Where Did All The Mid-Range Go?
ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT and HD 2600 Pro
A serious detour has taken place in the graphics segment that focuses on mainstream gamers. When Nvidia launched its GeForce 8800 GTX in October 2006, we thought that the industry was operating as usual, but we have found that not to be the case. While the GTS debuted in both 640 MB and 320 MB GTS versions, these were not inexpensive propositions for serious gamers. You certainly cannot call the 320 MB version that debuted at $300 to be a mid-range card. While this may seem to follow the grand scheme of how most product launches happen, as it was half the price of a GeForce 8800 GTX, it is in no way in the same ballpark in terms of cost to the consumer.
Looking back as far as the Radeon 9600, 9700 and 9800, the launch of the 8000 series cards and now the HD 2000 cards are not like previous graphics technology launches. Technology launch products are generally out of reach for most consumers, and this is what the mid-range parts are for. The majority of the enthusiast consumer base cannot afford anything over $250, so this middle ground was the best way to meet customer expectations while providing a price range for most consumers. A clean example was the ATI Radeon 9700 launch in 2003 that retailed for $400. It was followed by the Radeon 9600 for as little as $150 and $170 for the Pro version. Now that was mid range: those were less than half the price but not half the performance. Today's "mid-range" cards are much less than half the performance across the board, as their processor cores lack the necessary hardware to even be considered "mid-range."
Brandon Bell at the Firing Squad recently said: "The top GPUs among Steam users are mainstream parts like the GeForce 6600/7600, and Radeon 9600 from ATI. Because of this, it's important that AMD and NVIDIA have competitive products in this segment. This is where market share gains can be won and lost." We have also commented that the war for graphics will be in this price/performance segment. The interesting thing is that this segment of graphics users has changed very little over the past year and a half. People that bought "good" mid-range cards are still happy with the performance they have in most games. Of course there is the "want" of more frames per second and better eye candy, but at what cost?
So what happened to mid-range in launches today versus yesteryear? There has been a change in expectation levels and the timeframe that DX10 parts came to market. Delays to the R600 meant delays in the entire product cycle. That, coupled with process improvements to 65 nm and a reshaping of the product launch sequence, really pushed a product that consumers should have seen last year all the way out to just two months ago. Almost no communication from the Great White North, multiple delays and a lack of a GeForce 8800 GTX killer squashed enthusiast expectations. Rumors began to fly that the same would be true of Radeon 2600 and 2400 products. Now we have the value propositions and they are not wowing us either.