AMD made some significant steps forward with the Radeon HD 2000 series on the display output front, as these were the first ASICs to natively support HDMI with a 5.1 audio stream over the DVI port using a DVI-to-HDMI converter.
This was made possible by implementing an audio controller onto the GPU – this basically allows audio streams to be passed across the PCI express bus. AMD also integrates the HDCP crypto-ROMs required to play back protected content over both dual-link DVI ports at the same time (this requires a total of four keys).
As if native HDMI support with audio wasn’t enough, AMD has been improving the RV620 and RV635’s display output capabilities and these two GPUs are the first to natively support DisplayPort. Of course, some of Nvidia’s partners have announced support for DisplayPort, but none of Nvidia’s GPUs currently support the new interface natively and thus they’re using external chips to enable support.
Of course, it’s not going to make much difference to the display output quality, but what it does do is reduce the cost of the product when the ASIC supports the technology natively. Obviously, Nvidia’s partners have been careful to choose a product whose price isn’t quite so sensitive (the GeForce 8800 GT), so I see them as catering for two different markets. Regardless of that though, there’s a certain amount of kudos to give to AMD for being the first to natively support this new display interface.
AMD told us that it will only be implementing support for DisplayPort on a per-SKU basis, based on the fact that there are only a handful of displays supporting the interface available. However, as DisplayPort is implemented into more monitors, I’m sure that its prominence on graphics cards (at all price points) will increase.
It seems that Hybrid graphics technology is going to be one of the big things this year—right ahead of Intel and AMD moving their respective integrated GPUs onto their low-end CPUs in 2009. Right now, I’m not sure how long the Hybrid graphics technologies from either AMD and Nvidia will truly last (especially with the possibility of integrated-CPU graphics), but both appear to be attacking Intel’s integrated graphics solutions while they can.
As AMD’s GPUs are already pretty power-efficient, AMD decided to spend its time focusing on improving 3D performance for entry level and integrated GPUs to such an extent that they could play the latest games like Crysis, Call of Duty 4 and Unreal Tournament 3 at 1024x768 with respectable in-game graphical settings. We tried the Call of Duty 4 demo on the Hybrid CrossFire system we saw at the briefing, and I was frankly impressed with how good it looked on what was an incredibly inexpensive graphics subsystem.
Along with improved graphics performance, Hybrid CrossFire allows you to use up to four displays, although AMD didn’t detail what display outputs there would be on its RS780 chipset. From what we have heard, it only supports one digital and one analogue connection.
I asked AMD’s Terry Makedon about support for a power saving mode and he felt that it wasn’t needed at the moment. He explained that there’s a lot of work to do in software to enable the current version of Hybrid CrossFire and, because of the fact that AMD has implemented PowerPlay into all of its GPUs, idle power consumption is pretty acceptable anyway.
I know this will sound strange, but there’s not a lot more to talk about on Hybrid CrossFire at the moment because for the most part it’s very similar to CrossFire – just with one discrete GPU and one integrated GPU. I think that’s how AMD wants customers to view it as well – it works, and from what we’ve seen, it appears to work well at this early stage. AMD didn’t give a date on when we can expect this to be available for the public to take advantage of, but I would assume that it will be available as soon as AMD releases its RS780 chipset.
On the whole then, the value and mainstream Radeon HD 3000 series solutions are going to perform very similarly to the cards they’re replacing. That said though, AMD believes that both cards will hit appreciably lower price points than their equivalents in the Radeon HD 2000 series while offering a greater breadth of features under the hood. Whether or not they offer better value for money than the competition remains to be seen though, and we’ll reserve our judgement on these cards until after we’ve fully tested them.