Loongson Technology, one of China’s fabless chipmakers, has provided an update on the upcoming 9A1000 graphics card at the company’s third-quarter earnings call. The 9A1000, which reportedly offers performance comparable to a Radeon RX 550, will go into tape out in Q3 2024.
The U.S. blockade of China’s access to advanced semiconductors and tools has hampered the country’s technological development. But it’s a mixed blessing as it has also motivated China to work toward technological self-sufficiency. China hasn’t made gigantic strides in the graphics card space yet, but it’s getting there. Over the last few years, we’ve seen some intriguing graphics products from outfits such as Biren, Innosilicon, Jingjia Micro, and Moore Threads. Loongson will also add its grain of sand to China’s domestic graphics card ambition.
Now, much is known about the 9A1000. Hu Weiwu, Loongson’s founder, asserted that the 9A1000 delivers comparable performance to the Radeon RX 550, an entry-level AMD graphics card from six years ago. The Radeon RX 550 provides around 1.2 TFLOPS of FP32 performance, so that’s the projection for the 9A1000. Weiwu emphasized that the 9A1000 will also support scientific computing and AI acceleration. The statement somewhat hints at an implementation similar to Nvidia’s Tensor cores. Without access to major foundries like TSMC, Samsung, or Intel Foundry Services, Loongson will likely have to turn to SMIC to produce the 9A1000.
A product that offers performance from a six-year-old AMD graphics card doesn’t sound like a big deal for most. But for China, it represents a step in the right direction. China isn’t expecting GeForce RTX 4090-level performance. It just needs a working product that performs decently. In the case of the 9A1000, it could either turn out great with entry-level gaming performance or end up being a simple solution for display output that Loongson can pair with its upcoming 3A6000 processors, rumored to sport an IPC that rivals AMD’s Zen 3.
As ambitious as China is, you can’t just cheat the process. It’ll take years before a Chinese domestic graphics card can reach the GeForce RTX 4090 levels, especially now that U.S. sanctions are becoming more stringent as time passes. Chinese chipmakers, like Moore Threads, have proven that they can develop competing graphics cards if given enough time. Even then, the hardware is one thing, but the software that makes it work is another story.
The MTT S80 PCIe 5.0 graphics card from Moore Threads initially trailed behind the GT 1030 in gaming performance. But a new driver released months later helped reduce the divide between the MTT S80 and the GeForce GTX 1650.
The U.S. export restrictions to China have been and will continue to be a headache for China’s push for domestic hardware. Biren and Moore Threads, two of the most prominent players, are already on the U.S. Entity list, forcing both developers to downsize. Moore Thread recently had to let go of some of its staff, although the company didn’t reveal how many employees were laid off. Making graphics cards isn’t getting any easier, so we’ll have to see if Loongson can bring the 9A1000 to the Chinese market.