Nvidia reclaims title of world’s fastest graphics chip with Kepler launch

With the debut of  its code-named Kepler project, Nvidia is retaking the crown today as the creator of the world’s fastest graphics chip. Most people may not care about that, but hardcore gamers who play the latest games will be happy.

The new chips will take PC technology a leap forward as the chips make their way into new gamer desktops and other high-end machines. Nvidia paid a lot of attention to balancing the system’s power efficiency, so new computers based on the machine will not only be fast, they’ll be more power efficient, will fit in a smaller space, and will operate more quietly.

The next-generation chip is called the GeForce GTX 680 and is the result of 1.8 million man-hours of work over five years. With this chip, Nvidia reclaims the fastest-graphics-chip title from Advanced Micro Devices’ code-named Tahiti chip, formally known as the AMD Radeon HD 7970, analysts say. The 680 is just one of several new models of chips based on the Kepler architecture. Already, new laptops are being introduced with Kepler-based notebook graphics chips, dubbed GeForce GT 640M.

As an example, a single graphics card with the new chip can run Epic Games’ high-end game demo, Samaritan, without any visible flaws, Nvidia’s Justin Walker, senior GeForce product manager, told VentureBeat that. And it can do so using a power supply that consumes 195 watts. Last year, it took three Fermi-based GeForce GTX 580 graphics cards running on a power supply with 730 watts to run the same demo.

“This is the fastest and most efficient GPU (graphics processing unit) ever built,” Walker said. “It’s a game changer for us.”

The combination of performance and power efficiency means that Nvidia will likely score a lot of wins in Ultrabooks, the Intel-based laptops that are thin like the MacBook Air but affordable and fast. Nvidia’s new GeForce 600M series of Kepler-based graphics chips will be used in the notebook computers. Both the desktop chips and the laptop chips are available now. And the days of loud fans or exotic power supplies may be numbered. The 600M series will likely be used in Ultrabooks with Intel’s upcoming Ivy Bridge processor.

Rene Haas, general manager of Nvidia’s notebook graphics division, said that, contrary to popular belief, laptops with standalone graphics chips are not disappearing despite the introduction of combo microprocessor-graphics chips from Intel and AMD. In 2011, computer makers shipped 75 million laptops with standalone graphics, Haas said. Nvidia has four mobile chips in the 600M family: the GeForce 640M, the 620M, the 660M, and the 675M. Laptops with those chips will be able to play all of the top 30 PC games, Haas said.

Patrick Moorhead, analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, said that up until this point it was tough to get discrete graphics chips into Ultrabooks because of the power constraints. “Kepler decreased power by half at the same performance point and also enables sophisticated power sharing between CPU (central processing unit) and GPU,” he said.

The previous GeForce GTX 580 had a total of 512 cores, with 32 streaming multiprocessors in each core. The 680 has 192 streaming multiprocessors in each core and eight cores altogether, for a total of 1,536 cores. Full told, the 680 has more than 3.5 billion transistors, the basic components of electronics, compared to 3 billion in Fermi.

Kepler can run three high-definition monitors in stereoscopic 3D, whereas it took two Fermi boards to do the same thing. AMD’s graphics chip can run six screens at the same time, but Nvidia’s Walker said the only time six screens is useful is at a trade show. Gamers don’t want to play with six screens because the bezels between the screens are too disruptive, he said.

Kepler chips are based on the 28-nanometer process at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. That compares to 40-nanometer technology used in the previous generation Fermi chips, which debuted in March 2010. Nvidia said that the 680 is 300 percent faster in DirectX 11 tessellation performance and 43 percent faster than AMD’s Radeon HD 7970 in cutting-edge games such as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Many games run about 20 percent faster.

Walker said the 680 has twice the performance per watt of the GeForce GTX 580. The 680 also has some new technologies, including a “streaming multiprocessor block,” known as SMX, that is more power efficient. The new FXAA and TXAA antialiasing technologies help get rid of the jaggies, or jagged diagonal lines in games. And they do so without slowing the overall speed of the graphics chip as much as in the past. The 680 can also now run 3D Vision, Nvidia’s stereoscopic 3D solution, in a single graphics card.

Kelt Reeves, president of Falcon Northwest, a maker of high-end gaming systems, said,“The GTX 680 lays down what should be whiplash-inducing speed at the sound of a whisper. Even at full throttle, it doesn’t heat up. In the immortal words of Obi-Wan describing a lightsaber, it’s ‘an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.’”

Mark Rein, vice president of Epic Games, said he used a GTX 680 to demo a preview of the Unreal Engine 4 for select developers at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Manufacturers making graphics cards with the 680 include ASL, Asus, Coloful, ECS, EVGA, Gainward, Galaxy, Gigabyte, Innovision 3D, Jetway, Leadtek, MSI, Palit, Point of View, PNY, Sparkle, and Zotac. The cards will sell for $499. Computer makers shipping laptops with the new chips include Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, LG, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba.

An Acer Timeline Ultra M3 laptop uses the GTX 640M graphics chip, and it weighs 5 pounds, is 20 millimeters thick, and has an eight-hour battery life. By comparison, in March 2010, you could buy an Alienware laptop with a GeForce GTX 285 that weighed nine pounds, was 50 millimeters thick, and had three hours of battery life.

Nathan Brookwood, analyst at Insight 64, said, “No doubt about it, Nvidia has reclaimed the single-chip performance crown. The high-end is a small niche with big bragging rights. The challenge will be to move the new technology to mainstream price points.”

Jon Peddie, analyst at Jon Peddie Research, said the bragging rights for having the fastest graphics chip are always fleeting. But he is impressed with how much faster Kepler is than the older Fermi chips.

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