Today AMD formally release the RX 200-series, succeeding the HD7000-series as their discrete graphics card range as we move in to the twilight of this generation. You will hopefully have already read Rich's review of the reference Radeon R9 270X, the current entry-level member of the performance category R9-series and occupying the position vacated by the HD7800-series. However that's merely one of a whole range of cards which we'll attempt to introduce here.
Unfortunately, the Radeon R9 290/290X will not be one of those cards. AMD are still holding back these cards and coyly keeping quiet about the release date, which is why you will see no reviews of their new flagship GPU today. It's up to the rest of this range to serve as an appetiser before the main course due later this month.
Perhaps the most important point to assimilate is that this new range very much replaces the outgoing HD7000-series. The release has been preceded by AMD's recent price reductions in the EMEA region, an effort to clear the shelves ahead of the launch and an excuse for hundreds of frugal gamers to finally jump on board. We have been warned that in a few weeks you'll be unable to purchase 7000-series cards, making it critically important that if you're in the market for a new AMD GPU you take on board all the reviews published over the next week and act accordingly.
The cards released today range from the baseline discrete model R7 240 through to the performance-level R9 280X. R7 and R9 are key differentiators in the new convention, broadly defining intended usage markets. When coupled to the model number the scheme also indicates performance. Taken together, this allows AMD to better inform end-users of the most appropriate GPU for their needs, something which has been woefully inadequate up till now.
The similarity to AMD's APU SKU nomenclature can't be ignored and is likely intentional. In the fullness of time there will probably be an explicit relationship between the APU codes 'Ax' codes and GPU 'Rx' codes, but even as they stand they still provide an important correlation when it comes to purchasing a discrete GPU for an APU-powered system. With this update it becomes natural to advise that if you're purchasing an APU and want more graphics potential it's best to look up to the R-series in the next available tier, and if there are no such tiers (for example you have an A2-series APU) then upgrade your APU instead.
So, why change the naming scheme now? Thanks to the 8000-series released to OEMs earlier this year there would be only one tier left before you hit five figures, which as AMD Product Manager Devon Nekechuk put it "sounds more like a serial number." Realistically, going to the numbers in the 9000 range would only be delaying the inevitable. But more than that, with the next generation of AMD-powered consoles just around the corner and the expected surge in game development likely to come as a result it makes sense to draw a line here and make today the new baseline.
The R7-series can best be described as entry-level discrete parts, and are generally intended for inexpensive, low power systems which need a little more graphical grunt than provided by that of an APU or CPU with on-board graphics at that price point. At present three reference SKUs are represented in the R7-series, although there is room for more through the use (or lack thereof) of the 'X' modifier.
Radeon R7 240
Pitched at under $80 in the US, the R7 240 is the lowest end part of the refreshed Radeon range. It's based on the Oland core originally seen in OEM 8000-series parts, and is the first concrete indication that AMD are retiring VLIW and moving to Graphics Core Next (GCN) across the whole of the range. The low-profile reference design indicates that it's intended for compact HTPCs requiring a little more graphical horsepower than typically afforded by a low-power APU, and may eventually synergise well with the next generation of APUs with GCN architecture graphics via hybrid CrossFireX.
Featuring only 320 GCN stream processors and clocked at up to 780MHz it's clear that performance for this part isn't as important as power requirements. At a bus-powered 30W TDP with further low power modes it's as powerful and efficient as needed, and no more. Expect to see it sitting between £50 and £75 depending on bundle and memory configuration, with both 2GB DDR3 and 1 GDDR5 variants available.
Radeon R7 250
Still based on the Oland GPU, but with a rather less frugal 384 stream processors, the R7 250 provides a very modest level of 3D performance for those who require some level of capability. Players of casual indie games all the way up to modern turn-based strategy titles such as Civ V will be looking at the R7 250, which AMD claim has a performance slightly above that of a HD5770 (a card that has certainly weathered well as a benchmark card).
This bus-powered 65W card is ideal once again for HTPC's and will come in 1GB GDDR5/2GB DDR3 flavours. The reference designed is clocked at up to 1.05GHz and has a memory bandwidth of 4.6Gbps in its GDDR5 configuration, however despite those specs it's best to not aim for the moon. AMD partner solutions with 3rd party cooling will be launching very soon, and on face value seem to be ideal for low-noise living room PC's with restricting gaming needs.
AMD claim an inexpensive <$89 price for the R7 250. UK pricing being what it is we'd expect to see it around £75-95, depending on bundle and cooling solution.
Radeon R7 260X
One glance at the specs of the R7 260X should tip you off that this GPU is a tweaked and rebadged HD7790, a card which was released only as far back as Q2 of this year. Given the pedigree it's unsurprising that this card is the first which can be classed as a mainstream GPU which is suitable for some gaming, but it's also noteworthy that the card is the only one released today which supports AMD's True Audio Technology.
The Bonaire XT GPU at the heart of the 260X has 896 stream processors, considerably more than the R7 250, and the engine clock goes up to 1.1GHz. The memory too is extremely fast for a GPU in this class, reaching 6.5Gbps through its 2GB GDDR5/128-bit architecture. Despite these figures the R7 260X doesn't shed its mid-range label at least as far as power is required - sitting at a TDP of only 115W and requiring only one 6-pin PCI-E connector it's compatibility range is immense.
AMD are targeting a US MSRP of $139 for a reference R7 260X, and we'd expect UK pricing of between £100 and £130 depending on partner and retailer. They are taking aim at the GTX 650Ti with this GPU, projecting performance improvements over NVIDIA's competitor of between 15 and 35% on a range of recent titles. High Definition 1080p resolutions are the target for this card, but with modest overall image quality.
Radeon R9 270X
You may be detecting something of a theme by now, and rest assured that it continues. The Radeon R9 270X is indeed a rebadged GPU, a tweaked version of the Pitcairn XT which can still be seen as core to the HD7850/70 to be precise. In this case we're afforded the full fat version of the GPU, featuring all 1280 Stream Processors and with a reference clock beyond 1GHz. Interestingly AMD chose not to re-purpose the HD7870 XT, a card which has come to be extremely well regarded in recent months thanks to its excellent value and overclocking potential.
Thankfully AMD haven't wiped their hands and said that they job is done. In addition to a small overclock on the core (relative to the 7870 GHz Edition) they've also beefed up the memory controller and increased the memory speed to 5.6Gbps (up from 4.8). In theory this will significantly improve performance, especially at higher resolutions and image qualities presets. AMD are pitching the 270X at $199 as an upgrade point for those still languishing on a HD6870 or similar GPU. Their chief competitor should be the GTX660, but the mantra of the 270X is 1080p gaming at 60fps with good image quality settings.
Interestingly, the R7 270X isn't compatible with AMD True Audio Technology. Given the age of Pitcairn's fundamental design it's perhaps not all that surprising, but now that the technology is being pushed into the mainstream the lack of this feature will disappoint some upgraders unless the card otherwise presents outstanding value.
Radeon R9 280X
Finally we come to the R9 280X. Built around a Tahiti XTL core GPU, the 280X has identical reference specs to the HD7970 GHz Edition released in June last year. It isn't clear if this Tahiti XTL is - like the Tahiti XT2 - capable of AMD's Boost automated overclocking, but it's likely that partners will be busy pushing the core frequency well beyond reference specs for OC editions.
If any card is likely to disappoint then the R9 280X is it. The release price is currently set at $299, only $310 below that of the HD7970 GHz Edition and considerably above the price it can be had for now. It's possible that AMD is playing patsy and intends to release the 280X considerably below this, but currently (and unofficially) we're on course to see some come in at £230-280 in the UK for somewhat vanilla versions, considerably above the market price of a factory overclocked HD7970.
If five new cards were the end of the release today then likely by anyone's measure today would be something of a disappointment. However AMD are bolstering this release by bringing to the market new technologies specifically designed for their GPUs that developers demand. These technologies have been created through two key strategies AMD have been pursing: cultivating excellent game developer relations, and leveraging their own understanding of the underlying architecture of the XBOX ONE and Playstation 4.
AMD True Audio Technology
As development studios have striven for ever greater graphical fidelity the development sound technology has tended to fall by the wayside. Discrete sound cards are effectively a rarity in a modern gaming system, and there's only so much load you can place on the CPU before performance bottlenecks. This landscape restricts the effective number of channels and possible effects, whilst the latency-sensitive aspect of sound reproduction makes more complicated synthesis untenable on the CPU.
AMD's idea is to build high-grade Tensilica HiFi EP Audio DSP cores onto the cards reference architecture, effectively creating a programmable audio pipeline for developers. In theory this could allow low-latency generation of hundreds of sound channels at very little CPU processing cost. It sounds simple, but the reality is supremely complicated and potentially as game-changing as the introduction of programmable shader architecture to graphics cards. AMD worked together with audio processing algorithm developers such as Genaudio to create a framework which is both powerful and straightforward to interface with.
Through the use of partner middleware developers can design their game engine to interface with AMD's True Audio to generate sound, even using in-game positional data to determine sound sources. Interfacing through middleware also reduces the required learning curve, reducing the cost implications of this development. The result will be more a complete and immersive sound-scape with better virtualised 3D, whether your output audio device is a stereo headset or 7.1 surround sound system.
Every AMD representative we spoke to repeated one point: it sounds to good to be true. When they first heard about True Audio they were deeply sceptical, after all how much of an impact could better sound have? Fifteen minutes in a room with a set of headphones and they were converts. From people who are still gamers at heart, that's as close to an endorsement as you can get.
For what it is worth, we found a canned demonstration to be more than compelling enough to keep an open mind. When you consider the hype an anticipation for other immersive technologies such as the Occulus Rift, we'd be crazy not to.
The only cards currently revealed to feature the tech are the R7 260X, R7 290 and R7 290X. As we've already noted the R7 260X is for all intents and purposes a variant of the HD7790. It's not clear if they intend to, but they may unlock this functionality on the older design too though a firmware update. Unfortunately the technology just wasn't ready with the release of the rest of the 7000-series, explaining why the rest of today's GPUs are not compatible with this new tech. Whether the lack of penetration into the market will restrict its use remains to be seen, but we would not be surprised if the next-generation consoles are capable of similar feats through similar means.
Is Microsoft's glacial development of DirectX holding back PC game development? There's been so much ink spilt over the question that adding our own writing to the sea won't uncover any new facts, but one thing is true: consoles do more with less. That's why they've been able to keep up graphically, despite being a fraction the theoretical power of a modern PC. AMD want to unlock as much of the potential of their graphics architecture as they can in, where possible, the same way that consoles do; hence the development of Mantle.
Mantle, developed in conjunction with DICE, is a graphics hardware API which provides a much thinner abstraction layer to hardware than is currently possible through OpenGL and DirectX. In this respect it is not 'direct to metal', but much more efficient than other one-size-fits-all solutions. Critically to the viability of the API in the development ecosystem Mantel is compatible with all graphics cards with GCN architecture, meaning that the countless 7000-series cards sold to date should all be impacted by the development.
A post-release patch to Battlefield 4 will see DICE become the first to implement Mantle in released title. The demonstration will provide direct evidence of whether Mantle can make the astronomical performance leaps hinted at, and if low-spec HD7770's suddenly start playing the game at 1080p in high quality their point will have been made quite eloquently.
More information on these technologies, including as-yet unannounced partners, will be unveiled at the AMD Developer Summit in November.
Never Settle Forever
Glaring in is absence have been updates to the Never Settle Forever bundle to include the new GPUs. AMD certainly appear to be committed to the bundle, but it may well be that in the fullness of time GPUs will step down a tier. Until the future of Never Settle Forever is revealed and the Rx 200-series' position within it becomes concrete it is best to assume that the 7000-series are the only cards which are part of the bundle offer.
If today feels a little like an anticlimax, that's perfectly understandable. We still don't have any news or benchmarks for the flagship R9 290X to reveal and won't have for at least another week. Meanwhile series announcement lacks the sheen common to new hardware releases, despite the deeper reveal of Mantle and True Audio Technology.
Fundamentally the AMD 28nm GCN lineup is still the same solid card that the HD7970 has been for almost two years, but the pricing especially will provoke cries of the rebranding shenanigans NVIDIA has been accused of over years. Where the Green Team were castigated for years over the G92 essentially being rebadged every year, we must also take AMD to task - although in this case it is only one generation and comes after NVIDIA performed the same slight of hand five months ago. The trouble here is that price messaging is confused, and the position of Hawaii-based GPU cards in the market is unknown.
That said, as a rebranding goes it's logical, well timed and internally consistent. The argument against moving to five digits certainly rings true, and as we have mentioned it makes sense to bring things closer in line to the overall numbering scheme for AMD products.
Does this make us a little more enthused for the 290X? A little. However in the long term the more lasting impact will be made by Mantle and the new audio technologies, and for that we have to wait on Battlefield 4 and Q1 2014 respectively.
We'll endeavour to bring you more information on the R9 290X as it becomes available. In the mean time we would not be shocked to hear more next week.