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OPINION: AMD Still Doesn't Get It

By Poorna Shankar on January 29, 2020 | Editorials | 0

I have never seen a company so seemingly content, so thoroughly blasé with spectacular mediocrity as AMD. While I’m referring to Radeon Technologies Group within AMD, AMD as a whole is ultimately responsible. Though AMD’s CPU division is doing great things, their graphics division has done nothing but boldly go where we’ve already been before, deliver no truly high-end offering for years, and doing nothing to truly push the industry forward. This behavior from AMD isn’t new. But with each generation, and every graphics card released in those generations, my frustrations continue to skyrocket.

My frustration with AMD isn’t new. Because of this, it may be easy to label me an “Nvidia shill.” It goes without saying, I don’t care whose name is on the tin, as it were. I want the best hardware regardless of manufacturer. Period. Now, in January 2020, it has finally made most sense to lay out what exactly is wrong with AMD as I see it. Perhaps counterintuitively, let us begin with the most recent news regarding AMD, the release of the RX 5600 XT.

In our review, Dame concluded,

“…it leaves the RX 5600 XT in an odd spot and put potential users into a bit of a predicament. If it came down to purely features and money, are NVIDIA features like DLSS and real-time ray-tracing worth the extra $11 and have more appeal to the end user or do AMD’s Radeon Boost, Image Sharpening, and Integer Scaling as well as an extra $11 in the user’s pocket make more sense?”

Now for the context. What Dame is partially referring to here is the last minute BIOS update for the 5600 XT to increase its performance for its $289 price. Why was this update issued? Well, in not so many words, AMD had originally intended for the RX 5600 XT to compete with Nvidia’s GTX 1660 SUPER (in price) and GTX 1660 Ti (in performance).

However, quite literally the most predictable thing Nvidia could have done in response – that is, lower the price of the EVGA RTX 2060 KO (non SUPER) to $300 – was something AMD did not predict in all their wisdom. And in so doing, this forced AMD to issue a BIOS update to some – not all – of its cards to increase core and memory clocks along with power consumption.

So last minute was this BIOS change that the card you buy may very likely not have the new BIOS included as of this writing. This means that you, the consumer, will need to update the BIOS of your 5600 XT if you want to experience that performance increase.

It goes without saying just how utterly ludicrous that really is. No end user should have to flash the BIOS of their graphics card because of the company’s gross incompetence to foresee the most predictable move their competitor could have (and has) made to lower the price of their cards.

I consider myself pretty well-versed in tech. Flashing a BIOS of a graphics card is something even I am hesitant to do. There is a high possibility of something going wrong and your shiny new card to be effectively bricked. I’m not saying it can’t be done properly, but for most consumers, I’ll always recommend against doing it.

Consider also the consumer who would be buying a 5600 XT. The $250-300 price point of the market is where most consumers would look to buy a new graphics card. It is an entirely reasonable assumption to make that, given the mainstream price, the consumer won’t necessarily be an expert in graphics card technology. And given that most people simply don’t even overclock their cards, expecting such a mainstream consumer to flash the BIOS is an unreasonable ask.

Moreover, with the BIOS update for the 5600 XT, we begin to arrive at a repeating frustration of mine with AMD. This sort of last-minute reaction isn’t new from AMD. Recall in 2019 when AMD was set to release the RX 5700 and RX 5700 XT. The original price of these cards was $379 for the RX 5700 and $449 for the RX  5700 XT.

Enter Nvidia. Again.

Just days before AMD was set to launch their cards, Nvidia lowered the price of several of their competing offerings. The RTX 2060 SUPER was now $399, while the RTX 2070 SUPER was now $499. And so, AMD had to respond because, once again, they failed to predict Nvidia’s most predictable move.

AMD rushed to reduce prices so now, the RX 5700 was priced at $349 and the RX 5700 XT was $399.

Of course, so many in the media, and indeed many consumers, looked at this like good guy AMD was lowering prices to stick it to Nvidia. “Look at AMD keeping Nvidia’s pricing in check!” However, they all failed to truly understand what actually happened.

In reality, this price reduction from AMD had several ramifications. The first and perhaps most obvious was the immediacy with which AMD had cannibalized their Radeon VII (R7) flagship, despite the R7 having released only months prior.

Pretty much all testing pegged the $399 RX 5700 XT at roughly equal performance to the $699 Radeon VII. What rational human being would ever even consider the R7 anymore when the 5700 XT is there for $300 less? And so, despite the R7 having been on the market for mere months, AMD completely cannibalized it.

The same thing is set to happen with the RX 5600 XT and the RX 5700. The RX 5700 is priced at $329, which is $40 more than the RX 5600 XT. However, benchmarks show that the performance gap between the two cards isn’t that large. In some games, it’s within margin of error.

Source: JayzTwoCents

Given this, would a rational consumer consider the RX 5700 when the 5600 XT is comparable performance but $40 less? I’m betting no, especially because that $40 difference is actually substantial at this mainstream price point.

Despite all this, AMD still has nothing to compete in the enthusiast end and haven’t had such an offering in years. The RX 5700 XT is the best card AMD has right now, and it’s only competitive with the RTX 2070 SUPER. Remember, the 2070 SUPER is not Nvidia’s highest end offering.

In fact, before the R7, AMD had absolutely no response to the then-best Nvidia consumer card, the 1080 Ti, for two years. And by the time AMD trotted out the R7, Nvidia had the RTX 2080 and RTX 2080 Ti.

These cards were packed with genuinely next generation technology. But here was AMD arriving on the scene with a card that was too hot, too expensive, and already outdated. Here again, it’s tempting to look at AMD’s offerings today with the RX 5-series cards and call them competitive and good value for money.

But once again, this is a woefully short-sighted and dangerously naïve outlook.

Think carefully on what AMD is offering with the 5-series compared to Nvidia and their RTX 20-series. The 5-series are built on Navi architecture, which is a complete overhaul of their GCN architecture which they’ve been using for years and years. Objectively, it’s far more efficient in power consumption, heat generation, and general throughput compared to GCN. This has been made possible largely in part to the move to a 7nm manufacturing process.  However, ultimately, it’s more of the same technology we’ve seen in the GPU space for years.

Nvidia has packed in genuinely next generation technology into their GPUs with Tensor cores for machine learning, and dedicated hardware for ray tracing. I don’t care what some may say regarding ray tracing. The facts are that it is here to stay. There is no greater proof of its permanence and adoption than hardware support for ray tracing included in next gen consoles. Consoles are mainstream. This means ray tracing will become ubiquitous, just like programmable shaders and shadow maps before.

Viewed another way, Microsoft and Sony would not have included support for this technology if they didn’t think it was the next evolution of graphics.

Let’s circle back. On paper, AMD’s 5-series is competitive from a performance standpoint with some of Nvidia’s RTX offerings. In reality, this simply isn’t true. Just to stay competitive, AMD had to move to 7nm. Nvidia is accomplishing performance and power consumption parity despite being an entire manufacturing node behind AMD. And Nvidia also includes next generation machine learning Tensor cores and hardware for ray tracing.

What is going to happen once Nvidia moves to 7nm?

AMD has had to jump manufacturing nodes just to stay within striking distance of Nvidia. But to only look at performance comparisons between the two companies will not tell you the whole story. It fails to take into account AMD’s genuine engineering deficit. Nvidia is able to keep pace in performance, while including next generation technologies, on an older, less efficient, larger manufacturing node.

So in reality, no, AMD is not competitive. AMD is not good value. Against the $300 RTX 2060, a card which is $11 more than the 5600 XT and includes these future-facing, next-gen-now technologies, the RX 5600 XT looks thoroughly backwards. When considering the last minute, completely unplanned BIOS update, AMD's waywardness and outright panic merely speaks to the company's total lack of confidence. I cannot in good conscience recommend people buy the 5600 XT when the RTX 2060 is right there with all those technologies for an additional mere $11.

Let's look ahead. Sure, there may be rumors of a “Big Navi” set to include hardware for ray tracing, which makes sense given that AMD is the vendor for the aforementioned next gen consoles. But even here, there is serious cause for concern.

Let’s assume these “Big Navi” cards do include hardware support for ray tracing. If they do, then this will be AMD’s first foray into ray tracing. They will have had absolutely zero learnings, zero large scale field tests from which they can draw data.

Nvidia, on the other hand, will have had roughly two years of data to draw upon when they inevitably release their next generation cards. These cards will undoubtedly contain more efficient and more powerful hardware for ray tracing.

Do you now see the issue? Do you now understand my frustration?

From all outward appearances, AMD seem unable or unwilling to create something truly competitive and truly forward-looking. They seem content with trotting out the technology of today instead of engineering the technology of tomorrow.

I don’t want that. I don’t want one company leading the charge. I want competition – true­ competition. After years covering this space, after years of wanting, craving more from AMD, I am resigned to the cold hard fact that this fantasy will never come true.

I have never wanted to be so wrong.


ShankTheTank

Poorna Shankar

A highly opinionated avid PC gamer, Poorna blindly panics with his friends in various multiplayer games, much to the detriment of his team. Constantly questioning industry practices and a passion for technological progress drive his love for the video game industry. He pulls no punches and tells it like he sees it. He runs a podcast, Gaming The Industry, with fellow writer, Joseph Bradford, discussing industry practices and their effects on consumers.