Friday, June 27, 2008

ATI seeks to break back into the GPU game with barrier-breaking cards

This week, AMD launched two new graphics cards that each give the Sunnyvale- based company two new firsts:. The ATI Radeon HD 4850 is the first teraflop graphic card, while the ATI Radeon HD 4870 is the first to feature GDDR5 memory.

Both cards in the 4800 series reportedly represents what AMD describes as a "2X performance jump" over the older Radeon HD 3800 generation; providing one trillion calculations per second, when the previous generation of cards could only offer up to half a trillion calculations. This marks one of the first times the speed of GPUs has been measured in teraflops.

The HD 3870 -- whose throughput has retroactively been estimated at 500 gigaflops -- previously was the fastest card in AMD's lineup. Reaching the 1 teraflop level for under $200 is an impressive feat that has not been matched before. In 1996, the first teraflop PC was unveiled, but it required a whopping one megawatt to run; having a teraflop on a single GPU is an impressive feat.

The bump up to GDDR5 from GDDR3 enables twice the amount of bandwidth for the next-gen AMD cards. The 512 MB of GDDR5 memory is connected over a 256-bit bus that provides 3.6 Gbps of bandwidth.

Furthermore, performance-per-watt has also increased compared to older AMD cards because of a new power-management feature that limits the power consumed by the card when it's idling.

The 4800 series supports DirectX 10.1 and 7.1 surround sound in addition to its higher bandwidth and increased energy benefits.

Both cards were expected to launch in May, but AMD was forced to push back the date closer to the launch of the NVidia'a high-end GT200 chip last week. The two companies have been battling head-to-head, but this is the best chance ATI has had recently in fighting back against NVidia. Its GT200-based 260 has 192 streaming processor cores and 896 MB of onboard memory, while the 280 card has 240 cores and 1 GB of memory.

AMD made sure both cards are able to handle HD video, support Blu-ray movies, and improve HD editing capability.

The Radeon HD 4850 is a midrange 3D graphics card that has a 625 MHz GPU core clock speed, 512 MB GGDR3 memory, and a single-slot PCI-E 2. It also has 800 stream processing cores. But early tests show it runs a tad bit hotter than reviewers would like. AMD expects this model, which costs $199, to compete with the NVidia GeForce 9800 GTX+ card, which costs $229.

ATI seeks to break back into the GPU game with barrier-breaking cards

By comparison, the ATI Radeon 4870 both offers GDDR5 memory performance while pushing 1.2 teraFLOPS. It has a 750 MHz GPU core clock speed, 512 MB GDDR5 memory, and is a dual-slot PCI-E 2 card. The card is available now for $299.

It's now possible for enthusiastic PC gamers to use the Crossfire X configuration to have almost 5 teraflops of power using four GPUs and 3200 stream processors.

AMD hopes the 4800 series will be used for real-world applications, such as rendering, encoding and decoding, and compression and decompression. Although some PC manufacturers have begun to question the continuing relevancy of GPUs into the future for anything other than enthusiasts' use, AMD says encoding DVDs using the GPU is more efficient and faster than using a CPU.

Along with OEMs preparing to manufacture both cards, a handful of system integrators also have plans for it, including Alienware, Falcon Northwest, iBUYPOWER, CyberPower, and Extreme PC.

AMD is now aiming for three different markets: $200 for entry-level, $300 for mid-range, and $500+ for specialized graphics cards. But the company is shifting its focus more towards the entry level and mid-range cards, though not at the sacrifice of overall GPU power. Shifting ATI's focus from upper-scale GPUs down to more efficient GPUs with good clock speed at a lower price, could help compel NVidia to lower its prices.

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