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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  • yourwhiteshadow - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    absolutely brilliant. i've always read anandtech instead of tomshardware because of objective reviews. i was reading an intel review, and people were questioning the objectivity of anandtech. while some might could look at this as praising ATI/AMD, i would definitely say this was a very objective view of what happened. seriously, one of the BEST articles i've read since the 4850/4870 review. Reply
  • kevyeoh - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    I've been reading anandtech for years and there wasn't any article that makes me wanna read every single word of it. Usually i will read the forewords and then skip on to the Conclusion. But for this article, i really read every single words! period! Anandtech rocks! Reply
  • nitemareglitch - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    I was actually getting a little bored with the articles around here, until I read this one. Great job, I loved reading this story!! Reply
  • lchyi - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    This is by far the best (and most insightful) article I have read here to date Anand. It sounds like you put in a ton of thought to it and I have never flown through 7,500 words as quick as that read. Congrats to the ATI guys for their successful gamble on the RV770. The last three years must have been an extremely interesting experience for them and their engineers. Reply
  • joshjnm - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Great article I will bandwagon with the rest of you and agree this is one of the best articles I've read in a while.

    Reply
  • josh6079 - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article. Last time I was really involved with graphics cards was when the X1900's were in full swing and G80 was on everyone's mind. The history told in the article helped bring me up to pace as to what has transpired since I stopped gaming as much. I can remember how the Video card section used to be here on the forums with the trolls and constant flames. Two camps of people cheered on for one or the other competitors instead of realizing that they should be cheering for competition itself.

    Great job ATI, Nvidia - what's next?
    Reply
  • Seikent - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Very good article, most of these interesting background stories are written in books, but a lot of years latter.

    Something, that is not mentioned, is that it seems that AMD didn't affect ATI in any way (technically speaking). Many thought that the R600 failure had something to do with AMD.
    Reply
  • BSMonitor - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Awesome article.

    I am definately a performance/mainstream kinda guy in this market. Definately love the competition. I started my first build with a Geforce 4200Ti, moved up to the infamous 9700Pro, followed by X1900, and now 4850HD...

    It is good to see that the ATI/AMD didn't damage ATI as a whole. Rock on guys! Love those cheap kick ass Crossfire cards! Go 4850HD x2.
    Reply
  • dmer - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    as a long time reader of anand I never felt the need to register an account; however, after reading your article I felt compelled to create an account just to commend you on an excellent article.

    we need more articles that give us insight into business decisions like this. job well done mate!
    Reply
  • johnkwright - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Anand,

    I've been a long time reader of AnandTech but I especially liked this article. It was interesting to get a peek behind the curtain to see what challenges companies face when making these tough decisions. Hopefully more companies take a chance and share more of their stories with this site. Keep up the good work.

    Regards,
    John Wright
    Reply

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