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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  • Spivonious - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

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

    I totally agree.

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