What NVIDIA Corporation's Volta Architecture Means for Gaming

At NVIDIA's (NASDAQ: NVDA) GPU Technology Conference, the company formally introduced its next-generation graphics architecture, known as Volta. In an interview with website HPC Wire, NVIDIA executive Bryan Catanzaro said that the Volta architecture is "fundamentally extremely different" from the company's prior-generation Pascal architecture.

"Volta is not Pascal with a Tensor Core thrown onto it -- it's a completely different processor," Catanzaro said.

Image source: NVIDIA.

Although the first Volta-based product that NVIDIA launched, known as the Tesla V100 accelerator, is aimed squarely at the data center, NVIDIA will certainly bring the Volta architecture to its largest business, gaming.

Based on NVIDIA's disclosures, let's take a closer look at what the new Volta architecture should be able to do for NVIDIA's gaming-oriented product line.

Massive improvement in performance per watt

NVIDIA claims that the core building block of its Volta architecture, known as the Streaming Multiprocessor (SM), has undergone a "major new redesign."

That redesign, the company says, has led to a 50% increase in energy efficiency compared to the SM that powers the current Pascal architecture-based products.

Graphics cards, even those used in high-powered gaming computers, are fundamentally limited by performance per watt -- it's just the total wattage that they consume is quite high. Indeed, NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 1080 is rated at a 180-watt graphics card power, and its 1080 Ti is rated at 250-watt graphics card power.

Although NVIDIA could conceivably increase the performance of its gaming graphics processors by being more liberal with the amount of power that they can use, that's not an optimal solution.

What I expect, then, is that NVIDIA will use this improved performance per watt of the Volta architecture to deliver about 50% more performance at similar power consumption levels to what the current Pascal architecture-based products offer now.

That would represent a solid improvement

NVIDIA's gaming business should benefit from the introduction of products that are roughly 50% faster than their predecessors, especially since it seems likely that NVIDIA will keep its price points roughly the same as it delivers that 50% boost.The idea is that the value that NVIDIA should be able to offer with its Volta-based processors -- that is, performance per dollar -- should move substantially upward, enticing gamers to upgrade.

At its financial analyst day, NVIDIA showed the following slide:

Image source: NVIDIA.

On the far right, NVIDIA breaks down its GeForce installed base by architecture. A good chunk of the company's installed base has moved to the latest Pascal-based architecture products (the GeForce GTX 10-series products), but the bulk of users are on Maxwell-based products or even older (Kepler, Fermi, and so on).

There will certainly be some gamers currently using Pascal products who will be enticed by Volta architecture-based products, but I suspect that the bulk of upgraders during the Volta product generation will be those with Maxwell-based products and older.

Now, it'll be a while before NVIDIA launches its first Volta-based gaming graphics cards and an even longer while before the company has rolled out Volta-based gaming products up and down its product stack, so that breakdown by installed base won't look as it does when Volta does roll around (Pascal should represent a larger portion of the installed base while Legacy/Maxwell should shrink).

Nevertheless, the upgrade opportunity that NVIDIA should have with Volta, especially if the company can deliver on a large generation-over-generation performance and value boost, could be quite substantial.

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Ashraf Eassa has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Nvidia. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.