AMD's mantle could shake up the gaming market

With so much common hardware between consoles and PCs, porting will still be a challenge. That's where AMD steps in.

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As I detailed in my last piece on AMD, the company has scored a hat trick by securing deals to provide a system-on-a-chip for the Nintendo Wii U, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One. It got those details because the console makers wanted x86 and a strong GPU. AMD's graphics rival Nvidia has no x86 story, just ARM, and Intel's GPU story is still playing catch-up to AMD and Nvidia.

AMD is also a company heavily invested in the PC space. It hasn't pursued ultrabooks the way Intel did and it has no micro-x86 chip to compete with Atom and ARM, just very low-power x86s that it hopes will compete on the tablet and ultra-portable space. So it needs the PC market to rebound.

AMD has long catered to gamers and gamers returned the favor with considerable loyalty. So it makes sense that AMD would throw in with this market. According to analytics from Steam, the iTunes-like game sales service run by Valve Software, AMD CPUs are found in 26.5% of home PCs and 32.6% of graphics cards are Radeon.

So what is AMD up to? Details are coming up a bit short. The company is holding its cards close to the vest until its developer's conference next month. Here's what we do know:

Mantle will be a software layer designed to make it easy to port apps across Xbox One, PS4 and the PC. It will offer a new graphics programming model to fully exploit the AMD Graphics Card Next architecture, which is in the R7 and R9 cards it just announced. Some of the GC Next technology is also in the Wii U/PS4/Xbox One SoC as well.

Mantle will provide all the APIs, drivers and toolsets developers will need to enable their software to communicate directly with the card. It's sometimes called "getting closer to the metal."

If you are thinking this sounds proprietary, you are correct. As of now, Nvidia users will be out of luck. An AMD spokesman said the company would be open to licensing this tech to other parties, but that really sounds like a hell freezing over proposition.

AMD can get away with such a strategy because of its underdog position. Nvidia has twice its GPU market share and Intel has three times its CPU market share. No one can go crying to the DoJ on this one.

The question is will it cause people to shift allegiances. They will see the changes soon enough. DICE Software, a Swedish videogame graphics engine maker, has built a gaming engine (called Frostbite 2) on Mantle, and Frostbite 2 will be used in the upcoming game "Battlefield 4." Everyone I've spoken to say Frostbite blows the 3D engine from id Software out of the water, and id were the leaders in 3D shooters for almost two decades. Not any more, I guess.

I played BF3, which used an earlier version of Frostbite, and it was miles ahead of the "Call of Duty" games. It had far more accurate graphics, physics and 3D images than the CODs. That's because COD is designed for Xbox and ported to the PC, where they make little to no improvements. If gamers notice a distinct improvement in their "Battlefield 4" experience on Radeons than on Nvidia GeForce cards, it could very well cause a shift in sales.

We'll know more in November when AMD puts its cards on the table at its developer show.

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