Fire GL Mod
June 17, 2004 7:28 PM   Subscribe

Do you have an ATI Radeon video card? If so, Adrian's Rojak Pot has a story up that shows you how to convert your Radeon based video card into a Fire GL card, with no physical modification through a process which modifies the video BIOS. The difference primarily between a normal Radeon video card and a Fire GL card is (drum roll.....) $120+ dollars, and enhancements designed for CAD and rendering programs. (entire list of certified programs that take advantage of Fire GL are in this PDF, including Adobe Premier) Video BIOS images are available here. Of course, modding your video card is certainly nothing new, as hacking ones BIOS can be an easy (if not somewhat dangerous) way to get more power from your investment. (Note: Although you can save a bad flash, the process is somewhat difficult. Attempt mod at your own risk.)
posted by Keyser Soze (33 comments total)
YAY! I LOVE TO PIRATE ALSO! Pirated firmware == FUN.
posted by shepd at 7:51 PM on June 17, 2004

Hey! I was going to say that someone should alert Keyser, and lo and behold, there he is!
posted by loquax at 7:58 PM on June 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

I thought there was a rule here that all Front Page Posts must be in English...
posted by wendell at 8:20 PM on June 17, 2004

IANAL, but modifying your firmware with an image from another video should not be illegal. Where does it say that updating your video card with software from different cards is illegal?
posted by Keyser Soze at 8:25 PM on June 17, 2004

wendell is clearly not a l33t haxor.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:25 PM on June 17, 2004

>Where does it say that updating your video card with software from different cards is illegal?

The EULA of the software you are putting in it?

I suppose if you coded the software yourself, well, hey, no problem... not that it matters to me, anyways. :-)
posted by shepd at 8:31 PM on June 17, 2004

All that fuss for a difference of $120? Bah. Try hacking your Canon Digital Rebel into a camera that's almost $500 more expensive...
posted by cratchit at 8:57 PM on June 17, 2004

Great! The my radeon works terribly in maya, especially using brushes. The brushes leave a big red trail because they don't refresh after for some reason. So this is good news, but i'm still not going to do it. I've been having enough problems these days already with the card, and I need to keep it the way it is for gaming.
posted by Evstar at 9:15 PM on June 17, 2004

Thanks for the link. I was just explaining to someone what the differences between ATI's lines are. You wouldn't do accident reconstruction with game physics.
posted by tomplus2 at 9:26 PM on June 17, 2004

wendell is clearly not a l33t haxor.
crash, as Howard Cosell once said to O.J.Simpson, "You have an uncanny grasp of the obvious."
posted by wendell at 9:38 PM on June 17, 2004

By the way evstar, this does not affect gaming capabilities in any way. Games will still use your video cards Direct X 9.0 (maybe in your case 8) capabilities. The hack lets you use more professional data "use", for lack of a better word.
posted by Keyser Soze at 10:54 PM on June 17, 2004


I must admit: I, also, love to "pirate". Why, just last week I took a Malaysian cargo ship in the Strait of Malacca. My crew captured more turtleneck sweaters then we will ever be able to launder through our Singaporean agent! Ha!

Now, look at this Ratfish!
posted by mr_roboto at 10:59 PM on June 17, 2004

I'm suprised that although we have a comment on the ethics of BIOS flashing, we don't have any comments yet on the ethics of a company that sells two identical products at vastly different prices, and cripples the cheaper one through software.
The manufacturing costs are identical, so this is all just a matter of branding. I know it is legal, but is it ethical?
It sounds a lot like asking a shopkeeper "How much for a widget?" and getting the reply: "How much have you got on you?"
Not a very nice way of doing business, if you ask me.
posted by bashos_frog at 11:10 PM on June 17, 2004

"Not a very nice way of doing business, if you ask me.—bashos_frog
Many people feel this way. It's wrong, though.

Think about your shopkeeper example again. That's haggling. People still haggle, even though most people don't like to haggle. Why?

Because it can be more efficient than "one size fits all". In the long run, everyone benefits because the average price of a given thing falls because this kind of price sensitivity is more efficient.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:33 AM on June 18, 2004

(Many EULAs are totally unenforceable anyway — they're just there to scare you. Unless you're unfortunate enough to live in a UCITA state.)
posted by hattifattener at 2:03 AM on June 18, 2004

Surely the extra $120 is paying for the software on the card? Or, since it only benefits CAD and the like, and not games, its an extra charge for commercial users, which seems to be the norm with most things.
posted by Orange Goblin at 3:36 AM on June 18, 2004


It isn't necessarily an ethical thing. The heart of these graphics boards is a special purpose microprocessor. This microprocessor is fabricated in a CMOS semiconductor process and the characteristics of that process, in part, determine the speed that the microprocessor can run at.

Simple, right? It is except that the process varies and so the maximum speed you can run at varies as well. In simplified terms you have best case, nominal and worst case process. You don't know exactly at what corner you'll land and it varies from wafer to wafer and from location to location on that wafer.

What's a wafer? Well, it's a circular slice of silicon that the microprocessors are built on. The microprocessors will be rectangular in shape and the wafer is diced up into bunches of microprocessors. Between any pair of wafers you can vary from best case to worst case (or anywhere in between). On a particular wafer the microprocessors will be around some process point but will vary somewhat depending on where on the wafer they are.

In front of me right now I've got a few different simulations of a section of an integrated circuit. If I measure the speed of this circuit I see over a 2:1 difference in speed between worst case and best case. In the circuits I design I have to work across process. It'll always run at the same speed regardless of the application. For this reason I have to look at certain characteristics at worst case and make sure they pass and certain characteristics at best case and make sure they pass.

In some cases, such as microprocessors or graphics processors, its alright to have different speed grades of processors. So based on on chip measurements you bin the processors. Maybe the really fast ones get stamped 400 MHz and the slower ones get stamped at 250 MHz. What this means is that they can't guarantee the operation of this processor at a particular process point over the full range of temperature and voltage. It might run faster in particular circumstances (your box is kept cool compared to the full specification) but they can't play those games for liability reasons.

You'll see people running 2.5 GHz processors at 3 GHz and such. It runs, maybe really reliably for that application but the manufacture can't sign off on it as a 3 GHz part because there are certain conditions in which it might fail or might not meet the lifetime requirements.

There's more than just speed too. Certain parts of a circuit generate more noise than others. There's noise in the actual transistors, resistors and capacitors within the i.c. as well as noise caused by the data transitioning within the part as well. A bit flips from a 0 to 1 and so if you look at the voltage on that wire it goes from a low voltage to a high voltage. This causes a current spike and so you'll see voltage droop due to resistave and inductive effects. So maybe you have a particular process point that works reliably as long as you disable some feature. Maybe somebody else can enable it in run but you can't guarantee that you won't have product recalls if your company certifies it with that feature enabled.

These different speed grades would be scrap without the binning process. It might seem more ethical but the actual effect would be that you'd see one or two speeds of Pentium 4s or nVidia GPUs and they'd cost a whole lot more. The cost for all the parts they'd have to throw away would be passed onto the consumer.
posted by substrate at 5:06 AM on June 18, 2004

I find it amusing that shepd would call this piracy when he makes his living or part of it selling and modifying video game systems.

There shouldn't be any legal problems with modifying your own hardware in this manner. There might be due to the DMCA and other laws. It'd be unethical for a reseller to sell overclocked/modified cards unless its known by the buyer.
posted by substrate at 5:14 AM on June 18, 2004

substrate, I don't think we're talking about overclocking here, which is what your long post seems to address. Just a diff BIOS.
posted by smackfu at 6:37 AM on June 18, 2004

"..we don't have any comments yet on the ethics of a company that sells two identical products at vastly different prices, and cripples the cheaper one through software."

Intel used to sell the 486 with and without a math coprocessor. If I remember correctly, on the models without, it was present but just not hooked up.
posted by mikeh at 6:56 AM on June 18, 2004

I understand substrate's comments re:overclocking, and I think they are fair. In that case you are paying extra for an extra guarantee of quality. I don't think they apply to the ATI case though. And I don't think they apply in the case of the Canon camera.
posted by bashos_frog at 7:38 AM on June 18, 2004

smackfu, I think it's related. It's not exactly overclocking but parts of the processor were disabled. The BIOS change re-enables them. At least that was the case with the nVidia consumer versus Quadro versions. In the case of the Quadro (which I have in my workstation at work) and my home machine which has the equivalent nVidia consumer model there's only a 50 MHz speed difference but certain operations are much faster at work. The 50 MHz difference doesn't account for the acceleration.
posted by substrate at 7:38 AM on June 18, 2004

ALso, EB - I'm not against haggling, but in my opinion, haggling is 2 people with starting ideas of the value of an item working towards some price in the middle. This kind of deal is not the same. ATI is just trying to extract as much money as possible - they don't have a fair value in mind at all. If they did, they would sell the cards at their fair value price and let everyone have access to all the nifty features.
posted by bashos_frog at 7:47 AM on June 18, 2004

substrate, I suppose my field of work means I have to be overly sensitive to what's legal and not legal when it comes to piracy. I suppose I tread the fine line on the legal side, and I hope I do a good job of it. I've never been investigated or "busted" (knock on wood) so methinks I'm doing it right.

Either way, it was more of a half-serious joke than anything. :-)
posted by shepd at 10:21 AM on June 18, 2004

What is all this hubub about? They offer 2 products, one of which is an entry level with basic features, the other a professional model with all the bells and whistles. The big one costs more money. SHOCKING!

Put yourself in their shoes. ATI has to manufacture both cards, Canon must make both cameras, Intel both chips, etc etc. They have 2 options:

1) Set up two seperate production lines to maufacture two very similar products, each requiring its own set of designers, engineers, managers, line workers, resources, supplies, repairs, and on and on.

2) Set up one production line to manufacture them both, then at the end of line turn off the bells and quiet the whistles in the cheaper model.

Next, they get some well paid bean counters to do alittle math. clearly, going the first route will cost alot more money, both in initial set-up costs and upkeep. Not quite the obvious twice as much since the lines could share the most expensive resources and personnel, put probably close. The advantage is that doing it this way, on two seperate lines, will prevent end users from transforming their inexpensive models into pricey ones. The [several] million dollar question is this: will the extra costs of manufacturing the products on seperate lines be greater than or less than the money they will lose from people buying the cheap version and turning into the expensive one, in ATI's case $120 per unit.

Now, I'm a smart guy but I must admit I don't know the answer to this; people smarter than me get paid much more than me to come up with the answer. But considering that making the cheap version a features-unenabled version of the expensive one seems to be the trend among several immensely profitable companies, I can guess.

So that's what they do. Its not legality, its not ethics, its simple economics. I know for a fact that they've been doing this in automobiles for years. Its easier and cheaper to install a single type of engine for every car, rather than customize each one. So that's what they do, and then put a computer in it to govern its performance; slow for the cheap models, fast for the expensive ones. The "sport package" you can purchase as an option that adds 50hp for $500 is merely a different computer that allows the engine to run faster.

I'm shocked people are unaware of this and SHOCKED that they are outraged. Comapnies are selling hamstrung versions of their products at a reduced price? The horror...
posted by ChasFile at 12:30 PM on June 18, 2004

ATI is just trying to extract as much money as possible

Welcome to capitalism.

As you mentioned, you have the professional model at work and the home model at home. Why? Because your employer paid for the card at work. They have a bigger budget, and ATI knows this, so they make a 'professional' and 'industry-standard' version of their standard product and jack up the price because they know your employer will pay. Anything sold B2B always comes with a mark-up like that, because businesses know that other businesses are too stupid to know or too lazy to care what a fair price is.

I mean, I don't think I'm saying anything at all revolutionary here. Can I get a witness?
posted by ChasFile at 12:40 PM on June 18, 2004

By the same token, it's only economical for me to replace their crippled BIOS for free.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:48 PM on June 18, 2004

If the reflash is a custom-written program that unlocks the features, then it is perfectly legal, though the warranty is susceptible to being voided.

This makes the Canon Digital Rebel hack above board, as it is a flash that unlocks features in the 300D by simply toggling a command in a 300D bios file.

The ATI hack is a gray area, as here you have people going for a shotgun effect... one of the ATI bios files may give you a better feature set in your consumer-grade video card that happens to have the same core and memory module.

ChasFile, a minor correction... most cars don't require a full ECU swap, instead it's similar to the Canon hack, you reflash the fuel map with adjusted values.

Some cars can have their computers bypassed by a stand-alone fuel management system installed in a laptop hardwired to the car.

Normally aspirated engines will never gain much from a reflashed fuel map, at most 10hp. Getting more out of it would require a turbocharger or supercharger. Stock supercharged and turbocharged engines can gain possibly 30-50hp, depending on how detuned the engine is (the VW Golf/Jetta/New Beetle 1.8T, Audi A4 1.8T, and Audi TT 180 can be flashed with software to peak at 210hp, which is 60hp more than the most detuned of the pack, the New Beetle).
posted by linux at 12:49 PM on June 18, 2004

By the same token, it's only economical for me to replace their crippled BIOS for free.


I hope I didn't give the impression that I thought noodling with your card was illegal or immoral. Free markets must be free for consumer as well as producer. The company undertook a cost-benefit analysis, factoring in the money they would lose if people did soup up their cards, and went ahead and produced a product susceptible to this anyway. They did so because they figured even if a few people did this, it wouldn't be enough to impact their bottom line, or the costs of producing a product impervious to this type of covert upgrade would be prohibitive. In either event, these companies spent alot of time and money predicting how many people would discover and exploit this, so please don't prove them wrong. Upgrade away.
posted by ChasFile at 1:03 PM on June 18, 2004

There's still something vaguely troubling about a firm that has a good product and spends time and money and human effort to make it worse, so that they can sell it cheaper without competing against the original. Human effort going to anti-productive purposes.

It really bugged me back in the 486 days when, at least for a while, Intel had to spend more money on a 486SX to turn off the FPU so that they'd turn around and sell it cheaper.

It offends the tiny little neoclassical economist in me -- dammit, price is marginal cost -- and it would probably offend hypercapitalists like Rand, who tended to see the good parts as people exchanging their best efforts with each other, not people going out of their way to make their product less excellent.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:16 PM on June 18, 2004

Price is marginal cost when the market is perfectly competitive - there are no barriers to entry and products from competing firms are functionally indistinguishable. Neither is the case in this market, so we should expect price to hover above marginal cost. Economically inefficient, of course, but not necessarily bad. The sort of price discrimination exhibited here, which is almost formally equivalent to airlines charging less for trips that include a Saturday stayover, or to theaters offering student rush tickets right before the show, can actually make some people better off.

Unfortunately, the obvious efficient solution (everyone getting the same thing they already have, but with all products being fully functional), isn't incentive compatible without getting pretty creative. There's no way to get the people who are paying the big bucks for the high-end product to continue paying said big bucks, if someone else can get the same product for much less. So they would end up charging everyone the same price somewhere in between the two current prices, and some of the people now buying the cheaper card would simply be priced out of the market. Instead, the discriminating monopolist can offer two different products and segment his market into high-rollers and the more cost-sensitive consumers. Some people might consider it clever entrepreneurship. The only problem is that it falls apart if someone figures out how to fix the "broken" product cheaply. If the method discussed in the FPP really works consistently, I'd expect the prices eventually to converge for the two "different" cards. A testable theory!
posted by dilettanti at 9:05 PM on June 18, 2004

Interesting theory dillettanti, and well put. From a consumer perspective, I feel that if you are purchasing for a medium to large business, go for the full version of what ATI is offering. This hack voids any warranty, and business tact argues quite nicely against hacking something with a warranty and no guarantee of success. However, for someone who is proficient with hardware and understands the risks involved, any attempt to do this on their purchase is not dangerous enough to lose all functionality on the card. As my last link shows, you can fix a broken flash by putting another video card in and forcing the original backup into the card. Simple to do, in fact.

This hack, in my opinion, is targetted towards the student and small business owner who cannot afford the very best, but needs to maintain competition with ones peers. I have always felt it is morally fair to steal software on the basis of learning from it but not create financial incentives to do so, if one cannot afford to purchase said items. A student who cannot afford to do their work is disadvantaged, and I openly support them using methods like these to help them, legal or not.
posted by Keyser Soze at 11:00 PM on June 18, 2004

mikehIntel used to sell the 486 with and without a math coprocessor. If I remember correctly, on the models without, it was present but just not hooked up.

Most of the coprocessors were physically damaged. That part of the chip was burned with a laser. This was only after yeilds were good enough that Intel didn't have enough 486s that were other wise ok but had co-processors with manufacturing defects.
posted by Mitheral at 10:32 AM on June 21, 2004

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