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ATI Radeon HD 4770: 40nm Goes Mainstream

Introduction

Writing about the latest and greatest hardware is fun—I’m not going to lie. Getting hands-on with technology in the lab is practically a hobby, and I’m fairly confident that most enthusiasts would share that excitement surrounded by a lab full of tech.

But I’ll be the first to admit that $500 dual-GPU video cards and $1,000 Extreme Edition processors are Beluga caviar in a Big Mac world. There are some lucky gamers who really buy the pricey stuff. A majority, however, live vicariously through the reviews, and actually spends their money on components derived from high-end kit.

Fortunately, even the mid-range of the graphics market is full of excitement right now. Bargains pepper the $100-$200 range, from the Radeon HD 4830 to the Radeon HD 4850/GeForce GTS 250 and Radeon HD 4870/GeForce GTX 260.

The challenge faced by vendors like ATI and Nvidia, though, is that those inexpensive cards all center on the same GPUs—processors that actually begin life as potential top-shelf components powering boards like the GeForce GTX 285 and Radeon HD 4870. Dropping the engine from a $350 GTX 285 into a $180 GTX 260, for instance, has to be painful. Similarly, the slide from $180 Radeon HD 4870 to $130 Radeon HD 4830 isn’t exactly economical.

That’s why you see derivative mainstream GPUs. Think G94 to Nvidia’s G92 or RV620 to ATI’s RV670. They employ architectural elements from the full-strength GPU, but consume less die space. So long as ATI or Nvidia is able to sell enough of them to offset a separate chip design, they come out ahead.

Remember this chart? ATI is going after another demand peak.

A Mainstream Contender?

Enter ATI’s new Radeon HD 4770—the first GPU manufactured on a 40 nm process. As with the other models in the company’s HD 4000-series family, the HD 4770 is derived from the same popular RV770 design popularized by the Radeon HD 4870 and 4850 cards almost a year ago.

But this one sports a slightly different core arrangement. At the same time, it displaces ATI’s Radeon HD 4830, which centered on the same pricey RV770 GPU at 55 nm. Thus, we'll be expecting at least comparable performance as we compare new to old.

If the Radeon HD 4770 is, in fact, able to stand up to the HD 4830, then the best news for value-oriented gamers will be this card’s price tag: $109. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “impressive” in conjunction with something you'd normally find in the bargain bin. However, playable frame rates at 1920x1200 might just deserve such an adjective if this new mainstream board turns out to be a contender. It’d be a real coup for ATI too, given the massive market for $100 video cards, according to the same Mercury Research data we cited in the Radeon HD 4890 story.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the Radeon HD 4770’s innards for a glimpse at why this card has potential to be a winner.

Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.