A troubled launch to be sure

AMD shared information with us about the upcoming Catalyst 14.1 beta driver that will enable Mantle support on BF4.

AMD has released some important new drivers with drastic feature additions over the past year.  Remember back in August of 2013 when Frame Pacing was first revealed?  Today’s Catalyst 14.1 beta release will actually complete the goals that AMD set forth upon itself in early 2013 in regards to introducing (nearly) complete Frame Pacing technology integration for non-XDMA GPUs while also adding support for Mantle and HSA capability.

Frame Pacing Phase 2 and HSA Support

When AMD released the first frame pacing capable beta driver in August of 2013, it added support to existing GCN designs (HD 7000-series and a few older generations) at resolutions of 2560×1600 and below.  While that definitely addressed a lot of the market, the fact was that CrossFire users were also amongst the most likely to have Eyefinity (3+ monitors spanned for gaming) or even 4K displays (quickly dropping in price).  Neither of those advanced display options were supported with any Catalyst frame pacing technology.

That changes today as Phase 2 of the AMD Frame Pacing feature has finally been implemented for products that do not feature the XDMA technology (found in Hawaii GPUs for example).  That includes HD 7000-series GPUs, the R9 280X and 270X cards, as well as older generation products and Dual Graphics hardware combinations such as the new Kaveri APU and R7 250.  I have already tested Kaveri and the R7 250 in fact, and you can read about its scaling and experience improvements right here.  That means that users of the HD 7970, R9 280X, etc., as well as those of you with HD 7990 dual-GPU cards, will finally be able to utilize the power of both GPUs in your system with 4K displays and Eyefinity configurations!

This is finally fixed!!

As of this writing I haven’t had time to do more testing (other than the Dual Graphics article linked above) to demonstrate the potential benefits of this Phase 2 update, but we’ll be targeting it later in the week.  For now, it appears that you’ll be able to get essentially the same performance and pacing capabilities on the Tahiti-based GPUs as you can with Hawaii (R9 290X and R9 290). 

Catalyst 14.1 beta is also the first public driver to add support for HSA technology, allowing owners of the new Kaveri APU to take advantage of the appropriately enabled applications like LibreOffice and the handful of Adobe apps.  AMD has since let us know that this feature DID NOT make it into the public release of Catalyst 14.1.

The First Mantle Ready Driver (sort of) 

A technology that has been in development for more than two years according to AMD, the newly released Catalyst 14.1 beta driver is the first to enable support for the revolutionary new Mantle API for PC gaming.  Essentially, Mantle is AMD’s attempt at creating a custom API that will replace DirectX and OpenGL in order to more directly target the GPU hardware in your PC, specifically the AMD-based designs of GCN (Graphics Core Next). 

Mantle runs at a lower level than DX or OGL does, able to more directly access the hardware resources of the graphics chips, and with that ability is able to better utilize the hardware in your system, both CPU and GPU.  In fact, the primary benefit of Mantle is going to be seen in the form of less API overhead and bottlenecks such as real-time shader compiling and code translation. 

If you are interested in the meat of what makes Mantle tick and why it was so interesting to us when it was first announced in September of 2013, you should check out our first deep-dive article written by Josh.  In it you’ll get our opinion on why Mantle matters and why it has the potential for drastically changing the way the PC is thought of in the gaming ecosystem.

Initially targeted for a December release, Mantle was pushed back into January when EA/DICE decided to focus all of its attention on fixing up the Battlefield 4 title and its existing issues.  BF4 was, and still is, the flagship Mantle demonstration point.  The patch to enable Mantle support is finally being released on January 30th via Origin.  I don’t have BF4 benchmarks ready for you yet (due to compressed scheduling), but we plan on having some on Thursday or Friday to share. 

AMD did provide some interesting numbers that are worth discussing though.  Please keep in mind that these benchmarks were all run by AMD and as such should only be used as a placeholder until media and consumers can verify them.  Tests were run with a combination of two graphics cards and two processors to represent the scale of potential scalability.  The percentage improvements displayed below are in the average frame rate of a pre-set test run in BF4.

  • Core i7-4960X CPU + R9 290X GPU
    • 1080p, Ultra Preset, 4xAA: 9.2% improvement with Mantle
    • 1600p, Ultra Preset, 4xAA: 10% improvement with Mantle
  • Core i7-4960X CPU + R7 260X GPU
    • 1080p, Ultra Preset, 4xAA: 2.7% improvement
    • 1600p, Ultra Preset, 4xAA: 1.4% improvement
  • A10-7700K CPU + R9 290X GPU
    • 1080p, Ultra Preset, 4xAA: 40.9% improvement
    • 1600p, Ultra Preset, 4xAA: 17.3% improvement
  • A10-7700K CPU + R7 260X GPU
    • 1080p, Ultra Preset, 4xAA: 8.3% improvement
    • 1600p, Low Preset: 16.8% improvement

So what can we make of these results until we can run our own?  Clearly the advantage of Mantle shows itself most dramatically when you are in a heavily CPU limited environment.  Take a look at the results when using the Kaveri A10-7700K APU as the primary processor; with the R9 290X you are seeing more than 40% average frame rate increase at 1920×1080 and 17.3% at 2560×1600 resolutions!  However, pairing that same R9 290X graphics card with the Core i7-4960X Ivy Bridge-E processor, probably the highest performing consumer CPU, and that drops to 9.2% and 10% at each resolution.  Those results are much more modest but are still pretty compelling if they turn out to be true.

With the lower cost graphics card, the R7 260X, scaling takes another twist.  Coupling it with the high performance Core i7-4960X results in just a 2.7% and 1.4% increase in average frame rate.  Nothing worth raving about there for sure.  With the A10-7700K though the R7 260X is able jump up performance levels by 8.3% at 1080p and by as much as 16.8% at 2560×1600 (though at lower quality settings).

Based on those benchmarks alone, what is our initial takeaway?  The scaling you see with the A10-7700K and the R9 290X is beyond impressive!  Users of this hardware combination, or similar ones, are able to get 40%+ additional performance in the Mantle version of Battlefield 4 for free and without sacrificing features.  My problem with this scenario is more about the feasibility of this hardware being used by a consumer.  How many PC gamers are going to combine the power of the R9 290 or R9 290X graphics cards, currently selling at over $500, with the $150 A10 Kaveri APU?  I don’t think many, but a quick look at the BuildaPC Subreddit clearly shows a prominence of users that are willing to sacrifice CPU performance for the almighty GPU.

If you have a high end processor like Sandy Bridge-E or Ivy Bridge-E it appears that effects of Mantle are going to be much more subtle.  Even with the beast that is the R9 290X you only see a 9.2% or 10% performance boost compared to the DX11 version of BF4.  That’s nothing close to the advantage of 40% with the lower end CPU, but could be noticeable and improve the gaming experience for high end enthusiasts.  I think we are all more interested in the results from a more reasonable processor and GPU combination, perhaps a Core i5-4670K and the R9 280X?  That’s something we’ll be investigating as we get more hands on time with the BF4 Mantle patch and Catalyst 14.1 driver.

AMD Mantle – Still in beta…

It might not come as a surprise to you that AMD is declaring this first release of the Mantle API and the libraries associated with it as a “very early beta” for public consumption.  Here is what AMD’s official stance is on the matter:

We want to convey that this is only the initial release of Mantle. Mantle will continue to grow, evolve and improve in the months ahead. As an initial release, however, there is a list of known issues we are tracking. Everyone in the Mantle ecosystem is working to identify the root cause of these problems, and to resolve them as quickly as possible. As they are resolved, we and our partners will be issuing new drivers and patches as necessary!

We felt it best to get users working with and providing feedback on Mantle as soon as possible, rather than hold the entire launch for select scenarios that aren’t performing up to our expectations. The known issues will be posted for all to see at www.amd.com/mantleknownissues, and attached you will find the complete list.

AMD was basically faced with an internal decision with no great options.  It could have delayed Mantle indefinitely until they were comfortable taking it out of beta or it could release the API as-is to “expand the pool of feedback” coming in.  PR is trying to be very open about the beta status and have promised to publish the known issues and limitations of Mantle as it exists today for the public to access until the platform is 100% ready for prime time.

A few of these known issues are worth mentioning here.  For starters, AMD specifically points out that performance improvements for Mantle on the HD 7000 series, R9 280X and R9 270X “will be optimized for BF4 in future AMD Catalyst releases” leaving me to believe that only the R9 290 and R9 290X (as well as the 260X) are really being supported at launch.  Only those parts based on the new Hawaii architecture with support for XDMA and TrueAudio seem to be the target.  Also, multi-GPU support is patchy at best with Mantle today as AMD told me that there were some “show stopper” bugs with CrossFire that were causing crashes in BF4.  Stuttering is also being reported with CrossFire…man do we not need more of that.

UPDATE (1/30/14): After talking with AMD they wanted me to assure readers that the R9 280X/270X and HD 7000-series of cards based on GCN are supported by Mantle.  However, AMD PR made it clear: "All desktop AMD Radeon™ graphics cards based on the GCN Architecture are supported by Mantle and have received driver and application-level optimization in the initial release. However, as Mantle is a new and evolving API, EA and AMD have additional optimization work planned for the AMD Radeon™ HD 7000, 8000, R9 280X and R9 270X GPUs in Battlefield 4™."  

Thus, my point remains.  The main work from AMD/DICE has been to get the 290X, 290 and 260X performing best with the other GPU/architecture coming down the road.


A Mantle deep dive from the APU13 event in November

Notebooks based on AMD Enduro or PowerXpress are not supported.  Portrait mode display configurations are out.  There are some other limitations surrounding the StarSwarm tech demonstration due out today as well I’ll touch in a later story.

Initial Thoughts

Double rainbow…what does it mean? This launch of AMD Mantle drivers and the first game to support it are unfortunately hindered by an erratic and heavily constrained campaign.  I literally got the driver for Mantle….AFTER the original NDA for the driver to be posted publicly.  (It now looks like the Battlefield 4 patch for Mantle will be available before any drivers.)  Now when the BF4 Mantle patch goes live there will be thousands of gamers with Mantle supported hardware and no software to enable it.  It just all seems so…bolted together.

The potential for Mantle is still there and some of the impressive numbers that AMD is quoting with 40% performance improvements will at least keep me interested until the company can get the project wrapped up with bow on it for consumers.  I WANT to believe in what AMD is showing us and I WANT it to succeed because I think PC gaming deserves a chance to showcase its capability and advantages over consoles.  It is pretty obvious as this point that AMD should likely have waited a bit longer and worked a bit more with DICE to get Mantle ready.

We will update this story when links to the Catalyst 14.1 driver become available!!