The battle for high-powered silicon between the video-gaming and cryptocurrency worlds spilled into the open on Tuesday, as chipmaker Nvidia intervened to prevent its most popular graphics cards being used for crypto mining.
The move was designed to ease an acute shortage facing video gamers and highlights the booming demand from cryptocurrency enthusiasts as prices spiked this year.
Nvidia said it was deliberately limiting the capabilities of its most popular video gaming cards to make them less useful for performing the calculations needed to validate transactions on the ethereum network.
Known as mining, this involves solving a complex problem in return for fractions of a token — something that has become increasingly attractive as prices of ether, the tokens used on the network, have soared.
Nvidia’s graphics processing units, or GPUs, were first designed to handle the demands of rendering video images in real time, a challenge given the large amount of data that needs to be processed simultaneously. The same technology has since been adapted to become the workhouse of artificial intelligence, one of the most data-intensive computing tasks, as well as crypto mining.
Despite leading to a surge in growth and profits, the crypto demand has created a problem for Nvidia because many of the most-dedicated video gamers who long made up its core customer base have been unable to buy the newest graphics cards.
Nvidia’s earnings have also become increasingly tied to the huge swings in cryptocurrency markets, resulting in a boom and bust when crypto price fell back from their last spike in 2018.
Limiting the use of graphics cards could also help push more crypto aficionados into buying a new family of chips that Nvidia launched earlier this year, known as Cryptocurrency Mining Processors.
Video gaming cards can be more easily adapted for mining ether than bitcoin, with the ethereum network accounting for about 90 per cent of crypto rewards that can be won using repurposed GPUs, according to Nvidia.
Nvidia faces a challenge in preventing crypto miners from using its gaming cards without pushing them away from GPUs altogether, said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. Its handling of the shortfall so far suggests it has struck the right balance, he added.
Tom’s Hardware guide, which recently put different graphics cards through their paces, judged Nvidia’s RTX 3080 and 3090 the best “by quite a large margin” for mining tokens on ethereum. The price of the tokens soared nearly sixfold since the start of the year before a recent pull back, putting a total value of nearly $400bn on the total supply of the currency, or half that of bitcoin.
The company first acted earlier this year to limit the capacity of one of its cards, the RTX 3060. On Tuesday it said it was also limiting the latest 3080 and 3070 cards, which are aimed at the most serious gamers, as well as the latest version of the 3060.