NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA) designs graphics processing units, computer chips that accelerate 2D and 3D graphics performance, for desktop and server computers, video game consoles, and mobile devices. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company was founded in 1993 by Curtis Priem, Chris Malachowsky, and current CEO Jen-Hsun Huang.
The slavering mutants, killer robots, and fetching elf ladies of the computer gaming world owe NVIDIA a debt of gratitude, since its products work overtime to make them look their best. (Or, in the mutants' case, their worst.) The company designs sophisticated chips to process high-end computer graphics, then licenses their designs to other companies that actually manufacture and sell the chips and boards that go into computers and other devices.
When 3D graphics first made their way to computers, they were usually handled entirely by the computer's software, and rendered by the same CPU that also had to manage all the rest of the computer's operations. Numerous companies began building accelerator cards that took some of that work off the CPU's hands. But NVIDIA changed the computer graphics game even more dramatically in 1999, when its GeForce 256 became the first GPU -- graphics processing unit.
In essence, the GPU tells the CPU, "Here, let me take all that heavy, time-intensive graphics processing off your hands." The CPU can run its remaining tasks more quickly without having to juggle 3D rendering, and the GPU's dedicated processor can pump out shiny, eye-catching 3D imagery, realistic physics modeling, and all the other buzzwords that make gamers start to involuntarily salivate.
NVIDIA's history involves more ups and downs than a roller coaster. Its first two products, the NV1 and never-released NV2, had the misfortune of launching at a time when the computer industry had no consistent standards for 3D graphics rendering; both crashed and burned. But the company went back to the drawing board, and in a strikingly short time, it had devised a new chip, the Riva TNT2, that beat all comers in both price and performance.
NVIDIA built on that success with the GeForce 256, which launched a whole line of GeForce processors for desktop computers, and propelled the company to dominance in the graphics-chip business. Its new fame led Microsoft to enlist NVIDIA to design the graphics processor for its then-nascent Xbox game console. That was a short-term boon for the company, but it proved ill-fated on two fronts.
The demands of the Xbox design drew NVIDIA's engineers away from other products, and its desktop-computer chips slowly began to fall behind the competition. And when Microsoft tried to renegotiate its contract, the two companies had a falling-out. Microsoft withheld the specs for its latest 3D graphics standard, working instead with NVIDIA's rival ATI (subsequently bought out by Intel), which helped ATI evict NVIDIA from the top-dog spot in the graphics market. NVIDIA's chips ran buggier, produced more heat, and cost more to manufacture.
But the company struggled back with new designs, eventually running neck-in-neck with ATI for graphics dominance. Microsoft snubbed the company for its next-generation Xbox 360, choosing ATI instead, but Sony was waiting to enlist NVIDIA's expertise for its PlayStation 3. NVIDIA and ATI now battle back and forth, much like Intel and AMD in the CPU market, with neither clearly gaining an upper hand. The company's most recent coup involved landing its new line of mobile graphics chips in Apple's 2008 line of MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air laptops.
Meanwhile, NVIDIA has gotten bigger, with forays into high-end workstation graphics solutions, and thought smaller, designing the Tegra line of mobile chips, which claim to cram all the functions of a computer onto a single low-power chip. Slavering mutants everywhere, and the gamers who frag them, are no doubt pleased.
Brands and Divisions
NVIDIA employs more than 5,000 people in 11 countries on three continents. Its major product lines include:
- GeForce processors for desktop computers and computer games.
- Quadro chips for high-end professional graphics work.
- Tegra chips for mobile devices.
- Tesla chips for networked servers and and multi-processor computer systems.