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CES 2010: AMD’s Mobility Radeon HD 5000 Series GPUs
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by Rob Williams on January 7, 2010 in Consumer Electronics Show

The wait for AMD’s Mobility Radeon HD 5000 series is soon over, and there’s a lot to be looking forward to. Like the desktop equivalents, the mobile parts feature improved performance and power consumption over last-gen, DirectX 11 support, and even the ability to take advantage of the Eyefinity multi-monitor technology.

Over the past year or so, it can be argued that while NVIDIA has been pushing GPU technologies like no other, such as CUDA and PhysX, ATI has had the better-performing product. We first saw this played out last summer with the launch of the company’s Radeon HD 4000 series. NVIDIA just a mere month earlier released its spectacular GeForce GTX 280, but ATI followed-up and made NVIDIA’s launch look a little less appealing. Since then, NVIDIA hasn’t been able to fully recover, but like many people, I’m hoping that Fermi will do well to shake things up.

This past fall, AMD released its Radeon HD 5000 series of cards, and like the HD 4000 launch, the company gave us a reason to be wowed. In simple terms, the HD 5000 series was about 2x as fast as the HD 4000 series, and it didn’t end there. To make the cards even more appealing, we were given extremely noteworthy power efficiency upgrades, DirectX 11 support and even Eyefinity, AMD’s robust multi-monitor technology. With this launch, almost all gamers wanted to get their hands on one of the new cards, and they’ve all been selling well ever since, from the HD 5770 to the HD 5850 / HD 5870.

When I first took a look at a card from AMD’s HD 5000 series, the first thing I thought of was how badly such cards were needed in the mobile space. Performance aside, power consumption is one of the most important factors of mobile computing, because the higher the consumption, the shorter the battery-life. Given what we saw on the desktop, with cards idling at record-low levels, I knew that in a notebook, these cards could deliver the performance people would be looking for, but also give better-than-usual battery-life.

During a private meeting with AMD at the show, we were given the down-low on all of the upcoming mobile parts which are part of the HD 5000 series, and I can honestly say there’s some great stuff to be looking forward to. AMD is covering the entire spectrum of consumers and notebooks, from the ultra-mobile to the enthusiast models, and all feature the great power consumption, fast performance, and a gamut of other features that makes the HD 5000 unique in its class for the time-being.

Before I was given specs and performance details, AMD gave me some information that surprised me a bit. While the company’s market share in the mobile space has been stopped short of the competition by a fair degree, it has since skyrocketed and as of Q3 2009, it held close to 60% of the current mobile market. I had no idea of such stark growth, but it’s fairly interesting. It might be no surprise that the notebook I’m using at the moment also has an ATI mobile card in it, though outdated (HD 1250!).

Beginning very shortly, AMD will be shipping out its mobile chips to OEMs, but at this point in time, it doesn’t look as though we’re going to see commercially-available notebooks using them right away. A rough estimate I was given was that by summer 2010, we’ll see complete availability. I’m hoping that we’ll begin to see product on the market long before then, though.

For the mainstream / low-end segment, AMD will have its HD 5430 series. These GPUs will feature 0.12 TFLOPS of computational power with the help of its 80 Stream processors, and will be built using almost a quarter of a million transistors (242 million). Like all of the other HD 5000 cards, though it is indeed low-end, it will still support DDR2 – GDDR5, with configurations of 256MB, 512MB and 1GB.

When we get into the mid-range scheme of things, the performance is boosted fivefold, with 626 transistors delivering 400 Stream processors and 0.572 TFLOPS of computational power. These HD 5600 / HD 5700 series cards will also feature support for GDDR5, but can also use G/DDR3 as well, with 512MB and 1GB configurations.

Finally, on the high-end, AMD will have its HD 5800 cards, which I believe will be the HD 5870 exclusively at launch. This mobile GPU is almost on par with last summer’s HD 4000 series in that it busts past the 1 TFLOP barrier to hit 1.12 TFLOPS, which is achieved with the help of 800 Stream processors. This 1.04 billion transistor card can also use both G/DDR3 and GDDR5 like the HD 5600/HD 5700 series, but as a truly high-end product, I am doubtful we’ll see many configurations using the former. Likewise, I’d expect almost all HD 5800 mobile GPUs to be equipped with 1GB of VRAM.

Here are all of the relative specs to get a better idea of performance between the cards:

ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5000 Series

HD 5870
HD 5650
HD 5430
~1 Billion
~500 Million
~250 Million
Engine Clock
Stream Processors
Compute Performance
Memory Bus Width
Memory Type
Memory Clock
Up to 4Gbps
Up to 3.2Gbps
Up to 3.2Gbps
Eyefinity Support
Yes, 6 Displays
Yes, 6 Displays
Yes, 4 Displays
HDMI 1.3a

For the sake of ease, I’ll publish a couple of more slides that showcases the performance between these upcoming GPUs and what was available last-gen:

Compared to the last-gen Mobile Radeon HD 4870, the new HD 5870 proves about 25% faster. I admit I expected the performance differences to be much higher, given they were on the desktop, but thanks to the improved power envelopes, these new cards have far superior performance/watt (about 2.2x last-gen). The same could be said for the HD 5650.

Where the competition is concerned, AMD boasts total market leadership. As NVIDIA’s still using an outdated architecture, these results aren’t all too surprising.

As mentioned earlier, the Mobility HD 5000 series doesn’t greatly differ from its desktop counterpart. DirectX 11 support is here, along with Eyefinity, believe it or not. In some markets, some companies have put AMD’s XGP (External Graphics) technology to good use, which is required to make full use of Eyefinity. Picture this. You have a notebook that has weak graphics, but everything else for the most part is quite decent. Gaming just isn’t a possibility, but with XGP, it could be.

In the shot below, you can see Eyefinity being run off of an Acer Ferrari notebook, which I’d assume was an 11″ model. The XGP device, which is situated right in front of the monitor, includes a Mobility Radeon HD 5870 graphics card, and as you can see, it’s powering HAWX just fine, at 4800×900 resolution (that’s slightly more pixels than 2560×1600!). Believe it or not, the performance was actually quite good, and the game was fully playable. And this, with an ultra-portable notebook.

There are two downsides to XGP. One is that it requires AMD’s proprietary connector, which is only available on select notebook models (hopefully more down the road). Second, at the current time availability is really only seen in Europe, not in North America. Given how cool this tech is, I really hope to see adoption pick up. It would be great to own a decent, portable notebook, and know that with an XGP device, you can connect it to an external display and get all the gaming you need done, done. I am completely uncertain of pricing on these devices, but you could expect them to be at least $100 more than the cost of the GPU that’s inside it.

This wraps up all of what I was shown by AMD’s graphics team at CES. There’s another product launch right around the corner which I can’t talk too much about, but stay tuned to the site in the week to come as you’ll be able to read all about it here.

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