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What if you could get a Radeon HD 5850 for $150 or so, without rebates? Great deal, right? That's a good deal faster and cheaper than the competing Radeon HD 6850 and GeForce GTX 460 1 GB. Well, it turns out that you can.
That's been out for a week or so, and they're still around. It's not just a US thing, either:
The weird thing about this is that they're all exactly the same SKU: the Sapphire Radeon HD 5850 Xtreme. This raises the obvious question of why this card should be so much cheaper than the competition. Cypress is 334 mm^2, which is not a cheap die to build. In particular, it's a lot more expensive than the Barts die of the Radeon HD 6850. And why just Sapphire, and not any of AMD's other board partners?
There's also a Sapphire Radeon HD 5830 Xtreme. But there notably isn't a Sapphire Radeon HD 5870 Xtreme, which is the top bin of Cypress. So there is the question of how this ended up happening. AMD mostly discontinued their Cypress GPU chip last fall, when its replacements, Barts and Cayman, launched. The various SKUs of Radeon HD 5870, 5850, and 5830 have slowly been disappearing. At 334 mm^2, it's a large, expensive GPU chip, so it's not the sort of card that AMD could sell cheaply for years.
However, AMD can't discontinue Cypress entirely, as they still need it for FirePro (professional graphics) and FireStream (GPGPU/supercomputer) cards. While those will eventually be replaced by cards based on the Cayman GPU that AMD launched in their Radeon cards (Radeon HD 6970 and 6950) last December, releases in those markets are delayed. Gamers will accept moderately buggy drivers for a while in newly launched gaming cards, but in the professional graphics market, that's a non-starter. So AMD has to delay the launch of new FirePro and FireStream cards until they've worked out the driver issues, which takes several months after the Radeon cards are ready to launch. Thus, those cards still need Cypress GPU chips.
While the FirePro and FireStream cards do include salvage parts, they don't go that low. So AMD ends up with a bunch of chips that will make perfectly good gaming cards, but can't meet the requirements to go into FirePro or FireStream cards. What do they do with those chips?
My guess is that they're selling them to Sapphire, for use in their "Xtreme" Radeon HD 5850 and 5830 cards, since that's a new SKU that released just this month. It's possible that they cut a deal with Sapphire to take all of the spare GPU chips that don't meet any FireStream or FirePro bins off their hands cheaply. Meanwhile, Sapphire passes on the discount to consumers to make sure that they can get rid of the cards before they're throughly obsolete. They don't want to still have millions of Cypress GPU dies laying around once Southern Islands and Kepler are out. Ask Nvidia how that worked for them with long obsolete GT215, GT216, and G92b dies that they're still trying to get rid of.
Now, that's just a guess, so it's likely wrong. But it's the only thing I can think of that would explain the pricing. And the card is an excellent deal for someone who is looking for a new video card today, which is why I started this thread.