Thursday, July 3, 2014

Interview: AMD's Richard Huddy on the state of PC graphics, Mantle 2 and APUs

Interview: AMD's Richard Huddy on the state of PC graphics, Mantle 2 and APUs

Interview: AMD's Richard Huddy on the state of PC graphics, Mantle 2 and APUs

State of PC affairs

Richard Huddy is just over one month into the job, and already he's making waves.

AMD's new Gaming Scientist didn't mince words when talking about Nvidia GameWorks and accusations that it not only harms AMD but the quality of the experience for gamers. The first part of our interview, published July 1, had Huddy naming names and pulling no punches.

But aside from poking the hornet's nest, Huddy's job has him talking directly to game developers and relaying their needs to AMD's graphics decision makers. He's in the office of the CTO, gi ving him powerful ears to bend.

As you can imagine, Huddy has plenty to say on topics like the state of PC graphics and 4K gaming. Of course, there was more on AMD's low-level API Mantle, but this time Huddy got to talking about Mantle 2 and beyond.

TechRadar: AMD has been placing an emphasis on gaming for awhile now. It even has the tagline, 'Radeon is gaming.' But with you back in the brass, you're saying the emphasis is more formalized than before?

Richard Huddy: This representation in the office of the CTO is something that I described as a formalization of the process. It is. When I was previously at AMD, I ran the engineering group that supports games developers throughout the world. And that's a pretty great position to be in if, like me, you like gaming, but in a rather in formal, ad hoc kind of way I used to gather up the information that we got from our conversations with ISVs and then funnel it into the architecture group. Now it's highly formalized and very clear.

TR: Will your role cover only PC, or will it include consoles, namely the Xbox One and PS4?

RH: It will expand to all gaming as soon as I have a better understanding of what's required for future consoles, future platforms and so on. But in the first six months or so, I expect to get my teeth into PC gaming and primarily discrete graphics. Sort of high-end graphics rather than the APUs that we also sell, which have very respectable gaming engines inside them these days. But if we're looking at the future, then we're typically thinking about more high-power solutions.

TR: What's your take on the current PC graphics landscape?

RH: It's in a pretty healthy state of affairs, and actually much more healthy than one might have predicted a handful of years ago. Tim Sweeney back in 1998 or 1999 actually predicted the death of 3D graphics within five years. He was out by a couple of years at least, wasn't he?

PC gaming is in a tremendously healthy state. It's a growing business. The turbulence in the PC business as a whole is more about commercial and enterprise PCs rather than gaming. Particularly the discrete business is in a very healthy state. We have presently the fastest graphics card on the planet. You can buy a [Radeon R9] 295X2 from us and we sell that for about $ 1,500 [about £877, AU$ 1,591] dollars. That's a lot of money to ask for a graphics card, and I don't remember us ever having a graphics card over $ 1,000 [about £584, AU$ 1,060] before.

In the consumer space I don't remember us going in this kind of price range, and we have been very aggressive with what we've been able to do with this card to make it so super fast. It's water cool ed for example, which is a bit of surprise. It's a staggering commitment to delivering to the very best.

4K monitor

I look at couple of other metrics for PC gaming. The PC market probably peaked four years ago, five years ago at 330 million units per year. Now it's 270 million, 280 million, so you may think things are in trouble. [But] the gaming business on PC is growing by about a billion dollars a year. It's still very healthy. Probably my favorite number in all of this, the most popular PC game, League of Legends, has 130 million subscriptions. One hundred and thirty million! That's almost the total number of PS3s and Xbox 360s added together.

On top of that, if you're looking forwards, you have a couple of things which are coming up. One of the big ones is 4K gaming, the monitors which we've managed to persuade people to move to because they give a richer experience. People are typically running in 1920 x 1080 resolutions there. A 4K monitor doubles that in X and in Y.

From a GPU manufacturers point of view, that's great, that gives us 4 times as many pixels to work on, but from a gaming point of view ... you just need to wait for a little bit of time to pass so we can build chips which are 50 times more powerful every year. From a gaming perspective, it's a considerable enrichment. So there is no problem with the health of PC gaming. We know we've got a good few years of the current technology still lapping up the horsepower that we give it.

TR: It doesn't seem like the 'mobile gaming is killing PC gaming' doom-and-gloom talk is as heavy as it was a year or so ago.

RH: We've learned that these things co-exist. We tend to think that when a new technology comes along it must be displacing something else and ruining the market for that. The PC has been disrupted. It's probably more that the PC, the replacement cycle has gone a little bit longer rather than people don't own PCs or don't want PCs. I have a smartphone, I have a console, I have a PC and I upgrade each of them when the time comes.

TR: So is 4K gaming on the rise?

RH: Sales are quite small at the moment, but they absolutely will grow I think pretty quickly. In two and a half years, I would guess that it will be pretty thoroughly mainstream. At the moment, I think you'll pay a minimum $ 600 - $ 650 [about £350, AU$ 636 - £379, AU$ 689] for a 4K monitor, which is a really huge improvement from what you saw a year ago. If you saw the same kind of price decay in two years ' time, the price premium over a 1080p monitor might be a hundred bucks or something like that.

The quality improvement is quite substantial. We sometimes say well it's four times as much quality because it's four times as much pixels, isn't it? Life isn't quite as linear at that but it is at least fair to say that you got a substantial improvement in quality and spending the extra money on that makes perfectly good sense.

Mantle 1.0 and beyond

TR: AMD has been talking about Mantle for what seems like forever now, and yes games are coming out with it, but it's been a jolty launch. Where do things stand with Mantle now? And what's the long-term plan for it?

RH: We've got a release candidate driver at the moment, and we'll wrap that up at some point this year. Then we start to look at things like Mantle 2 and the future, and that's a very interesting space.

Mantle 2 - if it takes us about a year to get through a Mantle iteration - then Mantle 2 will come around the same kind of timeframe as DirectX 12. DX 12 brings a lot of the goodness that Mantle brought. We had a lot of conversations with Microsoft about what we were doing with Mantle, and in those conversations, they said, 'OK, if you really can solve this problem of building a better throughput system that runs on Windows, then we'd like to take that to Windows as well and we'll make that the extra software functionality that comes in DX 12.' So that's how DX 12 has come about.

We'll take the leanings from DX 12 and take it to Mantle. I'm sure they can help us do a better job than we've done. We will also take the extra hardware features with DX 12, and there are at least a couple of key features which are coming there.

They are pixel synchronization, which let you do some cool transp arency effects and lighting transparent substances which is very, very hard on the current API. There's something called bindless resources which is a major efficiency improvement again in how the GPU is running, making sure it's not stalling waiting for the CPU to tell it about some of the changes that are needed. At that stage we'll have Mantle 2.0 wrapped up which covers the same kind of functionality as full DX 12 and gives all the performance benefits that Mantle currently gives plus anything else we learn.

Then we look to the future because DX 12 is not the end of graphics. Mantle 3, Mantle 4, etcetera give us the opportunity to expose any of the new features that we develop in our hardware. There are some that have speculated that Mantle will die when DX 12 arrives, that we'll just put it down and walk away it. Heck, why would you need it?

Well, the answer is it's perfect for portability. AMD does graphics in a variety of places, and [Senior Vice President and Global Manager, Global Business Units] Lisa Su mentioned that about half our business by the end of next year will be on the traditional PC platform and the rest will be elsewhere. Elsewhere, there will be AMD graphics.

Forza 5

DirectX is a generic APi. It covers Intel hardware, it covers Nvidia hardware and it covers ours. Being generic means that it will never be perfectly optimized for a particular piece of hardware, where with Mantle we think we can do a better job. The difference will dwindle as DX 12 arrives. I'm sure they'll do a very good job of getting the CPU out of the way, but we'll still have at least corner cases where we can deliver better performance, measurably better performance. We think we have a good future with Mantle, and games developers can tell you they don't want us to drop it afterw ards.

TR: If I'm consumer looking at AMD with a Gaming Scientist now, what can I expect from you in six months, a year, two years?

RH: Six months you shouldn't really expect a huge change. The transition points that are coming are for things like 4K gaming, which is a gentle transition. You see DX 12 coming end of 2015 and you will see Mantle 1.0 released at some point this year. That will happen in the next six months we're committed to doing that within the year.

I think the long-term benefits that I hope to bring through my work at AMD will show much more in the 2-5 year timeframe.

TR: Just curious, what do you think of AMD's APUs, like Kaveri?

RH: I like the balance that is in there. When you build an APU you have to decide how much of the chip you dedicate to graphics and how much to CPU. I think with our APUs we've put a good deal of the emphasis on the GPU because for ma ny consumer uses, the CPU is naturally fast enough anyway - going to the internet, running your document viewer or something like that.

When it comes to a game all the heavy weight lifting that needs to be done by the game is actually done on the GPU. On an APU that means that something like 70% of your silicon should actually be dedicated to the graphics part of it. It should actually be different from Intel's balance; Intel put more emphasis on the CPU, and you pay your money and you take your choice. If you want heavy emphasis on one side, then you can choose where you go. The balance that we have is definitely focused on giving the best gaming experience that we possibly can for a given amount of silicon.

TR: All about gaming, again.

RH: Yeah. It's a really big deal. It's a really big deal because most of the other uses of PC don't push it that hard.

To read the first part of this interview, click here.

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//PART 2