ashraf Eassa

Ashraf Eassa is a technology specialist with The Motley Fool. He writes mostly about technology stocks, but is especially interested in anything related to chips -- the semiconductor kind, that is. Follow him on Twitter:

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