For much of the last month we have been discussing bits and pieces of AMD’s GPU plans for 2016. As part of the Radeon Technology Group’s formation last year, the leader and chief architect of the group, Raja Koduri, has set about to make his mark on AMD’s graphics technology. Along with consolidating all graphics matters under the RTG, Raja and the rest of the RTG have also set about to change how they interact with the public, with developers, and with their customers.

One of those changes – and the impetus for these recent articles – has been that the RTG wants to be more forthcoming about future product developments. Traditionally AMD always held their cards close to their chest about architectures, keeping them secret until the first products based on a new architecture launch (and even then sometimes not talking about matters in detail). With the RTG this is changing, and similar to competitors Intel and NVIDIA, the RTG wants to prepare developers and partners for new architectures sooner. As a result the RTG has been giving us a limited, high-level overview of their GPU plans for 2016.

Back in December we started things off talking about RTG’s plans for display technologies – DisplayPort, HDMI, Freesync, and HDR – and how the company would be laying the necessary groundwork in future architectures to support their goals for higher resolution displays, more ubiquitous Freesync-over-HDMI, and the wider color spaces and higher contrast of HDR. The second of RTG’s presentations that we covered was focused on their software development plans, including Linux driver improvements and the consolidation of all of RTG’s various GPU libraries and SDKs under the GPUOpen banner, which will see these resources released on GitHub as open source projects.

Last but not least among RTG’s presentations is without a doubt the most eagerly anticipated subject: the hardware. As RTG (and AMD before them) has commented on in the past couple of years, a new architecture is being developed for future RTG GPUs. Dubbed Polaris (the North Star), RTG’s new architecture will be at the heart of their 2016 GPUs, and is designed for what can now be called the current-generation FinFET processes. Polaris incorporates a number of new technologies, including a 4th generation Graphics Core Next design for the heart of the GPU, and of course the new display technologies that RTG revealed last month. Finally, the first Polaris GPUs should be available in mid-2016, or roughly 6 months from now.

First Polaris GPU Is Up and Running

But before we dive into Polaris and RTG’s goals for the new architecture, let’s talk about the first Polaris GPUs. With the first products expected to launch in the middle of this year, to no surprise RTG has their first GPUs back from the fab and up & running. To that end – and I am sure many of you are eager to hear about – as part of their presentation RTG showed off the first Polaris GPU in action, however briefly.

As a quick preface here, while RTG demonstrated a Polaris based card in action we the press were not allowed to see the physical card or take pictures of the demonstration. Similarly, while Raja Koduri held up an unsoldered version of the GPU used in the demonstration, again we were not allowed to take any pictures. So while we can talk about what we saw, at this time it’s all we can do. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that RTG has had issues with leaks in the past, and while they wanted to confirm to the press that the GPU was real and the demonstration was real, they don’t want the public (or the competition) seeing the GPU before they’re ready to show it off. That said, I do know that RTG is at CES 2016 planning to recap Polaris as part of AMD’s overall presence, so we may yet see the GPU at CES after the embargo on this information has expired.

In any case, the GPU RTG showed off was a small GPU. And while Raja’s hand is hardly a scientifically accurate basis for size comparisons, if I had to guess I would wager it’s a bit smaller than RTG’s 28nm Cape Verde GPU or NVIDIA’s GK107 GPU, which is to say that it’s likely smaller than 120mm2. This is clearly meant to be RTG’s low-end GPU, and given the evolving state of FinFET yields, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the very first GPU design they got back from Global Foundries as its size makes it comparable to current high-end FinFET-based SoCs. In that case, it could very well also be that it will be the first GPU we see in mid-2016, though that’s just supposition on my part.

For their brief demonstration, RTG set up a pair of otherwise identical Core i7 systems running Star Wars Battlefront. The first system contained an early engineering sample Polaris card, while the other system had a GeForce GTX 950 installed (specific model unknown). Both systems were running at 1080p Medium settings – about right for a GTX 950 on the X-Wing map RTG used – and generally hitting the 60fps V-sync limit.

The purpose of this demonstration for RTG was threefold: to showcase that a Polaris GPU was up and running, that the small Polaris GPU in question could offer performance comparable to GTX 950, and finally to show off the energy efficiency advantage of the small Polaris GPU over current 28nm GPUs. To that end RTG also plugged each system into a power meter to measure the total system power at the wall. In the live press demonstration we saw the Polaris system average 88.1W while the GTX 950 system averaged 150W. Meanwhile in RTG’s own official lab tests (and used in the slide above) they measured 86W and 140W respectively.

Keeping in mind that this is wall power – PSU efficiency and the power consumption of other components is in play as well – the message RTG is trying to send is clear: that Polaris should be a very power efficient GPU family thanks to the combination of architecture and FinFET manufacturing. That RTG is measuring a 54W difference at the wall is definitely a bit surprising as GTX 950 averages under 100W to begin with, so even after accounting for PSU efficiency this implies that power consumption of the Polaris video card is about half that of the GTX 950. But as this is clearly a carefully arranged demo with a framerate cap and a chip still in early development, I wouldn’t read too much into it at this time.

Polaris: A High Level Look
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  • Daniel Williams - Monday, January 04, 2016 - link

    Currently RTG is what Radeon Technology Group requests to be called. That is why we refer to them as such and also why the name is brought up so often (we have to refer to them as something and their chosen name is prefered). So at this point it is less preference and more about the official branding. Reply
  • masouth - Monday, January 04, 2016 - link

    Yeah, I know. I just don't care for it and agree with Owan as far as the marketing part. The acronym just doesn't read very smooth to me right now and you did mention it quite a few times. I know there really isn't much that you can do about that because as soon as you leave it out someone will get confused about where the information is coming from so I choose to blame Radeon for now. I'm also sure that I probably won't care as much once we have been stuck with the acronym for a bit and the edges get rounded off so that I will read it just as smoothly as any other acronym....but I still don't like it. =) Reply
  • Manch - Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - link

    That's a bad example bc people usually prefer to say the acronym GM, not General Motors or General. Also people usually 50/50 with POS, or Piece of Sh!t instead of Chevy. Most importantly though RTG before being bought by AMD(acronym preferred) was ATI(acronym preferred. No one really referred to it as Array Technology Inc, Array Technologies Inc or as it was later changed to ATI Technology Inc which is an acronym within an acronym.... Reply
  • at80eighty - Tuesday, January 05, 2016 - link

    you should send them your evident grievances and sue for emotional damages Reply
  • anubis44 - Thursday, January 14, 2016 - link

    Keep dreaming. Reply
  • Mondozai - Monday, January 04, 2016 - link

    RTG Reply
  • BrokenCrayons - Tuesday, January 05, 2016 - link

    It's a minor, off-putting annoyance to have to see RTG over and over in an article, but I do agree with others who feel it's disruptive to read. I'd rather see AMD's people produce a product that speaks for itself and defines the group that developed it. However, I'm nor surprised to see it's AMD that's pushing the awful name. If you've read past AMD press releases, you're likely to find yourself drowning in buzzwords and clumsy-feeling, artificial excitement. They have a history of botching when it comes to effective communications which is why I'd much prefer AMD focuses on delivering competitive products at competitive prices and worry less about telling journalists how to write their articles. Reply
  • nathanddrews - Tuesday, January 05, 2016 - link

    All I can think of when I see it is radioisotope thermoelectric generator, the primary power source of most of NASA's best toys. However, it is also applicable to AMD. Consistent, if not a bit less powerful that competing technologies, and very, very warm. ;-) Reply
  • jardows2 - Monday, January 04, 2016 - link

    It will be interesting to see when NVIDIA will make their FinFET product announcement. Products are still a bit out, but here's hoping that the new products will give us good reason to upgrade from 2-3 year old video cards! Reply
  • tviceman - Monday, January 04, 2016 - link

    The GTX 950 is a cut down version of Nvidia's currently-in-production least efficient chip. What a terrible comparison. Reply

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