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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  • nezuko - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    I think those phrase is describe what Graphic-field is. Another year win, and another year lose. But from those situations, only hardworking and tough guy would be able to turn all upside down. And ATi team do make it. Now I relieved I make a decision to buy 4670, though not performance, it still does big bang for the buck. And with those Catalyst 8.12, I would be more grateful that I bought this video card. Has been downloaded it and now testing it.

    Would Anand make another article about those GP-GPU programming language to make a data parralel computing possible.

    Well, I considering to build my Leo Platform in the H2 of 2009 when the AM3 Deneb is out, Sata 3, and RD890.
    Reply
  • JimiP - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Like many before me have said, this has to be one of the best articles I've ever read here at AT. It really puts things into perspective. We (the consumer) are always criticizing or praising everything that comes out and don't take into account the amount of hard work and time put into the release. I'm 4850 owner, and I couldn't be happier with the performance I've received. I would like to personally thank ATI/AMD and the entire team that put RV770 into play. Absolutely brilliant.

    I would also like to thank Anand for sharing this awesome experience with us.
    Reply
  • zshift - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    I have to say this was a great article. Great idea to write about the story behind these guys and the rv770. musta been a helluva relief when they realized how great the gpus were in the market, especially after taking such huge risks. For these guys to pull through the way they did, with the whole gddr5 issue and the die-shrink/physical limitations is amazing. I thought I was stressed in college. I can't imagine what its like to design something like this for 3 years not being even sure it'll work in the end. That's one hell of a resolve, makes me like ATI a bit more than I already do.

    Keep writing great articles here, this is my favorite site to read reviews on, and this is another reason why.

    go anand! :p
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    I agree with everyone else that the article is very well written. I am not sure if these would even be the right guys to ask, but did you bring up any of the driver issues your other recent articles have mentioned with them? As you have mentioned before, it is probably not the best business plan to assume nVidia will screw up again, and they should probably get their crossfire support in order for the good feelings about this strategy to continue. Reply
  • Dyno1979 - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Definitely one of the best articles I've read lately. And I didn't even notice that typo, probably because I was reading the article instead of looking at it.

    5 stars
    Reply
  • CarrellK - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    The "sweet spot" strategy would have amounted to *nothing* without the efforts of many very talented engineers (and a little luck as Anand has noted). They made the 770 happen and deserve the lion's share of the credit.

    I didn't think Anand would use this for anything other than background here-and-there in future articles. I fully expected him to politely cut me off at some point and say "about those future architectures..." which would have lead to Eric, Mike, and Mark telling a different interesting story. Thanks to Anand et al for telling this part of the 770 story. Responding to a comment or two in the posts:

    * Sorry to quench the speculation - the AMD purchase had no effect on the 770's execution. Dirk Meyer and the other AMD executives supported Rick, a guy that they really didn't know, during some pretty tough times at AMD. They did their jobs so that we could do ours.

    * The price range for 770-based cards was determined back in 2005 - it was an essential factor limiting the GPU cost, one of the big gambles. We had no clue what nV's 2008 pricing would be, but we did know what the gamers wanted. At launch we were tempted oh so briefly to launch at a higher price given the competitor's product offerings. It took some will-power for the starving man (us) to pass up a banquet (profits). We had a sneaking suspicion there was a lot of unhappiness about the direction prices had gone, and didn't want to be a party to that for the sake of a few weeks better revenue. Greed never pays. Remembering your customers does.

    P.S. We don't keep any dart-board pictures of Anand around the office. However I *do* recall seeing his picture somewhere and thinking at the time that it *would* make a good dart target. Just a thought... :-)

    Reply
  • lyeoh - Sunday, December 07, 2008 - link

    You guys got the sweet spot right as far as I'm concerned (I'm not sure if it's true for others - does it show up in the units sold?)

    Before the ATI 3800 (RV670), and Nvidia 8800GT, it seemed like after shelling out a few hundred US dollars, you'd only get low/medium quality at current games. And cheaper cards were pathetic to unusable for new games.

    So I stuck to playing old games with on my old video card (Ti4200) - which was decent in its time.

    After the beginning of the new "sweet spot" era, this year I bought a 9800GT (and a new PC). While the 9800GT is not as good as AMD/ATI's offerings in hardware performance terms, I was concerned about ATI's drivers/software. A colleague tried an ATI card on his office PC, but in the end he had to switch to Nvidia to get his multiscreen set up on Linux working the way he wanted, and I had seen a fair number of complaints from others. So far Nvidia's drivers have been OK for me whether in Windows or Linux.

    On the other hand I've seen too many Nvidia cards failing in hardware terms (bad caps, bad whatever). So pick your poison ;).

    But if the cards aren't totally crap, it often takes less time to just replace a faulty card, than to keep tinkering with drivers and software configs (sometimes to no avail).

    Anyway, many thanks for helping to make stuff affordable, even though I picked Nvidia again ;).

    In the end I'm still back to mostly playing old games though...
    Reply
  • MrSpadge - Saturday, December 06, 2008 - link

    Thanks Andantech, ATI & AMD for this amazing article!

    And I'd like to add a point which has not been raised yet, at least in this discussion: the "small and fast enough" strategy only works because GPUs hit the realm where they're power limited!

    The point is, whenever you go multi-GPU you loose performance due to inefficiencies and communication delays and there are also some transistors lost to redundant logic. If you had the choice between one 100 Mio transistor chip or 2 50 Mio ones, then the 100 Mio one would certainly be faster; assuming both could run at the same clock speed, which previously was determined by chip design (basically identical in the example) and process (identical).

    But GT200 is too big, it can not fully fledge its clock speed wings because its power limited. Imagine GT200 at 1.5 - 1.8 GHz shader clock - it would be much more in line with performance expectations. RV770 on the other hand can be pushed quite a bit and on the 4870 it chews up lots of power for such a small chip - but that's OK because this power envelope has been accepted and the performance is there to justify it. And the 2 GPU versions are succesful because the power envelope on such "freak"-cards is larger.

    And another frequently overlooked aspect: not all of GT200s transistors contribute to game performance. The 30 shaders which are 64 bit capable must be large and don't help games at all (and probably won't for quite some time). This is a very forward looking feature for games and a feature of immediate benefit for GP-GPU.

    MrS
    Reply
  • Frallan - Friday, December 05, 2008 - link

    Thank you m8!

    Not only for delivering good products but also for delivering good information and entertainment.

    Please convey to the other "Fellows" the heartfelt thanks of this community.
    Reply
  • JimmiG - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Congratulations to Anandtech for one of the most interesting articles this year. Congratulations to ATI/AMD for putting out their best and most exciting product since R300/9700 Pro.

    The industry really needed something like RV770. When the 9700 Pro came out in 2002, it was at the cutting edge of technology and performance, far ahead of the previous champion, the Ti4600, yet it launched at only $399. Nvidia launched the 8800 Ultra and GTX280 at $800 and $600 respectively, even though neither GPU introduced any significant new features, only moderately higher framerates.

    I currently have a 4850 512MB which I bought in July and I love it... It runs all my favorite games at great framerates and with fantastic image quality at 1680x1050. Still, I wouldn't considering myself an "ATI fan". When it's time for me to upgrade again, I will buy the best card in the $200 range and won't care whether the sticker on the GPU fan is green or red.
    Reply

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