There has been a lot of talk about Nvidia and AMD releasing mining-specific graphics silicon. If you were hoping that might ease the current gaming GPU crisis then I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed. All it will mean is a large percentage of the graphics cards that get manufactured won’t be suitable for gaming, but they’ll all still be setup for mining. Curse those miners...
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We’ve already seen graphics cards released that were specifically designed for the rigours of cryptocurrency GPU mining. Last year both Asus and Sapphire released AMD RX 470 cards that were built to work down in the depths of the crypto mines, with Asus also shipping a P106-based card - essentially using the same GPU as in the GTX 1060.
The manufacturers claim these cards offer extra-durable ball bearings, delivering longer lifespans to the hard-working cooling fans, while also shipping without those pesky outputs that us gamers like but miners don’t understand. Inno3D are also about to release a P102-powered mining card that is based on the same GPU as the GTX 1080 Ti - a GTX 1080 Ti Lite, if you will. While they’re proclaiming long lifespans for the coolers they aren’t doing the same for the chips. A three month warranty? That’s just enough to know it works out of the box.
They might help mitigate some of the memory supply issues as these mining-specific cards come with less VRAM than their gaming counterparts. There have been grave manufacturing problems around the memory that sits at the heart of all our graphics cards - one of the main reasons we suspect Nvidia released the otherwise bizarre GTX 1070 Ti was because they had a lot of GTX 1080-class GP104 GPUs available but zero spare GDDR5X memory to pair with them.
But has their release had any appreciable impact on the ever-rising prices of graphics cards? Nope. And that’s because it’s not just the memory, or the GPUs, at the heart of these cards that is the problem.
The operators of those large-scale mining operations have been tipping up at the back doors of techie factories with large sacks of cash and trucks waiting to be filled with graphics cards bound for the mines. That means fewer cards get to the distributors and retailers for gamers to buy, but then the few that do make it to retail get snapped up by smaller-scale miners and people purely speculating on the increasing prices of graphics cards.
So, what’s the solution? There has been a lot of speculation that Nvidia would launch a new graphics card architecture specifically designed for mining, and would then subsequently block the practise from their GeForce range of cards. The idea is that the rumoured Nvidia Turing GPUs, named after noted cryptographer and code-breaker, Alan Turing, would be setup this way.
Despite the fact he’s also heavily linked to AI, and the first mention of the Nvidia Turing architecture, the one all speculation has been based on, specifically calls it a “new GPU gaming chip.” So we don't really know what to believe right now.
Whatever. That doesn’t change the fact there’s surely no way Nvidia would be able to successfully block miners from using gaming graphics cards to mine, either by hardware or software barriers, or that creating a specific line of mining GPUs would positively impact the chances of us gamers being able to buy a new card without auctioning off a kidney. Or two.
Graphics cards are good at the complex algorithms necessary for cryptocurrency mining for the exact same reason they are good at creating and flinging polygons around your screen. GPUs are capable of incredible feats of parallel processing, speedily carrying out relatively straightforward computational tasks, but doing lots of them all at the same time. That’s why they’re so suited to hashing through the backends of cryptocurrencies.
That’s not going to change with any new gaming GPUs, whether they be Nvidia Volta or AMD Navi. They’re still going to be just as capable for mining efforts, and there’s unlikely to be any way to stop miners getting around any potential blockage either company try and put in place. There’s a lot of money in mining, so you can bet some bright spark will find a way around it... for the right price. The only way to effectively gimp gaming chips for mining would then be to trash their parallel performance, which would then make them rubbish graphics cards. It’s a catch 44.
So what about bifurcating the design and creating mining-specific GPU architectures? It’s possible Nvidia and AMD could simplify their GPU designs for mining, stripping out any extraneous video processing silicon and lopping off the outputs. That could potentially make such GPUs cheaper and more attractive to miners than gaming variants, but that’s only good for the crypto folk - not us gamers.
Even if the factories can boost their output, if a bunch of AMD’s and Nvidia’s GPU manufacturing capacity is going into creating chips that aren’t possible to use for gaming, then that surely means fewer potential GPUs for us. And if the demand from the cryptocurrency mining sector remains as high as it has been there’s no way it will sated by these mining-focused cards. That, in turn, means when they buy out all of the likely limited stock of crypto-cards they’ll once more come for our gaming graphics cards.
None of this means there will be more GPUs available to gamers. In fact, it could have quite the opposite effect. I think it’s probably quite unlikely that if Teams Red and Green were to bifurcate GPU design that they would still create the same number of gaming GPUs and somehow magic up spare manufacturing output to run a whole new line of crypto cards.
In the end, every graphics card would remain suitable for mining, yet a large proportion would be blocked from gaming. For all their nice words about keeping gaming cards for gamers, if the GPU makers were to devote a portion of their manufacturing capacity to purestrain mining cards, then that would simply mean compute is being prioritised and there would be fewer variants suitable for our gaming rigs. Hell, there’s not even going to be any worthwhile gaming chips hitting the second-hand market either even if the cryptocurrency market tanks again.
Bifurcated GPU designs are not the answer. And, to be honest, I don’t know what is. If you can fix the graphics card crisis let us know in the comments. If not, shall we just go down the pub and drown our sorrows?