Latest AMD Graphics Chip Competes with Nvidia

The AMD ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2, which AMD is touting as the world's fastest graphics chip, is looking to compete in the high-end discrete graphics market against the Nvidia GTX 280 graphics card. AMD and Nvidia are also preparing for when Intel's Larrabee chip enters the discrete graphics card market in either 2009 or 2010.

Advanced Micro Devices is roaring back into the high-end discrete graphics market with the just released ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 graphics card that will compete against the best Nvidia has to offer.

The ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2, which AMD is touting as the "world's fastest graphics card," is expected to deliver 2.4 teraflops, or 2.4 trillion calculations per second, of performance. The new ATI graphics card can also support up to 2GB of GDDR5 (graphics double data rate 5) memory, compared with Nvidia's GTX 280 graphics card, which supports 1GB.

The new ATI graphics card is built on a 55-nanometer manufacturing process.

Instead of building a large chip, AMD took the approach to combine two ATI Radeon HD 4800 series GPUs on the same board using what the chip maker calls an advanced cross-GPU (graphics processing unit) connection that is based on second-generation PCI Express standards. The result is a graphics chip that should compete head-to-head with Nvidia in the high-end discrete graphics market; Edgadget has a list of some early benchmarking results and comparisons.

AMD is jumping headfirst into the graphics market at a time when the company is struggling to regain its financial footing after nearly two years of quarterly losses. One reason for those losses happens to be its $5.6 billion acquisition of ATI in 2006.

While a financial burden, AMD is hoping ATI graphics technology will pay off down the road. In the discrete graphics market, where gamers and PC enthusiasts look for the latest technology, ATI gives AMD a platform to compete against Nvidia. According to IDC, ATI controlled about 34 percent of the discrete graphics market in 2007, while Nvidia controlled nearly 65 percent.

In addition, AMD is looking to take ATI's graphics technology and combine it with its x86 CPUs in a project dubbed Accelerated Computing, which will eventually combine GPU and CPU on the same piece of silicon. The first step toward the Accelerated Computing model is the ability to offer complete mobile and desktop platforms that offer AMD CPUs and ATI graphics, and AMD accomplished both those goals earlier this year.

While these types of discrete, high-end graphics are meant for the gaming market, companies such as AMD and Nvidia use these consumer markets to showcase the limits of their technology before bringing that technology into the mainstream.

Some analysts also believe that discrete graphics may play a greater role within business PCs as workers increasingly have more say about which notebook or desktop they want and as advances such as Microsoft's Windows Vista OS require greater graphics technology to take advantage of all the features included in the operating system. However, some industry watchers feel that discrete graphics will remain most popular with the gaming and consumer markets, with only limited crossover in the enterprise.

"The enterprise market relies primarily not on PC discrete GPUs but on PC core logic chip sets that have an integrated graphics processing units (a.k.a. IGP)," Shane Rau, an analyst with IDC, wrote in an e-mail. "The value of high-end discrete graphics processing technology to enterprises is often for high-end desktop PCs that are taking over traditional workstation functions. Also, the discrete GPU technologies and performance capabilities eventually do work their way into integrated graphics processors."

While AMD and Nvidia are fighting for market share when it comes to discrete graphics, Intel is expected to enter this market in either 2009 or 2010 with its Larrabee chip. While Intel has touted Larrabee as a chip that can function as a GPGPU (general-purpose GPU) for high-performance computing, a recent paper focused on how Larrabee can work to enhance gaming systems, which puts the chip in direct competition with Nvidia and AMD when it comes to discrete graphics.

AMD and Nvidia also have their own GPGPUs for the HPC market as well. In June, Nvidia released its Tesla 10 series GPU, while AMD launched the FireStream 9250.

The ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 is immediately available and is priced at $549. AMD also released a lower-end version of the chip called the ATI Radeon HD 4850 X2, which sells for $399.