Unless you’ve been snoozing the past six months, you’ve seen that Covid-19 has driven unprecedented demand for personal and work electronics. Consumers who already had PCs (25% Q4 growth1) bought better ones. And for shared PC families, they purchased devices like PCs, Chromebooks (5X Q4 growth1), and tablets (2X Q4 growth1) for everyone in the family for entertainment and school. It was hard to find new business PCs that many were buying on the used market or did their best to convert a consumer PC for commercial use. Covid-19 increased gaming demand as the pandemic limited activities to do outside the house, and we had new consoles, and PC cards announced. All these factors drove to limit the supply of graphics cards, but there was a twist here. It is not just gamers that were snatching up new cards from AMD and NVIDIA; it was Ethereum cryptocurrency miners. I’ve seen market prices 3x of list prices of the highest-end cards. Yesterday, NVIDIA made two significant announcements that I believe will be good for gamers and miners related to this issue over the long-term and in the short-term provide increased gamer supply.
The first announcement NVIDIA made was that with the GeForce RTX 3060, the company is limiting the Ethereum hash rate to 50% of its potential mining performance. The second announcement was that the company was introducing a new line of products dedicated to Ethereum mining, called Cryptocurrency Mining Processor or “CMP” for short. NVIDIA announced four cards, the 30HX, 40HX, 50HX, and 90HX. As you can see from the specifications below, the cards vary in power, pins, memory size, availability, and ultimately, Ethereum hash rate. CMP cards do not have a video out to play games and while the company did not provide details on it, it says that CMP cards have lower peak core voltage and frequency than GeForce cards.
Why it matters
PC gamers have become frustrated with the inability to buy new graphics cards, and NVIDIA never had a mechanism to prioritize supply to gamers versus Ethereum miners. Now the company does. Anyway I slice this, I see more graphics card supply for gamers if NVIDIA manages this closely, which I believe it will. While the company has only committed to the RTX 3060 with a reduced hash rate, I can’t think of why the company would extend it to future cards.
I have seen a few things on Twitter saying this is a bad move and wanted to provide my two cents.
First, I’ve heard this is bad for miners. Personally, my thought is, “so what.” Gamers are what makes NVIDIA great, not miners who are in and out based on the latest currency variant and ASIC. The lack of gaming card supply creates an enormous amount of gamer bad blood for both AMD and NVIDIA. I believe gamers should be the focus, and miners should be a tertiary market. I haven’t seen anything that says there’s anything wrong with the CMP line for miners.
I’m also hearing that NVIDIA allows larger mining operations to write its own drivers and BIOS, therefore circumventing NVIDIA’s methods of decreasing the hash rate. NVIDIA’s response to me was that “There is a secure handshake between the driver, the RTX 3060 silicon, and the BIOS (firmware) that prevents removal of the hash rate limiter.” Even if it is a cat and mouse game, I have to favor the card creator in this battle. And if the CMP line fits the miner’s needs, they won’t have a reason to use GeForce.
I also read that some are saying these CMP chips are basically yield spill-off and are “defective” GeForce chips. Again, I say, “so what.” If true, I think it’s a brilliant move by NVIDIA using die that didn’t pass voltage, frequency, or other GeForce gaming tests. In the silicon world, the name of the game is maximizing known good die at the highest price possible. This, again, increases the amount of silicon available to gamers.
As for the future, as the preferred silicon for mining vacillates between ASIC and GPU, it’s hard to say how long a CMP line will be necessary. For instance, Bitcoin mining is dominated by ASICs, but before that, GPUs. What’s important is that there is now a CMP line, and NVIDIA is doing everything it can, starting with the RTX 3060, to deliver more volumes of cards to gamers versus miners, who get their own line.
1 Source: Canalys