Almost 7 years ago to this day, AMD formally announced their “small die strategy.” Embarked upon in the aftermath of the company’s struggles with the Radeon HD 2900 XT, AMD opted against continuing to try beat NVIDIA at their own game. Rather than chase NVIDIA to absurd die sizes and the risks that come with it, the company would focus on smaller GPUs for the larger sub-$300 market. Meanwhile to compete in the high-end markets, AMD would instead turn to multi-GPU technology – CrossFire – to offer even better performance at a total cost competitive with NVIDIA’s flagship cards.

AMD’s early efforts were highly successful; though they couldn’t take the crown from NVIDIA, products like the Radeon HD 4870 and Radeon HD 5870 were massive spoilers, offering a great deal of NVIDIA’s flagship performance with smaller GPUs, manufactured at a lower cost, and drawing less power. Officially the small die strategy was put to rest earlier this decade, however even informally this strategy has continued to guide AMD GPU designs for quite some time. At 438mm2, Hawaii was AMD’s largest die as of 2013, still more than 100mm2 smaller than NVIDIA’s flagship GK110.

AMD's 2013 Flagship: Radeon R9 290X, Powered By Hawaii

Catching up to the present, this month marks an important occasion for AMD with the launch of their new flagship GPU, Fiji, and the flagship video card based on it, the Radeon R9 Fury X. For AMD the launch of Fiji is not just another high-end GPU launch (their 3rd on the 28nm process), but it marks a significant shift for the company. Fiji is first and foremost a performance play, but it’s also new memory technology, new power optimization technologies, and more. In short it may be the last of the 28nm GPUs, but boy if it isn’t among the most important.

With the recent launch of the Fiji GPU I bring up the small die strategy not just because Fiji is anything but small – AMD has gone right to the reticle limit – but because it highlights how the GPU market has changed in the last seven years and how AMD has needed to respond. Since 2008 NVIDIA has continued to push big dies, but they’ve gotten smarter about it as well, producing increasingly efficient GPUs that have made it harder for a scrappy AMD to undercut NVIDIA. At the same time alternate frame rendering, the cornerstone of CrossFire and SLI, has become increasingly problematic as rendering techniques get less and less AFR-friendly, making dual GPU cards less viable than they once were. And finally, on the business side of matters, AMD’s market share of discrete GPUs is lower than it has been in over a decade, with AMD’s GPU plus APU sales now being estimated as being below just NVIDIA’s GPU sales.

AMD's Fiji GPU

Which is not to say I’m looking to paint a poor picture of the company – AMD Is nothing if not the perennial underdog who constantly manages to surprise us with what they can do with less – but this context is important in understanding why AMD is where they stand today, and why Fiji is in many ways such a monumental GPU for the company. The small die strategy is truly dead, and now AMD is gunning for NVIDIA’s flagship with the biggest, gamiest GPU they could possibly make. The goal? To recapture the performance crown that has been in NVIDIA’s hands for far too long, and to offer a flagship card of their own that doesn’t play second-fiddle to NVIDIA’s.

To get there AMD needs to face down several challenges. There is no getting around the fact that NVIDIA’s Maxwell 2 GPUs are very well done, very performant, and very efficient, and that between GM204 and GM200 AMD has their work cut out for them. Performance, power consumption, form factors; these all matter, and these are all issues that AMD is facing head-on with Fiji and the R9 Fury X.

At the same time however the playing field has never been more equal. We’re now in the 4th year of TSMC’s 28nm process and have a good chunk of another year left to go. AMD and NVIDIA have had an unprecedented amount of time to tweak their wares around what is now a very mature process, and that means that any kind of advantages for being a first-mover or being more aggressive are gone. As the end of the 28nm process’s reign at the top, NVIDIA and AMD now have to rely on their engineers and their architectures to see who can build the best GPU against the very limits of the 28nm process.

Overall, with GPU manufacturing technology having stagnated on the 28nm node, it’s very hard to talk about the GPU situation without talking about the manufacturing situation. For as much as the market situation has forced an evolution in AMD’s business practices, there is no escaping the fact that the current situation on the manufacturing process side has had an incredible, unprecedented effect on the evolution of discrete GPUs from a technology and architectural standpoint. So for AMD Fiji not only represents a shift towards large GPUs that can compete with NVIDIA’s best, but it represents the extensive efforts AMD has gone through to continue improving performance in the face of manufacturing limitations.

And with that we dive in to today’s review of the Radeon R9 Fury X. Launching this month is AMD’s new flagship card, backed by the full force of the Fiji GPU.

AMD GPU Specification Comparison
  AMD Radeon R9 Fury X AMD Radeon R9 Fury AMD Radeon R9 290X AMD Radeon R9 290
Stream Processors 4096 (Fewer) 2816 2560
Texture Units 256 (How much) 176 160
ROPs 64 (Depends) 64 64
Boost Clock 1050MHz (On Yields) 1000MHz 947MHz
Memory Clock 1Gbps HBM (Memory Too) 5Gbps GDDR5 5Gbps GDDR5
Memory Bus Width 4096-bit 4096-bit 512-bit 512-bit
FP64 1/16 1/16 1/8 1/8
TrueAudio Y Y Y Y
Transistor Count 8.9B 8.9B 6.2B 6.2B
Typical Board Power 275W (High) 250W 250W
Manufacturing Process TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm
Architecture GCN 1.2 GCN 1.2 GCN 1.1 GCN 1.1
GPU Fiji Fiji Hawaii Hawaii
Launch Date 06/24/15 07/14/15 10/24/13 11/05/13
Launch Price $649 $549 $549 $399

With 4096 SPs and coupled with the first implementation of High Bandwidth Memory, the R9 Fury X aims for the top. Over the coming pages we’ll get in to a deeper discussion on the architectural and other features found in the card, but the important point to take away right now it that it packs a lot of shaders, even more memory bandwidth, and is meant to offer AMD’s best performance yet. R9 Fury X will eventually be joined by 3 other Fiji-based parts in the coming months, but this month it’s all about AMD’s flagship card.

The R9 Fury X is launching at $649, which happens to be the same price as the card’s primary competition, the GeForce GTX 980 Ti. Launched at the end of May, the GTX 980 Ti is essentially a preemptive attack on the R9 Fury X from NVIDIA, offering performance close enough to NVIDIA’s GTX Titan X flagship that the difference is arguably immaterial. For AMD this means that while beating GTX Titan X would be nice, they really only need a win against the GTX 980 Ti, and as we’ll see the Fury X will make a good run at it, making this the closest AMD has come to an NVIDIA flagship card in quite some time.

Finally, from a market perspective, AMD will be going after a few different categories with the R9 Fury X. As competition for the GTX 980 Ti, AMD is focusing on 4K resolution gaming, based on a combination of the fact that 4K monitors are becoming increasingly affordable, 4K Freesync monitors are finally available, and relative to NVIDIA’s wares, AMD fares the best at 4K. Expect to see AMD also significantly play up the VR possibilities of the R9 Fury X, though the major VR headset, the Oculus Rift, won’t ship until Q1 of 2016. Finally, it has now been over three years since the launch of the original Radeon HD 7970, so for buyers looking for an update AMD’s first 28nm card, Fury X is in a good position to offer the kind of generational performance improvements that typically justify an upgrade.

Fiji’s Architecture: The Grandest of GCN 1.2
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  • bennyg - Saturday, July 4, 2015 - link

    Marketing performance. Exactly.

    Except efficiency was not good enough across the generations of 28nm GCN in an era where efficiency + thermal/power limits constrain performance, and look what Nvidia did over a similar era from Fermi (which was at market when GCN 1.0 was released) to Kepler to Maxwell. Plus efficiency is kind of the ultimate marketing buzzword in all areas of tech and not having any ability to mention it (plus having generally inferor products) hamstrung their marketing all along
  • xenol - Monday, July 6, 2015 - link

    Efficiency is important because of three things:

    1. If your TDP is through the rough, you'll have issues with your cooling setup. Any time you introduce a bigger cooling setup because your cards run that hot, you're going to be mocked for it and people are going to be weary of it. With 22nm or 20nm nowhere in sight for GPUs, efficiency had to be a priority, otherwise you're going to ship cards that take up three slots or ship with water coolers.

    2. You also can't just play to the desktop market. Laptops are still the preferred computing platform and even if people are going for a desktop, AIOs are looking much more appealing than a monitor/tower combo. So you want to have any shot in either market, you have to build an efficient chip. And you have to convince people they "need" this chip, because Intel's iGPUs do what most people want just fine anyway.

    3. Businesses and such with "always on" computers would like it if their computers ate less power. Even if you can save a handful of watts, multiplying that by thousands and they add up to an appreciable amount of savings.
  • xenol - Monday, July 6, 2015 - link

    (Also by "computing platform" I mean the platform people choose when they want a computer)
  • medi03 - Sunday, July 5, 2015 - link

    ATI is the reason both Microsoft and Sony use AMDs APUs to power their consoles.
    It might be the reason why APUs even exist.
  • tipoo - Thursday, July 2, 2015 - link

    That was then, this is now. Now, AMD together with the acquisition, has a lower market cap than Nvidia.
  • Murloc - Thursday, July 2, 2015 - link

    yeah, no.
  • ddriver - Thursday, July 2, 2015 - link

    ATI wasn't bigger, AMD just paid a preposterous and entirely unrealistic amount of money for it. Soon after the merger, AMD + ATI was worth less than what they paid for the latter, ultimately leading to the loss of its foundries, putting it in an even worse position. Let's face it, AMD was, and historically has always been betrayed, its sole purpose is to create the illusion of competition so that the big boys don't look bad for running unopposed, even if this is what happens in practice.

    Just when AMD got lucky with Athlon a mole was sent to make sure AMD stays down.
  • testbug00 - Sunday, July 5, 2015 - link

    foundries didn't go because AMD bought ATI. That might have accelerated it by a few years however.

    Foundry issue and cost to AMD dates back to the 1990's and 2000-2001.
  • 5150Joker - Thursday, July 2, 2015 - link

    True, AMD was at a much better position in 2006 vs NVIDIA, they just got owned.
  • 3DVagabond - Friday, July 3, 2015 - link

    When was Intel the underdog? Because that's who's knocked them down (The aren't out yet.).

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