AMD looks to heaven for salvation
By Ajith Ram June 8, 2016
- New GPU aimed at mainstream market
- Cheaper VR capable PCs promised
FOR centuries, mankind has looked up at the night sky for salvation. Whether it is our friendly neighbourhood planets or imaginary constellations, the human race has always sought succor from the heavens.
Now. former great and currently embattled chip manufacturer, AMD, is also doing the same thing. Hardly surprising as the company is in a tough spot. Earlier this year, AMD reported a 13% decline in revenue over the previous quarter. And yet another loss.
The company recently launched its new graphics chip, codenamed 'Polaris'. The graphics card based on the new Polaris GPU will be branded as the Radeon RX 480.
Astronomers describe Polaris as the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor and the famous North Star. Just as Polaris was used by ancient mariners to navigate the seas, AMD is desperately hoping that their new Polaris GPU and future GPUs will lead them to profitable waters.
Instead of launching a high-end card that competes directly against Nvidia's recently launched GeForce GTX 1080 or 1070, AMD's RX 480 is aimed at the wider mainstream market, offering just over five teraflops of performance for a mere US $199 - about half the price of a GeForce GTX 1070.
Manufactured using a new 14nm FinFET manufacturing process, the RX 480 will feature 36 compute units (eight more than the previous generation R9 380) bundled with some fast GDDR5 memory and linked to a 256-bit memory bus for 256GB/s of bandwidth.
The RX 480 will come in 4GB and 8GB configurations and will support AMD FreeSync and HDR video. The card will have DisplayPort 1.3/1.4 and HDMI 2.0b outputs. With a top power draw of just 150W, it should run pretty quiet.
Polaris has many architectural improvements such as higher memory bandwidth and lower power usage. You can see more about the new GPU's features in this video.
AMD is very coy about the new graphics card's performance. The company says the RX 480's VR capability compares to that of much more expensive GPUs.
"As we look to fully connect and immerse humanity through VR, cost remains the daylight between VR being only for the select few, and universal access for everyone," said Raja Koduri, senior vice president and chief architect at Radeon. "The Radeon RX Series is a disruptive technology that adds rocket fuel to the VR inflection point, turning it into a technology with transformational relevance to consumers, he added."
Maybe so. Probably not.
Contrary to my former colleague's high expectations, it is unlikely that any sub US $200 graphics card is going to revolutionise the nascent VR market. The market itself is waiting for cheaper VR headsets.
The Oculus Rift retails for US $599 and the HTC Vive costs a mere US $799. Even excluding the price of a high-end VR-capable PC, the headset prices have to drop before VR goes mainstream.
As things stand, Nvidia has over 80% market share in the high-end discrete graphics card market. It is unlikely the RX 480 alone is going to dramatically change this equation.
But this has not stopped AMD from diving headlong into the VR arena. The company wants most of the VR market to be powered by its GPUs at an accessible price point. The jury is now out on whether Polaris can be a real success and lead the company into profitability.
Things are a lot bleaker in the CPU space. Intel has pretty much crowded out AMD from all segments except the very lowest, thinnest margin ones. Like Polaris in the GPU sector, AMD is betting heavily on Zen which is scheduled to arrive later this year.
“Our strategy to build a strong business foundation and improve financial performance through delivering great products is beginning to show benefits,” said Lisa Su, AMD president and CEO of AMD during the last earnings call.
Fine words indeed. The only 'benefit' missing is a decent profit statement from the company. Hopefully, Polaris and Zen will light the way this year to keep AMD alive in a very turbulent PC cosmos.
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