Dave Baumann Saves the Radeon HD 4850

ATI had this habit of finding good reviewers and bringing them on staff. Our first Graphics Editor, Matthew Witheiler, went to work for ATI after graduating from Duke. He was with AnandTech for a good three years before ATI snagged him, he ended up being ATI’s youngest Product Manager (congrats on the engagement Matthew). One other prominent reviewer ATI grabbed ahold of was Dave Baumann of Beyond3D fame and brought him on to do technical marketing.

One of Baumann’s strongpoints was the ability to analyze the competitive landscape given that’s what he did for Beyond3D before ATI. One of Dave’s first major tasks at ATI was to compare R600 to G80 internally, which wasn’t exactly the best job in November of 2006. Obviously, G80 had a significant impact on RV770. While the architecture was set in stone, clock speeds, board layout and memory sizes were all variable until early 2008.

Initially, RV770 was targeted at 1.5x the performance of R600, which looking back would not have been enough. During the next 1.5 years that 1.5x turned into 2x R600 and finally settled at 2.5x the speed of R600, at a price in the $200 - $300 range.

Dave became a product manager on RV770 by February 2008, which was a big deal given that he hadn’t been with ATI that long and this was a very important product. RV670 saw ATI return to competition in the year prior, but RV770 needed to put ATI back on top.

When Dave took the 770 under his wing a lot of the product had already been mapped out, the chip was back from the fabs and at this point ATI’s engineering team wasn’t ready or eager to make any changes. The RV770 XT sat well with Mr. Baumann (the XT was the internal name of the Radeon HD 4870), in his words “the specifications were perfect”. There was a late change to the 4870 that gave it its second PCIe power connector, but that’s it. Arguably the more important version, the RV770 Pro that would become the Radeon HD 4850, concerned him - it was a bit under spec’d.

Here’s a quick put-yourself-in-ATI’s-shoes test. Your engineering team has spent the past three years on a product that may fail miserably because it’s a radical departure from how you’ve designed GPUs in the past. Your last major GPU architecture launch failed miserably (R600), and the last refresh (RV670) did ok but still didn’t really snag real mindshare from NVIDIA. You’ve just finished this radical new design, and this young new PM with an accent comes in three months before you’re supposed to enter production and tells you that you need to make changes. It was a ballsy move by Baumann, but he wasn’t interested in saving face, he was trying to help his team win. The engineers could’ve just as easily cast him aside, but they listened and they worked, oh did they work. The final stretch is rarely the quickest or the easiest, and this is very true about RV770.

The Radeon HD 4850 was originally a 256MB card with a 500MHz core clock and 900MHz memory clock. Dave insisted that the card needed 512MB of GDDR3 and 625MHz core / 993MHz memory clock, it’s not just that he insisted, but that he convinced the engineers to make such a late change. Dave took the engineers through his reasoning of why and where ATI needed to be in the competitive landscape, by the end of the discussion he didn’t need to persuade them, the board and ASIC teams were championing the changes.

Had it not been for these modifications, the 4850 would not have put as much pressure on NVIDIA’s GeForce 9800 GTX and its pricing wouldn’t have needed to fall so quickly.

Thanks Dave.

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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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