A few weeks ago one of the most important technological acquisitions in recent years was chewed. SoftBank, current owner of ARM, had been looking for a buyer for this company that designs mobile processors for some time, and it seems to have found one, something that was rumored for weeks. We know the purchase will have a huger effect in the AI and data center markets, but what about gaming?
With this purchase NVIDIA is mainly targeting the data center market, but the hardware for mobile gaming has a possibility of having a new competitor too. The company already has developed a SoC that includes an ARM CPU, the NVIDIA TEGRA K1, which is 6 years old and didn't see much success. Nowadays mobile gaming is growing at a fast pace and is much more attractive than it was back in 2014. Thinking of a new NVIDIA TEGRA that is produced in a 7nm process (down from 28nm) and that doesn't heat is not too far fetched.
It is all about AI, NVIDIA's CEO Jensen Huangmade it clear in a press conference on Monday: "AI is the most powerful technology force of our time", he said while referring to the ARM purchase, "together we will create the world's premier computing company for the age of AI"
NVIDIA already dominates the desktop market, 73.5% of steam users play their games with a NVIDIA graphics card. What the company really wants is to secure the data-center market, which accounts for 27.3% of their revenue. Due to its power efficiency ARM is set to be essential in data centers, mobile phones and small microprocessors. Making it a very attractive purchase for NVIDIA and the main reason why they are interested.
Nonetheless if the green team buys ARM, gamers do have a slight chance of having a full NVIDIA configuration, that is, a NVIDIA CPU + GPU build. There already exists a desktop ARM CPU, the Kunpeng 920 3211K, developed by Huawei. The chinese ARM CPU is not intended for commercial use, but we know of an US based company that has serious plans to power its desktop computers using ARM chips, Apple, they announced plans to transition away from Intel chips to Macs built with its own Apple Silicon chips starting in late 2020. Thinking of an ARM desktop CPU developed by NVIDIA might not be too far-fetched.
The programs compiled for the set of registers and instructions ARM cannot be executed in a CPU designed for another type of ISA such as x86 and vice versa, since the binary code understands it differently. This means that you cannot run Windows 10 and its applications unless we are talking about a version compiled and intended for CPUs with ISA ARM. On the other hand, in GNU / Linux things are different, since we have distributions designed for the use of ARM CPUs.
However there are a lot of facts to make an interesting case in favor of desktop arm CPUs without needing perfect x86 emulation:
Mobile gamers... I'll admit that I myself was one of those people laughing at the term a few years ago. It was only when I spent thousands of hours playing titles such as Hearthstone, PUBG, Civilization and Summoners War exclusively on my phone that I understood the term is no longer a joke. As of 2020 mobile games are growing +13.3% year on year and not only that, but also mobile games accounted for more than 60% of 2019 global game revenue. From a monetary standpoint mobile gaming is now the largest part of the gaming market, granted it is thanks to microtransactions, but the point still stands.
NVIDIA has tried before to go into the mobile market. Back in 2011 they released the first 2-core processor, the Tegra 2, which was succeeded with the Tegra 3 and Tegra 4. The chips were known for their poor performance and overheating problems. Nevertheless NVIDIA did not fail in their mobile chip aspirations.
The Nintendo Switch, a very successful console in terms of sales, uses the NVIDIA TEGRA X1, which features an ARM Cortex-A57, as well as a Maxwell-based GPU. It is worth noting that the Maxwell architecture was released in 2014 and its fabrication process is very old, 28 nm vs Ampere (2020) 7-8 nm.
If NVIDIA were to make an ARM chipset today, having purchased the company and the way better Ampere architecture. The new chipset would be way ahead of possible competitors.
According to the Wall Street Journal, NVIDIA will buy ARM for more than 40 billion dollars, and it will do so with the company that is behind all the microprocessors that govern our mobile devices (and some of those who want to conquer our desktop PCs).
Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp bought ARM four years ago for $ 32 billion, and this deal would provide it with a good way to make that gigantic investment profitable at a time when the UK-created company is more influential than ever.
According to the WSJ, ARM and NVIDIA have been negotiating a deal for weeks that could be confirmed early next week. NVIDIA, which is already one of the world's leading semiconductor manufacturers, would thus acquire a company that would undoubtedly boost its relevance in the technology market.
If the agreement is confirmed, it would have to receive the go-ahead of the regulators, who could see a threat to competitiveness here: Apple, Samsung, Huawei and even Intel are ARM customers and they might not see with good eyes that NVIDIA ends up taking the control of a company that is a fundamental pillar of the design and development of all types of processors.