The Last Hiccup: Boards Went on Sale Too Soon

The RV770 products were finished in May of 2008, production started by June. Even up until the day that the embargo lifted there were some within ATI who felt they had made a mistake with the smaller-die strategy, but they were going to find out how right the strategy was, even sooner than expected.

The last bump in the road to the Radeon HD 4800 came just a week before launch. We had literally just gotten our first Radeon HD 4850 cards when Chris Hook called and told me that some 4850s had started selling in Europe.

In order to salvage the launch ATI was proposing the following: we could talk about Radeon HD 4850 performance, but we couldn’t talk about the 4870 or the RV770 architecture.

Within 30 hours we had our first preview up and made it already clear that ATI was on to something. The GeForce 9800 GTX got an abrupt price drop to remain competitive and even then it wasn’t enough, the Radeon HD 4850 was the card to get at $199.

The last hiccup in ATI’s launch ended up not being bad at all, ATI got some extra PR, drummed up some added excitement and in the end did justice to a product that deserved it.

Recon from Taiwan

One thing I wondered was how well ATI knew NVIDIA’s plans and vice versa, so I asked the obvious: where do you guys get your information from? The answer was pretty much as expected: Taiwan. All of the board makers know one another and are generally open with sharing information, once information hits Taiwan it’s up for grabs. Then there’s a bit of guesswork that’s done.

ATI planned to put its best foot forward, looking at the roadmaps it seemed like NVIDIA wasn’t going to do much in the G92 space in the time period that ATI would launch RV770. NVIDIA had its sights set on another G80-esque launch with GT200, it would introduce this honkin new chip, price it out of the reach of most and not worry about the peasants until sometime in 2010. The existing product line would be relied on to keep the masses at bay.

ATI was lucky that NVIDIA only had GT200 for the end of 2008 and that NVIDIA’s GT200 performance wasn’t exactly where it needed to be, because it created an opportunity that ATI has only had a couple of times in the past decade.

With the Radeon HD 4850 the initial goal was to make a product that was certainly better than the 8800 GT. It was never a goal for the 4850 to be competitive with the 9800 GTX, after all that was a $300 part and this would sell for $200.

The Radeon HD 4870 was targeted to be faster than the 9800 GTX, which again would make a lot of sense since this was ATI’s $300 part and the GTX was NVIDIA’s. What ATI didn’t expect was for the 4870 to do so well against the GeForce GTX 260. When NVIDIA finally launched the GeForce GTX 280/260 ATI looked at the results and let out a collective “wait a minute”. It worked out perfectly, not only did ATI hit the competitive points it wanted to but thanks to GT200 performance being lower than ATI expected and the RV770 doing better than expected, ATI now had a $300 card that was competitive with NVIDIA’s brand new $400 GTX 260.

For ATI, RV770 was the cake that came out unexpectedly well. Everyone could smell it, and they knew it would be good, but no one expected it to be perfect. NVIDIA responded extremely quickly and honestly no other company would be able to handle such competition so well, but that doesn’t change what ATI was able to accomplish.

These days no one questions Carrell’s thinking about RV770 any longer, everyone agrees that he was right about the strategy. My question is, how long until ATI has to re-evaluate its GPU strategy once more? The first time was in 2001 with R300, again in 2005 with the RV770, which would point to next year as to when some tough decisions may be made again - the results of which we wouldn’t see until 2012/2013.

The next question is how will NVIDIA respond to ATI’s strategy? Jen Hsun runs a very tight ship over there and does not take kindly to losing, especially not like this. NVIDIA continues to have very strong engineering talent and over the next couple of years we’ll see how RV770 has impacted NVIDIA’s development. It’s possible that NVIDIA too realized that the smaller-die strategy made more sense without having been impacted by RV770, perhaps NVIDIA will stick with making huge GPUs, or maybe a third option exists that isn’t as obvious.

Dave Baumann Saves the Radeon HD 4850 What's Next and Larrabee Of Course
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  • pastyface - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Great job on the article! Generally today's reviews consist of me quickly going to the benchmarks portion and seeing if a new game was used or if any screwy results came out. This article however was much different. You had my attention from the get go and I didn't take a break in my reading until the whole article was finished.

    It is a real shame that so much of the work in reviews are overlooked in favor of simple graphs but this article was different and I thank you for that.
  • MarchTheMonth - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I really enjoyed the read, and it really gives me an appreciation for the card i just happen to get (hd 4850).

    I may not speak for others, but these are the kind of articles I like to read, the kind that really explain in detail what's really happening. Anand, you did an excellent job of giving perspective (be in ATI's shoes in 2007 when nvidia was doing this...etc) to the article that gave definition between the "so obvious" hindsight we have now to the "this is suicide!" view that it must have seemed like to be there in 2005.

    Now, for my own counter-perspective, I can understand why AMD, Intel, and nVidia may not do this very often. On the flip side of the coin, I'm not a mainstream user, and I don't exactly build 1000s of computers that ATI can sell. Bottom line speaking, a story that's interesting to me, I don't bring them $$$$. And on top of that, this story is also giving a lot of info to the competition, which can be at best a double edged sword, and at worst too much information to be self-destructive.
  • belladog - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Excellent article, we love this stuff. Benchmarks gets a bit boring after a while.

    I wonder what affect if any, the revelations about price fixing(between ATI and Nvidia) had on the pricing of the RV770 GPU's??

    I mean if the lawyers hadnt broken up the party maybe the 4870 could have been $80-$100 dearer?

    Anyway, interesting article.
  • Griswold - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    The price fixing took part before AMD bought ATI. And it would be safe to assume that it stopped at the latest at that time, but it probably did stop well before that (the earliest evidence is an e-mail from 2002). AMD should know better than to point the finger at Intel and do something that is equally wrong in another segment of their business.
  • feelingshorter - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Keep up the good work and never let the haters get you down! There's always people b!tching when they don't know how hard it is to write well (any moron can "write"). But its good stories like this that has been the bread and butter of Anandtech.

    The pressure of deadlines, writer's block, or not having enough to write. I appreciate what you do and I know its stressful at times. Others can sympathize but I can empathize having been an amateur journalist myself (in high school and at the university newspaper).
  • san1s - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    If this article was about an nvidia GPU then the ati fanboys would proclaim it reeks of bias.
    good article though anamdtech
  • Adul - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    That was one of the best article I read in a while. It was very enjoyable to get an idea of how things are worked out years in advanced of when the product launches.

    This was a huge gamble on AMD/ATI part. My hats off to them for having the balls to do something different.
  • dani31 - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Speaking of AMD, it would have been nice to have more insight on how the acquisition of ATI fitted in the design process.

    But this topic seems to have been deliberately omitted in this article.
  • JonnyDough - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Maybe that's because the interviewed the ATI chip designers and not the AMD head haunchos? Just a thought.
  • lifeobry - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Really fascinating article. The amount of work put into creating these cards and the competition between the two companies is compelling stuff.

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