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Nvidia 'Fermi' chip for Mac, Windows too

Nvidia's new Fermi chip is being billed as a supercomputing chip but it is also aimed at Apple's Snow Leopard and Windows 7.

Nvidia's new Fermi chip is being billed as a supercomputing chip but Nvidia doesn't want you to forget that it is also aimed at Apple's Snow Leopard and Windows 7.

The Fermi chip was announced with much fanfare on Wednesday as key silicon in a future supercomputer from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. But, wait, Fermi is also going to be great at accelerating stuff in Snow Leopard and Windows 7--not to mention a great gaming chip, according to Bill Dally, chief scientist at Nvidia who spoke during a conference call with analysts on Thursday.

The Fermi graphics processing unit (GPU)--which packs 512 processing cores--will support DirectX-11, a technology for speeding certain multimedia software in Windows 7, and also support an analogous technology in Snow Leopard, OpenCL.

"A lot of (the chip's new) features accelerate key consumer applications. Both Snow Leopard and Windows 7 enable the GPU to be used as a co-processor to accelerate third-party applications," Dally said. With a "discrete (standalone) GPU they can get very good performance on these applications," he said.

Applications that Nvidia says will be accelerated by Fermi chip
Applications that Nvidia says will be accelerated by the Fermi chip Nvidia

Dally gave examples (see graphic) of consumer titles such as Adobe's Creative Suite, Motion DSP's vReveal (for fixing photographs), and Badaboom (for creating iPod video).

He offered a qualifier, however. "We are paying a bit of a compute tax in that we launched a part where a lot of the consumer compute applications haven't really taken hold yet. But over time as more consumer computer applications are developed that take advantage of our compute (consumer) features...I think it's going to give us a big leg up," he said.

And being an Nvidia chip, games are a big target market. "Fermi adds value to games by doing exactly the same kind of scientific simulations that we use to predict climate and to understand the genome and other things," according to Dally. "A great example of that is our PhysX package that basically does physical simulations to make games appear more real."

He also explained why the chip was billed as a supercomputer chip initially and not a gaming chip. "It's a zero-sum game. You have a certain amount of die (chip) area, a certain power budget. It is the case that we put a bunch of die area into double-precision floating point, a bunch of die area into ECC. And for gaming graphics applications, those give less returns than they do for the scientific applications," he said. Double-precision floating point operations are used heavily in scientific computing. ECC, or error correcting code, is a technology that can correct data errors on the fly.

And Dally explained how Fermi can be scaled down to lower-end chips used in the gaming and consumer segments. "We're not talking about other (chips) at this point in time but you can imagine that we can scale this part by having fewer than the 512 cores and by having these cores have fewer of the features, for example less double-precision," he said.

All the Fermi products, including gaming and professional workstation chips, will be announced "pretty close together." Chips are expected sometime in the coming few months.

And how does Fermi stack up against current public information about Intel's future "Larrabee" graphics chip? "We can't compare anything to Larrabee until it shows up and can actually be measured," said Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research, which tracks the graphics chip market. "But remember, Larrabee was started over two years ago and both ATI and Nvidia have had two new designs out since then," he said. "So the pressure will be on Intel to chase fast-moving ATI and Nvidia," Peddie said. ATI, which is Advanced Micro Devices' graphics chip unit, already has a chip in stores--the Radeon HD 5800-- that supports Windows DirectX-11.