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The past few weeks have been somewhat chaotic in the technology industry. Not only were nVidia and AMD both set to launch two new graphics cards within weeks of each other, which is bad enough, but we also had the peculiar legitimised leaked launch of the HD4850, which allowed performance figures and card shots but not architectural explanations, and then, out of the blue, nVidia also announced the 9800GTX+ which is a die-shrunk, higher-clocked version of the existing 9800 GTX. All of which leaves muggins here feeling a little cross eyed and sore of head.
The best solution, it was deemed by yours truly, was to ignore all the wailing and gnashing and just get down to the basic business of churning through reviews. First up was nVidia's enormous, expensive, and incredibly fast high-end card, the GTX280, which is based on its GT200 chip. Now, it's the turn of ATI with its RV770 chip that will be coming to market as the HD4870 and HD 4850 cards.
Both will feature 800 Stream Processors, 40 texture units, and 16 ROPs all of which we'll talk about in more detail shortly. What essentially differentiates the two cards is clock speeds, memory configurations, and price (obviously). HD 4870 will be clocked at 750MHz, use 900MHz (3600MHZ effectively) GDDR5 memory and cost around £230. Meanwhile HD 4850 will run at 625MHz, use 993MHz (1986MHz effectively) GDDR3 memory, and will cost £130.
These prices are in drastic contrast to the two cards based on GT200 that nVidia just launched; GTX 280 is selling for over £400 and the GTX260 is around £260. So, once again it would seem ATI has come up short when it comes to performance and is trying to undercut nVidia instead. Well that's one way of looking at it but ATI sees things a little differently.
The traditional way graphics cards have been developed is to aim for the top with large expensive chips that win performance awards. The lower performing mainstream chips are then rolled out a few weeks or months down the line. However, with RV770, ATI is saying it has intentionally developed a smaller less powerful chip than GT200 because it's aiming for the more lucrative performance/mainstream market - the type of people that will be willing to spend £100 to £200 - rather than the ultra high-end folk that will be willing to fork out £400+.
Whether that's true or if it's all just marketing spin, I'll leave to you to decide, but it certainly makes sense in a way. True, the margins in this sector of the market aren't as high as the ultra high-end but the volume is orders of magnitude larger. In the meantime ATI can work on its upcoming HD4870 X2 (or whatever it will be called) that will combine two RV770 chips on one board and leverage ATI's more and more impressive Crossfire performance to create a single board that will compete at the high-end.
The other reason I'm inclined to believe that ATI isn't just spinning is because RV770 looks like a seriously competitive solution. In fact ATI could easily have got away with charging considerably more for this card. That and it makes sense to move away from large monolithic GPUs and work on multi-GPU solutions as they're considerably more scalable. If ATI can master its multi-GPU solutions to the point where they work seamlessly (i.e. games developers and driver teams don't have to optimise their software) it will be able to produce cheaper, more powerful cards than ever before.