Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2908

We are right in the middle of CES 2010, which naturally means it's a great time for tons of product announcements. Intel and their partners are busy launching the new i3/i5 processors, and AMD is taking this opportunity to announce the next version of their Mobility Radeon lineup. Yesterday, we discussed NVIDIA's quiet launch of the GT 240, and while we weren't impressed with the price/performance offered, at least we were able to get some hardware to test. As with most mobile GPU "launches", all we have right now are specifications and features. We will have to wait to get some laptops before we can provide concrete performance numbers. With or without independent performance, today ATI is announcing their new 5000 series DX11 mobile GPUs.

Performance with ATI's mobile graphics chips has generally been competitive with NVIDIA products in recent years. In fact, ATI is keen to point out that their market share for discrete mGPUs has increased to over 60% in 2009, with a whopping 13% increase in 2Q09. Since NVIDIA is the only other discrete mobile graphics solution, ATI's win is NVIDIA's loss.

That of course doesn't tell the full story, and in speaking with ATI we were informed that 70% of sales have been 4300/4500 parts - the lowest performing, least expensive offerings. 15% of sales are from the 4600 series, which is where reasonable gaming can finally enter the picture. As for the 4800 series, it's still sitting at less than 5% (with the remainder of ATI's sales apparently coming from older 3000 series parts). NVIDIA also sells far more low-end and midrange mobile GPUs than high-end parts, but as far as high-end laptop graphics is concerned, NVIDIA has had a clear lead for a while, for a couple of reasons.

First, NVIDIA has been very good about OEM/ODM design wins for their fastest GPUs. In contrast, we are only aware of two laptops that shipped with the Mobility Radeon 4870 chips. We're still running G92b cores in the GTX 280M, and the G92 first became available almost 2 years ago with the 8800M series. With only minor tweaks to the design, it has been easy for manufacturers to update existing lines with support for new NVIDIA graphics solutions. We've seen Gateway, ASUS, Dell, Clevo, and others go from 8800M to 9800M to GTX 260M/280M with very few updates to accommodate the new GPUs. That's good for the manufacturers, but we're not particularly happy that laptops are still less than half the performance of desktop parts. Then again, it's difficult to deal with laptop power and cooling constraints.

The other big reason that NVIDIA has ruled the high-end of mobile solutions is driver support. We tested the ASUS W90Vp and found that it can offer compelling performance… when the drivers worked properly. This is especially important for CrossFire and SLI solutions, and that's the one area where ATI's Mobility Radeon drivers have been severely lacking. (And as a side note, we still haven't seen much in the way of driver updates for that platform!) We asked ATI about this and were told that an improved mobile driver plan should be coming "very soon". Frankly, if the Mobility Radeon 5800 series is going to have any chance at winning gamer mindshare, those plans can't come soon enough. And of course, NVIDIA also has CUDA and PhysX to talk about. ATI in turn has Stream, and DirectCompute and OpenCL are industry standards that will hopefully supersede CUDA and Stream, but for the time being we have to give the GPGPU crown to NVIDIA.

In short, while ATI has had very compelling performance on the desktop - in fact they have been our recommended solution with the 5000 series, and the 4000 series was very good from a price/performance standpoint - on laptops ATI has been more of a multimedia solution than a gaming solution. That's fine and ATI is clearly getting design wins, but don't try to convince us that low-end discrete graphics (HD 4330 and GeForce 9300M/G110M, we're looking at you!) are anywhere near being good gaming solutions. At best, they are barely adequate, capable of running the majority of games at 1366x768 and low detail settings. If that's all you need, or if you don't even need gaming performance and are just interested in multimedia solutions, forget about discrete graphics and go with an IGP.

Okay, enough talk about the past; let's look at what AMD is announcing today. What we really want to know is if performance and compatibility are going to be where we want. Unfortunately, all we have are some figures from ATI regarding gaming performance, and until we see updated driver plans we won't know what to expect in terms of compatibility. But then drivers have only really been important if you're running high-end solutions, which is less than 5% of the laptop market.

ATI 5000 Series Specifications

With our introduction out of the way, let's take a look at ATI's new mobile parts. The big news of course is that these are the first DirectX 11 mobile graphics chips, just as the desktop counterparts were the first DirectX 11 GPUs. Despite the similarity in naming, all of the mobile parts are essentially one step back from the desktop parts, not just in clock speeds but also in stream processors. Here's the quick rundown of specifications and features, with the NVIDIA's GTX 280M tossed in for comparison.

Click for large image

Overall, the new 5000 models should boost performance by around 30% relative to the last generation ATI mGPUs, at least in theory. They have more stream processors, and higher clock speeds in most cases, plus other enhancements. One of the enhancements is something that's going to be up to individual manufacturers to utilize: GDDR5. GDDR5 sends four bits of data per clock cycle compared to two bits for GDDR3/2/1, and it also runs at lower voltages. The problem is GDDR5 costs more, and with support for GDDR3 it's likely that many manufacturers will stick with GDDR3 in order to save money in the short-term. Towards the end of the year, ATI informed us that they expect pricing to become more or less equal, at which point we should see a strong move towards GDDR5. Without the newer memory, the performance gains in some titles are going to be lower due to memory bottlenecks.

Also worth pointing out is the HD 4860, a product we can find on AMD's website complete with specifications, and a product that was announced back in March 2009. What makes the HD 4860 "interesting"? To our knowledge, it never shipped in any laptops, and with the 5000 series it probably never will. The reason we point this out is that today's announcement does not necessarily guarantee hardware anytime soon. Hopefully we will see laptops with the new graphics chips appear in the next few weeks, but particularly on the high-end GPUs it can take months before anyone picks them up. As another example, the mobile HD 4870 only appeared in a couple laptops: the ASUS W90 and the Alienware M17x. And now it's apparently EOL. So we have to raise the question of how long it will take before we start seeing laptops with 5000 series parts (particularly the 5800 series), and only time will give us an answer.

ATI touts several features as being noteworthy, including GDDR5 and DirectX 11. One feature seems rather out of place, however: Eyefinity. While it can be pretty cool to run multiple monitors on a desktop system, we really have our doubts that many people will use up to six displays with any laptop. Nevertheless, that's exactly what the 5800 and 5700/5600 series support (in theory). Naturally, it would be up to the laptop manufacturer to provide six display outputs, which seems highly unlikely. (Three digital outputs is more than sufficient, we think.) That's still leaves GDDR5, which we've discussed, and DirectX 11. We'll talk more about DX11 on the next page, but there's one other item to mention: power saving features.

TDP for the various products hasn't really changed, but that doesn't mean power characteristics are the same as the 4000 series. In the above chart, we've listed the maximum TDP of the CPU followed by the TDP of the entire GPU subsystem (i.e. with RAM and voltage regulators). ATI informed us that they improved engine and memory clock scaling as well as clock gating, bringing about significant improvements in power requirements. At full load, these improvements aren't going to be as noticeable, but idle power draw should be significantly lower than on previous discrete mGPUs. ATI claims a 4X performance per Watt improvement when comparing the HD 5750 to the HD 3650. One word of caution however is that optimal idle power requirements apparently need GDDR5, which allows better control over changing the memory clocks. As mentioned above, many of the midrange parts are likely to stick with GDDR3 until later this year.

ATI also let us know that they have worked on IGP to discrete GPU switching times, which should be 30~40% faster (depending on manufacturer implementation). Ever since we first saw a hybrid GPU solution in the ASUS N10JC, we have hailed the technology as a feature that every gaming laptop needs to have. We also discussed the feature on the Alienware m15x, and it helped make the ASUS UL80Vt our favorite current laptop. So far, uptake has been slow, but things appear to be improving with the launch of Windows 7. Lenovo, Sony, and others are pursuing hybrid solutions, and with Win7 supporting multiple GPU drivers (Vista and XP could only enable one display driver at a time) the way is paved for the future. We still haven't tested an ATI-based laptop with hybrid graphics, however; so far the only hybrid solutions we've tested use NVIDIA GPUs, but maybe the 5000 series can change that.

Mobile DirectX 11 Arrives… Where Are the Games?

Just as ATI was the first out of the gate with DirectX 11 hardware on the desktop, they are now the first mobile DX11 solution. That's good, but we still need gaming support, and that is at best a work in progress. So far there are three games that have shipped with DX11 features: Battleforge, DiRT 2, and STALKER: Call of Pripyat (well, it's available if you speak Ukrainian at least; we're still waiting for the English version, although a public benchmark is available). Here's a list of some other titles that are on the way:

Not convinced that DirectX 11 will arrive anytime soon? Perhaps this slide will change your opinion:

Okay, we remain skeptical as well, no offense to Mercury Research. In truth, it's only in the past year that DirectX 10 has really arrived, with most new games supporting DX10 features, but there were a few early DX10 titles not long after Vista launched. Unless adding DX11 features is very easy, or someone is footing the bill for developers (i.e. ATI), DX11 isn't likely to become dominant until the majority of graphics cards have DX11 support. Considering the installed user base for DX10 hardware, that could be several years away.

Speaking of DX11, here are some more slides showing what is possible with the new hardware:

The big one in that list is obviously tessellation… but haven't we heard that before? Why yes we have! And it was only just under three years ago. Okay, you can read more about DX11 and tessellation in our DX11 article. The good news is that DX11 finally makes tessellation a required element, so we're more likely to see it utilized. Unigine is used in the above images, and you can see the complete list of Unigine projects for potential early tessellation candidates. We do like the idea, but until it becomes reality it's just a checkbox on your GPU hardware, which is what we've had since the HD 2900.

Performance Preview

Since we don't have hardware, we are left with the charts that ATI provided. Obviously, you need to take these benchmark results with a huge grain of salt, but for now it's all we have to go on. ATI provided results comparing performance of their new and old Performance (5650 vs. 4650) and Enthusiast (5870 vs. 4870) solutions, an additional chart looking at WUXGA single vs. CrossFire performance, and two more charts comparing performance of high-end and midrange ATI vs. NVIDIA. Here's what we have to look forward to, based on their testing.

The performance is about what we would expect based on the specifications. Other than adding DX11 support, there's nothing truly revolutionary going on. The latest 5870 part has a higher core clock and more memory bandwidth - 27% more processing power and 11% more bandwidth compared to the standard HD 4870, to be exact. The average performance improvement appears to be 20~25%, which is right in line with those figures. Crysis appears to hit some memory bandwidth constraints, which is why the performance increase isn't as high as in other titles (see the 5650 slide for a better example of this).

On the midrange ("Performance") parts, the waters are a little murky. The highest clocked 5600 part (5750 or 5757) can run at 650MHz and provides a whopping 62% boost in core performance relative to the 4650, but that's only 10% more than the HD 4670. With GDDR5, the 5750 also offers a potential 100% increase in memory bandwidth. That said, in this slide we're not looking at the 5750 or 4670; instead we have the 5650 clocked at 550MHz with 800MHz DDR3 and ATI compares it to the 4650 with unknown clocks (550MHz/800MHz DDR3 are typical). That makes the 5650 25% faster in theoretical core performance with the same memory bandwidth. The slide shows us a performance improvement of 20~25% once more, which is expected, except Crysis clearly hits a memory bottleneck this time. On a side note, running a midrange GPU at 1920x1200 is going to result in very poor performance in any of these titles, so while the 5650 is 20% faster, we might be looking at 12 FPS vs. 10 FPS.

Moving to the ATI vs. NVIDIA slides, it's generally pointless to compare theoretical GFLOPS between the ATI and NVIDIA architectures as they're not the same. The 5870 has a theoretical ~100% GFLOPS advantage over the GTX 280M but only 5% more bandwidth. The average performance advantage of the 5870 is around 25%, with BattleForge showing a ~55% improvement. Obviously, the theoretical 100% GFLOPS advantage isn't showing up here. The midrange showdown between the 5650 and GT 240M shows closer to a ~30% performance increase, with BattleForge, L4D, and UT3 all showing >50% performance improvements. The theoretical performance of the 5650 is 144% higher than the GT 240M, but memory bandwidth is essentially the same (the GT 240M has a 1% advantage). There may be cases where ATI can get better use of their higher theoretical performance, but these results suggest that NVIDIA "GFLOPS" are around 70% more effective than ATI "GFLOPS".

For reference, ATI uses a desktop system for the ATI vs. ATI charts and some form of Core 2 Duo 2.5GHz setup for the ATI vs. NVIDIA charts. This isn't really something fishy, considering there are as yet no laptops with the new ATI hardware and no one offers an identical laptop with support for both ATI and NVIDIA GPUs (well, Alienware has the m17x, but that's about as close as we get). Here are the test details:

The first slide states a clock speed of 450MHz on the 5650 but the second says 550MHz. Given the figures in the ATI performance comparison, we think the 550MHz clock is correct.

Initial Thoughts

On paper, the launch of ATI's latest 5000 series mobile GPUs looks very good. They won't provide a huge boost to gaming performance, but they should handle video processing at least as well as the previous generation, and we are very interested in the claims of dramatically improved idle power consumption. Unfortunately, until we get a laptop for testing we can't say for certain how well everything will turn out. There are a few flies in the ointment as we see it.

First, there's the question of drivers. To be honest, ATI's drivers on mobile GPUs (outside of CrossFire solutions) have worked well for us. We have an older laptop with an HD 3650 and updating the drivers from a 2008 release to a 2009 release (9.5 Catalyst) didn't improve performance, and we hadn't experienced any compatibility issues. But that was with HD 3000 series hardware, which is now a couple years old. With new hardware, we expect driver updates to accomplish more in terms of improving performance and compatibility. The real catch is that compatibility is almost certain to cause problems once we start seeing more DirectX 11 games. Why is this likely? Simply look at the past.

The first DirectX 10 hardware came out in November 2006. We didn't see many DX10 enabled games for a while, but nearly one full year after the launch we got Bioshock. Bioshock supported DX10, and guess what needed driver updates? That's right: all of the 8800 series NVIDIA cards (and laptops). We see a similar story with NVIDIA's CUDA and PhysX where driver updates are critical if you want to use those features. We are in the infancy of DX11, and we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of DirectCompute or OpenCL. When we start to see applications using these APIs, we can pretty much guarantee both ATI and NVIDIA will need to provide regularly updated drivers. We have no concerns about ATI's ability to do so on the desktop, but right now they don't have any mobile driver plan as far as we can tell, referring you instead to your notebook manufacturer. Most manufacturers stop updating drivers after a few months, and some models don't even get that!

We mentioned earlier that ATI informed us they will announce plans for an improved mobile driver program "very soon". Let's take a moment to make sure ATI knows exactly what we expect. We need, at the minimum, new drivers for all current mobile GPUs released on a regular schedule. NVIDIA has committed to quarterly releases in the past, and we would suggest that is a good starting point. We don't necessarily need complete integration with the desktop driver releases, but that would be the ideal end goal. NVIDIA hasn't managed to pull that one off yet, but they're getting closer. And just to be clear: we know ATI has tried to do drivers like this in the past, and the OEMs said no. Well, OEMs, there's not a chance you can make a good gaming laptop unless you let users get regularly updated graphics drivers from the GPU manufacturer. So get with the program!

And let's not even discuss ATI drivers for alternative operating systems like Linux. Ugh. I'll leave that to Christopher.

The second concern is availability of these new graphics chips. We don't mean being able to go out and buy the chips themselves; we mean the ability to purchase laptops that use the latest and greatest ATI hardware. Ideally, we would really like to see some of the new Arrandale laptops with 5800 series hardware (or even 5600/5700 hardware). We know several such laptops are in the works, and we can discuss them tomorrow, but we still need to see how well they work. Considering Arrandale has built-in IGP, these laptops also better support hybrid graphics. The idle power draw of ATI's 5000 series may be significantly lower than previous ATI mobile solutions, but nothing beats the ability to shut your discrete GPU down completely and run off of a low-power IGP when you don't need the extra graphics performance. ATI supports this, so again this is up to laptop manufacturers to make sure they implement the feature.

Finally, we've talked a little bit about NVIDIA, and we know NVIDIA is working on updated mobile hardware as well. Will they support DirectX 11? We don't know. How fast will they run? We don't know, but it's a safe bet they will be at least 20% faster than their previous generation hardware, which means they could easily match ATI's performance. How soon will this hardware be available? Probably at least a month or two after ATI's hardware, given NVIDIA hasn't announced details yet. That's a lot of questions and very few answers, but we may have more information by next month so stay tuned.

Wrapping things up, what we have today is your typical notebook GPU launch: it's all on paper with very little hardware out there for review. We know there are laptops at CES using some of these new GPUs, but CES is full of products that won't be available at retail for another month or two at least. As soon as we can get hardware in our labs, we will be able to provide an actual review of ATI's hardware. It sounds good, but drivers in particular are still a major concern for us, especially on the 5600 and above. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this launch is that ATI is doing a top to bottom mobile GPU update, rather than the more common high-end followed by midrange and low-end (or vice versa) launches we frequently see. We'd also like to see a new IGP solution that can double the performance of the HD 4200, but that's just us being greedy.

For those who are interested in the complete presentation, below is a gallery of all 34 slides. You can read additional information about Blu-ray support (it works fine on our old HD 3650 laptop, so we're not exactly sure what has changed), ATI Stream, and other details we didn't feel needed a lot of discussion. We also received a link to an AMD YouTube Video showing some of the DX11 vs. DX10 scenes in action, which is pretty cool. Enjoy!

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