Nvidia's next-generation GPUs coming sooner than expected?

The company has been saying April, but a vendor let slip it could be sooner than that.

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Nvidia has been as consistent as Intel when it comes to new chip architectures: every two years, usually early in the year. Tesla came in 2008, Fermi came in 2010 and Kepler hit the market in 2012. The next generation, codenamed Maxwell, was supposed to be issued in March or April of next year. However, a leaked slide from an ODM suggests a sooner release.

Clevo, an original design manufacturer of high-performance laptops, let a roadmap slide out that showed Nvidia GeForce GTX and GT 8-series mobile graphics processing units (GPUs) in its product designs coming in February.

The leaked slides first showed up on ThinkComputers, a hobbyist/review site. The slides show three mobile parts using the MXM design, which means they are replaceable, interchangeable and in some cases support SLI, which means two GPU cards in one laptop running together in parallel: the GeForce GTX 880M 8GB, the GeForce GTX 870M 6GB and GeForce GTX 860M 4GB.

MXM is a mobile PCI Express spec that's been around almost a decade. It was meant to make laptops upgradeable, since for the longest time the GPUs were soldered to the motherboard. Clevo and Dell's Alienware subsidiary are the two biggest supporters of MXM because they target the performance/gaming market, but it's available from other ODMs and major vendors as well.

The slide leaves a lot of unanswered questions, though. First, Nvidia doesn't introduce mobile chips first, it introduces desktop add-in boards and mobile comes later. Now granted, this slide comes from a laptop ODM so they probably don't know Nvidia's board plans, but it would be a bit surprising to see Nvidia come out with new graphics boards so close to the passed Christmas.

Second, the GTX880M with 8GB of GDDR5 memory is definitely an eye opener, because Nvidia's top of the line add-in board, the GTX Titan, has 6GB of GDDR5 and that card costs $999. Memory is not getting cheaper, either. It makes me wonder what kind of monstrosity of a laptop will use these chips. It certainly won't be cheap. The GTX 870M comes with 6GB of memory, which is also a lot.

Then there's the question of why the chips are being pushed up two months. The first thing that comes to mind is pressure from AMD. Let's face it, AMD has been slapping Nvidia around lately. It won all three game consoles; Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Wii-U. And the new R290 card for gamers can match Nvidia's top-end gaming card, the GTX 780, for $100 less. So Nvidia had to make a move.

Beyond the MXM chips there are three entry-level chips, the GeForce GTX 860M, the GeForce GTX 850M, and the GeForce GT 840M. These may or may not be rebranded Keplers. In the past, when Nvidia shipped a new GPU processor generation, it rebranded the prior generation of processors with a new name and made them the low-end/entry level. That said, it's not certain if the new chips are indeed old Keplers or new Maxwells.

So what's the story with the Maxwell architecture? Well, like the last three GPU generations, it's named after a famous scientist, in this case James Clerk Maxwell, the father of the theory of electromagnetic fields. This will be the first GPU core with an integrated CPU, an ARMv8-compatible core that's designed to make the GPU less reliant on the CPU. It will support unified virtual memory technology with CPUs, which will simplify programming apps that use both the CPU and GPU, and it is expected to be much more energy efficient than the two prior architecture generations.

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