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NVIDIA's New Maxwell GPUs Sip Power While Threatening AMD

By Timothy Green – Feb 20, 2014 at 10:30AM

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NVIDIA has launched two mid-range GPUs based on its new Maxwell architecture, and the power-efficiency gains are enormous. AMD's power-hungry products will be no match for Maxwell in any application where power usage and heat are important, and NVIDIA's lead over AMD looks to be growing larger.

About two years after launching its first GPUs based on the Kepler architecture, NVIDIA (NVDA -0.66%) has revealed the first products built on the company's new architecture, Maxwell. Maxwell is the first architecture for NVIDIA that started out as a mobile-first design, a shift from starting with high-powered desktop GPUs and scaling down. The results from initial benchmarks for the first two Maxwell GPUs show that the company has made incredible progress increasing the energy efficiency of its GPUs. Competitor AMD's (AMD -1.22%) products look power-hungry in comparison, and Maxwell poses a significant threat to AMD's graphics business.

A look at Maxwell

GTX 750 Ti. Source: NVIDIA

The two Maxwell GPUs released by NVIDIA, the GTX 750 and the GTX 750 Ti, are mid-range desktop cards priced at $119 and $149, respectively. In terms of performance, these cards don't offer much of a boost compared to NVIDIA's Kepler-based cards launched at the same price, and in fact AMD's cards still outperform NVIDIA at this price range. The real story here is power consumption.

Compared to AMD's R9 270, which launched with an MSRP of $179, NVIDIA's new cards practically sip power. While idle, the R9 270 uses nearly 50% more power than the GTX 750 Ti, while under load the difference falls to 42%. While AMD's card provides greater performance, NVIDIA's performance per watt is unmatched.

It should be noted that retail prices of many of AMD's GPUs are currently inflated due to high demand from cryptocurrency miners. At the current prices, NVIDIA's new GPUs are lot more competitive from a performance-per-dollar perspective. This high non-gaming demand for AMD's GPUs was likely partially responsible for NVIDIA's recent blockbuster quarter, when sales of GTX GPUs jumped by 50% year over year.

What this means for NVIDIA
These first two cards from NVIDIA, while less powerful than similarly price cards from AMD, are perfect for any application where power consumption and heat matter. Home theater PCs, game consoles, Steam Machines, and mini-desktops are good examples, and the huge leap forward in terms of performance per watt from Maxwell gives NVIDIA the most attractive product for these types of applications.

Going beyond these two launch cards, the lower power consumption will allow NVIDIA's eventual high-end Maxwell GPUs to squeeze out more performance, while using the same amount of power as AMD's high-end cards. Couple that with the price inflation going on with AMD's cards right now, and NVIDIA could win even more market share among PC gamers.

NVIDIA has seen its revenue from notebook GPUs decline as of late, with both the PC market contracting and Intel ramping up its graphics efforts. With notebooks getting thinner and lighter, battery life is a big concern, and power-hungry graphics cards have no place. But Maxwell will allow NVIDIA to compete against integrated graphics in terms of energy  efficiency, while providing greater graphics performance in the process. This could help revive NVIDIA's notebook GPU business and prevent Intel from dominating the space.

What this means for AMD
Given that AMD launched a new line of GPUs at the end of last year, a new architecture likely won't be coming for quite some time. When NVIDIA launches high-end cards based on Maxwell, presumably later this year, AMD likely won't have an answer, and if prices are still inflated due to cryptocurrency miners, NVIDIA will be the only real option for gamers.

AMD, which has split its attention between its CPU business, GPU business, and semi-custom deals like the PS4 and Xbox One, is running the risk of falling far enough behind NVIDIA that the lead becomes insurmountable. The GTX 750 Ti appears to be more powerful than AMD's GPU in the Xbox One, with NVIDIA's card able to play soon-to-be-released Titanfall at a higher resolution than the Xbox One is capable of doing. And it does so while using little power and retailing for just $149.

TitanFall. Source: Respawn Entertainment

Maxwell spells trouble for AMD's graphics business, plain and simple.

The bottom line
NVIDIA's Maxwell graphics architecture is impressive, not for the performance gains that it brings, but for the extreme energy efficiency. Small form factors, where power usage and heat are important, will likely be dominated by NVIDIA going forward, and if Steam Machines ever catch on, you can expect most of them to be powered by NVIDIA. At the high-end, NVIDIA is benefiting from the price inflation of AMD's GPUs, and the company is likely stealing away gamers because of it. Maxwell allows NVIDIA to deliver high-quality graphics in any form factor, and that will be a big advantage going forward.

Timothy Green owns shares of Nvidia. The Motley Fool recommends Nvidia. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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