This was the email that set it off:

Hi Anand,

You have an appointment with Carrell Killebrew at 3pm tomorrow at ATI Santa Clara - he's going to give you the background on what REALLY went on behind 770. He'll meet you in the lobby on the 5th floor.

Chris

The email was from Chris Hook, PR at AMD, I’d worked with him for years and at ATI before the acquisition. I’ve always given him a hard time for trying to spin me, for doing a great job of hosting parties but a terrible job of putting me face to face with the brightest engineers.


Chris Hook seems terribly uninterested in whatever is coming out of my mouth at this dinner years ago :)

Lately Chris has been on a quest to prove me wrong. He gets that I don’t care about the parties or the exotic destinations that AMD usually hosts its press events at, I just want the product and the engineers. Earlier this year Chris let one engineer out of the bag and we had a great conversation about AMD’s manufacturing and packaging technologies (yeah, I’m a boring date). He gained a bit of trust with that interaction, so when he sent me the email above my ears perked.

I made my way back to ATI Santa Clara for the 3PM meeting and as I exited the elevator I heard “Anand?” from behind me. I didn’t recognize any of the men there but that’s not too unusual, in my old age remembering all of the faces is getting difficult, after all I’ve been doing this for nearly 12 years now. Thankfully this wasn’t one of those cases of forgotten identities, the man who I’d soon find out was Carrell Killebrew simply recognized me from a picture. What picture? I have no idea, perhaps AMD keeps pictures of Derek, Gary and myself on walls to know who to be angry at.

We walked around 30 feet into a small room with a table and some chairs, there was a speakerphone in the middle of the table. In the room was myself, Carrell Killebrew, Eric Demers, Mike Schmit and Mark Leather.

Most of these people I’d never met before, although I had heard their names. AMD, and ATI before the acquisition, had historically done a terrible job of giving us access to their smartest people. At best we’d get people in technical marketing, but very rarely the lead architects or any Fellows (read: certified genius title). That day however, on my day off, I found myself in a room with AMD Fellow after Fellow, smart guy after smart guy...and not a single member of AMD PR to muzzle the engineers.

To appreciate Carrell you have to understand that most of the people we talk to about GPUs are there to market us, and do so in a very markety tone. These briefings normally start out with some slides on the lay of the land, talking about how gaming is important, then there’s some architecture talk, a bit about the cards, some performance data that we don’t pay attention to and then a couple of conclusion slides. For a company that builds products that let you blow off peoples’ heads and watch the whole thing in greater fidelity, the way they talk to us about product is pretty lame.

Carrell, was different. Carrell Killebrew was the engineering lead on RV770, the GPU behind the Radeon HD 4800 series, and he was exactly the type of person you’d expect to be lead engineer on a product used to play video games, ridiculously fun, video games.

Carrell started the conversation off by saying that everything he was about to tell me would be on record, and he was assuming that no one had any objections to that. This was going to be good.

He asked me what I’d like to talk about and he offered some choices. We could talk about future GPU trends and architectures, we could talk about GPU accelerated video transcoding or he, along with the rest of the group, could give me the back story on RV770.

Carrell’s final option piqued my interest, I hadn’t really thought about it. When RV770 launched in the summer we took for granted that it was a great part, it upset NVIDIA’s pricing structure and gave us value at $200 and $300. We went through the architecture of the Radeon HD 4800 series and looked at performance, but I spent only a page or so talking about AMD’s small-die strategy that ultimately resulted in the RV770 GPU. AMD had spent much of the past 8 years building bigger and bigger GPUs yet with the RV770 AMD reversed the trend, and I didn’t even catch it. I casually mentioned it, talked about how it was a different approach than the one NVIDIA took, but I didn’t dig deeper.

Normally when a manufacturer like AMD tells me they did something, I ask why. When Intel introduced me to Nehalem’s cache architecture, I asked why and later published my findings. And for the most part, with every aspect of the Radeon HD 4800’s architecture, we did the same. Derek Wilson and I spent several hours on the phone and in emails back and forth with AMD trying to wrap our heads around the RV770’s architecture so that we could do it justice in our reviews. But both of us all but ignored the biggest part of RV770: the decision that led to making GPU itself.

This is a tough article for me to write, there are no graphs, no charts, no architecture to analyze. I simply got to sit in that room and listen as these individuals, these engineers shared with me over the course of two hours the past three years of their lives. I want to do it justice, and I hope that I can, because what they conveyed to me in that room was the best meeting I’d ever had with AMD or ATI.

The Beginning: The Shot Heard Around the World
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  • Chainlink - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    I've followed Anandtech for many years but never felt the need to respond to posts or reviews. I've always used anandtech as THE source of information for tech reviews and I just wanted to show my appreciation for this article.

    Following the graphics industry is certainly a challenge, I think I've owned most of the major cards mentioned in this insitful article. But to learn some of the background of why AMD/ATI made some of the decisions they did is just AWESOME.

    I've always been AMD for CPU (won a XP1800+ at the Philly zoo!!!) and a mix of the red and green for GPUs. But I'm glad to see AMD back on track in both CPU and GPU especially (I actually have stock in them :/).

    Thanks Anand for the best article I've read anywhere, it actually made me sign up to post this!
    Reply
  • pyrosity - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    Anand & Co., AMD & Co.,

    Thank you. I'm not too much into following hardware these days but this article was interesting, informative, and insightful. You all have my appreciation for what amounts to a unique, humanizing story that feels like a diamond in the rough (not to say AT is "the rough," but perhaps the sea of reviews, charts, benchmarking--things that are so temporal).
    Reply
  • Flyboy27 - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Amazing that you got to sit down with these folks. Great article. This is why I visit anandtech.com! Reply
  • BenSkywalker - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Is the ~$550 price point seen on ATi's current high end part evidence of them making their GPUs for the masses? If this entrire strategy is as exceptional as this article makes it out to be, and this was an effort to honestly give high end performance to the masses then why no lengthy conversation of how ATi currently offers, by a hefty margin, the most expensive graphics cards on the market? You even present the slide that demonstrates the key to obtaining the high end was scalability, yet you fail to discuss how their pricing structure is the same one nVidia was using, they simply chose to use two smaller GPUs in the place of one monolithic part. Not saying there is anything wrong with their approach at all- but your implication that it was a choice made around a populist mindset is quite out of place, and by a wide margin. They have the fastest part out, and they are charging a hefty premium for it. Wrong in any way? Absolutely not. An overall approach that has the same impact that nV or 3dfx before them had on consumers? Absolutely. Nothing remotely populist about it.

    From an engineering angle, it is very interesting how you gloss over the impact that 55nm had for ATi versus nVidia and in turn how this current direction will hold up when they are not dealing with a build process advantage. It also was interesting that quite a bit of time was given to the advantages that ATi's approach had over nV's in terms of costs, yet ATi's margins remain well behind that of nVidia's(not included in the article). All of these factors could have easily been left out of the article altogether and you could have left it as an article about the development of the RV770 from a human interest perspective.

    This article could have been a lot better as a straight human interest fluff piece, by half bringing in some elements that are favorable to the direction of the article while leaving out any analysis from an engineering or business perspective from an objective standpoint this reads a lot more like a press release then journalism.
    Reply
  • Garson007 - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Never in the article did it say anything about ATI turning socialistic. All it did mention was that they designed a performance card instead of an enthusiast one. How they approach to finally get to the enthusiast block, and how much it is priced, is completely irrelevant to the fact that they designed a performance card. This also allowed ATI to bring better graphics to lower priced segments because the relative scaling was much less than nVidia -still- has to undertake.

    The built process was mentioned. It is completely nVidia's prerogative to ignore a certain process until they create the architecture that works on one they already know; you are bringing up a coulda/woulda/shoulda situation around nVidia's strategy - when it means nothing to the current end-user. The future after all, is the future.

    I'd respectfully disagree about the journalism statement, as I believe this to be a much higher form of journalism than a lot of what happens on the internet these days.

    I'd also disagree with the people who say that AMD is any less secretive or anything. Looking in the article there is no real information in it which could disadvantage them in any way; all this article revealed about AMD is a more human side to the inner workings.

    Thank you AMD for making this article possible, hopefully others will follow suit.
    Reply
  • travbrad - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    This was a really cool and interesting article, thanks for writing it. :)

    However there was one glaring flaw I noticed: "The Radeon 8500 wasn’t good at all; there was just no beating NVIDIA’s GeForce4, the Ti 4200 did well in the mainstream market and the Ti 4600 was king of the high end. "

    That is a very misleading and flat-out false statement. The Radeon 8500 was launched in October 2001, and the Geforce 4 was launched in April 2002 (that's a 7 month difference). I would certainly hope a card launched more than half a year later was faster.

    The Radeon 8500 was up against the Geforce3 when it was launched. It was generally as fast/faster than the similarly priced Ti200, and only a bit slower than the more expensive Ti500. Hardly what I would call "not good at all". Admittedly it wasn't nearly as popular as the Geforce3, but popularity != performance.
    Reply
  • 7Enigma - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    That's all I have to say. As near to perfection as you can get in an article. Reply
  • hanstollo - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Hello, I've been visiting your site for about a year now and just wanted to let you know I'm really impressed with all of the work you guys do. Thank you so much for this article as i feel i really learned a whole lot from it. It was well written and kept me engaged. I had never heard of concepts like harvesting and repairability. I had no idea that three years went into designing this GPU. I love keeping up with hardware and really trust and admire your site. Thank you for taking the time to write this article. Reply
  • dvinnen - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Been reading this site for going on 8 years now and this article ranks up there with your best ever. As I've grown older and games have taken a back seat I find articles like this much more interesting. When a new product comes out I find myself reading the forwards and architectural bits of the articles and skipping over all the graphs to the conclusions.

    Anyways, just wish I was one of those brilliant programmers who was skilled enough to do massively parallelized programming.
    Reply
  • quanta - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    While the RV770 engineers may not have GDDR5 SDRAM to play with during its development, ATI can already use the GDDR4 SDRAM, which already has the memory bandwidth doubling that of GDDR5 SDRAM, AND it was already used in Radeon X1900 (R580+) cores. If there was any bandwidth superiority over NVIDIA, it was because of NVIDIA's refusal to switch to GDDR4, not lack of technology. Reply

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