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For now AMD has the lead -- but will it last

Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) has appeared to get the jump on archrival NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) -- for the moment at least.  With the soft launch of Volcanic Islands, AMD has the world's first DirectX11.2 card, and a whole bag of new tricks -- or did it?

I. AMD R9 280X -- GeForce GTX 770-Like Performance For $100 Less

Some questioned AMD's September soft launch which came with no concrete details about launch date.  But this week the mystery ends, as gamers will get their first taste of Volcanic Islands; and it's a sweet taste of gaming paradise.

It seemed a bit idealistic from the start to believe that all the R7 and R9 cards previewed in September would be available at the exact same time.  Matt Skinner, General Manager of AMD's graphics business unit had promised, "a top to bottom product line for every gamer", remarking, "We believe we have winners at ever price."

R7 and R9
The R7 and R9 family is looking to be more of a traditional launch than some had hoped.

But in the end AMD delivered -- other than the absent flagship R9 290X, all the cards -- the Radeon R9 280X, R9 270X, R7 260X, R7 250, and R7 240 are launching this week.  

Priced at $299 USD and up, the R9 280X's chief competition price-wise -- for now -- is the NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 760, a second-generation Kepler GPU that NVIDIA finally pushed out this week.  The AMD GPU will be available on Friday, Oct. 11; somewhat disappointingly it doesn't come with any games, where as the Radeon HD 7000 series GPUs now come with 1-3 free games, plus a fresh round of price cuts.

But in terms of performance it's hard to fault the R9 280X.  PCWorld tested a card from Micro-Star International (MSI) Comp. Ltd. (TPE:2377), while our good friends at AnandTech took cards from XFX (a division of Pine Technology Holdings Ltd. (HKG:1079)) and ASUSTek Computer, Inc. (TPE:2357) out for a spin.

Tahiti
Volcanic Islands still uses the same Graphics Core Next architecture.
[Image Source: AMD via AnandTech]

AnandTech's benchmarks show one of the cards (namely the overclocked ASUS model) beating out the Radeon HD 7970 Gigahertz Edition (GE), AMD's previous generation flagship.  Compared to NVIDIA, the new card comes within a hair of the performance of the also-new $400 USD GeForce GTX 770, and blows away the the $50 USD cheaper GeForce 760 by 15-20 percent.
AMD Asus
The ASUS R9 280X DirectCU II Top smoked the competition. [Image Source: AnandTech]

More benchmarks are available below, and they all pretty much tell the same story:

"AMD Radeon R7-260X R9-270X and R9-280X review - Introduction" -- Guru3D
"AMD Radeon R9 280X, R9 270X and R7 260X Review" -- PC Perspective
"AMD's Radeon R9 280X and 270X graphics cards" -- TechReport
"AMD Radeon R9 280X, R9 270X, And R7 260X: Old GPUs, New Names" -- Tom's Hardware

These other benchmarks show the R9 270X ($200 USD) to generally be neck-and-neck with the GeForce GTX 760 ($250 USD), while the R7 260X ($140 USD) is comparable to the Radeon HD 7850 ($125 USD, after discount) or the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti ($160 USD), but beat by the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost ($110 USD, after discount).

Another piece of good news is that EyeFinity has been improved with the R9 chips to add support for a third HDMI/DVI monitored, and up to 3 DisplayPort monitors, allowing gamers to potential drive six monitors simultaneously.

II. AMD Seizes Holiday Lead, But Early 2014 May Belong to NVIDIA

Overall, AMD has a commanding lead on the high-end with the R9 cards beating NVIDIA cards priced $50 USD or more higher.  On the lower end (the R7 260X) the picture is muddled by budget offerings from both NVIDIA and AMD itself.  That said, this launch is a significant win for AMD as it is is about as clear a win as you're going to see on the high end.

However, in addition to the gripes about pricing on the low end there are also a few other caveats to consider, even with the dominant higher end models like the R9 280X.

NVIDIA is likely to cut the prices of the GeForce GTX 760/770.  While these cards have just come out, the market reality is that NVIDIA must cut, and cut it shall -- the question is when.  Also on the NVIDIA front, we must remember that NVIDIA is prepping the successor to KeplerMaxwell for launch.  The fact that the GeForce 700 Series is just now filling out with the launch of the GeForce GTX 760/770 suggests we may have to wait a while longer for that major launch.  But if Maxwell doesn't take too long to get here, the R7 and R9 cards should eventually face a far fiercer foe.

NVIDIA Maxwell
NVIDIA will look to regain the lead in early 2014 with Maxwell. [Image Source: VideoCardz]

And while the R9 280X trumps the GeForce 700 Series in load temperatures (running cooler) and noise (running quieter), it does consume a lot of power under load -- more than the GeForce GTX 770 even.

Lastly, while the R9 (and R7) come with a lot of new tricks, most of those tricks boil down to optimizations to the previous generation in terms of clock speed and computer units; or firmware upgrades.  Some of the biggest gains -- such as those realizable with AMD's low-level firmware alternative to DirectX -- Mantle -- will only be available if developers choose to optimize their games for AMD cards.  Given its current lead and strong historical presence, a number of AAA game developers should do precisely that in time, but it's not something you can always count on performance-wise.

At its core the R7 and R9 GPUs are still based on AMD's Graphics Core Next architecture and while we have yet to see some of the new series' most appealing cards (the more affordable models, and the flagship R9 290X), it's unlikely that the missing members of the family will reinvent the wheel too much.

Maxwell, on the other hand, is a true architecture bump, albeit coming at an inopportune time as fabs prepare to transition from 28 nm to 20 nm processes.  Maxwell 28 nm chips are rumored to be on pace for a Feb. or March 2014 launch.  That's a long way off, but given that AMD isn't expected to release 20 nm Graphics Core Next 2.0 cards until October 2014, it's highly probable we'll see NVIDIA regain the lead in early 2014.

Graphics Core Next
AMD's own architecture bump -- Graphics Core Next 2.0 -- is expected to accompany a 20 nm die shrink in Q4 2014.

In other words AMD's timing is much better -- seizing a command position as we approach the holiday season of spending -- but NVIDIA is still very much alive.

Sources: AnandTech, PCWorld, PC Perspective, Tech Report





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