With the recent Series 5 GPU launch and future cards in mind, we sat down with Bill Donnelly, Global PR Director of Sapphire.
While Donnelly's official title might denote pure marketing duties, he is in fact involved in early product qualification and testing, meaning he usually has his ear to the ground with regards to new releases. Taking this into consideration, we probed him on the implications the 5 series graphics cards hold for the company, as well as his general thoughts on the future of the industry.
Speaking about the 5 series, Donnelly revealed that the "tremendous response" the 5870 received was "as we expected", adding that with the implementation of features like DirectX 11, increased speed and lower power consumption, there's no reason Sapphire should have had any doubts about consumer response.
Windows 7, Nvidia and DirectX 11
When quizzed about Nvidia's inevitable riposte, he declined to go into that too much, simply stating, "As far as I am aware, no competing technology will be able to offer these features for several months at least." If this can be taken as gospel, Nvidia will be missing out on valuable market share as early adopters of Windows 7 pick up the only DirectX 11 compatible cards - for now, ATI - in order to take advantage of the exclusive features available. In reality, we'd expect Nvidia to be gunning for an imminent release of its cards, to follow as close as possible to the arrival of Microsoft's new OS, which finally arrived on 22 October.
The VaporX HD 5870
While it's still early days for the R800 based GPUs, we were keen to find out if Sapphire will be pushing out any upgraded versions before the Christmas season. Donnelly informed us that the firm already has engineering samples of a VaporX version of the HD 5870 and that it will also be looking at "performance optimised versions" of the cards, suggesting some overclocked editions aren't far away. He capped off his answer by telling us to "watch out for introductions in the coming weeks."
Where to for GPUs from here?
It won't be long until those with deep pockets can enjoy a brand new x2 variant humming away inside their rig. The question we put to Donnelly, though, was where does that technology go from here? Will we be seeing further development of single PCB cards, or is Crossfire technology where future performance lies? He explained that while two GPUs on a single card is practical, in terms of power, case real estate and data bus bandwidth, it wouldn't be feasible to add another at this time. Despite this, he didn't back it up by lauding the benefits of Crossfire, simply stating that "scaling on previous generations tends to flatten off at around three to four GPUs", inferring that for now, ATI, or at least Sapphire, would continue to push both options of increasing 3D performance.
The graphics card industry is often perceived to be one of the harder ones to work in, due to the balancing act that must be played. While the company's image is built almost solely by the performance of the top-end GPU cards, the most lucrative market is the mid-range. However, Donnelly debunked this somewhat, saying that recent releases apparently have made it "increasingly easy", with mid-range cards from the most recent generation usually achieving similar speeds as those at the high end of the previous one. He did say, however, that there was always the "halo effect" to consider; that the company holding the current performance crown ultimately sells more mid-range cards due to improved public perception.
Too many variations?
A common gripe that we hear from tech-heads around the world is that there are so many different versions of seemingly identical cards, making the manufacture of standardised water blocks and other gadgets increasingly difficult. Sapphire having three different circuit topologies of the 4850 alone, we put the question to Donnelly, why so many?
"At the point of introduction, all partners are given standard products to sell, and have access to the reference designs," he said. "Sapphire then takes those reference designs and optimises them for different markets." Some of the ones he went on to list included its Toxic water cooled range, as well as the VaporX series with advanced air coolers. The other one he mentioned was a budget model designed with ease of manufacturer in mind, which Donnelly said allowed the firm to "offer a cost reduced model for the mass market". However it seemed he couldn't resist using this opportunity to take an indistinct swipe at GPU rivals, simply stating, "Some of the other partners never get beyond using the reference designs - maybe just changing the coolers, but that is only part of the story."
We also questioned Donnelly on what he thought the future of consumer graphics would be. Would it continue to develop as it is, or would cloud computing and services like OnLive sound the beginning of the end for the market?
Unsurprising for a man proud of his industry, he answered with a succinct "No", and went on to explain that those wanting the most immersive gaming experience "will always want to display images locally at high resolutions and high levels of detail". He also managed to mention a new 5 series feature known as Eyefinity, which allows ATI cards to support up to three high resolution monitors at once.
Donnelly also filled us in a bit on Sapphire's strategy in other hardware markets, including motherboards and power supplies. He mentioned that the firm has a new PSU range out at the moment, known as the Pure series, which has had recent additions of 1250W, 1050W and 950W. He was also quick to mention that they were already available at all big e-tailers. Motherboard-wise he was keen to mention Sapphire's use of "solid capacitors", "well designed voltage regulation circuitry" and "options for end user tuning" in the BIOS, though he identified no specific products.
Donnelly concluded our talk by saying that Sapphire has an exciting few months ahead and throwing one final jab at competitors, saying ATI's cards give the firm a "major leap ahead" of the rest of the pack. The response from the other camp should, nevertheless, be interesting.