Lower Idle Power & Better Overcurrent Protection

One aspect AMD was specifically looking to improve in Cypress over RV770 was idle power usage. The load power usage for RV770 was fine at 160W for the HD4870, but that power usage wasn’t dropping by a great deal when idle – it fell by less than half to 90W. Later BIOS revisions managed to knock a few more watts off of this, but it wasn’t a significant change, and even later designs like RV790 still had limits to their idling abilities by only being able to go down to 60W at idle.

As a consequence, AMD went about designing the Cypress with a much, much lower target in mind. Their goal was to get idle power down to 30W, 1/3rd that of RV770. What they got was even better: they came in past that target by 10%, hitting a final idle power of 27W. As a result the Cypress can idle at 30% of the power as RV770, or as compared to Cypress’s load power of 188W, some 14% of its load power.

Accomplishing this kind of dramatic reduction in idle power usage required several changes. Key among them has been the installation of additional power regulating circuitry on the board, and additional die space on Cypress assigned to power regulation. Notably, all of these changes were accomplished without the use of power-gating to shut down unused portions of the chip, something that’s common on CPUs. Instead all of these changes have been achieved through more exhaustive clock-gating (that is, reducing power consumption by reducing clock speeds), something GPUs have been doing for some time now.

The use of clock-gating is quickly evident when we discuss the idle/2D clock speeds of the 5870, which is 150mhz for the core, and 300mhz for the memory . The idle clock speeds here are significantly lower than the 4870 (550/900), which in the case of the core is the source of its power savings as compared to the 4870. As tweakers who have attempted to manually reduce the idle clocks on RV770 based cards for further power savings have noticed, RV770 actually loses stability in most situations if its core clock drops too low. With the Cypress this has been rectified, enabling it to hit these lower core speeds.

Even bigger however are the enhancements to Cypress’s memory controller, which allow it to utilize a number of power-saving tricks with GDDR5 RAM, along with other features that we’ll get to in a bit. With RV770’s memory controller, it was not capable of taking advantage of very many of GDDR5’s advanced features besides the higher bandwidth abilities. Lacking this full bag of tricks, RV770 and its derivatives were unable to reduce the memory clock speed, which is why the 4870 and other products had such high memory clock speeds even at idle. In turn this limited the reduction in power consumption attained by idling GDDR5 modules.

With Cypress AMD has implemented nearly the entire suite of GDDR5’s power saving features, allowing them to reduce the power usage of the memory controller and the GDDR5 modules themselves. As with the improvements to the core clock, key among the improvement in memory power usage is the ability to go to much lower memory clock speeds, using fast GDDR5 link re-training to quickly switch the memory clock speed and voltage without inducing glitches. AMD is also now using GDDR5’s low power strobe mode, which in turn allows the memory controller to save power by turning off the clock data recovery mechanism. When discussing the matter with AMD, they compared these changes to putting the memory modules and memory controller into a GDDR3-like mode, which is a fair description of how GDDR5 behaves when its high-speed features are not enabled.

Finally, AMD was able to find yet more power savings for Crossfire configurations, and as a result the slave card(s) in a Crossfire configuration can use even less power. The value given to us for an idling slave card is 20W, which is a product of the fact that the slave cards go completely unused when the system is idling. In this state slave cards are still capable of instantaneously ramping up for full-load use, although conceivably AMD could go even lower still by powering down the slave cards entirely at a cost of this ability.

On the opposite side of the ability to achieve such low idle power usage is the need to manage load power usage, which was also overhauled for the Cypress. As a reminder, TDP is not an absolute maximum, rather it’s a maximum based on what’s believed to be the highest reasonable load the card will ever experience. As a result it’s possible in extreme circumstances for the card to need power beyond what its TDP is rated for, which is a problem.

That problem reared its head a lot for the RV770 in particular, with the rise in popularity of stress testing programs like FurMark and OCCT. Although stress testers on the CPU side are nothing new, FurMark and OCCT heralded a new generation of GPU stress testers that were extremely effective in generating a maximum load. Unfortunately for RV770, the maximum possible load and the TDP are pretty far apart, which becomes a problem since the VRMs used in a card only need to be spec’d to meet the TDP of a card plus some safety room. They don’t need to be able to meet whatever the true maximum load of a card can be, as it should never happen.

Why is this? AMD believes that the instruction streams generated by OCCT and FurMark are entirely unrealistic. They try to hit everything at once, and this is something that they don’t believe a game or even a GPGPU application would ever do. For this reason these programs are held in low regard by AMD, and in our discussions with them they referred to them as “power viruses”, a term that’s normally associated with malware. We don’t agree with the terminology, but in our testing we can’t disagree with AMD about the realism of their load – we can’t find anything that generates the same kind of loads as OCCT and FurMark.

Regardless of what AMD wants to call these stress testers, there was a real problem when they were run on RV770. The overcurrent situation they created was too much for the VRMs on many cards, and as a failsafe these cards would shut down to protect the VRMs. At a user level shutting down like this isn’t a very helpful failsafe mode. At a hardware level shutting down like this isn’t enough to protect the VRMs in all situations. Ultimately these programs were capable of permanently damaging RV770 cards, and AMD needed to do something about it. For RV770 they could use the drivers to throttle these programs; until Catalyst 9.8 they detected the program by name, and since 9.8 they detect the ratio of texture to ALU instructions (Ed: We’re told NVIDIA throttles similarly, but we don’t have a good control for testing this statement). This keeps RV770 safe, but it wasn’t good enough. It’s a hardware problem, the solution needs to be in hardware, particularly if anyone really did write a power virus in the future that the drivers couldn’t stop, in an attempt to break cards on a wide scale.

This brings us to Cypress. For Cypress, AMD has implemented a hardware solution to the VRM problem, by dedicating a very small portion of Cypress’s die to a monitoring chip. In this case the job of the monitor is to continually monitor the VRMs for dangerous conditions. Should the VRMs end up in a critical state, the monitor will immediately throttle back the card by one PowerPlay level. The card will continue operating at this level until the VRMs are back to safe levels, at which point the monitor will allow the card to go back to the requested performance level. In the case of a stressful program, this can continue to go back and forth as the VRMs permit.

By implementing this at the hardware level, Cypress cards are fully protected against all possible overcurrent situations, so that it’s not possible for any program (OCCT, FurMark, or otherwise) to damage the hardware by generating too high of a load. This also means that the protections at the driver level are not needed, and we’ve confirmed with AMD that the 5870 is allowed to run to the point where it maxes out or where overcurrent protection kicks in.

On that note, because card manufacturers can use different VRMs, it’s very likely that we’re going to see some separation in performance on FurMark and OCCT based on the quality of the VRMs. The cheapest cards with the cheapest VRMs will need to throttle the most, while luxury cards with better VRMs would need to throttle little, if at all. This should make little difference in stock performance on real games and applications (since as we covered earlier, we can’t find anything that pushes a card to excess) but it will likely make itself apparent in overclocking. Overclocked cards - particularly those with voltage modifications – may hit throttle situations in normal applications, which means the VRMs will make a difference here. It also means that overclockers need to keep an eye on clock speeds, as the card shutting down is no longer a tell-tale sign that you’re pushing it too hard.

Finally, while we’re discussing the monitoring chip, we may as well talk about the rest of its features. Along with monitoring the GPU, it also is a PWM controller. This means that the PWM controller is no longer a separate part that card builders add themselves, and as such we won’t be seeing any cards using a 2pin fixed speed fan to save money on the PWM controller. All Cypress cards (and presumably, all derivatives) will have the ability to use a 4pin fan built-in.

The Race is Over: 8-channel LPCM, TrueHD & DTS-HD MA Bitstreaming More GDDR5 Technologies: Memory Error Detection & Temperature Compensation


View All Comments

  • Zool - Sunday, September 27, 2009 - link

    The speed of the on chip cache just shows that the external memory bandwith in curent gpus is only to get the data to gpu or recieve the final data from gpu. The raw processing hapenns on chip with those 10 times faster sram cache or else the raw teraflops would vanish. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, September 27, 2009 - link

    If SD had any reading comprehension or understanding of tech, he would realize that what I am saying is:

    1) Memory bandwidth didn't double - it went up by just 23%
    2) Look at the results and performance increased by far more than 23%
    3) Ergo, the 4890 is not bandwidth limited in most cases, and there was no need to double the bandwidth.

    Would more bandwidth help performance? Almost certainly, as the 5870 is such a high performance part that unlike the 4890 it could use more. Similarly, the 4870X2 has 50% more bandwidth than the 5870, but it's never 50% faster in our tests, so again it's obviously not bandwidth limited.

    Was it that hard to understand? Nope, unless you are trying to pretend I put an ATI bias on everything I say. You're trying to start arguments again where there was none.
  • SiliconDoc - Sunday, September 27, 2009 - link

    The 4800 data rate ram is faster vs former 3600 - hence bus width is running FASTER - so your simple conclusions are wrong.
    When we overlcock the 5870's ram, we get framerate increase - it increases the bandwidth, and up go the numbers.
    Not like there isn't an argument, because you don't understand tech.
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, September 27, 2009 - link

    The bus is indeed faster -- 4800 effective vs. 3900 on the 4890 or 3600 on the 4870. What's "wrong about my simple conclusions"? You're not wrong, but you're not 100% right if you suggest bandwidth is the only bottleneck.

    Naturally, as most games are at least partially bandwidth limited, if you overclock 10% you increase performance. The question is, does it increase linearly by 10%? Rarely, just as if you overclock the core 10% you usually don't get 10% boost. If you do get a 1-for-1 increase with overclocking, it indicates you are solely bottlenecked by that aspect of performance.

    So my conclusions still stand: the 5870 is more bandwidth limited than 4890, but it is not completely bandwidth limited. Improving the caches will also help the GPU deal with less bandwidth, just as it does on CPUs. As fast as Bloomfield may be with triple-channel DDR3-1066 (25.6GB/s), the CPU can process far more data than RAM could hope to provide. Would a wider/faster bus help the 5870? Yup. Would it be a win-win scenario in terms of cost vs. performance? Apparently ATI didn't think so, and given how quickly sales numbers taper off above $300 for GPUs, I'm inclined to agree.

    I'd also wager we're a lot more CPU limited on 5870 than many other GPUs, particularly with CrossFire setups. I wouldn't even look at 5870 CrossFire unless you're running a high-end/overclocked Core i7 or Phenom II (i.e. over ~3.4GHz).

    And FWIW: Does any of this mean NVIDIA can't go a different route? Nope. GT300 can use 512-bit interfaces with GDDR5, and they can be faster than 5870. They'll probably cost more if that's the case, but then it's still up to the consumers to decide how much they're willing to spend.
  • silverblue - Saturday, September 26, 2009 - link

    I suppose if we end up seeing a 512-bit card then it'll make for a very interesting comparison with the 5870. With equal clocks during testing, we'd have a far better idea, though I'd expect to see far more RAM on a 512-bit card which may serve to skew the figures and muddy the waters, so to speak. Reply
  • Voo - Friday, September 25, 2009 - link

    Hey Jarred I know that's neither the right place nor the right person to ask, but do we get some kind of "Ignore this person" button with the site revamp Anand talked about some months ago?

    I think I'd prefer this feature about almost everything - even an edit button ;)
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 25, 2009 - link

    I'll ask and find out. I know that the comments are supposed to receive a nice overhaul, but more than that...? Of course, if you ignore his posts on this (and the responses), you'd only have about five comments! ;-) Reply
  • Voo - Saturday, September 26, 2009 - link


    Yep it'd be rather short, but I'd rather have 10 interesting comments than 1000 COMMENTS WRITTEN IN CAPS!!11 with dubious content ;)
  • SiliconDoc - Wednesday, September 30, 2009 - link

    I put it in caps so you could easily avoid them, I was thinking of you and your "problems".
    I guess since you "knew this wasn't the right time or place" but went ahead anyway, you've got "lot's of problems".
    Let me know when you have posted an "interesting comment" with no "dubios nature" to it.
    I suspect I'll be waiting years.
  • MODEL3 - Friday, September 25, 2009 - link

    Hi Ryan,

    Nice new info in your review.

    The day you posted your review, i wrote in the forums that according to my perception there are other reasons except bandwidth limitations and driver maturity, that the 850MHz 5870 hasn't doubled its performance in relation with a 850MHz 4890.

    Usually when a GPU has 2X the specs of another GPU the performance gain is 2X (of cource i am not talking about games with engines that are CPU limited or engines that seems to scale badly or are poor coded for example)
    There are many examples in the past that we had 2X performance gain with 2X the specs. (not in all the games, but in many games)

    From the tests that i saw in your review and from my understanding of the AMD slides, i think there are 2 more reasons that 5870 performs like that.

    The day of your review i wrote to the forums the additional reasons that i think the 5870 performs like that, but nobody replied me.

    I wrote that probably 5870 has:

    1.Geometry/vertex performance issues (in the sense that it cannot generate 2X geometry in relation with 4890) (my main assumption)


    2.Geometry/vertex shading performance issues (in the sense that the geometry shader [GS] cannot shade vertex with 2X speed in relation with 4890)(another possible assumption)

    I guess there are synthetic benchmarks that have tests like that (pure geometry speed, and pure geometry/vertex shader speed, in addition with the classic pixel shader speed tests) so someone can see if my assumption is true.

    If you have the time and you think that this is possible and you feel like it is worth your time, can you check my hypothesis please?

    Thanks very much,


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