ATI Radeon HD 4890: Playing To Win Or Played Again?

So far, this year has been a real bore with regard to graphics launches, don't you think?

True, we’re only four months in to 2009. But we’ve already seen Nvidia reclaim the “fastest card” title with its GeForce GTX 295—a dual-card solution with two chips somewhere in between the nearly year-old GeForce GTX 280 and GTX 260. The company followed up with a rebranding of its GeForce 9800 GTX+ in the GeForce GTS 250.

To Nvidia’s credit, it has kept a steady stream of those GeForce GTX 295s in stock at e-tail, despite all of the whining elsewhere on the Web about that being a stunt card. If I’m a gamer and I can buy one right now online, then that’s all I care about.

And we’re hearing rumblings now of a GeForce GTX 275—in essence, a GeForce GTX 295 cut in half (just one of those in-between GPUs). And oh, look at what just arrived via Fed Ex—a GeForce GTX 275. You’ll want to read that story when you’re done with this one for the scoop on Nvidia’s newest mid-range offering.

A Little Action From The Other Side

Today isn’t about Nvidia, though (Ed.: As suggested above, it turns out that Nvidia is out to steal the red team’s thunder with its GeForce GTX 275. We’ve written that one up in a separate story). Rather, it’s ATI’s turn to respond. And while AMD has commanded the organization’s spotlight through the start of ’09 with its Phenom II processor, the graphics division has a little something up its sleeve, too.

I say ‘little’ because today’s launch of the Radeon HD 4890 is, like Nvidia’s recent string of unveilings, decidedly evolutionary in nature. To ATI’s credit, its latest is based on a re-spun GPU, so it’s no RV770 plus a few megahertz. But if you were hoping for something that could kill a Radeon HD 4870 X2, you’ll be a bit disappointed.

I say ‘a bit’ because, while it won’t break past any existing speed records, the Radeon HD 4890 is notably faster than the single-GPU flagship preceding it. And while enthusiasts are expected to pay a premium for the new, faster processor and higher-clocked GDDR5 memory, the 4890’s real purpose is to bridge a gaping hole in ATI’s lineup between its $180-ish Radeon HD 4870 and the ~$400-ish Radeon HD 4870 X2.

To that end, the company is forecasting a roughly $249 price tag on this new solution. We think that number needs to come down a bit, though, to reflect the very-competitive sub-$200 prices on Radeon HD 4870 1 GB and GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 cards.

AMD’s reasoning on the price point is that the company is refreshing its “sweet-spot strategy,” which saw it launch RV770 last year, adapting the architecture down to the mainstream and up to the high-end. Since then, competitive pressure has pushed prices on those Radeon HD 4780/4850 cards down a bit. Now, it says, is its chance to re-establish a product at a crucial demand peak, as seen in the Mercury Research Data from Q4 ’08.

Our problem with that parallel is this: when RV770 launched, Nvidia was still trying to sell GTX 280s for $649 and 260s for $399. As a result, the AMD offerings looked like tremendous values. After a series of drastic cuts on Nvidia’s end, the competition is far tighter. So where, exactly, does the Radeon HD 4890 fall with regard to AMD’s own lineup and Nvidia’s contenders? Let’s take a closer look at the card, its GPU, DirectX 10.1, overclocking, and the always-telling benchmarks!