Editorial - AMD Radeon HD 6770/6750 Rebranding



AMD Radeon Graphics

Company: AMD
Author: James Prior
Editor: Charles Oliver
Date: May 4th, 2011

AMD Relaunches Radeon HD 5770/5750 as Radeon HD 6770/6750

Rebranding is a common practice in many businesses, and usually happens after an acquisition. Company A buys Company B for their product, and slaps a new name and a meaningless feature update on it to call it their own while they retrain support staff, evaluate product direction and cut out the dead wood from Company B. In the computer hardware realm, rebranding is evidence of evil incarnate, uncaring soulless corporations who would steal your baby's candy while smiling in your face.

Thanks to the quite high rate of change in PC components, generally referred to as Moore's Law (and yes, we know that it is generally used incorrectly), independent hardware vendors (IHVs) introduce new product lines regularly, often timed with seasonal market bubbles where consumers are looking to spend money. The problem with targeting market bubbles is that missing means you make less money and risk losing mindshare as well as marketshare.

AMD hit the DirectX 11 bubble bang on, with the AMD Radeon 5-series DirectX 11 (codenamed Evergreen) hardware on the shelf before DirectX 11 officially launched with Windows 7 at the end of October 2009. NVIDIA didn't, releasing their first DX11 capable hardware in April 2010, by which time AMD had launched their entire new line-up - including the ultra-enthusiast dual-GPU product - The World's Fastest Graphics Card. AMD got cards like the Radeon HD 5770 and HD 5750, codenamed Juniper, into the hands of developers around 4 months before they launched, to help get the first wave of DirectX 11 capable games on to shelves to go with the OS and Platform Update for Vista. As a result, AMD enjoyed enormous DX11 marketshare, including both desktop and mobility markets. If you're running a DX11 capable GPU, it's likely an AMD one.

DirectX 11 alone didn't generate this marketshare, performance at key price points did. DirectX 9 performance is still very relevant, not only to support older popular titles, but also thanks to newer AAA titles such as StarCraft 2 and Crysis 2. So when AMD released their new Radeon 6-series line up, everybody hoped for a nice performance bump all through the line-up, as was seen in the jump from the 4-series to the 5-series. Unfortunately, TSMC's 32nm process was unsuitable and cancelled, resulting in a design strategy change - Northern Islands on 32nm became NI-40 (and later just Northern Islands again), which resulted in only the HD 6900 series getting the planned new VLIW-4 architecture and every other card getting a tweaked and updated Evergreen architecture. Along the way, it was hinted that instead of four new 32nm GPUs, AMD could stay at 40nm and get five new ones. What we got was Barts, Cayman, Caicos and Turks. Hmmm, we're one short.

AMD Product Plan

When Barts launched, the world was told that the HD 5700 series would remain in market - meaning it's not going to be retired. Despite not having the fancy new tessellator, improved SIMDs, updated setup engines and tweaked anisotropic filtering hardware included in the 6-series, Juniper is a great product for AMD, priced well and performing admirably against newer competition. The only real checkbox it lacked was Blu-ray 3D and AMD HD3D support, although the Catalyst drivers were updated at some point in early 2010 to offer HDMI packed frame support for 5-series cards.

When the OEM only Radeon HD 6700 series cards were spotted on AMD's product page, AMD was quick to point out that they clearly denoted the products as being based on the last generation design, in the hope of diffusing the 'Rebrand! Evil! Burn them!' witch hunt. For the most part that worked, as long as you couldn't buy it off the shelf at Best Buy or in Newegg then it's not so bad - instead of having the 5770/5750 as an option, you'd be offered the 6770/6750 instead. Plus you get Blu-ray 3D and HDMI 1.4a support, an important OEM checkbox. It seems obvious that the OEMs desire for cheap, powerful, multi-display capable workhorse cards that do that new-fangled 3D thing easily was the driving force behind the Radeon HD 6770/6750 rebranding.

It all started to go pear-shaped around April 22, when product pages appeared for the AMD Radeon HD 6770 and HD 6750 cards, on add-in board (AIB) manufacturer websites like XFX. This hinted that perhaps consumers would be faced with two identical products, with absolutely no performance difference - just a new sticker slapped on top. Beginning April 28th you can now buy XFX, HIS, ASUS et al., Radeon HD 6770 and HD 6750 cards in etailers and retailers. Booo.

So what are the differences between the Juniper HD 6700 and the Juniper HD 5700?. As stated, Blu-ray 3D support - hardware acceleration of the MVC codec. Previously we speculated that this was done using the SIMD arrays and a driver function, as we were told that the new UVD 3 inside the rest of the 6-series cards handled that. Turns out, MVC is not so exclusive to UVD 3. The UVD 2.2 in Juniper was upgraded with a new firmware that adds MVC decode support. Well, what about DiVX? Nope, that is indeed exclusive to UVD 3. The physical ports on the card get updated, HDMI 1.4a instead of 1.3. I know it looks the same, but the gubbins behind it are changed to get full 3DTV support.

AMD UVD 3

Does a single feature update really warrant a new product line? How is this different from NVIDIA rebranding the 8800GTS to the 9800GTX to the GTS 250? AMD claims that their transparency in the rebrand process is one difference. Secondly, the pricing is unchanged - the new Juniper cards will be around the same price point as the HD 5700 series ones, not accounting for special AIB features like customized coolers or special software packages. Thirdly, you can Crossfire 6770/6750 cards with 5700/5750 cards. AMD has always had greater flexibility in multi-GPU compatibility, typically only requiring same GPU core rather than same card model, and it's no different here - we're told that you will be able to upgrade from a single HD 5750 or 5770 by adding a 6750 or 6770 and get the new Blu-ray features and HD3D compatibility along with the multi-GPU performance increase.

Fundamentally, Juniper is an example of a dead-on #winning sweet-spot strategy, and AMD are very happy with how long the Juniper GPU has remained competitive. When pressed about how long this variant of Juniper would be in market, and if a MVC decode adding firmware update will be made available for all 5-series cards, AMD responded with the traditional 'we can't comment on unannounced products or future plans'. Can you infer anything from that? Not really, but you can speculate that the time and costs to validate the new firmware for the 5-series mobility, desktop and professional SKUs, provide it to AIBs, revalidate their cards, and prepare for the inevitable bad flashes, is less than waiting for the rumored 7-series generation due this year.

In our opinion, the HD 6770 and HD 6750 should not exist. The need for Blu-ray 3D and HDMI 1.4 support should have driven a relaunch of the HD 5770 and 5750 as version 3 (v2 was already found when AMD changed the reference design cooling on the Juniper XT cards). There is no change in power, performance or price that would possibly justify the rebranding as has been performed here. That said, if all you need to do to stay competitive in a market segment is provide a firmware flash and a port upgrade, being open and clear about the origins of your technology is probably the best way to do it. Got a Radeon HD 5750 or HD 5770 and want to upgrade? Don't buy a 6770 or 6750. If you were considering a Radeon HD 5770/5750, buy a 6770/6750 instead. It's got a higher number!