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Cayman: The Last 32nm Castaway

With the launch of the Barts GPU and the 6800 series, we touched on the fact that AMD was counting on the 32nm process to give them a half-node shrink to take them in to 2011. When TSMC fell behind schedule on the 40nm process, and then the 32nm process before canceling it outright, AMD had to start moving on plans for a new generation of 40nm products instead.

The 32nm predecessor of Barts was among the earlier projects to be sent to 40nm. This was due to the fact that before 32nm was even canceled, TSMC’s pricing was going to make 32nm more expensive per transistor than 40nm, a problem for a mid-range part where AMD has specific margins they’d like to hit. Had Barts been made on the 32nm process as projected, it would have been more expensive to make than on the 40nm process, even though the 32nm version would be smaller. Thus 32nm was uneconomical for gaming GPUs, and Barts was moved to the 40nm process.

Cayman on the other hand was going to be a high-end part. Certainly being uneconomical is undesirable, but high-end parts carry high margins, especially if they can be sold in the professional market as compute products (just ask NVIDIA). As such, while Barts went to 40nm, Cayman’s predecessor stayed on the 32nm process until the very end. The Cayman team did begin planning to move back to 40nm before TSMC officially canceled the 32nm process, but if AMD had a choice at the time they would have rather had Cayman on the 32nm process.

As a result the Cayman we’re seeing today is not what AMD originally envisioned as a 32nm part. AMD won’t tell us everything that they had to give up to create the 40nm Cayman (there has to be a few surprises for 28nm) but we do know a few things. First and foremost was size; AMD’s small die strategy is not dead, but getting the boot from the 32nm process does take the wind out of it. At 389mm2 Cayman is the largest AMD GPU since the disastrous R600, and well off the sub-300mm2 size that the small die strategy dictates. In terms of efficient usage of space though AMD is doing quite well; Cayman has 2.64 billion transistors, 500mil more than Cypress. AMD was able to pack 29% more transistors in only 16% more space.

Even then, just reaching that die size is a compromise between features and production costs. AMD didn’t simply settle for a larger GPU, but they had to give up some things to keep it from being even larger. SIMDs were on the chopping block; 32nm Cayman would have had more SIMDs for more performance. Features were also lost, and this is where AMD is keeping mum. We know PCI Express 3.0 functionality was scheduled for the 32nm part, where AMD had to give up their PCIe 3.0 controller for a smaller 2.1 controller to make up for their die size difference. This in all honesty may have worked out better for them: PCIe 3.0 ended up being delayed until November, so suitable motherboards are still at least months away.

The end result is that Cayman as we know it is a compromise to make it happen on 40nm. AMD got their new VLIW4 architecture, but they had to give up performance and an unknown number of features to get there. On the flip side this will make 28nm all the more interesting, as we’ll get to see many of the features that were supposed to make it for 2010 but never arrived.

Refresher: The 6800 Series’ New Features VLIW4: Finding the Balance Between TLP, ILP, and Everything Else
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  • 529th - Sunday, December 19, 2010 - link

    Great job on this review. Excellent writing and easy to read.

    Thanks
    Reply
  • marc1000 - Sunday, December 19, 2010 - link

    yes, that's for sure. we will have to wait a little to see improvements from VLIW4. but my point is the "VLIW processors" count, they went up by 20%. with all other improvements, I was expecting a little more performance, just that.

    but in the other hand, I was reading the graphs, and decided that 6950 will be my next card. it has double the performance of 5770 in almost all cases. that's good enough for me.
    Reply
  • Iketh - Friday, December 24, 2010 - link

    This is how they've always reviewed new products? And perhaps the biggest reason AT stands apart from the rest? You must be new to AT?? Reply
  • WhatsTheDifference - Sunday, December 26, 2010 - link

    the 4890? I see every nvidia config, never a card overlooked there, ever, but the ATI's (then) top card is conspicuously absent. long as you include the 285, there's really no excuse for the omission. honestly, what's the problem? Reply
  • PeteRoy - Friday, December 31, 2010 - link

    All games released today are in the graphic level of the year 2006, how many games do you know that can bring the most out of this card? Crysis from 2007? Reply
  • Hrel - Tuesday, January 11, 2011 - link

    So when are all these tests going to be re-run at 1920x1080 cause quite frankly that's what I'm waiting for. I don't care about any resolution that doesn't work on my HDTV. I want 1920x1080, 1600x900 and 1280x720. If you must include uber resolutions for people with uber money then whatever; but those people know to just buy the fastest card out there anyway so they don't really need performance numbers to make up their mind. Money is no object so just buy nvidia's most expensive card and ur off. Reply
  • AKP1973 - Thursday, October 13, 2011 - link

    Have you guys noticed the "load GPU temp" of the 6870 in XFIRE?... It produced so very low heat than any enthusiast card in a multi-GPU setup. That's one of the best XFIRE card in our time today if you value price, performance, cool temp, and silence.! Reply

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