How NVIDIA May Help Solve Apple’s Problem with Graphics (and Gamers)

So far, Apple computers have failed to impress anyone looking for better graphics in their computer—especially gamers. But Bloomberg recently spotted a job posting by NVIDIA that may suggest that Apple is beginning to take graphics more seriously.

NVIDIA is one of the leading graphics semiconductor providers with a market share of 77% on desktop PCs. For context, note that the next-highest market share belongs to AMD with a comparatively small 23%.
It will probably come as no surprise, then, that NVIDIA may have plans to work with tech juggernaut Apple to increase its high-end graphic capabilities.

The Demands of Better Graphics

Advanced graphics are becoming an increasingly more important feature in modern computing for many reasons. The most prominent place to see this development is in gaming, an ever-growing market with a drive for ultra-realistic graphics and effects.
Even Minecraft, a game based on simplistically-rendered blocks, has an entire suite of mods that add shaders, shadows, and lighting to make the game look more "realistic".


Even Minecraft can look majestic with enough mods. Image courtesy of /u/kencrema via Reddit.

To achieve these levels of graphical fidelity, one needs a powerful graphics card. Higher resolution textures, for example, require increased video RAM (VRAM). This is but one benchmark of an advanced graphics card that gamers seek out when looking to purchase hardware.

In particular, the rise of VR gaming has emphasized the need for immersive, convincing graphics. VR gaming alone has been predicted to generate over $5 billion in 2016 alone, so it behooves any computer developer to make graphics development a high priority.

But graphics cards are not limited to graphic uses. Graphics cards contain a specialized unit called a graphics processing unit—a GPU—which is specially designed to manipulate and alter memory much faster than standard CPUs.
Some tasks that GPUs can typically do much faster than a standard CPU include:
  • Motion compensation
  • Inverse discrete cosine transformation
  • Inverse quantization
  • Solving of polynomial equations
  • Variable length decoding
  • Video encoding/decoding
  • Bitstream processing
Unlike a generic CPU, which has cores that are designed for generic work (conditional loops, branching, memory manipulation, etc.), a GPU typically has many smaller cores. In NVIDIA's modern GPUs, these smaller cores are called CUDA cores. The NVIDIA Fermi architecture, for example, has 32 CUDA cores.

While these cores are not suited to running programs, they are very efficient at solving problems. This is why they are being used in scenarios such as solving polynomial equations and solving Bitcoin mining problems.


NVIDIA GPU-accelerated layout. Image courtesy of Mmanss (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Graphics cards have found themselves in even the most advanced places including the Titan supercomputer built by Cray which peaked at 17.59 petaFLOPS, 18,688 AMD 16 core CPUS, 18,688 NVIDIA Tesla K20X GPUs, and 40PB of storage.

Apple Using NVIDIA

So with the growing importance of graphics processing in modern day computing it is no wonder why Apple may be considering alternative roots with graphics capabilities.
Many consider Apple's involvement with GPU inclusion into their products to be lacking. It's long been understood in gaming communities that Apple computers' graphical capabilities are somewhat anemic compared to platforms developed by other companies. In fact, the founder of one of the most popular VR platforms to date, Palmer Luckey of the Oculus Rift, has cited Apple's lack of high-end GPU support as the reason we won't see a Mac-compatible Rift anytime soon.

One of the ways Apple users have been able to boost their computers' graphical capabilities so far has been via external, third-party hardware. The Wolfe is a Kickstarter project that intends to be an external graphics processor for Apple products such as the iMac. What the Wolfe does is take advantage of the Thunderbolt interface technology developed by Apple and Intel to handle the graphical load for applications such as games and video processing.


The Wolfe in action. Image courtesy of The Wolfepack.

The Wolfe GPU (as standard) contains:
  • NVIDIA GTX 950
  • HDMI output
  • DVI output
  • 220 Watt mobile PSU
Would this alternative satisfy demanding customers or would it be better for Apple to integrate NVIDIA products directly into their machines?

Bloomberg has discovered a job opening by NVIDIA that suggests the GPU developer's intention to work with Apple products. The job description mentions that the successful applicant will “help produce the next revolutionary Apple products”, which is a strong indication of their involvement with Apple. But not only has NVIDIA made a job posting about Apple products but Apple, themselves, are searching for engineers to join the NVIDIA driver team.
“Searching for world-class software engineers to join the NVIDIA Mac graphics driver team and help produce the next revolutionary Apple products”

This move by the two companies could be a massive blow to AMD, which cannot afford to lose more turf in the land of graphics. With a PC market share of 23%, AMD would be at a large disadvantage if Apple uses NVIDIA considering that the Apple operating system OS X makes up 10% of the desktop and laptop market.

But all may not be lost for AMD as there is a rumor that they may be providing graphics for the Apple iMac in 2017. This move would benefit AMD for the selling of high-performance X86 SoC and would also provide a potentially lower-cost alternative to Intel integrated chips.
Either way, it looks like Apple is finally stepping up its graphics game.

Summary

It is no surprise that graphical demands on devices are increasing. It's also no surprise that these increasing demands are highly important for suppliers and manufacturers.
Apple’s inclusion of more powerful GPUs in its machines will increase their performance in both the gaming and professional markets which may help to increase the market share for Apple. This may have a disruptive effect on GPU suppliers as Apple rushes in to meet the ever-growing demand for better graphics. It may also, however, provide an opportunity for AMD and NVIDIA to gain access to the legions of Apple fans.
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