THE GRAPHICS CARD INDUSTRY IN 2011 SAW BOTH AMD, ATI & NVIDIA| POWER USER MAGAZINE - DECEMBER 2011
nVidia and AMD fleshing out their second generation DX11 lineups. There weren’t any major shakeups to speak of, but the competition was as fierce as ever.
The current generation of GPUs actually launched towards the end of 2010. In later October, AMD was the first out of the gate with the Radeon HD 6870 and 6850. Although these cards shared the X870 and X850 suffix with the 5000 series, they had some key architectural differences that complicated comparing generations side by side. Between Evergreen and Northern Islands, AMD rebalanced the chip to focus more on resterization, tessellation, and ROP-heavy workloads at the expense of compute, shader, and texture performance. The end result is a chip that’s better equipped to play modern games.
Sounds great, right? The tricky part came when the 6870 and 6850 rolled out with 1,120 and 960 stream processors, respectively. The Radeon HD 5870 and 5850, by contrast, had 1,600 and 1,440 stream processors. Yes, a Northern Islands SIMD is more efficient than an Evergreen SIMD, but sheer brute force enabled the 5800 to beat the 6800 in most benchmarks. Despite the model number muddling, the 6800 cards were a hit with reviewers and gamers alike. But AMD didn’t get to spend much time in the sun.
nVidia broke cover with its flagship GeForce GTX 580 in early November and the GTX 570 about a month later. In our review of the GTX 580, we lauded it as finally making good on all of Fermi’s promises. The GF110 at the heart of the 580 has all 512 CUDA cores enabled, 64 texture units, and the same ROP count as the GTX 480. Nividia back-ported the GTX 460’s improved FP16 texture filtering and Z-culling/refection engine to the GTX 580 and sufficiently stopped up the leaky transistors, improving overall power consumption.
A week after the GTX 570 launched, AMD christened its own flagship, the Radeon HD 6900. The Radeon HD 6970, codenamed Cyman XT, is characterized by 1,536 stream processors, 96 texture units, and 32 ROPs. With the new GPU, AMD made a dramatic design shift by abandoning the VLIW5 (very long instruction word) of Evergreen and the 6800s in favor of a more simplified VLIW4 design. AMD axed the underutilized special function unit to dedicate more transistors to stream processing units. According to AMD, this change alone accounts for a 10% performance boost per square millimeter. Despite all this, the Radeon HD 6970 was not enough; nVidia was king of the graphics card hill as 2010 came to a close.
nVidia kicked off the new year with the GeForce GTX 560 Ti, which targeted the sweet spot at $520. In Match, AMD unveiled Antilles (the Radeon HD 6990), the dual-GPU monster that we meant to wrest the crown from nVidia’s grasp. nVidia answered with a dual-GPU beast of its own, the GeForce GTX 590, a couple weeks later. When the smoke settled, AMD claimed victory. And so did nVidia. Our own testing showed that AMD’s over-the-top option was slightly faster in most tests, but nVidia found enough benchmark wins that a clear winner was hard to crown. As we went to press, however, AMD’s Radeon HD 6990 was readily available online, whereas the GTX 590 was in much more limited supply. You be the judge.
Throughout the first half of the year, both AMD and nVidia fleshed out their lineups and staked out their territory. In the last six months, however, it’s been all quiet on the Sunyvale/Santa Clara front. Although there’s nothing new to get excited about until next year, prices have dropped considerable since launch.