Can AMD Take Back the Graphics Throne?

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Back in February, graphics chip company NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA  ) launched the GeForce GTX Titan, a desktop graphics card that retailed for $1,000 and, through today, remains the fastest single-GPU card on the market. Competitor, Advanced Micro Devices (NASDAQ: AMD  ) , offered nothing that could compete in the high-end, and the company lost market share as a result.

Now, however, Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD, is back with a vengeance. At the end of September, AMD announced a new set of GPUs, the Radeon R7 and R9 series, which aim to take back the high-end throne. Part of AMD's plan is the introduction of a new graphics API, Mantle, which allows developers intimate access to graphics hardware. The company claims that its new cards will trounce those offered by NVIDIA in terms of performance, provided that affected software is developed specifically for the Mantle API.

Is this the first step in AMD's resurgence in the GPU market? Or, will the Mantle API fade into irrelevance along with AMD?

A brief overview of graphics APIs
There are two main graphics APIs in use for PC gaming today: DirectX from Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) and OpenGL. Most games for the Windows operating system use DirectX, and it's become the de facto standard of the graphics API world.

DirectX, however, introduces significant overhead. Because there are so many different graphics cards available, the API must be designed to work with all of them, which makes giving developers direct access to the hardware largely impossible. Game consoles don't have this problem, since every PS3 or Xbox 360 is identical.

AMD's Mantle API looks to change this. It allows games that were developed for Mantle and run on a new AMD card to directly access the GPU, eliminating much of the overhead involved with DirectX. AMD claims that Mantle allows for nine times as many draw calls per second compared to other APIs, meaning that a game running on Mantle could, in theory, draw a frame nine times faster than one running on DirectX.

There are no benchmarks that prove this yet, but we shouldn't have to wait long. AMD and Electronic Arts announced a deal that would put the Mantle API into the Frostbite game engine. The upcoming blockbuster, "Battlefield 4," runs on this engine, and EA is working on adding Mantle support to the game.

The cards aren't all that great
Although AMD's new cards may be fast using Mantle, the highest-end offering basically matches the NVIDIA Titan running on DirectX. It took AMD seven months to come up with something that matches NVIDIA's offerings, and this lag is not a good sign. NVIDIA is rumored to be releasing refreshed cards in November, and new cards based on the upcoming Maxwell architecture are set to be released next year. It seems that, in terms of real world performance running on the standard DirectX, NVIDIA is still far in the lead.

Can Mantle succeed?
The problem with Mantle is that it introduces more steps in the game development process. Games must specifically include Mantle support, thus taking more time and money to develop. It's rumored that AMD spent up to $8 million to get "Battlefield 4" to support Mantle, and it's difficult to imagine many developers jumping on board.

If Mantle does attract developers, there's nothing stopping NVIDIA from developing its own API. This would have the unfortunate effect of fragmenting the gaming market, causing some games to work far better on certain cards. My guess is that Microsoft isn't thrilled about this development.

PC games today are almost universally designed around DirectX, and since this API only works on Windows it takes significant work to port games to other platforms. This gives Windows an edge over Mac and Linux-based systems, and ensures that Windows is the priority for game developers.

Mantle, being a low-level API, could presumably run on any platform. A game developed for Mantle could run on a PC, a Mac, or an Android device, as long as the graphics hardware supported it. If Mantle succeeds it could destroy Microsoft's near-monopoly on the PC gaming market, giving many a good reason to eschew Windows altogether. 

Mantle has a long road ahead convincing developers to use the API, especially given the prevalence of NVIDIA cards. If "Battlefield 4" running on Mantle blows everyone away, NVIDIA may have to scramble to develop an API of its own, or license Mantle if AMD allows it. But, if the performance gains aren't enough to convince developers to support it, Mantle could fade away into irrelevance, leaving AMD as second-best for the foreseeable future.

The potential comes with risk
If Mantle succeeds, it could be huge for AMD. However, the company is currently in terrible financial shape. Years of being second-string to Intel, and now years of being second-string to NVIDIA, have taken its toll. The company recorded a loss of over $1 billion last year as revenue declined by more than 17%. If Mantle can help bring the company back to profitability, there are likely huge gains ahead for shareholders. But it may be too little too late, as the hole which AMD has dug itself into is extremely deep.

NVIDIA is in much better shape financially. The company has a huge cash reserve of nearly $3 billion, and with annual earnings of nearly $600 million the company can certainly weather any short-term loss of market share to AMD. This cash also gives the company the resources needed to innovate. In 2012 NVIDIA spent over $1.1 billion on research and development. This compares to $1.3 billion for AMD, split between the CPU and the GPU business. What's more, as AMD burns through its cash spending will necessarily need to be cut, allowing NVIDIA's technological lead to widen.

The bottom line
AMD is making big moves with its Mantle API, and if developers adopt it, the company could gain back some of the market share it lost to NVIDIA. But, it's unclear whether developers will want to spend the time needed to support two different APIs. If performance gains fall short of expectations, DirectX will remain the de facto standard. Mantle is a bold move on AMD's part, a Hail Mary of sorts, but the road to success is littered with obstacles.

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Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 12:21 AM, GetMeTheBigKnife wrote:

    The author is invested in NVIDIA

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 1:00 AM, TEBuddy wrote:

    Hey you silly fool, are you in any way qualified to make any of the statements? This is obviously a negative AMD article showing your complete bias. The cards arent that good? They can only match the $1000 video card???? OMG, are you some sort of genius? You have figured out that only being as good as a $1000 Nvidia card is not that great. Meanwhile the rest of the world will be foolishly loving their $700 card that is just as good as a $1000 one, and draws less power, creates less heat, and works a lot better in some things.

    Meanwhile, the existing 7970s can do plenty, and as much computing performance as that Titan. And AMD based 7990 still offers a lot for the money, how does that card compare to the Titan card?

    The bottom line is that AMD evolves the world and this is no different. Nvidia has used its position to get access to games earlier and optimize their drivers to try to make their hardware look so much better. AMD is making processing more efficient, and your short sightedness has been documented.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 9:50 AM, jwtrotter wrote:

    I feel sad for the AMD fanbois . . I really do. The consoles only can do so much and probably will help get the stock price up through next quarter to about $5/share. After all Cramer is counting on it!

    AMD can't really win the war but can claim moral victories here and there for the time being. I just don't think it's going to get better than this in the long run. Every time an article like this, the angry fanbois come out in droves.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 10:25 AM, mtechac wrote:

    AMD is finally releasing their final products on their new generation of APU's and GPU's.

    NVIDIA has a lot to learn on 64-bit CPU's and on APU's, since they don't have any. At least until next year in which NVIDIA will release their 64-bit ARM CPU's.

    AMD will be releasing too their 64-bit ARM CPUs/APUs next year and AMD will own both worlds the x86 and the ARM worlds, which NVIDIA can't.

    This article is an up to the face advertising for NVIDIA, but it fails short in current and future facts. AMD is currently unfolding a huge amount of new technology which will rock NVIDIA's foundation, since NVIDIA is not on any gaming console for the next couple of years.

    Meanwhile, AMD will have years to develop and mandate a huge gaming hardware and software environment, and NVIDIA is irrelevant for the next couple of years.

    Proprietary technologies always have lost in the long run, and NVIDIA have lost it's leadership in the gaming industry and will be losing it in the graphics computer industry, too.

    This article should be titled "How can NVIDIA potentially survive AMD's new awakening" and not make it look like an AMD article and just pump NVIDIAs up...

    Great job AMD..!! Beginning the end of this year and next year, it marks the beginning of great achievements by AMD in the APU area (HSA, HUMA, etc), in the CPU areas (64-bit ARM), in the GPU's, in the gaming hardware/software, in embedded devices, etc..

    It's great to see companies like AMD raise from the ashes to dominate their technology sectors, and smart people know what to do...

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2013, at 5:50 PM, SpeedyVT wrote:

    I don't know what the article writer has been smoking but it's the most unbelievable crap. AMD and NVidia are par and usually don't go leaps and bounds over each other. Every quarter the swap place in performance lead, but AMD has been the best for the past 2 years. It's why nothing replaced the 7k series. They didn't have to release an 8k since it was so good. Price to performance ratio. And the crossfire performance with frame pacing is amazing! Smooth frame rate. High FPS isn't bad, but a steady frame-rate with good response time is better.

  • Report this Comment On October 04, 2013, at 2:37 AM, jwtrotter wrote:

    As I said earlier . . fanbois. So sensitive, so defensive. Hope you guys get what you hope for . .

    Be happy if you can stay solvent and get beyond next year instead of holding out over and over how AMD has always been the best all the time without exception.

  • Report this Comment On October 04, 2013, at 5:38 PM, Evilwake wrote:

    LoL thats funny being a fanboy yourself but to put it in terms that guys like your self understand is that both AMD and Nvdia have top notch cards both r with in striking distance of the other the only thing is that AMD does not charge u a 1000$ for said performance and Nvidia does and before u call me a fanboy i have both the 7970 and 680 and i love both cards both max out all the games i play.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2013, at 11:37 AM, mtechac wrote:

    "AMD can't really win the war but can claim moral victories" ... "Be happy if you can stay solvent and get beyond next year..."

    Those are pretty ignorant words that shows no understanding of current and incoming technologies and what it means, or what it will mean, in the technology and business world. The technology world follows a leaping model, and the top dog position always rotate around with time.

    There must be some deep insecure psychological reason that forces some people to have to post derogatory/negative comments on articles for companies that they obviously don't like and don't understand..

  • Report this Comment On October 30, 2013, at 8:12 PM, mycardbrokedown wrote:

    Wow I love it how the author thinks that having a chip 30% smaller matching a chip 40% more expensive is "not that good"?? The author should really stop smoking weed or pass it on...

    Seriously wtf?

    I get it you're mad your favorite company got smashed... a reference R9-290x beats/matches reference titan... problem is the amd chip is 30% more economical to build being 30% smaller and all... has lower failure risk due to its smaller size and higher failure resilience still because of its size... You claim to be an economics oriented site not a technical one why don't you talk economics then and instead talk bs about things you have no idea about??

    motley fool just made a clown of itself with you and the eshraf character - superficial analysis, bombastic titles and claims, no research and no clue.

    If I were motley fool editor/owner I would pull this bs and kick you 2 out the first window...

    And to the idiots claiming cash flow problems at AMD ... AMD has had its first true back in black quarter and that with a fast contracting PC market. AMD has 2 long term wins 1 - the consoles, 2 verizon cloud(seamicro)... They are taping out 20 &14 nm and they are financially backed by a 80Bn$ gorilla that's not easily scared by intel. They made the HSA foundation and attracted the likes of Samsung & Qualcomm... you do realize that with samys money and amds & arms combined IP intel is nothing more then a footnote? If intel doesn't do something about this by 2015 they will have 1/2 of the relevance they have now by 2020 they would be completely obsolete. Just to get a notion of the problem HSA Foundation total revenue of founders:~340BN$... Intel revenue 56BN $... this doesn't include co-interested parties like: Google, Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Ericsson, TSMC, GF and potentially any and every OEM out there - these all are watching the fight closely as they make decisions... Intel is sailing on a shrinking market it itself has created a few decades ago... if it can't evolve and move along it will shrink & die with this market - amd seems to have gotten the memo... did intel get it? Do you? A much more interesting article would be "Will Intel go down with the market they created?"

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