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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  • n7 - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    These kind of articles are why i love AT.

    Fantastic read, thanx!
    Reply
  • glynor - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    Thanks Anand. It is things just like this that have kept me coming back for years and year. Great work! Reply
  • jah128 - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    Really good article, one of the best I've read here. Reply
  • doittoit - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    Don't forget what rv770 did to GTX 280. Made it completely irrelevent. 2 x 4850 made it so no-one would ever bother with nvidia's "monster". Now they just have to get over the hump on driver support. Down with NVIDIA!! Reply
  • Element81 - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    Best article I've read on your site in a long time. I crave all the performance benchmarks and reviews of new products but the back story behind the creation of the RV770 is amazing. I will be building myself a new rig very soon and I've been following hardware religiously in the last few months to help me make my decision. A new 4850 or 4870 will def end up in my new build. Reply
  • BernardP - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    Thanks for this great article. Well-written and full of new information. Reply
  • truk007 - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    This article is the best I've read on any tech site. Loved it! I hope Anandtech has more behind-the-scenes stories like this again, and I also hope that companies continue to give these types of interviews. It was a great journalistic piece that made the company all that much more human. Thanks! Reply
  • rwei - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    I've been reading for 2-3 years and was too lazy to comment...but I found this article compelling enough to create an account just to say how much I liked it =)

    For a student studying both compsci and business/mgmt, the dual focus on engineering and business challenges was very interesting. Though there was a very obvious potential for a "rah-rah ATI!" bias given the nature of the interview, especially when discussing R600.
    Reply
  • WeaselITB - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    There must be echos in here, because I'm adding my words to the mix. In the roughly-10 years that I've been reading AnandTech (yes, I remember reading the Celeron "launch" article and the whole celery jokes that went with it), I must say that this is one of the best articles I've read here.

    It's articles like this that keep me coming back to AT all these years. Everyone and their dog can benchmark and put up pretty graphs (no offense, Derek), but it's the meaty articles like this one that give AT that leg-up over the competition.

    Thanks, Anand, for an awesome ten years, and here's to ten more!
    Reply
  • Goty - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    On page 2, when discussing the Radeon 8500, you have to remember that the 8500's intended competition was the GeForce 3 series, against which it was fairly competitive (especially at the end of its life). ATI never really released a product to compete with the GeForce 4 cards. Reply

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