If it Ain’t Broke...

The status quo is a dangerous thing. In 2005 ATI and NVIDIA were both sitting on a formula that worked: build the fastest GPU in the world (and provide solid drivers), and you’d win the market. By this point ATI had years of support to continue building GPUs this way, but there were a few within the company who believed it was time for a change.

In many ways ATI and NVIDIA were just taking different risks. NVIDIA had learned its lesson with transitioning to new manufacturing processes too quickly and would most likely build GT200 on an older, more mature process, burdening it with a huge die. ATI opted to do what NVIDIA wouldn’t and move to new manufacturing processes quicker, aiding it in producing GPUs with smaller dies.

With its only competitor hell bent on making bigger and bigger GPUs, ATI took care of half of the problem - it would be free to do whatever it’d like, without any real competition. The question then became - could it work?

It’s easy to, today, look back and say “of course” but you have to understand that this was 2005 and the first specifications of RV770 were being drafted. Imagine sitting at a table full of people whose jobs were supported by building the biggest GPUs in the world and suggesting that perhaps we sit this round out. Let NVIDIA take the crown, let them have the halo part, we’ll compete in the $200 - $300 market. Yeah, right.

What followed were heated debates, if ATI were to stake the future of its graphics business on not building the absolute faster GPU, but rather a GPU targeted at a lower market segment the proposition was risky.

ATI viewed the graphics market as five segments: Enthusiast, Performance, Balance, Mainstream and Value. In the Spring of 2005, ATI decided to shoot for the Performance segment, and not Enthusiast. You could even argue that the Performance segment is what the R300 competed in back in 2002, priced at $399 it was closer to the $299 MSRP of the Radeon HD 4870 than the $599 MSRP of the GeForce GTX 280 when it launched. But ATI viewed this as a change in strategy, while R300 aimed for performance regardless of die size, RV770 would have clear power and die size limits imposed on it.

There were many individuals at ATI that were responsible for the RV770 we know today getting green lighted. ATI’s Rick Bergman was willing to put himself and his career on the line, because if this didn’t work, he’d be one to blame. Carrell recalled a story where Rick Bergman and others were at a table discussing RV770; Rick turned to Matt Skynner and asked him if he thought they could really do it, if they could make RV770 a smaller-than-NVIDIA GPU and still be successful, if it was possible to create a halo in the Performance segment. Matt apparently pondered the question, turned to Rick and said “I think we can”. Carrell felt that ATI might not have gone down that path if it weren’t for Matt Skynner’s support and Rick Bergman making sure that the project was executed as well as it ended up being.

It was far from rosy at that point however, there were many very smart engineers, people who were responsible for things like R300 and R580 who disagreed with the strategy. People who had been right before were saying that if ATI didn’t build a true competitor to GT200 that the fight would be over. Then you had folks like Carrell saying that it could be done, that this was absolutely the right move. It’s much like the passion of politics, each side believed that they were right, but ultimately you can only pick one - and both sides have to live under the same roof.

The Bet, Would NVIDIA Take It? The Power Paradigm
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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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