Tonga’s Microarchitecture - What We’re Calling GCN 1.2

As we alluded to in our introduction, Tonga brings with it the next revision of AMD’s GCN architecture. This is the second such revision to the architecture, the last revision (GCN 1.1) being rolled out in March of 2013 with the launch of the Bonaire based Radeon HD 7790. In the case of Bonaire AMD chose to kept the details of GCN 1.1 close to them, only finally going in-depth for the launch of the high-end Hawaii GPU later in the year. The launch of GCN 1.2 on the other hand is going to see AMD meeting enthusiasts half-way: we aren’t getting Hawaii level details on the architectural changes, but we are getting an itemized list of the new features (or at least features AMD is willing to talk about) along with a short description of what each feature does. Consequently Tonga may be a lateral product from a performance standpoint, but it is going to be very important to AMD’s future.

But before we begin, we do want to quickly remind everyone that the GCN 1.2 name, like GCN 1.1 before it, is unofficial. AMD does not publicly name these microarchitectures outside of development, preferring to instead treat the entire Radeon 200 series as relatively homogenous and calling out feature differences where it makes sense. In lieu of an official name and based on the iterative nature of these enhancements, we’re going to use GCN 1.2 to summarize the feature set.

AMD's 2012 APU Feature Roadmap. AKA: A Brief Guide To GCN

To kick things off we’ll pull old this old chestnut one last time: AMD’s HSA feature roadmap from their 2012 financial analysts’ day. Given HSA’s tight dependence on GPUs, this roadmap has offered a useful high level overview of some of the features each successive generation of AMD GPU architectures will bring with it, and with the launch of the GCN 1.2 architecture we have finally reached what we believe is the last step in AMD’s roadmap: System Integration.

It’s no surprise then that one of the first things we find on AMD’s list of features for the GCN 1.2 instruction set is “improved compute task scheduling”. One of AMD’s major goals for their post-Kavari APU was to improve the performance of HSA by various forms of overhead reduction, including faster context switching (something GPUs have always been poor at) and even GPU pre-emption. All of this would fit under the umbrella of “improved compute task scheduling” in AMD’s roadmap, though to be clear with AMD meeting us half-way on the architecture side means that they aren’t getting this detailed this soon.

Meanwhile GCN 1.2’s other instruction set improvements are quite interesting. The description of 16-bit FP and Integer operations is actually very descriptive, and includes a very important keyword: low power. Briefly, PC GPUs have been centered around 32-bit mathematical operations for some number of years now since desktop technology and transistor density eliminated the need for 16-bit/24-bit partial precision operations. All things considered, 32-bit operations are preferred from a quality standpoint as they are accurate enough for many compute tasks and virtually all graphics tasks, which is why PC GPUs were limited to (or at least optimized for) partial precision operations for only a relatively short period of time.

However 16-bit operations are still alive and well on the SoC (mobile) side. SoC GPUs are in many ways a 5-10 year old echo of PC GPUs in features and performance, while in other ways they’re outright unique. In the case of SoC GPUs there are extreme sensitivities to power consumption in a way that PCs have never been so sensitive, so while SoC GPUs can use 32-bit operations, they will in some circumstances favor 16-bit operations for power efficiency purposes. Despite the accuracy limitations of a lower precision, if a developer knows they don’t need the greater accuracy then falling back to 16-bit means saving power and depending on the architecture also improving performance if multiple 16-bit operations can be scheduled alongside each other.

Imagination's PowerVR Series 6XT: An Example of An SoC GPU With FP16 Hardware

To that end, the fact that AMD is taking the time to focus on 16-bit operations within the GCN instruction set is an interesting one, but not an unexpected one. If AMD were to develop SoC-class processors and wanted to use their own GPUs, then natively supporting 16-bit operations would be a logical addition to the instruction set for such a product. The power savings would be helpful for getting GCN into the even smaller form factor, and with so many other GPUs supporting special 16-bit execution modes it would help to make GCN competitive with those other products.

Finally, data parallel instructions are the feature we have the least knowledge about. SIMDs can already be described as data parallel – it’s 1 instruction operating on multiple data elements in parallel – but obviously AMD intends to go past that. Our best guess would be that AMD has a manner and need to have 2 SIMD lanes operate on the same piece of data. Though why they would want to do this and what the benefits may be are not clear at this time.

AMD's Radeon R9 285 GCN 1.2: Geometry Performance & Color Compression
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  • MrSpadge - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    The point is that Tonga is NOT a rebrand. It's a brand-new chip, AMD themselves call it the 3rd generation of GCN. Making a new chip costs AMD a sgnificant amount of money, that's why they haven't bothered yet to update Pitcairn to at least 2nd gen GCN (1.1). And I'm totally fine with that. It's also OK for nVidia to use GK104 for GTX760. What's not OK - from my point of view - is AMD investing into this new chip Tonga and hardly getting any real world benefit over the 3 year old Tahiti designs. If nVidia introduces a Maxwell which performs and costs them just the same as the previous Kepler, I'll call them out for this as well. But this is pretty much excluded, from what we've seen so far.

    "And I highly doubt the 285 is 'all amd has'."
    It's their 3rd gen GCN architecture, as they say themselves. There's going to be a bigger chip using this architecture, but apart from that I doubt we'll see anything from AMD in the next year which is not yet in Tonga.
  • just4U - Friday, September 12, 2014 - link

    The one nice thing about the 285 is it will have resale value that has been lost on the 280-290 series thanks in large part to bit mining. There's a good chance that most won't feel that the 285 (and future incarnations) were run into the ground like the earlier ones were.
  • Frenetic Pony - Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - link

    Nah, what's interesting is that Maxwell may not be worth "responding" too. It's an almost totally mobile focused design, one that's not even totally out yet. If these benchmarks hold true then it's very exciting for AMD's upcoming high end. Nvidia may end up with a 512bit bus as well, but AMD's bandwidth optimizations will mean a similarly specced card of their's will still handily beat anything NVIDIA has in terms of resolution scaling.

    Heck it may even be enough to get a single GPU capable of running games at 4k at a reasonable fps. And that would be awesome. Maxwell might be good for Nvidia's mobile business, but I doubt it's going to help them take back the top spot for high end stuff from AMD.
  • mindbomb - Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - link

    UVD always supported vc-1. The first version supported full decode of h264 and vc-1. You are thinking of nvidia, who didn't have full hardware decode on a real desktop part until fermi.
  • mindbomb - Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - link

    Not that it matters really. It stopped being relevant when hd-dvd lost to bluray.
  • Navvie - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    A lot of blu-rays have vc-1 content.
  • nathanddrews - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link has a database that you can search by codec. VC-1 is very much alive and thriving.
  • Ryan Smith - Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - link

    According to my DXVA logs, the 280 did not support VC-1/WMV9. That is what I'm basing that on.
  • mindbomb - Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - link

    I think your logs are referring to the nvidia gtx 280, which did not support full vc-1 decode. AMD had it since the radeon 2600xt, which is ancient.
  • NikosD - Saturday, September 13, 2014 - link


    One of the main advantages of first generation UVD (ATI Radeon HD2000 series) over Nvidia, was the full DXVA VLD support of both 1080p H.264 L4.1 (BluRay spec) and VC-1.

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