AMD's Path to Polaris

With the benefit of hindsight, I think in reflection that the 28nm generation started out better for AMD than it ended. The first Graphics Core Next card, Radeon HD 7970, had the advantage of launching more than a quarter before NVIDIA’s competing Kepler cards. And while AMD trailed in power efficiency from the start, at least for a time there they could compete for the top spot in the market with products such as the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition, before NVIDIA rolled out their largest Kepler GPUs.

However I think where things really went off of the rails for AMD was mid-cycle, in 2014, when NVIDIA unveiled the Maxwell architecture. Kepler was good, but Maxwell was great; NVIDIA further improved their architectural and energy efficiency (at times immensely so), and this put AMD on the back foot for the rest of the generation. AMD had performant parts from the bottom R7 360 right up to the top Fury X, but they were never in a position to catch Maxwell’s efficiency, a quality that proved to resonate with both reviewers and gamers.

The lessons of the 28nm generation were not lost on AMD. Graphics Core Next was a solid architecture and opened the door to AMD in a number of ways, but the Radeon brand does not exist in a vacuum, and it needs to compete with the more successful NVIDIA. At the same time AMD is nothing if not scrappy, and they can surprise us when we least expect it. But sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way, and for AMD I think the latter half of the 28nm generation was for the Radeon Technologies Group learning the hard way.

So what lessons did AMD learn for Polaris? First and foremost, power efficiency matters. It matters quite a lot in fact. Every vendor – be it AMD, Intel, or NVIDIA – will play up their strongest attributes. But power efficiency caught on with consumers, more so than any other “feature” in the 28nm generation. Though its importance in the desktop market is forum argument fodder to this day, power efficiency and overall performance are two sides of the same coin. There are practical limits for how much power can be dissipated in different card form factors, so the greater the efficiency, the greater the performance at a specific form factor. This aspect is even more important in the notebook space, where GPUs are at the mercy of limited cooling and there is a hard ceiling on heat dissipation.

As a result a significant amount of the work that has gone into Polaris has been into improving power efficiency. To be blunt, AMD has to be able to better compete with NVIDIA here, but AMD’s position is more nuanced than simply beating NVIDIA. AMD largely missed the boat on notebooks in the last generation, and they don’t want to repeat their mistakes. At the same time, starting now with an energy efficient architecture means that when they scale up and scale out with bigger and faster chips, they have a solid base to work from, and ultimately, more chances to achieve better performance.

The other lesson AMD learned for Polaris is that market share matters. This is not an end-user problem – AMD’s market share doesn’t change the performance or value of their cards – but we can’t talk about what led to Polaris without addressing it. AMD’s share of the consumer GPU market is about as low as it ever has been; this translates not only into weaker sales, but it undermines AMD’s position as a whole. Consumers are more likely to buy what’s safe, and OEMs aren’t much different, never mind the psychological aspects of the bandwagon effect.

Consequently, with Polaris AMD made the decision to start with the mainstream market and then work up from there, a significant departure from the traditional top-down GPU rollouts. This means developing chips like Polaris 10 and 11 first, targeting mainstream desktops and laptops, and letting the larger enthusiast class GPUs follow. The potential payoff for AMD here is that this is the opposite of what NVIDIA has done, and that means AMD gets to go after the high volume mainstream market first while NVIDIA builds down. Should everything go according to plan, then this gives AMD the opportunity to grow out their market share, and ultimately shore up their business.

As we dive into Polaris, its abilities, and its performance, it’s these two lessons we’ll see crop up time and time again, as these were some of the guiding lessons in Polaris’s design. AMD has taken the lessons of the 28nm generation to heart and have crafted a plan to move forward with the FinFET generation, charting a different, and hopefully more successful path.

Though with this talk of energy efficiency and mainstream GPUs, let’s be clear here: this isn’t AMD’s small die strategy reborn. AMD has already announced their Vega architecture, which will follow up on the work done by Polaris. Though not explicitly stated by AMD, it has been strongly hinted at that these are the higher performance chips that in past generations we’d see AMD launch with first, offering performance features such as HBM2. AMD will have to live with the fact that for the near future they have no shot at the performance crown – and the halo effect that comes with it – but with any luck, it will put AMD in a better position to strike at the high-end market once Vega’s time does come.

The AMD Radeon RX 480 Preview The Polaris Architecture: In Brief
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  • FriendlyUser - Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - link

    Warframe is very, very light on the GPU. I get ~100fps at 1440p with a much older card and almost everything maxed. Try Witcher 3 for a challenge at 4k.
  • Murloc - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    I can play age of empires 2 @4K on a gtx 275 get on my level
  • Questor - Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - link

    Bandwagon much? One picture and you are already condemning a product that hasn't had a fair chance. You hurt yourself in the long when you subscribe to bandwagon jumping by spreading fanboy-ship; opinions not based on a clear factual completeness, but rather a possible detractor that is as yet unproven across the entirety of the products. Competition serves all of us. It brings prices more under control and forces innovation.
  • mikato - Friday, July 29, 2016 - link

    "It's a terrible product. Look at the temps."

    I don't know about everyone else, but I don't buy my GPUs based on thermal images and point temps. Amirite?
  • poohbear - Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - link

    How is it a bit disappointing??? do you really think most of us are running GTX970s?? The vast majority of people have gtx950 class cards, and this would be a nice step up considering the price.
  • sharath.naik - Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - link

    Its disappointing because, 970 can overclock 10-15% sometimes more. You need to look at the thermals to understand that these are like already overclocked from the factory and cannot do more.
  • smartthanyou - Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - link

    In no situation will a 10-15% overclock ever produce a performance difference that an end user would notice. In a benchmark application? Sure, numbers will increase but frames in a game will not increase to a point to make a difference.

    Overclocking 10-15% in almost all cases is pointless.
  • FriendlyUser - Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - link

    All these are reference and have zero electrical margin for overclock. Reviews have shown that the board uses all juice it can and is almost constantly at the limit (or over) of the PCIe slot power delivery! You will only be able to judge overclock in cards with more complicated designs. The chip itself is probably quite variable, being the first of the 14nm AMD generation. Some will overclock well, others wont.
  • wumpus - Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - link

    Last I heard, 970 was at the top of the steam surveys (I won't enable whatever kludge they wanted to find out). It isn't a bad goal, but my confidence in AMD shipping it to newegg faster than nvidia can ship an as of yet hypothetical 1060 isn't all that great. Assuming they do, it doesn't really mean they have a long window of "the card to buy at ~$200".

    A bigger worry is how many of those 970s are going to be hitting the market. Until AMD can claw back some marketshare, there could easily be a used 970 for every new 480 buyer out there. And this is coming from someone who had been assuming that I would get a 390 (or two) and DYI some watercooling for an ideal VR rig (before prices skyrocketed. I'm guessing lose the watercooling and go with nvidia once both VR and nvidia 14nm prices come back to Earth). This card isn't helping AMD all that much.
  • lunarmit - Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - link

    It is, but it's just one card. Add in 1% for the 980, and 1% for the 980 ti and you have ~90% of the cards are powered below that once you factor in the AMD comparables.

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