AMD Soft Launches “Volcanic Islands” GPUs With Programmable Audio in Hawaii

At a tech preview event in Hawaii, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) revealed its vision for next generation GPUs, APUs, and graphics technologies.  It also teased at a path away from DirectX for PC gamers, a new proprietary, AMD-specific API dubbed “Mantle” that works on the PC, console, and potentially Linux (e.g. the Steam Box) in the future.  

I. Is Radeon Gaming?

Today AMD has some ammo when it boldly proclaims “Radeon is Gaming”.  The PC market remains a very competitive two horse race between AMD and NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA); but in the the console market AMD controls all three of the current/upcoming next generation consoles.

Of course the one place AMD is weak is the mobile market where NVIDIA’s GeForce-equipped Tegra, Imagination Technologies Plc.’s (LON:IMG) PowerVR, Qualcomm, Inc. (QCOM) Adreno, and ARM Holdings Plc.’s (LON:ARM) Mali compete for market dominance.  But AMD is content to ignore its weakness in that market, in this bit of chest puffing.

AMD began its talk by emphasizing its console wins and bragging that it is adding 16x as much accessible memory and TFLOPs of computing performance in the Sony Corp.’s (TYO:6758) PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT) Xbox One.  AMD produces the CPU and GPU for both consoles; it also produces the GPU for Nintendo Comp., Ltd.’s (TYO:7974) WiiU.

Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One are expected to amount to millions of APU and GPU sales per month for AMD. [Image Source: Sony]
(NVIDIA, for the record claims it “allowed” AMD to dominate this generation of the console market.)

Some have speculated that AMD isn’t making much of its console contracts, but at the very least it’s giving AMD market share and the ability to control the direction of the graphics hardware market to a broader extent than when it was simply a player in the PC component market.

AMD plans to use that broad base to drive new technologies — such as programmable audio — onto the market via its diverse coalition of hardware partners and game makers.

Matt Skinner, General Manager of AMD’s graphics business unit outlined a central premise of the talk, remarking, “We need both sight and sound for an immersive gaming experience…. when you’re playing a game you don’t turn off your monitor… and when you’re playing a game you don’t turn off your speakers.”

But as much as AMD’s event outlined a broad platform-level vision, it’s juiciest parts were targeted at the business AMD knows best — the $18B USD PC gaming market; a market that is expected to grow to $21B USD by 2016.

II. Volcanic Islands Erupts Onto the Scene

At the heart of AMD’s ambitions for desktop dominance are the much-anticipated successors the Radeon HD 7000 (Southern Islands) series cards.  These cards are based on a brand new GPU — Volcanic Islands — and are branded as the R7 2xx and R9 2xx family cards.

These are the first announced GPUs to support Microsoft’s upcoming DirectX 11.2 standard, which will be introduced with the free upgrades to Windows 8.1/8.1 RT.  This is more than a bit ironic — as you’ll see if you read on — as AMD is also working to provide customers with a new path (albeit a proprietary one) away from Microsoft’s DirectX altogether (Mantle).  
The Volcanic Islands GPUs utilize the next iteration of Graphics Core Next (GCN) which was introduced with the Radeon HD 7000 series.  The latest GCN chips will compete against Intel Corp.’s (INTC) Xeon Phi (available) and NVIDIA Corp.’s (NVDA) (upcoming, unannounced) Maxwell chips in GPU computing supercomputers and will compete with Maxwell and Intel’s Iris Pro in the gaming market.

The new GCN-based R7 and R9 architectures are built on a mature second-generation Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd. (TPE:2330) process — or possibly a similar 28 nm process by the Common Platform Alliance whose manufacturers include International Business Machines, Corp. (IBM), GlobalFoundries, Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KSC:005930).

Volcanic Islands is produced at a 28 nm node. [Image Source: Reuters]
Clearly AMD has worked hard to get its supply chain in order and is opting for a bit different strategy for this family of chips versus the Radeon HD 6000 and 7000 series.  Where as past series it did a soft launch, followed by the hard launch of one or two cards, for this family it’s introduced an entire full-fledged family of R7 and R9 cards with Volcanic Islands GPUs at the soft launch, which will launch from day one when the hard launch hits.  

The R7/R9 two tier system is similar to NVIDIA’s GT versus GTX divide, although that divide is muddled slightly by the ‘X’ that appears following all but the lowest R7 card’s numbering.  
III. Meet the R7, R9 Cards

Mr. Skinner brags that the new Radeons family features “a top to bottom product line for every gamer”, and that, “We believe we have winners at ever price.”

The new family of Volcanic Islands GPUs consists of five cards:

  • R7 250
    • “The most powerful GPU for under $90”
    • 1 GB GDDR5
  • R7 260X
    • “The most powerful GPU for under $160”
    • $139 price point (rumored)
    • 2 GB GDDR5
  • R9 270X
    • “The most powerful GPU for under $200”
    • 2 GB GDDR5
  • R9 280X
    • “The most powerful GPU for under $300”
    • 3 GB GDDR5
  • R9 290X
    • AMD claims this is the “world’s most powerful” GPU
      • 6 billion transistors (+2 bill. from Radeon HD 7970 GE)
      • 4 GB GDDR5 (+1 GB from 7970 GE)
      • 5 TFLOPS of compute power (+1 TFLOP from 7970 GE)
      • Capable of rendering 4 billion triangles/sec
      • 300 GB/sec. bandwidth (vs. 288 GB/sec. in 7970 GE)
        • AMD says this bandwidth will support 4K gaming with “100+ layers” of effects
    • No announced price
    • Bundled with Electronic Arts Inc.’s (EA) Battlefield 4 for those who preorder, which will go live Oct. 3:

It’s clear from the R9 290X launch bundled that the formal launch date for the cards is sometime after early October — potentially in the early November alongside Windows 8.1/Windows 8.1 RT, and the new wave of consoles (PS4, Xbox One).

IV. GPU Programmable Audio — Revolutionary or Hype?

The most intriguing feature in the new R7/R9 series cards is a new programmable audio engine dubbed “TrueAudio”.  AMD bragged the TrueAudio was the first “fully programmable audio engine” built around the shader model.

Raji Koduri — the chief technical officer of AMD’s graphics group, who returned to AMD recently after a stint at Apple, Inc (AAPL) — recalls, “Programmable shaders revolutionized graphics… programmable shaders let the artists at graphics companies to express themselves, to differentiate themselves.”

He then went on to argue that the ability to use GPU hardware to speed up audio processing via its massively parallel core model will revolutionize the quality of gaming sound.

To support that claim Mr. Koduri discussed two examples — one in which hundreds of voices of non-player characters (NPCs) are processed in real-time (think Skyrim) using graphics acceleration, and another in which 24 channel audio is squeezed into 7.1 channel audio via a computational approximation.

Versus competitive digital signal processing (DSP) engines, AMD brags that its TrueAudio solution is the most effective for game audio as it works hand in hand with graphical position data, so that it’s far simpler for developers to write code to simulate 3D sound.

AMD is rolling out TrueAudio to its higher end R9 family, and to its GPUs in the Xbox One/PS4.  This means that most of the console market and a significant chunk of the PC enthusiast markets will have game-optimized 3D audio DSP on tap for the first time.

V. New Games, Better Multi-Monitor, New Technologies Are Incoming

AMD also invited a broad host of gaming partners to show off their upcoming wares and highlighted a number of technologies in R7 and R9, and technologies which it’s pushing towards.

Among the major goals AMD highlighted was its efforts to wipe out the barriers to porting games between Linux, consoles, and Windows.  AMD is working to push PCs towards a console-like model for rendering, doing away with Microsoft’s proprietary DirectX intermediate (which would also minimize the cost of porting your title to, say, a Linux Steam Box — uh oh).

The technical details of this are a bit hazy, but it sounds like AMD is building a slimmer, multi-OS API that will allow for common graphics code between, consoles, Linux PCs, and Windows PCs.  Clearly this is very onerous to Microsoft.  The new slim API is dubbed “Mantle”.

EA has developed a rendering engine called “FrostBite 3” designed to run on Mantle on the PS4, Xbox One, and Windows.  The test case for the new engine will be BattleField 4.

AMD also highlighted its Forward+ feature for the Volcanic Islands family — sort of like an improved forward rendering scheme — which allows transparent materials and numerous hardware-acclerate light sources.

AMD also highlighted its multi-monitor and ultra high-definition (UHD) gaming (aka 4K gaming) efforts.  Mr. Skinner says this technology “makes gamers more competitive”, adding, “AMD pioneered multiscreen gaming with our Eyefinity technology.”

Crytek and AMD co-developed a demo using AMD’s “Ruby” red-headed female mascot which shows off the power of Volcanic Islands.

Aside from EA’s Battlefield 4, other titles shown off included Square Enix Holdings Co., Ltd. (TYO:9684) subsidiary Eidos’s latest iteration of the “Thief” franchise — which reboots the series — and Xaviant LLC’s CryEngine-based “Lichdom” RPG-esque spellcaster first person adventure game.

All images courtesy of AMD, unless otherwise noted.

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