The Call

My love/hate relationship with AMD PR continued last year. But lately, it’s been far less hate. Let’s rewind back to the Summer of 2009. I’d been waiting for AMD to call for weeks.

We all knew that the RV870 was going to launch sometime before the end of the year, and we’re normally briefed on new GPUs around a month or so before we get hardware. The rumors said that the launch had been pushed back, but just like clockwork I got a call in June or July of last year. It was my old friend, Chris Hook of AMD PR.

This time he wanted me to come to a press event on a carrier off the coast of California. Sigh.

It’s not that I have anything against carriers. It’s just that all I cared about at that time was the long awaited successor to the RV770. The RV770 was the GPU that unequivocally restored my faith in ATI graphics, an impact shared by others last June. But that’s not how the game is played I’m afraid. AMD promises its management and its partners that they can fill a room (or carrier) up with important press. We get promised access to engineers, useful information and free drinks.


The USS Hornet. GPUs are in there.

I’m not easily swayed by free drinks, but Chris Hook knows me well enough by now to know what I’d appreciate even more.

The Dinner - September 2009

I had to leave dinner earlier than I wanted to. ASUS’ Chairman Jonney Shih was in town and only had one opportunity to meet me before I left Oakland. Whenever either of us happens to be in the same town, we always make our best effort to meet - and I wasn’t going to let him down. In the same vein that Steve Jobs is successful because he is a product guy at heart, running a company best known for its products. Jonney Shih is an engineer at heart, and he runs a company who has always been known for their excellence in engineering. This wasn’t just another meeting with an executive, this was a meeting with someone who has a passion for the same things I do. His focus isn’t on making money, it’s on engineering. It’s a rare treat.

My ride was waiting outside. I closed the lid on my laptop, making sure to save the 13 pages of notes I just took while at dinner. And I shook this man’s hand:

Before I left he asked me to do one thing. He said “Try not to make the story about me. There are tons of hardworking engineers that really made this chip happen”. Like Jonney, Carrell Killebrew has his own combination of traits that make him completely unique in this industry. All of the greats are like that. They’ve all got their own history that brought them to the companies that they work for today, and they have their own sets of personality traits that when combined make them so unique. For Carrell Killebrew it's a mixture of intelligence, pragmatism, passion and humility that's very rare to see. He's also a genuinely good guy. One of his tenets is that you should always expect the best from others. If you expect any less than the best, that’s all you’ll ever get from them. It’s a positive take on people, one that surprisingly enough only burned Carrell once. Perhaps he’s more fortunate than most.

Mr. Killebrew didn’t make the RV870, but he was beyond instrumental in making sure it was a success. What follows is a small portion of the story of the RV870, the GPU behind the Radeon HD 5800 series. I call it a small portion of the story because despite this article using more than eight thousand words to tell it, the actual story took place over years and in the minds and work of hundreds of engineers. This GPU, like all others (even Fermi) is the lifework of some of the best engineers in the industry. They are the heroes of our industry, and I hope I can do their story justice.

As is usually the case with these GPU backstories, to understand why things unfolded the way they did we have to look back a few years. Introducing a brand new GPU can take 2 - 4 years from start to finish. Thus to understand the origins of the Radeon HD 5800 series (RV870) we have to look back to 2005.

Sidebar on Naming

AMD PR really doesn’t like it when I use the name RV870. With this last generation of GPUs, AMD wanted to move away from its traditional naming. According to AMD, there is no GPU called the RV870, despite the fact that Carrell Killebrew, Eric Demers and numerous others referred to it as such over the past couple of years. As with most drastic changes, it usually takes a while for these things to sink in. I’ve also heard reference to an RV870 jar - think of it as a swear jar but for each time someone calls Cypress an RV870.

Why the change? Well, giving each member of a GPU family a name helps confuse the competition. It’s easy to know that RV870 is the successor to the RV770. It’s harder to tell exactly what a Cypress is.

AMD PR would rather me refer to RV870 and the subject of today’s story as Cypress. The chart below shows AMD’s full listing of codenames for the 40nm DX11 GPU lineup:

GPU Codename
ATI Radeon HD 5900 Series Hemlock
ATI Radeon HD 5800 Series Cypress
ATI Radeon HD 5700 Series Juniper
ATI Radeon HD 5600/5500 Series Redwood
ATI Radeon HD 5400 Series Cedar

 

Given that we still haven’t purged the RVxxx naming from our vocabulary, I’m going to stick with RV870 for this story. But for those of you who have embraced the new nomenclature - RV870 = Cypress and at points I will use the two names interchangeably. The entire chip stack is called Evergreen. The replacement stack is called the Northern Islands.

The Best Way to Lose a Fight - How R5xx Changed ATI
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  • papapapapapapapababy - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Ok, ok, great read, but i have to hate a bit, 1,2,3 GO! hey Carrell here is my top priority feature for your next PRS

    1 -Drivers that dont suck ass-


    "The performance was still a problem and the RV740 was mostly lost as a product" ...

    the fuk? the 4770 is the BEST card i ever had, PERIOD. cheap, fast, cool, the perfect RV770, thanks !


    bla bla Carrell "He’s single handedly responsible for getting Eyefinity included in the Evergreen stack"

    Meh? who gives a sht. , Carrell give me console like gpu scaling, so we can finally play crysis at 1080p, another one for that PRS

    "Carrell went to David Glenn, head of software engineering at ATI and asked"

    drivers that dont suck, please?

    " There were also game compatibility concerns that made ATI not interested in the software approach"

    Lol i wonder why? i think i know why. Hardware, hardware, what about the software,Carrell?

    ok, thats it. not much to complain this time, flawless job ati guys

    Reply
  • f0d - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    long time reader/first time posting
    ive never felt the need to post anything but with this article i really wanted to say:
    "thank you"
    the insights we get in these articles is amazing (i also read the first when it was done)
    i like the "no technical or maketing bs" writing of this story and all the little pieces of information like with the eyefinity story and sideport
    please do as much of these type of stories as possible - it must be difficult to talk to the right people and get the right information out of them and also be allowed to publish it but it makes a great read
    Reply
  • Robert Kooijman - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Awesome article Anand!

    Also specially created an account to inform you how impressed I am with articles like these. A real treat these behind the scenes stories in non-marketing language. Keep 'm coming, compliments!
    Reply
  • - Friday, February 19, 2010 - link

    bravo

    when do the (tech industry) book's come out??
    Reply
  • Kryten - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Informative, interesting, inspirational, edifying and very well written. Here's hoping for more research and articles like this. Reply
  • greenguy - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Hi Anand, I've been reading your stuff for 3 years or so, I just created an account to tell you how awesome that article was. Very nice work. This sort of content is why I read Anandtech. (My other favorite articles have been the SSD articles and the i5-750 article.)

    I especially like to hear about AMD/ATI - I like having a serious competitor to Intel out there, and I commend AMD for opening up their graphics card documentation. I hope that they continue to fund the Linux driver development (both open and closed source). I also hope their CPU division can put the heat on Intel again, especially on the low power front.
    Reply
  • at80eighty - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Anand I was just telling someone yesterday how I wish you guys got more popularity for the different approach you guys have

    between articles like this and the new beta Bench tab - I think I'm really looking forward to your proposed changes you promised this year
    Reply
  • insurgent - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    I had a really great time reading the article, thanks! Reply
  • Markstar - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Also a big thank you from me for this wonderful article.

    It's exactly these kind of stories that I hope to find here every morning when I start the day.
    Reply
  • JimmiG - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Well the late changes would explain why the RV870 isn't "perfect" like the 770 was. At every price point except at the high-end, it delivers more features, but less or similar performance as the previous generation. For example the 5770 is slower than the 4870, the 5750 is about the same speed and price as the 4850 and so on. Also at the high-end it's more expensive than the 4800-series ever were - the 4870 was only $299 at launch, the 5870 is still at least $399. By this month in 2009, the 4870 was down to $249! Reply

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