Sales of discrete GPUs are booming, but the rising tide isn't lifting all boats. In fact, even though overall discrete GPU sales were up both sequentially and year-over-year in the first quarter due to high demand, Nvidia continued to dominate the market convincingly as AMD appears to suffer more from ongoing supply shortages that impact both GPU makers.
AMD has rapidly gained CPU market share in recent years, particularly in the gaming segment, as many of its processors do not have direct rivals. But its discrete GPU sales have been a roller coaster and its market share has declined. The situation with AMD's standalone GPU supplies has been even tougher recently because of chip shortages. As a result, its market share in Q4 2020 declined to a multi-year low, according to Jon Peddie Research.
Shipments of discrete graphics processors in the first quarter reached 22 million units (which includes graphics chips for desktops and notebooks as well as for crypto mining), a 1% increase sequentially, according to data by Mercury Research cited by Capital Markets (via Barron's). Typically, shipments of standalone GPUs decrease in Q1 versus Q4, but this was not a usual quarter.
Nvidia commanded 81% of standalone GPU shipments in Q1 2021, which was 5.2% higher than in the same period a year ago. AMD commanded 19% of shipments, almost flat with the previous quarter and a decline compared to Q1 2020. Meanwhile, since unit sales increased sequentially and AMD's share remained flat, it means that the company sold more GPUs in Q1 2021 than it did in Q4 2020.
GPUs used to mine Ethereum contributed to additional GPU sales in the first quarter, said Dean McCarron, the head of Mercury Research. Yet, it is hard to estimate how many GPUs sold in Q1 are now used to mine cryptocurrency. McCarron estimates that sales of Nvidia's custom crypto mining processors (CMP) totaled 1 – 2 million in the first quarter, which is well below his expectation of around 4.5 million.
Both AMD and Nvidia said recently that their shipments in Q1 2021 were constrained by shortages of production capacity at foundries as well as a tight supply of components. AMD has contractual obligations to supply its custom SoCs for the Microsoft and Sony game consoles as well as CPUs to PC and server makers, so it isn't particularly surprising that it didn't increase shipments of its own GPUs significantly in the first quarter. Additionally, AMD can generate more profit from smaller CPU chips than the larger GPU dies, which obviously could place them on the backburner in the production queue.