RV770: ATI Radeon HD 4850 & 4870 analysis

Written by Tim Smalley

September 2, 2008 | 11:26

Tags: #4850 #4870 #analysis #architecture #hd #performance #radeon #review #rv770 #shader #theoretical #throughput

Companies: #amd #ati

ATI Radeon HD 4800 series architecture analysis

Manufacturer: AMD

It's fair to say that for the last two generations, the ATI graphics team has had a pretty tough time. R600 was too hot and too late and this caused many to believe that the Radeon HD 2900 XT was indeed a failure. In fact, many went so far as to say that it was almost as big a failure as Nvidia's infamous NV30 (GeForceFX) disaster.

While I'm not sure that's a fair comparison on ATI’s part, I think the decision to replace the product after just over five months was a big enough sign that there were significant problems. Thankfully, ATI's graphics team made the best of a bad situation when it introduced RV670 and the Radeon HD 3800-series of graphics cards.

Performance increased ever so slightly, but costs and heat were both massively reduced – AMD had decided that there was no longer a need to cater for the extreme high-end with one big GPU, as it was causing delays and was eating away at R&D resources. What's more, if you're late to that game, there's very little return for that investment – this lead to the decision to focus on the all-important 'performance mainstream' price points and then scale performance up to the high-end with multiple GPUs. And that's where the Radeon HD 3870 X2 fits into the fray.

Sadly, even the Radeon HD 3870 X2 wasn't enough to topple Nvidia's throne – it was often slower than the long-standing single-GPU behemoths that were the GeForce 8800 GTX and GeForce 8800 Ultra, and the significantly cheaper GeForce 8800 GTS 512 wasn't all that far behind either.RV770: ATI Radeon HD 4850 & 4870 analysis  RV770: ATI Radeon HD 4800 series analysis

Things don't often stay the same in the technology industry and there's no better example of that than in the graphics card market. Nvidia has been dominating proceedings for quite some time now—well over eighteen months in fact—and has been sitting at the top with a certain amount of arrogance that led it to release product after product without really improving performance. Instead, the company focused its efforts on getting ahead of Intel before it blitzes the market with Larrabee – something that various Nvidia execs have referred to as a PowerPoint slide.

David Kirk was one high-ranking exec that used those words and during a recent interview we had with him, he effectively gave AMD a business lesson and claimed that the company couldn't afford to survive. Not surprisingly, this irked a number of people at AMD and although we've offered the company several opportunities to respond to Kirk's assessment, it seems as if AMD would rather let its products do the talking.

In the UK, we all seem to favour the underdog – I'm not quite sure why, but I guess we always enjoy a good fight. Many have been routing for AMD to get back in the game because they felt Nvidia had started taking customers for granted with the GeForce 9-series in particular. This hit boiling point when Nvidia launched the GeForce 9800 GTX – a card that offered very little in the way of real benefits over the cheaper GeForce 8800 GTS 512, and it was no faster than the GeForce 8800 GTX. It definitely didn't deserve to be given the 9-series branding, that's for sure.

All of a sudden, there was an opening for AMD and just a few weeks ago, everything related to the Radeon HD 4800 series launch was going smoothly. As always seems to be the case though, things started going a little pear-shaped as a number of over-enthusiastic retailers wanted to get on with selling the cards as soon as they arrived. That's fine, but what wasn't fine was how the embargo lifted just as the company gathered the press for a slew of briefings in Malaga, Spain.

Nvidia had been quite curious about AMD's new products—more so than we've been used to in recent times—and just the day before I left for Spain, I was told that it was planning to paper launch the GeForce 9800 GTX+ to tie in with AMD's release schedule. In other words, the company was attempting to spoil AMD's launch by counter-launching the day before. The real fun didn't start until I boarded my EasyJet flight back from Malaga though, because Nvidia chose to bring the launch of the GeForce 9800 GTX+ forwards in order to quickly respond to AMD's embargo lift. And here I was starting to think the graphics card market was getting a little dry...

Although we're a little late with our RV770 architecture analysis for reasons well beyond my control, what was a bad situation personally has turned into a good time to step outside the melting pot and think a bit more. I’ve been reading, listening and thinking about what AMD’s executives said in Malaga for much longer than I normally would and I’ve also spent a good deal of time analysing the answers from the additional questions I asked of AMD.

Because of my unplanned absence, Richard and Harry put together the Summer 2008 graphics card roundup to fill the void in Radeon HD 4800 series coverage on bit-tech, but that didn’t get into the gory details behind what makes the Radeon HD 4800 series so great. Instead, that article focused on comprehensively covering the gaming performance of no less than eleven different graphics cards across a range of games at varying resolutions.

With that said, that wasn't the last of our Summer 2008 graphics coverage—far from it in fact—as there are still a whole host of things to cover with a few recent product launches from Nvidia and AMD. We've already seen the Radeon HD 4870 X2 re-take the performance crown and we've got some multi-GPU madness planned in the near future.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into what makes the Radeon HD 4800 series some of the best products that have ever come out of ATI...
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