Is AMD's Mantle a Game Changer?

Last year, AMD (NYSE: AMD  ) announced that it would be releasing a new graphics API called Mantle as an alternative to Microsoft's DirectX. Most PC games are built using DirectX, which is Windows-only, but AMD promised that Mantle would introduce substantial performance gains by removing overhead inherent in Microsoft's API. The first game to support Mantle is Electronic Arts' Battlefield 4, and after some delays, the first benchmarks are finally available. Does Mantle live up to the hype? More important, what does it mean for investors in AMD and its competitors, like Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) and NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA  ) ?

A performance rundown
Without getting too technical, a modern PC game works in two steps. First, the CPU updates the game state, dealing with user input, determining where objects in the game world need to be, etc. Then, the GPU takes that information and draws it on the screen. But the CPU needs to tell the GPU what to draw, and this process involves a significant amount of overhead. One of Mantle's biggest selling points is making this process more efficient, freeing the CPU from much of this burden.

Mantle also includes other optimizations on the GPU side, allowing for performance gains there, as well. The initial benchmarks from AnandTech, which are based on beta software and are not final, show that Mantle provides big performance gains in certain situations, with small performance gains otherwise.

In a nutshell, when a high-end GPU like AMD's Radeon R290X is paired with a powerful processor, like Intel's high-end offerings, the performance gains of Mantle compared to DirectX are minimal, between 7%-10%. In this case, the CPU is fast enough that the bulk of Mantle's optimizations don't matter much in the grand scheme of things. When a slower processor is used with the same high-end GPU, the performance gains are much larger, around 30% or so. In this case, the CPU is the bottleneck, and Mantle's optimizations are more meaningful.

What this means for AMD, Intel, and NVIDIA
The largest performance gains for Mantle came from the most unlikely scenario -- a high-end GPU combined with a low-end CPU. Pairing a $500-plus GPU with a cheap CPU doesn't make much since, since the CPU would prevent the full potential of the GPU from being realized, and using a higher-end CPU eliminates much of Mantle's performance gain.

The conclusion here is that Mantle won't have too much of an impact on the high-end GPU market. The 7%-10% boost that Mantle gives AMD's highest-end GPUs is nice, but it's not enough of an improvement to give NVIDIA a reason to worry. And since support for Mantle has to be built into each game in order to take advantage of these improvements, a single-digit performance boost may not be enough to convince developers to support the API.

NVIDIA is expected to release GPUs built on a new graphics architecture Maxwell sometime this month, and significant performance improvements over the previous architecture are likely. NVIDIA has been one step ahead of AMD in terms of performance for quite some time, with its nearly year-old GTX Titan claiming the top-performing GPU crown for the better part of a year before AMD released new GPUs. Maxwell should give NVIDIA a big lead in terms of performance, and Mantle doesn't seem to be able to close that gap.

Mantle may help AMD sell more CPUs, though, assuming developers support the API. If the trends from these benchmarks hold for lower-end GPUs, an AMD CPU paired with a mid-range or low-end GPU could potentially achieve a significant performance boost using Mantle. From a performance-per-dollar perspective, this setup may have a big advantage over a similarly priced Intel-NVIDIA gaming PC. The high-end CPU market should be unaffected, though, since Intel's i7 processors are fast enough, based on the benchmarks, that most of Mantle's optimizations don't increase performance by very much at all.

The bottom line
Although these benchmarks are very early, Mantle doesn't look like a game changer for AMD. The improvements over DirectX are impressive, but Mantle seems to disproportionally benefit lower-end PCs. For serious gaming PCs with high-end parts, the small improvements brought by Mantle likely aren't enough to pull customers away from NVIDIA. Cnvincing developers to support the API will prove difficult, at best. There's still room for these numbers to improve as AMD's Mantle drivers are refined, but it's unlikely that Mantle will ultimately live up to its promise.

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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 February 12, 2014, at 11:02 AM, TEBuddy wrote:

    You are a fool. The most benefit is actually to very high end systems. Systems with Crossfired top end GPUs that NO Intel or AMD CPU can keep up with. The gains here are 60% better frame rates or better. Don't be stupid and spread lies.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 11:25 AM, CharlieTuna76 wrote:

    In addition to the very high end multi-gpu systems, this allows AMD CPUs low/mid range CPUs to compete with better and more expensive Intel CPUs by shifting the workload away from the CPU.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 11:39 AM, KenLuskin wrote:

    As usual the FOOLS have it exactly WRONG!!!

    There are 200 MILLION CONSOLE gamers that benefit from the functional equivalent of MANTLE that is proprietary to Sony and MSFT.

    There are another 100 MILLION or so PC gamers, of which only about 10% can afford to super expensive Intel CPUs.

    There are appx. ONE BILLION people playing handheld video games on phones and Tablets!!!

    MANTLE type APIs will allow ALLOW everyone to REDUCE the need for an EXPENSIVE Intel CPU, while still getting adequate to GREAT gaming performance!!!

    MANTLE and CROSSFIRE fix produces SIGNIFICANTLY better gaming performance for LESS money!!!

    Better performance for LESS money ALWAYS WINS!!!!!!!!

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 11:50 AM, mtechac wrote:

    Mantle is just the first step, and it is just the first release. Intel is practically a pure CPU company and NVIDIA is almost a pure GPU company.

    AMD, on the other hand, is a CPU and GPU company, which is has allowed to build the first HSA/hUMA APU architecture, which in short is a hybrid processor that uses, schedules, pages, etc. the CPU and GPU cores in a uniform manner.

    The next generation of AMD HSA/hUMA APUs will support RDDR5, which will automatically double the internal bandwidth of the APU and will match that of discrete GPUs.

    The latter will boost Mantle performance and will improve the Crossfire performance when using discrete high-end GPUs.

    AMDs Kaveri is just the first true hybrid processor architecture and HSA/hUMA chip in the world, and Kaveri and the incoming new generations of the architecture has a huge performance increase capabilities.

    In short, AMD HSA/hUMA/Mantel products are beginning to revolutionize the processing world.

    Noting the Intel has better CPU and chip foundry process and NVIDIA has invested lots of money in their high end GPU's, but both of them are mostly a CPU and/or a GPU company, so they couldn't do what AMD has finally done now.. A fully qualified hybrid HSA/hUMA processor that schedules CPU and GPU cores as needed and that uses virtual process space, paging, etc.

    Knowing processor technology, I am awed of what AMD has finally achieved with the HSA/hUMA architecture. If you wish something for the future, it will be exactly that, when using our current existing technology.

    If NVIDIA buys AMD, it will become bigger than Intel. If Intel buys AMD, Intel will stop sliding down and will continue to be the leader since AMD has now ARM and x86 technologies and AMD owns the 64-bit x86 extensions, which AMD invented.

    If AMD applies its 64-bit technology to the ARM processors, Intel is dead in the future. The biggest reason will be because Intel does not have the proper business model for low-profit product margins, which will slowly kill Intel since it will have to pour billions to catch up with ARM and AMD and Intel does not have a new HSA/hUMA APU architecture.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 12:38 PM, wownwow wrote:

    "Mantle seems to disproportionally benefit lower-end PCs."

    It's the intent.

    "For serious gaming PCs with high-end parts, the small improvements brought by Mantle likely aren't enough to pull customers away from NVIDIA."

    What is the % for serious gaming PCs?

    "it's unlikely that Mantle will ultimately live up to its promise."

    Wow! What a fortune teller!

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 12:46 PM, wownwow wrote:

    Before writing, put things in proper perspectives, and context first, then content. People now use their fingers on their touch phones more than their brains to think and understand things. Fast without depth and related breadth.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 12:50 PM, wownwow wrote:

    AMD Mantle not only targets improving API overhead, a general understanding, but also the following:

    1) Lack of proper threading.

    2) Memory management.

    3) Lack of direct GPU control.

    The current results is just a start! Very likely it hasn't been exercised in full yet.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 1:24 PM, wownwow wrote:

    BTW, what game you expect to be changed? Did AMD communicate to you that their Mantle is what you need to do it or just your own day dream?

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 1:44 PM, jumpjoe wrote:

    I like to correct the author regarding the high end part. Mantle is particularly effective in a couple of high end scenarios. 1. With the 290X in crossfire configuration, the cpu is again the bottleneck and several benchmarks available on the internet shows very considerable gain while using 290X in crossfire. 2. In massive multi-player games (and very few people play games by themselves now online), Mantle again provides very generous performance gain for high end systems.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 3:47 PM, Stuart511 wrote:

    "Timothy Green owns shares of Nvidia"

    I think that tells the whole story!

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 3:57 PM, rustianowski wrote:

    I love the how wrong this author is, 7-10% gains on high end are the whole reason people bought Nvidia cards in the first place. Seriously look at the high end Nvidia cards, if they are faster it isn't by a margin greater than 7-10%. What that means is the whole reason people bought nvidia before for those small gains is now gone.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 5:05 PM, wownwow wrote:

    For investments, give some thought about the institution ownship:

    AMD -- 37% (can increase later if ...) and NVDA -- 78% (hard to increase but decrease).

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 11:08 PM, ara1029 wrote:

    A true FOOL.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2014, at 11:09 PM, longjon123 wrote:

    I agree with the author, "Mantle seems to disproportionally benefit lower-end PCs." However, I think the conclusion mid way through the article, "that Mantle won't have too much of an impact on the high-end GPU market," completely misses the mark. The fact that the Mantle API allow games to be played well on lower priced PCs opens the door to a new market of mid-range, high performance gaming. This market can be described as price sensitive computer gaming enthusiasts. More sales of hardware capable of playing games translates into more game sold. Developers win with AMD, so developers will choose AMD.

    The author has valid points for short term trading sentiment, but long term investors would be better served with a good understanding of the company and its products.

  • Report this Comment On February 13, 2014, at 1:36 PM, Stuart511 wrote:

    MANTLE RE-LOADED........

    Tim, have a read here:

    http://www.tweaktown.com/tweakipedia/41/mantle-reloaded-we-t...

    "Imagine a $300 APU giving performance similar to that of a $1200+ Intel setup... which would you buy? I know what I'd buy, and I can tell you it starts with an 'A'."

    You may have to rewrite your article.

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