The Beginning: The Shot Heard Around the World

It all started back in 2001 when ATI, independent at the time, was working on the R300 GPU (Radeon 9700 Pro). If you were following the industry at all back then, you’d never forget the R300. NVIDIA was steadily gaining steam and nothing ATI could do was enough to dethrone the king. The original Radeon was a nice attempt but poor drivers and no real performance advantage kept NVIDIA customers loyal. The Radeon 8500 wasn’t good at all; there was just no beating NVIDIA’s GeForce4, the Ti 4200 did well in the mainstream market and the Ti 4600 was king of the high end.

While ATI was taking punches with the original Radeon and Radeon 8500, internally the company decided that in order to win the market - it had to win the halo. If ATI could produce the fastest GPU, it would get the brand recognition and loyalty necessary to not only sell those high end GPUs but also lower end models at cheaper price points. The GPU would hit the high end first, but within the next 6 - 12 months we’d see derivatives for lower market segments. One important takeaway is that at this point, the high end of the market was $399 - keep that in mind.

With everyone at ATI thinking that they had to make the fastest GPU in the world in order to beat NVIDIA, the successor to the Radeon 8500 was going to be a big GPU. The Radeon 8500 was built on a 0.15-micron manufacturing process and had around 60M transistors; R300 was going to be built on the same process, but with 110M transistors - nearly twice that of the 8500 without a die shrink.

Its competition, the GeForce4 was still only a 63M transistor chip and even NVIDIA didn’t dare to build something so big on the 150nm node, the GF4 successor would wait for 130nm.

We all know how the story unfolded from here. The R300 was eventually branded the ATI Radeon 9700 Pro and mopped the floor with the GeForce4. What Intel did to AMD with Conroe, ATI did to NVIDIA with R300 - back in 2002.

The success with R300 solidified ATI’s strategy: in order to beat NVIDIA, it had to keep pushing the envelope for chip size. Each subsequent GPU would have to be bigger and faster at the high end. Begun these GPU wars had.

Index Re-evaluating Strategy, Creating the RV770 in 2005
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  • Spivonious - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I totally agree! Articles like this one are what separates Anandtech from the multitude of other tech websites. Reply
  • goinginstyle - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I have to admit this is one of the best articles I have read anywhere on the web in a long time. It is very insightful, interesting, and even compelling at times. Can you do a follow up, only from an NVIDIA perspective. Reply
  • Jorgisven - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I totally agree. This article is superbly written. One of the best tech articles I've read in a long long time, out of any source, magazine or online. I highly doubt nVidia will be as willing to expose their faults as easily as ATI was to expose their success; but I could be entirely mistaken on that.

    In either case, well done Anand. And well done ATI! Snagged the HD4850 two days after release during the 25% off Visiontek blunder from Best Buy during release week. I've been happy with it since and can still kick around the 8800GT performance like yesterday's news.
    Reply
  • JonnyDough - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I agree about the insight especially. Gave us a real look at the decision making behind the chips.

    This got me excited about graphics again, and it leaves me eager to see what will happen in the coming years. This kind of article is what will draw readers back. Thank you Anandtech and the red team for this amazing back stage pass.
    Reply
  • magreen - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Great article! Really compelling story, too.
    Thanks AMD/ATI for making this possible!
    And thanks Anand for continually being the best on the web.
    Reply
  • JPForums - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Like others have said, this is probably the best article I've read in recent memory. It was IMHO well written and interesting. Kudos to ATI as well for divulging the information.

    I second the notion that similar articles from nVidia and Intel would also be interesting. Any chance of AMD's CPU division doing something similar? I always find the architectural articles interesting, but they gain more significance when you understand the reasoning behind the design.
    Reply
  • jordanclock - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    This is easily one of my favorite articles on this website. It really puts a lot of aspects of the GPU design process into perspective, such as the shear amount of time it takes to design one.

    I also think this article really adds a great deal of humanity to GPU design. The designers of these marvels of technology are often forgotten (if ever known by most) and to hear the story of one of the most successful architectures to date, from the people that fought for this radical departure... It's amazing, to say the least.

    I really envy you, Anand. You get to meet the geek world's superheroes.
    Reply
  • pattycake0147 - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I couldn't agree more! This could be the best article I've read here at anandtech period. The performance reviews are great, but once in a while you need something different or refreshing and this is just precisely that. Reply
  • LordanSS - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Yep, I agree with that. This is simply one of the best articles I've read here.

    Awesome work, Anand.
    Reply
  • Clauzii - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I totally agree. Reply

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