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Is Moore’s Law Really Dead This Time? Nvidia seems to think so

Enlarge / Green lines make it faster.

When Nvidia released its new RTX 40-series graphics cards earlier this week, many gamers and industry watchers were a bit surprised at the asking prices the company was putting on its latest top-of-the-line hardware. New heights in raw power also came with new heights in MSRP, which falls in the range of $899 to $1,599 for the 40-series cards.

When asked about those price increases, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang told the assembled press to get used to it, indeed. “Moore’s law is dead,” Huang said during a question-and-answer session. as reported by Digital Trends. “A 12-inch wafer is much more expensive today. The idea that the chip is going to come down in price is a thing of the past.”

Sorry, how expensive?

In justifying Nvidia’s price increases, Huang defended the raw power of the 40-series cards compared to previous offerings. “The performance of Nvidia’s $899 GPU or $1599 GPU a year ago, two years ago, at the same price, our performance with Ada Lovelace is monumentally better,” he said. “Off the charts better.”

But those price comparisons are a bit misleading. It’s true that the $1,599 flagship RTX 4090 is only $100 more expensive than the RTX 3090’s $1,499 launch price in 2020. Adjusted for inflation (which has been unusually high in recent years), the RTX 3090 launch would cost more $1,700 in August 2022 dollars, making today’s RTX 4090 seem like a relative bargain.

When you look at the lower levels, the price increases start to look a bit less reasonable. The RTX 4080 lineup, divided into $899 and $1,199 price tiers, is significantly more expensive than the $699 and $799 launch prices for the two tiers of RTX 3080 cards in 2020. Even accounting for inflation, those cards would have launched at around $800 and $900 in today’s dollars, well below what Nvidia is now asking for its RTX 4080 cards.

Also, the 40-series so far doesn’t come close to the launch price of the lowest-cost 30-series option Nvidia offered in 2020: the RTX 3070, which was $499 back then (about $567 at today’s dollars). And there are rumors that Nvidia’s lower-end 4080 card has a lower-performance chipset than its more expensive cousin, making it more technologically similar to the last-gen 3070.

Nvidia says that the high cost of its new Ada Lovelace architecture comes with a lot of extra processing power.
Enlarge / Nvidia says that the high cost of its new Ada Lovelace architecture comes with a lot of extra processing power.

Sure, one could argue that the RTX 30-series cards were priced too low – those cards were exceptionally hard to find at their launch MSRPs at the time, largely due to the high interest from cryptocurrency miners. But the days of widespread GPU shortages are long gone as crypto prices crashed and changes in the GPU crypto mining landscape have caused second-hand GPU prices to drop steadily for months. . Nvidia explicitly noted this trend in August, warning investors that crypto market effects “may reduce demand for our new GPUs.”

If we can’t do it, can someone else?

Generational price comparisons aside, Huang’s blanket assertion that “Moore’s law is dead” is a bit of a shock for a company whose bread and butter has been releasing graphics cards that roughly double in comparable processing power each year. But the prediction is far from new, whether for Huang, who said the same thing in 2019 other 2017—or for the industry at large—the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors formally announced that it would stop chasing the benchmark in its 2016 roadmap for chip development.

An entire book could be written on the implications of Moore’s Law (and Ars pretty much has), but the central claim made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 remains remarkably prescient: the number of transistors per chip (keeping size/price relatively constant) roughly doubles every year (in a later update, Moore would change the doubling time to 24 months).

like kevin kelly featured in a 2009 pieceHowever, Moore’s Law is best understood not as a law of physics but as a law of economics and corporate motivation. Processing power keeps doubling in part because consumers expect it to keep doubling and finding uses for that extra power.

AMD's upcoming RDNA 3 chipset could add to the pressure to keep up with Moore's law.
Enlarge / AMD’s upcoming RDNA 3 chipset could add to the pressure to keep up with Moore’s law.

amd

That consumer demand, in turn, pushes companies to find new ways to keep up with expectations. In the recent past, that market push has led to innovations like 3D tri-gate transistors and production process improvements that continually reduce the size of individual transistors, which IBM can now push to just 2nm.

The point here is that Huang’s supposed “death of Moore’s law” isn’t entirely up to Nvidia. Even if Nvidia can no longer keep up with the trend of processor power increases at constant prices, it’s not the only game in town. AMD, for example, is already kidding that its soon-to-be-announced RDNA 3 cards could show some bigger-than-expected improvements in efficiency and overall processing power, thanks to some new chiplet-based designs.

While it’s too early to tell how new chips from AMD and Nvidia will compare, this is the kind of market competition that has traditionally kept hardware makers from becoming too complacent in the push toward new frontiers of relative hardware power. (see also: Apple Silicon versus earlier Intel-based Macintoshes). In other words, even if Nvidia can’t figure out how to keep up with Moore’s law these days, someone else might.

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