During my undergraduate studies I had an economics professor tell us that the best dramas in the world happen between companies. Over the past five quarters we have partaken in one of the best stories the computer graphics business can offer. In September of 2009, AMD released the world’s first DirectX 11 enabled graphics cards to the world and not to be out-shined, Nvidia unveiled its Fermi architecture to the public in November.
However, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) disclosed that it was having problems with production, citing trouble with “chamber matching” and ion implanting supplies. Variability in any production process can be minimized but the choice of production arrangements can create new problems. As an example, production bottlenecks can be offset if wafers can be separated into smaller groups as to spread work to multiple stations and then merged together after that step. This is fine but high variances between the stations can be catastrophic. At 40nm we are talking about 5,000 transistors fitting on the end of a human hair. Therefore large variations in chemical solution recipes or the failure to remove material at an ongoing uniform scale will result in large disparities across wafers. In the TSMC case, their troubles plagued AMD, Nvidia and consumers. Without a solid flow of wafers, the supply for AMD Radeon 5000 series graphics cards became tight. Another force compounded the effect of short supply, namely a lack of competition at the high end from Nvidia. Together the price for Radeon based cards raised to levels above the original launch price targets. In January TSMC announced that they resolved its issues with production congruity and two months later Nvidia launched its flagship consumer graphics product GTX 480.
Fast forward to last month when AMD released its Radeon 6000 series graphics boards. The company redesigned the silicon in an effort to maximize performance, balance the functional unit mix, cut power consumption, reduce cost per die and improve esthetics like acoustics. (And to one-up Nvidia). However, with any good story there needs to be a happy ending. That brings us to the present. Like AMD, there were a lot of changes that needed to be made to GF100. Instead of the 512 ALUs (“CUDA Cores”), 16 polymorph engines (which include tessellation), power efficiency, and what we were told Fermi would deliver, we received GeForce GTX 480.
Now while that may sound like someone gave us a second rate birthday present, it in some ways was. GTX 480 was the most powerful Nvidia product it has ever produced, but it was not the same as what we got all jazzed up about back in November. This is where we are today… Fermi 2.0 inside the GeForce GTX 580, and on the pages that follow you will understand what the late Paul Harvey would call, “the rest of the story.”