MIA or Simply Retired?

We discuss why AMD seems unable to supply the HD 6970

It is awfully hard to deny the value proposition of the AMD HD 6970 graphics card.  The card overall matches (and sometimes exceeds) the NVIDIA GTX 570 at a slightly lower price, it has 2 GB of frame buffer, and AMD is consistently improving not just gaming performance for the new VLIW 4 architecture, but also adding to its GPGPU support.  Throw in the extra happiness of a more manageable power draw, pretty low heat production for a top end card, and it is also the fastest single GPU card when it comes to bitcoin mining.  With all of these positives, why hasn’t everyone gone out to buy one?  Simple, they simply are hard to come by anymore.

¿Dónde están las tarjetas gráficas?

Throughout Winter and Spring of this year, the HD 6970 was an easy card to acquire.  Prices were very reasonable, supply seemed ample, and most every manufacturer had one in a configuration that would appeal to a lot of people.  The HD 6950 was also in great supply, and it was also in a few unique configurations that adds more for the money than just the reference design.  This Summer saw the pool of HD 6970 cards dry up, not to mention the complete lack of HD 6990 cards in retail altogether.

So what is happening here?  When we look at the available video cards, we see that the lower end HD 6950s are well represented.  The HD 6950s use the same die as the HD 6970, but with portions disabled and at a lower clock speed.  This has a twofold implication towards fabrication.  First off it is used to recover partially defective die and sell them on the market, and secondly it decreases the overall TDP of the chip to more reasonable levels.  These second level dies are still sold at a profit, while the top binning parts have a slightly better overall margin.

I spoke with two manufacturers of video cards about this situation, both of which wish to remain anonymous.  They gave the same answer.  The reason for the lack of product on shelves is not one of demand.  So basically bitcoin miners have not purchased every single card on the market (unlike the HD 5830, which is a favorite of the group).  The problem is supply.  AMD has not supplied these manufacturers with enough HD 6970 chips to address the actual demand.

Trying to dig further was futile.  I was unable to uncover why AMD has failed to supply these chips to their manufacturing partners.  NVIDIA on the other hand has plenty of GTX 570 and GTX 580 products in the marketplace, and those GPUs are more complex to fabricate and they share the same 40 nm process from TSMC as the AMD Cayman chips do.

Cards such as the R6970 Lightning had much a lot to offer, but now they are impossible to come by.

There are three potential reasons as to why we have a shortage.  Something to also keep in mind when considering these possible reasons is that the add-in graphics market has been beat up pretty badly lately.  J. Peddie and Associates reckon that the market has shrunk by about 15% this past quarter due to the much more competent integrated graphics provided by Sandy Bridge processors from Intel and the recently released AMD Llano series.

The first potential reason for this dearth in supply is that AMD simply did not order enough wafer starts.  This looks fine on the surface, but once we start digging it starts to look pretty flimsy.  Since the HD 6970 is based on the same die as the HD 6950, it is confusing to see the large selection of HD 6950 products on the market.  Why would AMD disable fully working chips that could be used in the higher margin HD 6970, and send them down to the HD 6950 level?  Simply put, they wouldn’t.  This leads us to our second reason.

TSMC had manufacturing issues which negatively affected the binning of this batch.  It takes some three months for an order to go through the fabs.  AMD could have made the order in late Winter, expecting packaged chips to be delivered in late Spring, at which time they would ship them off to partners for final product manufacturing.  If the finished chips did not hit the expected bins, we would expect to see many more dies to be downgraded to HD 6950 quality.  This looks far more likely than AMD not planning out their wafer orders correctly.

The third reason is far more speculative.  We have heard rumors of AMD delivering their next generation 28 nm parts much sooner than expected, and well before NVIDIA can counter with a 28 nm part of their own.  The problem with this speculation is that TSMC is not planning on opening up 28 nm HKMG (high performance) production until late 2011, with initial products hitting shelves in Q1 2012.  So how exactly is AMD going to resolve this conundrum?  GLOBALFOUNDRIES?  Nope, their work on a high performance 28 nm process is even further behind TSMC (though AMD will likely second source them in 2012, but neither process will share the same standard cell design).

It now looks like AMD will be tapping the low power/bulk 28 nm process node that TSMC has already made available.  Initial speculation from several sources point to these first 28 nm products being budget and midrange products, which do not necessarily have to be high performance parts.  My final bit of speculation here is that AMD has done the math and has determined that they can create a chip using this process that will match or exceed the current HD 6970, and it does not have to use the high performance 28 nm node to achieve this.  So the reason we do not see HD 6970s on the market right now is that AMD is clearing the channel for a new high end product that will be released in early Fall, 2011.

AMD has so far refused to comment on the situation, so until we hear (or see) something more concrete, we are just speculating.  The only facts that we have before us is that AMD has not delivered HD 6970 binned chips to their manufacturing partners in any significant quantity.  And let us not dwell on the complete lack of HD 6990 products altogether.  We are fast approaching September, and perhaps we will see the first 28 nm parts from AMD in that month.  So far the channel has been pretty silent about the situation, but one comment from a person who works closely with several manufacturers gives one pause.  “Gotta clear out that current inventory…”


Update:  Talk about uncanny timing.  We published this article this afternoon, and about 3 hours later stock suddenly appeared back on Newegg and other sites.  We have been watching stock for the past few weeks, and talked to the manufacturers, and there was nothing.  Keep watch and see how long this lasts!