This was the email that set it off:

Hi Anand,

You have an appointment with Carrell Killebrew at 3pm tomorrow at ATI Santa Clara - he's going to give you the background on what REALLY went on behind 770. He'll meet you in the lobby on the 5th floor.

Chris

The email was from Chris Hook, PR at AMD, I’d worked with him for years and at ATI before the acquisition. I’ve always given him a hard time for trying to spin me, for doing a great job of hosting parties but a terrible job of putting me face to face with the brightest engineers.


Chris Hook seems terribly uninterested in whatever is coming out of my mouth at this dinner years ago :)

Lately Chris has been on a quest to prove me wrong. He gets that I don’t care about the parties or the exotic destinations that AMD usually hosts its press events at, I just want the product and the engineers. Earlier this year Chris let one engineer out of the bag and we had a great conversation about AMD’s manufacturing and packaging technologies (yeah, I’m a boring date). He gained a bit of trust with that interaction, so when he sent me the email above my ears perked.

I made my way back to ATI Santa Clara for the 3PM meeting and as I exited the elevator I heard “Anand?” from behind me. I didn’t recognize any of the men there but that’s not too unusual, in my old age remembering all of the faces is getting difficult, after all I’ve been doing this for nearly 12 years now. Thankfully this wasn’t one of those cases of forgotten identities, the man who I’d soon find out was Carrell Killebrew simply recognized me from a picture. What picture? I have no idea, perhaps AMD keeps pictures of Derek, Gary and myself on walls to know who to be angry at.

We walked around 30 feet into a small room with a table and some chairs, there was a speakerphone in the middle of the table. In the room was myself, Carrell Killebrew, Eric Demers, Mike Schmit and Mark Leather.

Most of these people I’d never met before, although I had heard their names. AMD, and ATI before the acquisition, had historically done a terrible job of giving us access to their smartest people. At best we’d get people in technical marketing, but very rarely the lead architects or any Fellows (read: certified genius title). That day however, on my day off, I found myself in a room with AMD Fellow after Fellow, smart guy after smart guy...and not a single member of AMD PR to muzzle the engineers.

To appreciate Carrell you have to understand that most of the people we talk to about GPUs are there to market us, and do so in a very markety tone. These briefings normally start out with some slides on the lay of the land, talking about how gaming is important, then there’s some architecture talk, a bit about the cards, some performance data that we don’t pay attention to and then a couple of conclusion slides. For a company that builds products that let you blow off peoples’ heads and watch the whole thing in greater fidelity, the way they talk to us about product is pretty lame.

Carrell, was different. Carrell Killebrew was the engineering lead on RV770, the GPU behind the Radeon HD 4800 series, and he was exactly the type of person you’d expect to be lead engineer on a product used to play video games, ridiculously fun, video games.

Carrell started the conversation off by saying that everything he was about to tell me would be on record, and he was assuming that no one had any objections to that. This was going to be good.

He asked me what I’d like to talk about and he offered some choices. We could talk about future GPU trends and architectures, we could talk about GPU accelerated video transcoding or he, along with the rest of the group, could give me the back story on RV770.

Carrell’s final option piqued my interest, I hadn’t really thought about it. When RV770 launched in the summer we took for granted that it was a great part, it upset NVIDIA’s pricing structure and gave us value at $200 and $300. We went through the architecture of the Radeon HD 4800 series and looked at performance, but I spent only a page or so talking about AMD’s small-die strategy that ultimately resulted in the RV770 GPU. AMD had spent much of the past 8 years building bigger and bigger GPUs yet with the RV770 AMD reversed the trend, and I didn’t even catch it. I casually mentioned it, talked about how it was a different approach than the one NVIDIA took, but I didn’t dig deeper.

Normally when a manufacturer like AMD tells me they did something, I ask why. When Intel introduced me to Nehalem’s cache architecture, I asked why and later published my findings. And for the most part, with every aspect of the Radeon HD 4800’s architecture, we did the same. Derek Wilson and I spent several hours on the phone and in emails back and forth with AMD trying to wrap our heads around the RV770’s architecture so that we could do it justice in our reviews. But both of us all but ignored the biggest part of RV770: the decision that led to making GPU itself.

This is a tough article for me to write, there are no graphs, no charts, no architecture to analyze. I simply got to sit in that room and listen as these individuals, these engineers shared with me over the course of two hours the past three years of their lives. I want to do it justice, and I hope that I can, because what they conveyed to me in that room was the best meeting I’d ever had with AMD or ATI.

The Beginning: The Shot Heard Around the World
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  • MrSpadge - Saturday, December 6, 2008 - link

    Exactly what I was thinking! That's why I got a 8500LE back then, when Geforce 4 was not in (public) sight yet. Reply
  • FireSnake - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    ... which one is Anand (on the picture at the beginning of the article)?

    I always wondered how he looks like ... I guess the one on the right.
    Reply
  • 3DoubleD - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I've had Anandtech as my home page for 5 years and I've read almost every article since (and even some of the older ones). This is by far one of your greatest works!

    Thanks
    Reply
  • hellstrider - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Kudos to Anand for such a great article, extremely insightful. I may even go out and purchase AMD stock now :)

    I love AMD even when it’s on the bottom, I own 780G + X2 + hd4850, in hopes that Deneb (or AM3 processors for that matter) will come in time to repeat the success of rv770 launch, at which point I will upgrade my obsolete X2 and have a sweet midrange machine.

    My only concern is that Nvidia is looking at all this smirking and planning an onslaught with the 55nm refresh. There is a very “disturbing” article at Xbitlabs that Nvidia is stock-piling the 55nm GT200 parts; seems like that’s something they would do – start selling those soon and undercut 4800 series badly.
    I’m just a concerned hd4850 owner and I don’t want to see my card obsolete within couple of months. I don’t really see AMD’s answer to 55nm GT200 in such short period of time?!?!

    Any thoughts?
    Reply
  • Goty - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I don't think you'll have to worry too badly about the 55nm G200s. NVIDIA won't drop prices much, if at all; they're already smarting from the price drops enacted after the RV770 launch. There's also the fact that the 4850 isn't in the same market space as any of the G200 cards, so they're not really competitive anyhow. Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I always imagined designing GPUs would be very stressful given you're trying to guess things years in advance, but this inside look at how things are done was very informative.

    On GDDR5, it's interesting to read that ATI was pushing so hard for this technology and they felt it was their only hope for the RV770. What about GDDR4? I thought ATI was a big supporter of it too and was the first to implement it. I'm pretty sure Samsung announced GDDR4 that could run at 3.2GBit/s in 2006 which isn't far from the 3.6GBit/s GDDR5 used in the 4870, and 4GBit/s GDDR4 was available in 2007. I guess there are still power savings to be had from GDDR5, but performance-wise I don't think it would have been a huge loss if GDDR5 had been delayed and ATI had to stick with GDDR4.

    And another interesting point in your article was definitely about the fate of the 4850. You report that ATI felt that the 4870 was perfectly specced and wasn't changed. I guess that meant they were always targeting the 750MHz core frequency that it launched with. Yet ATI was originally targeting the 4850 at 500MHz clock. With the 4870 being clocked 50% faster, I think it should be obvious to anyone just looking at the clock speed that there would be a huge performance gap between the 4850 and 4870. I believe the X1800XL and X1800XT had a similarly large performance gap. Thankfully Dave Baumann convinced them to clock the 4850 up to a more reasonable 625MHz core.

    One thing that I feel was missing from the article was how the AMD acquisition effected the design of the RV770. Perhaps there wasn't much change or the design was already set so AMD couldn't have changed things even if they wanted to, but they must have had an opinion. AMD was probably nervous that they bought ATI at it's height when the R580 was out and top, but once acquired, the R600 came out and underperformed. Would be interesting to know what AMD's initial opinion of ATI's small die, non-top tier targetted strategy was although it now seems to be more consistent with AMD's CPU strategy since they aren't targeting the high-end there anymore either.
    Reply
  • hooflung - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    The final frontier market share wise is to steal a major vendor like eVGA. If they can get an eVGA, BFG or XFX to just sell boards with their warranties AMD would be really dominant. Reply
  • JonnyDough - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    The best thing I've ever read on a tech site. This is why you're better than THG.

    Only one typo! It was a "to" when it should have been a "too."

    Chalk one up for the red team. This makes my appreciation for AMD rise even more. Anyone willing to disclose internal perspectives about the market like this is a team with less secrecy that I will support with my hard earned cash. So many companies could stand up and take a lesson here from this (i.e. Apple, MS).

    Keep articles like this coming, and I'll keep coming back for more.

    Sincerely,

    ~Ryan
    Reply
  • epyon96 - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I have been an avid reader of this site for close to 8 years. I used to read almost every CPU, GPU and novelty gadget articles page to page. But over the years, my patience is much lower and I realize I get just as much enjoyment and information from just reading the first page and last page and skimming a few benchmarks.

    However, this is the first article in a while that I spent reading all of it and I thoroughly enjoyed it. These little back stories with a human element in one of the most interesting recent launches provides a refreshing change from boring benchmark-oriented articles.

    I hope to find an article based on Nehpalem of a similar nature and other Intel launches.

    Reply
  • GFC - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Wow, all i can say is that i loved this review. It was realy enjoyable to read, and i must give my thanks to Anandtech and Carrell! Reply

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