AMD pushes forward with new video cards and a few surprises

The company is not resting on its gaming laurels; it's building them up with a new video cards and a foray into audio.

AMD has struck gold, securing contracts to provide GPUs for all three major consoles – Nintendo's Wii U, Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4. The predecessors of all three consoles have sold tens of millions of units, which puts AMD in a position to sell up to 300 chips without lifting a finger, assuming the next generation consoles are hits.

You'd think AMD would be tempted to sit back and take a breather, use that money to pay off debt and prepare for another push against Intel. And you'd be wrong. CEO Rory Read and his troops are marshaling for their own offensive, building on the massive score they've landed.

The company first announced plans for a Unified Gaming strategy in March, with a unified Radeon experience across consoles, PCs, and the cloud. Now it's putting its cards on the table, showing off new video cards, and surprisingly, a push into audio.

Later this year, AMD will launch the Radeon R7 and R9 series. The R7 will be more affordable – between $100 and $139 – while the R9 is for gamers, starting at $199 and up to $299 for the R9 280X. Then there's a monster card on top of it, the 290X, with no price tag, but expect it to be somewhere between crazy and obscene. High-end GPU cards routinely cost $500 and more.

This GPU will be more powerful than anything on the market, until Nvidia comes out with something next year, of course. The 290X will be capable of 5 teraflops of compute power, the first consumer GPU to break this barrier. It will have over 300 GB/sec of memory bandwidth, which would allow for 100 layers of effects at 4K resolution.

AMD's twist is a fully programmable audio engine that's a part of the higher-end cards called TrueAudio technology. This is really interesting because if there is a section of computing technology that has really fallen behind, it's audio. Most motherboards come with an AC'97, an audio standard approved in 1997 that no one has really tinkered with, and it really isn't that good. It has lame audio fidelity for music and gaming. Creative Labs is still out there with decent audio cards for gaming and music but how high of a profile do they enjoy these days?

AMD promises that TrueAudio will enable you to hear hundreds more voices and channels than you can with current audio technology. They compare TrueAudio to the programmable shaders in GPUs that allowed for much more customizable graphics.

This means things like multichannel audio or six-channel audio mixes with elevation and depth perception. The company can even fudge 3D audio with just two front speakers, like most PCs have. It also means true 3D audio in real time. This will really matter with players who use headphones by giving people genuine positional audio.

Think AMD is nuts? That it's a post-PC world and everyone is going to play "Candy Crush Saga" on a tablet? Think again. Jon Peddie Research says the PC gaming market will be $18 billion this year and will grow to $21 billion by 2016. So while Nvidia pushes its high-powered chips into supercomputing, AMD is content to stick with gaming and go all in on that market.

That rate of growth is pretty remarkable, because as it is now, game developers have to move heaven and earth to port their games between consoles and PCs. The Xbox 360 uses a custom PowerPC chip and custom GPU. The PlayStation 3 uses a custom chip designed by IBM that is immensely powerful and was a monumental pain to learn. It took years for decent PS3 games to appear due to its massive learning curve.

With all three major consoles are using its x86 CPU and DirectX 11 GPU, porting games will be much, much easier. Even if you have a high-powered gaming rig with an Intel processor and Nvidia GPU (like me), those games will still be easy ports. Whether they are an identical experience is another question.

AMD has a new developer architecture, called Mantle, that's sure to raise eyebrows. But it's also for a whole other blog, as this one has gotten long enough. I'll be back with part two in a few days.

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