Interview: AMD: We’re going after Nvidia graphics with Kaveri APU

Interview: AMD: We're going after Nvidia graphics with Kaveri APU

To give a taste of its new Kaveri APU’s kick, AMD ran a side-by-side Battlefield 4 demo during its opening APU13 keynote last week. The game ran on two machines; frames per second ticked away in the upper left hand corners as the opening, "Total Eclipse of the Heart"-sound tracked sequence rolled.

Kaveri came away as the clear winner, holding nearly double the frame rates and running with hardly a hiccup. The second machine, equipped with an Intel Core i7 4470K CPU and a Nvidia GeForce GT630 GPU, stuttered and lurched from scene to scene.

It was an effective, visceral demonstration, but the question quickly circulated why AMD would pit the top-end A10-7850K Kaveri APU against this CPU/GPU combo. Adam Kozak, senior product marketing manager at AMD, laid the company’s logic out for TechRadar.

"We want to position an A10 versus Intel plus a graphics card," he told us during a post-keynote rendezvous. "Obviously you can go up so high before the graphics card gets faster, and that’s why we picked the 630. There is a new 640 we’re looking at, and we’ll take a look at that as we get closer to launch."

It’s not just CPU then that AMD is targeting with its first APU of 2014.

"We want to go after the idea where it makes sense, at least from our perspective, that you don’t need to buy a certain graphics card," Kozak said. "In fact, Nvidia probably sells 70-80% of their entire stack at 630 and below. People kind of know that Intel is very weak [with] GPU, so now we’re going after something people think is strong."

Adam Kozak

Kaveri in action, but what about Mantle?

We had caught up with Kozak to see another BF4 demo played on a different desktop – one presumably less meaty than the machine used for the keynote head-to-head. The settings were on medium except for a custom graphics quality setting. AMD Inclusion, which controls how shadows are placed on overlapping objects, was turned off.

"The difference between low and medium is huge, and then from medium to high, you see a little bit more details in the soft and shadows," Kozak said of how visible Kaveri’s footprint becomes on different settings. "From high to ultra, it’s more of a post-processing so you’re light rays and everything are kind of blended a little more.

"For me, the biggest jump is from low to medium, and then from there it just gradually looks nicer and nicer, depending on what you’ve got."

The frame rates hit 39 or so as they did during the keynote, and the play never lapsed. Granted, this wasn’t a particularly action-heavy demo we were being shown – Kozak was really just wondering through a ruined building.

The first Kaveri demo was more graphics intensive, but neither it nor the one Kozak played ran a Mantle-optimized version of BF4. AMD’s Mantle API, developed with the help of EA’s DICE, is designed to push frame rates higher and improve graphics fidelity. Pair it with Kaveri, and the hope is for near-perfect renderings.

That’s the idea, of course, and Kozak for one is keeping his forecasts on a more even keel.

"Personally my expectations are low," he said of a Mantle-plus-Kaveri combo. "But there is an Oxide demo here and they are seeing substantial speed-ups, beyond what anyone internally has guessed at. I’m optimistic it’s going to be more than the 5% I’m hoping for and more towards the double digits."

Battlefield 4

In fact, we’re told Mantle is still fairly new for AMD internally, and it’s partners like DICE who are seeing frame gaps vaporize.

"What I have heard from DICE is that what [Mantle] does with the discrete card is it equalizes the CPUs," Kozak explained. "It was only a couple of frames faster before because the CPU doesn’t really play into things like that, but [Mantle] eliminates any gap. And essentially it does that by allowing the graphics card to do more, so it becomes the bottle neck."

When a Mantle optimization-bearing update arrives for Battlefield 4 in December, we’ll have an accurate idea of just how much the API improves graphics performance in the real world.

Masters of productivity

Our meeting with Kozak held more than just a BF4 run through.

He also showed us a JPEG decode accelerator that overrides the usual routines found in Windows and speeds them up with Kaveri. In one thumbnail decode run, performance increased by 110.1%.

When the first Kaveri APU desktops become available January 14, they’ll have the decoder built in. More than simply decoding family photos faster, the driver shines a light on an area AMD wants to target with Kaveri.

"Productivity is sort of a new one for us," Kozak told us.

The company plans to have additional productivity compute acceleration examples at launch, and Kozak said that "the idea there is to gain interest, [to] get Microsoft and others aware that you can make things a lot faster on tasks that people still care about in a professional level with these crazy spreadsheets that the normal consumer level may not be much of a big deal."

Render speeds

Kaveri price and scalability

Not all is known about Kaveri – CES 2014 is the APU’s "big coming out party," as we’ve been told by AMD.

With the first Kaveri desktops due early next year, the all-important price question will be answered in short order. Until then Kozak and AMD are keeping mum on cost, but we suspect Kaveri will be priced in the same range as Richland desktop was when that APU was released in the channel.

Kozak noted, as AMD has, that the company has reversed its normal APU release order and is taking Kaveri first to desktop.

"It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing," he said of the decision. "We’re really interested in getting Kaveri out there as fast as possible. If it is just the desktop, and not the bread and butter of mobile, it’s because we need guys to start programming for it. We give them the fastest implementation and they can start optimizing their code, and obviously from there can start optimizing for lower TDPs."

While scalability with Kaveri is a big selling point, Kozak said not to expect it in something as small as a smartphone anytime soon.

"Right now we’re going as low as 15W, which is not a phone, all the way up to the typical desktop," he said. Though Kozak didn’t mention it, AMD has stated Kaveri will head to embedded systems and servers as well.

Snipping through Battlefield 4 and JPEGs is all well and good, but when it comes to real-world implementation, CES and the days following are going to be Kaveri’s true gauntlet run.

Early showings have been impressive, and Kozak said more work is being done to fine-tune Kaveri.

"I expect this one to get even better for us," he said, referring to the Battlefield 4 desktop demo. "We still have our engineers working with DICE on Kaveri optimizations. That’s going on as we sit here, and we still have DICE working with Mantle. There’s a two-step prong that’s going to make this even better."

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