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ATI Radeon X850 and X800 Release


New Products, Better Availability (or so we hope)


by Josh Walrath



     Yes, today is the day that ATI has taken the wrappings off of their latest lineup of video cards.  I was actually expecting this closer to the end of December, but it is a pleasant surprise to see them release it now.  The reason I am so surprised is that we are in the midst of the Holiday buying season, and these products will not hit the market until early next year.  So ATI just cannibalized the sales of many of their current products.  Of course, a product has to be on the shelf in order to be cannibalized!  One area that this release may have directly affected was that of the X700 Pro and XT series of cards.  If ATI is promising a faster performing X800 and X800 XL for not a whole lot more, the X700 parts could take a beating at the higher end of the midrange spectrum.

     The top end X850 chips are actually comprised of the redesigned R480 core made on TSMC's 130 nm Low-K line.  Now, from whispers about the industry, it appears as though ATI had some extreme problems with yields and speed bins for the R420 (the original X800 chip) and R423 (the PCI-E R420 derivative).  The X800 Pro, with its 475 MHz clock and 3 pixel quads, was the most numerous of products made from this chip.  Ever since its release it has been in tight supply, but a user had a good chance of buying one for a slightly higher price than MSRP at any one time.  The X800 XT and PE editions have always been very scarce, and when they were available the prices were incredibly high as compared to MSRP.  NVIDIA on the other had seems to have been able to deliver 6800 and 6800 GT parts much more successfully than ATI has been able to, but the 6800 Ultra was only slightly more available than the X800 XT and PE models.  Nothing that ATI or TSMC have done to this point has helped the fabrication situation with this design.  The processes are clean at TSMC, but it appears that the overall design and the clock speed targets were too much for the R420.  So, ATI did a significant respin of this chip and now call it the R480.  This supposedly will allow for better yields and speed bins, as well as other power saving functions that should cut down on heat.  Oddly enough, the X850 XT now has a dual slot cooler, something that ATI had ridiculed NVIDIA about for the past several years.  ATI assures us that more R480 chips will be coming off the line with all their working quads, and hitting their speed targets with good yields, something which was problematic with the R420.  I tend to believe this is true, as not making radical changes to a design, yet still doing a lot of reworking on it for a certain fabrication process, will most always result in better speed bins and yields.  NVIDIA did this for the NV35/NV38.

     The more interesting product for many is the R430.  The R430 is another redesigned R420 core, but it is fabricated using TSMC's 110 nm process.  This will allow ATI to achieve a couple of different positive results.  First off TSMC's 110 nm process is very clean, and previous parts coming off of that line have shown very good speed bins.  ATI also had a lot of time to rework the R420 core, so I would expect many of the small glitches and design faults to be addressed quite nicely.  The X800 and X800 XL both run at 400 MHz core, but the XL has 4 full quads of pipes, while the standard X800 has only 3 quads.  The X800 standard is supposed to be in the $249 pricerange, with 256 MB of 700 MHz DDR memory on a 256 bit bus.  This part will definitely cannibalize the X700 XT 256 MB and X700 Pro 256 MB sales, as consumers will see a much higher performing part for only a little more (albeit in January at the earliest).  The X800 XL should actually outperform the more expensive X800 Pro in most scenarios, so this again leaves me scratching my head at ATI's choices.  Then again, I think the X800 Pro is going to be a very scarce part in the very near future.  Both the X800 and X800 XL will be solid enthusiast choices when it comes to budget, and NVIDIA will not have much that competes here for overall features and performance (the GeForce 6800 only has 3 quads running at 325 MHz, with only 128 MB of memory- and is around $299 in price).

     The main thrust of this release is to let the world know that within two months ATI "should" have plenty of product on hand to distribute to OEM's and retailers alike.  It is unfortunate for ATI though that they couldn't release these products earlier and gotten a significant jump on the competition for the Holiday buying season.  As it is, NVIDIA has better availability of their 6800 parts, and at lower prices for the most part.  ATI is also looking to release its R520 chip at the end of the Spring, so the X850 will have a very short life at the top of the heap (plus Q1 and Q2 are very slow buying quarters for both consumers and OEM's, so the return on investment for these new chips could be very low).  Another aspect that should be somewhat disturbing to investors is that ATI has had a LOT of tapeouts in the past year.  Far more than NVIDIA has, and NVIDIA has been able to match ATI step for step since the release of the NV40.  The use of the HSI bridge chip has allowed NVIDIA a solid and economical roadmap for product tapeouts, as only one version of each core is needed to be able to address both PCI-E and AGP markets.  ATI has yet to unveil their bridge chip, but many expect to see it in Q1 of 2005.  So basically ATI has spent a lot of money and engineering resources on multiple tapeouts that could have probably been planned a little bit better.

     Just to show you I am not way off base here, lets take a look at the major graphics tapeouts of each company since the beginning of this year on officially released products:

ATI: RV370, RV380, RV410, R420, R423, R430, R480

NVIDIA: NV40, NV41, NV43 (NV45 is simply a NV40 with a HSI chip on the same substrate to give PCI-E functionality).

     Off the cuff we see 3 official tapeouts vs. 7.  With each tapeout being worth between $1.5 and $2 million dollars, you can see that ATI has spent a LOT more money than NVIDIA has up to this point.  ATI has also had to utilize a lot of engineering work for each of those tapeouts.  Now, supposedly NVIDIA has already taped out the NV48, which appears to be a PCI-E native version of the NV40 that is much more optimized for performance and speed, and is being produced on TSMC's 110 nm process.  We may very well see a silent release of this chip, as the PCI-E versions of the 6800 series will utilize this chip instead of the NV45.  These have yet to be seen outside of NVIDIA though, and no official product has been released based on this chip.  The NV47, which will be Spring's high end offering from NVIDIA, is an unknown when it comes to being taped out at this time.  The NV41 is a true 3 quad, 5 VS 6800 part on TSMC's 110 nm process, so it will be addressing the high-midrange and budget-enthusiast levels and apparently is already being used silently in GeForce 6800 parts being sent to OEM's.  There are rumors of a NV44, which will address the GeForce 6200 market (as the first 6200's to be released use the NV43 with one quad disabled), but these are not substantiated.

     It really does seem that ATI has spent a LOT more money to address both the PCI-E and AGP markets than NVIDIA has.  While tapeout money is not insignificant, I think the bigger factor is the workload on engineers to put out that many parts in such a short period of time.  These engineers could be working on next generation products, but instead they are validating multiple chips based on the same design.  Still, it appears that in 2005 ATI will be addressing this problem with its own PCI-E to AGP bridge chip, so only one version of each chip needs to be produced.

     So, today we are basically seeing the new midrange and enthusiast boards from ATI, and at first glance it appears that these will be the main offerings from ATI for quite some time.  While ATI will most likely release the R520 in late Spring of 2005 (SM 3.0 enabled part for the high end), the X800 and X850 lines will continue on for at least until late Fall of 2005 (when the other R520 derivatives will hit the scene and address the midrange and budget sectors).  The main advantage of the new products is that they appear to have better yields and speed bins than the previous R420 and R423 parts.  This will allow ATI to better address the market with products.  The small speed bumps at the X850 levels are also appreciated, and help to further increase ATI's lead over NVIDIA in DirectX 9.0c applications (though more OpenGL work is needed to compete in that area).  Now that we are seeing GeForce 6800 Ultras being released at 425 MHz, that lead could diminish a bit, as the NV4x architecture seems to be able to do more work per clock than the R4x0 series.

     Time will tell, but it is always nice to see a new hardware release no matter what!


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