AMD’s 5 New Cards and More
During AMD's 2014 GPU product showcase in Hawaii, AMD had a lot of announcements to make. The first of them was the expected announcement of new graphics cards. Looks like we will have to learn a new Radeon nomenclature with new prefixes R7 standing for mainstream cards and R9 for performance ones. Here are the new cards and the information AMD has revealed about them:
R7 250 - 1GB GDDR5, below $89, over 2000 in 3DMark Firestrike
R7 260X - 2GB GDDR5, $139, over 3700 in 3DMark Firestrike
R9 270X - 2GB GDDR5, $199, over 5500 3DMark Firestrike
R9 280X - 3GB GDDR5, $299, over 6800 in 3DMark Firestrike
R9 290X, - 4GB GDDR5, most powerful GPU AMD has ever built, 5 TFLOPS, over 300GB/s of memory bandwidth and 6 billion transistors. Neither price, nor any other indicators of performance were mentioned for the new flagship.
These cards are still based on GCN architecture and are still built on a 28 nm manufacturing process. R9 290X was shown on the floor of the conference and the unit shown was an early engineering sample with unfinished parts. However, it is likely that AMD aims to launch it in a month or two, as it has announced the special bundle of R9 290X and Battlefield 4.
However, the announcement of new graphics cards was not the biggest one, in part because of minimal information about them. Unexpectedly, the talk about audio took most of the time during the public part. Although dedicated audio cards for advanced effects were popular on PC in the past, in recent years games have almost exclusively used software audio effects computed on a CPU. AMD wants to add more advanced sound effects without stressing CPUs with their True Audio technology, which seems to utilise hardware DSP on new R9 290X, R9 290 and R7 260X graphics cards (this suggests that the rest of the new line-up are rebrands of HD7000 series). Game developers will have to specifically write their games to support the feature and some of them have already announced that they are working on it during the conference.
Finally, the last, but not the least by a long shot is the new Mantle graphics API from AMD. Unlike DirectX and OpenGL, which are high-level and practically hardware-independent, Mantle is a low-level API specifically tailored for the GCN architecture used in AMD HD 7000 and R 200 series of GPUs. AMD promises that this can allow them to reduce the time a CPU spends on the draw calls 9 times compared to DirectX and also efficiently utilise multicore CPU to send tasks to a GPU. The first game to feature the Mantle rendering path will be Battlefield 4, which will receive a patch to support it sometime in November. At a similar time more details about it should become available at AMD Developers Summit.
Overall, it is always nice to see the release of new graphics cards which offer more performance for the same money, while dropping the prices of currently released GPUs. R9 290X is expected to be cheaper than GTX 780 whilst its performance should be in a similar range, thus Nvidia might lower prices on their flagships in response. Even if most other new cards are rebrands, that is not an issue as long as prices go lower than the originals are selling at the moment.
On the other hand, Mantle and TrueAudio are both interesting and worrying news at the same time. The strength of the PC is its customisability with different hardware, while running the same software and games. That is the general trend, which is good for consumers, but there were exceptions in the past. In the 90s, DirectX was just making its first steps, while OpenGL was slowly coming into consumer space. Back then manufacturer specific APIs were popular and most known of them was 3dfx Glide. For consumers that meant that some games would play very well on his hardware, while others could only be played at much lower settings without a card from a different manufacturer. PhysX and Intel's extensions are minor compared to the difference between software renderer and GPU.
With the small amount of details we have about the Mantle at the moment it is very hard to say what the exactly future may bring. It is unlikely to replace DirectX and OpenGL in any game, but it might affect the resources spent on the more compatible parts. There is some suspicion that Mantle is based on the Xbox One and PS4 developer tools and so is easy for AMD to support on their PC GCN GPUs. That would make it very widespread fast and help the lifetime of HD7000 GPUs.
The reaction of other graphics giants will be important as well. If Intel and Nvidia decide to promote writing games for their chips on their low level as well there will be chaos. In the end, such architecture-specific API will only be viable as long as the chips based on that architecture, which may be out of production in 2-3 years. It is too soon to say how Mantle will affect PC gaming and for how long it will live, but it definitely will not leave things simple in the near future.