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Inside AMD’s Radeon 5700 Big Day

This was supposed to be AMD’s E3.

AMD’s fortunes in the PC space have been mixed for years, as graphics rival Nvidia has continually leapfrogged the company in performance and features. As AMD ceded market share to Nvidia in the GPU space, it similarly struggled to compete with chip giant Intel, managing to sustain a toehold in the CPU market only at the budget level for years.

But, in 2018, with AMD’s second generation Ryzen chipset, the manufacturer’s fortunes improved, as the new hardware competed favorably with Intel’s offerings at much lower cost to consumers. As the gaming audience gained confidence in AMD’s CPU hardware, and AMD promised even more improvements with Ryzen 3 (or Zen 2, as the architecture is known), hope grew that AMD could also regain competitiveness in the graphics space. AMD’s next generation Navi tech has been whispered about and speculated on ad nauseum in tech publications and forums for literally years, which has reached a nearly fever pitch as both Sony and now Microsoft confirmed their next-generation consoles will use Zen 2 and Navi tech.

All that was left was for AMD to deliver. Easier said than done, granted, given the high hopes coming into this week’s E3, but even trying to keep expectations in check, it’s difficult to know just where AMD stands now that everything is out in the open.

Zen 2 and the Ryzen 3 processors it powers are, more or less, what was expected, offering very competitive performance at aggressive price points that situate them well against Intel’s current CPUs. But any advantages are minor, and Intel has new hardware coming very soon that seems poised to bring its own performance improvements and muddy any claims of price/power/performance superiority for AMD.

But more damningly for AMD, Navi does not appear to be the savior of AMD’s brand that many fans had hoped. The card the company debuted today, the Radeon 5700, isn’t even at the high end of its line, instead aiming to compete with Nvidia’s enthusiast RTX 2070 and 2060 GPUs. AMD’s performance talks aimed squarely at entrenched, years-old standards for PC gamers, belaboring results at 1440p and 120hz, rather than discussing 4K performance, with benchmark numbers that even when picked to most favor the 5700 line, don’t yield more than a few percentage points of performance improvements over the Nvidia cards they aim to compete with — for just $50 less.

The most notable moment of AMD’s press conference, however, is what wasn’t there, especially when compared with the competition.

The graphics buzzword of 2019 thus far has been ray tracing, in real time. Nvidia released their RTX line of GPUs last Fall with hardware dedicated to the tech, but uptake has only seemed to gain steam this year, dominating much of the coverage and panels at this year’s GDC. This snowball effect continued in April, as Sony announced that their upcoming PlayStation, which was using AMD tech, would support real-time ray tracing. This week, Microsoft confirmed that their upcoming Xbox console platform, codenamed Project Scarlett, which also includes AMD-based chips, would include hardware-accelerated support for ray tracing.

But there was no direct discussion whatsoever during AMD’s press conference about the tech, including more general, shader-based approaches to ray tracing that are less efficient than hardware-based implementations, but still provide some of the visual benefits. Instead, AMD made repeated allusions to “performance killing features” on its competitor’s products, likely alluding to the steep performance penalties incurred in many current titles that employ ray traced visual effects.

AMD’s lack of a codified strategy on ray tracing technology seems to put them on the outside of a trend with apparent momentum. Navi has been a repository for AMD fans hopes for the future of the company and its ability to compete on equal footing with Nvidia’s best GPUs. Whether these new GPUs can live up to such aspirations remains to be seen. Final judgments will have to wait until AMD’s new cards reach store shelves, along with its Ryzen 3 CPUs, on July 7.

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