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Graphics Rivals in Epic Battle

“This could be one of most interesting second halfs in graphics for many years,” says Dean McCarron, principal of market watcher Mercury Research of the looming battle between Nvidia’s Pascal and AMD’s Polaris.

“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a simultaneous launch of this magnitude for both companies,” said McCarron who has been tracking the market for some 20 years.

Upping the ante, the new chips pack new memory types and use new process nodes, too. AMD is using the 14nm process Globalfoundries licensed from Samsung. Nvidia’s Polaris is its first chip made using TSMC’s 16FF+ process.

As for memory, the first Pascal chips will use GDDR5x, a tweak of what otherwise appeared to be the end of the line in Jedec memory interfaces. Polaris will be AMD’s second-generation chip to use high-bandwidth memory (HBM), which offers greater bandwidth but comes at a higher cost.

Jedec had a GDDR6 on the drawing board that was supposed to come out three years ago but never materialized, McCarron said. The 5x should support 12-16 Gbits/second bandwidth max, probably just shy of double the data rate of the straight GDDR5, he added.

AMD will have a big bandwidth lead with HBM and thus be able to lower memory clock rates, saving power. Memory bandwidth correlates well to performance in graphics, but there will be additional costs for the more advanced multichip packaging HBM requires.

Interestingly, AMD decided to pioneer HBM about the same time it opted to stay in the market for low-end graphics chips, a sector Nvidia has largely exited.

Nvidia's 15.3-billion transistor Pascal (above) will eventually come in a version with HBM2 memory like Polaris. (Image: Nvidia)

Nvidia’s 15.3-billion transistor Pascal (above) will eventually come in a version with HBM2 memory like Polaris. (Image: Nvidia)

“As the smaller player, AMD needed to take more risks,” McCarron said explaining its move into HBM last year. Meanwhile the low-end market “let’s them ship more units so they can better amortize their designs,” he added.

For the past few years, Nvidia has held the performance crown. When AMD challenged it on an off year with a new architecture, Nvidia released a 5-10% overclocked chip branded Titanium. Last year when AMD debuted Fury, its first HBM device, Nvidia countered with the 980TI.

“It was 20% faster than Nvidia’s previous chip, a really strong competitive response…recreating the performance gap at the top end,” McCarron said.

Whether AMD can re-take the performance crown in this round remains to be seen. McCarron has no hard dates from AMD when Polaris will be available, but assumes it must ship by early October or risk missing the lucrative holiday sales season.

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EE Times.

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