After more than a year of promises but no follow-through, Nvidia finally brought a competitive card to the table. Yet, as we were putting the GTX 460 through its paces for the January 2011 issue of PC & Tech Authority, word reached us that Nvidia has lost its lead in the discrete desktop GPU market - a year ago it sold 59% to ATI's 41%, but in the last quarter that swung to 51% in favour of ATI.
That's reward for ATI comprehensively trumping its rival with both the HD 4000 series and now the current HD 5000. ATI concentrated on making cards that were fast but affordable; Nvidia, meanwhile, clung to its old architecture as Fermi stumbled and stalled, eventually arriving months overdue as the hot, expensive and slow GTX 470 and 480.
The big surprise is that it's taken this long for the balance of sales to shift ATI's way. Until the GTX 460, PC manufacturers had long stopped sending us review units with GeForce cards, while all four spots on the A-List were ATI for nigh-on 18 months. Arguably, the last genuinely brilliant card Nvidia produced was the 9600 GT - in 2008. Yet it's only now that ATI has managed to outsell its rival, and that's from a company that focuses much of its resources on desktop graphics.
Nvidia, on the other hand, has more on its mind. In that rocky two-year patch for the desktop, Ion has become widespread in netbooks, nettops and low-power laptops; it's seen CUDA taken up in a big way by software makers and consumers looking to boost their rendering and live-effects processing speeds; and it's begun to make headway in the 3D gaming realm with its GeForce 3D Vision hardware.
Then there's Tegra, which has huge potential for handheld devices, to show Nvidia is about more than just that big box under your desk.
Yes, Fermi has been a debacle for Nvidia, and it's taken a few revisions to finally produce a card that runs as quickly and as coolly as we'd hoped. It had its bad press on initial release, and all of it thoroughly deserved, but now it looks set to provide a challenge to ATI once more. Considering how long it took for Nvidia to be toppled in one of its most barren periods for desktop graphics cards, don't be surprised if that market share tips back the other way soon enough.