The First Ethereum ASIC Just Launched, With a Major Caveat

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Ever since the cryptocurrency market heated up again, the video card market has been terrible. Consumers who wanted to buy a GPU have been stuck choosing between paying a 1.5x – 2x cost premium over standard MSRP or simply going without. Investors have been jittery about the end of the boom; AMD and Nvidia stock both took a hit when even rumors of an ASIC from Bitmain that could be used to mine cryptocurrencies might be headed to market. Now that same ASIC is supposedly ready for prime time — but there’s a major caveat attached.

To dig into how an ASIC works in this context, we first need to note that the way this topic is framed is often rather messy. A GPU is an ASIC. It’s an application-specific integrated circuit for handling games and 3D applications, or at least it used to be. Over the last decade, GPUs have steadily become more programmable and flexible; Nvidia’s work on CUDA has led to GPUs being used for workloads and in areas that were once the exclusive domain of CPUs, including oil and gas research, computational fluid dynamics, self-driving vehicles, AI and machine learning, and other HPC applications.

microsoft-fpga-vs-cpu-vs-asic

A GPU is still an ASIC, but it’s a programmable, flexible ASIC. Equally important, it’s an ASIC that spends a significant amount of logic and power on features that aren’t needed in a device dedicated to hashing cryptocurrency. Historically, the appearance of dedicated mining ASICs has meant the end of GPU mining, simply because there’s no way for AMD or Nvidia to compete with the potential hash performance of a dedicated circuit. Bitmain’s ASIC could mean the end of cryptocurrency mining on GPUs — but there’s at least two…

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