Feature Articles

AMD Radeon R9 and R7 Graphics Unleashed

By Vijay Anand - 8 Oct 2013

High Resolution Gaming & AMD AMD TrueAudio

Designed for High Resolution Gaming (Ultra HD / 4K)

While AMD was first to support 4K resolution gaming, setting up such monitors wasn't a straightforward affair and might need Eyefinity setup to manually configure such monitors. With the new graphics card series bringing in more firepower, an improved Catalyst driver suite promises to support popular 4K resolution monitors out of the box without configuration. On that note, AMD has also proposed to the Video Electronics Standard Association (VESA) to update its standard to support for displays larger than 4K resolution, tiled display technologies and stereo 3D formats among others, which VESA accepted and updated their DisplayID standard to version 1.3.

In that sense, the new Radeon graphics cards are designed to be 4K-ready, but only the Radeon R9 290X has enough processing throughput to really deliver high performance gaming at high quality settings at such resolution. For standard non-gaming display output needs, both the old Radeon HD 7000 series and the newer Radeon R9/R7 models support 4K resolution output via HDMI at 30Hz and via DisplayPort at 60Hz (with or without the MST hub).

The new Radeon graphics cards are forward looking enough to be 4K-resolution ready.

The new VESA Display ID v1.3 standard to address tiled displays in handling large screen resolutions and how the updated AMD Eyefinity configuration can fast track setup and optimal use of such displays.

Most existing Ultra HD displays aren’t yet updated to the latest display connectivity standards (VESA Display ID v1.3 came out only a month ago) and support either Ultra HD resolutions at less than 30Hz or need to be configured as dual tiled displays of 2K x 2K resolution at 60Hz. While the former is fine for viewing movies, it’s not ideal for fast paced activity like gaming and thus requires the increased refresh rate. There will soon be newer displays that can deliver Ultra HD resolutions at 60Hz in a single stream and when they are made available, AMD mentions that is Radeon R9 290 series will be able to support it and drive high pixel rates of up to 600MHz which is required for Ultra HD resolutions with higher refresh rates.

In terms of display connectivity, you might notice from the table of specs that the new graphics card models adopt a single normal sized DisplayPort connector in favor of the previous generation’s dual mini-DisplayPorts. While it is one port less, most people don’t really require that many outputs and might in fact be more content with standard sized connectors that won’t need a converter before being able to hook up to a monitor. For those who demand more display support, the DisplayPort still supports multiple monitors via an MST (Multi-Stream Transport) Hub which the DisplayPort supports. From a GPU perspective, the new Radeon series still has 6 display controllers integrated on the die and thus a single card can handle 6 displays with the help of the MST Hub.

Not factoring DisplayPort options, the new range for Radeon R9 and R7 products are able to run 3x DVI/HMDI connections simultaneously. Previously on the Radeon HD 7000 series you could only run any two combinations of DVI/HDMI connections. This enablement is however not a GPU enhancement, but more of a board-level enhancement because the GPUs have had adequate display controllers since the earlier generations.

What about 3D gaming? Like its predecessor, 120Hz 3D gaming monitors are supported via graphics card's DisplayPort connection.


AMD TrueAudio Technology - Elevating Audio Performance

We've talked about AMD TrueAudio technology to some extent in our earlier preview article, but we reckon it could be an interesting game changer in the future that we're going to detail more about it here. In short, If AMD is going to have its way, the surround gaming headset and multi-channel PC speaker market would soon cease to exist because of its new TrueAudio technology.

Think about all the headphone ‘gaming’ class headsets you’ve come across boasting multi-drivers and/or 3D audio processing, what they do is try to simulate a spatial environment from the standard but limited audio stream. We describe it such because game developers literally have limited CPU utilization budget for audio processing – which generally comes up to be 10% of the CPU’s resources. The balance is allocated for compute, physics, the game’s A.I. and all the other aspects and overhead of running the game, including graphics of course. Fortunately for visualization needs, GPUs are getting ever more powerful with the ever-evolving API to promote new ways of programming efficiently to derive the intended game experience. Note that the graphics seen on screen is computed and drawn in real-time. Positional audio however isn’t and is based off conventional virtual surround post-processing to re-create simulated surround audio. With the limited CPU budget available and the need to cater to the common denominator to appeal to a wide audience, real-time positional spatial audio reproduction is not feasible and is also limited to just a handful or less audio streams/effects.

AMD TrueAudio Technology is able to bring gamers accurate real-time interactive positional audio and with more real-time voices and channels in-game.

Enter AMD’s TrueAudio technology that takes a radical step forward to incorporate a fully programmable audio engine as part of the GPU die. The idea is to move away from simplistic audio reproduction with minimal effects and have accurate real-time positional audio rendered and process several streams and voices simultaneously to recreate a realistic gaming atmosphere. AMD likens this to how games have tremendously improved visually over time when moving from fixed function programming to programmable shaders. And as far-fetched it might it might sound, all of this experience can be delivered on just standard stereo desktop speakers and standard headphones of any class. You don’t necessarily have to invest in expensive gear.

Sounds gimmicky? We won’t fault you as we were equally skeptical - until AMD and its partners did a live demonstration of AMD TrueAudio technology in action at the presentation hall. Further to that, we personally tested it out with an upcoming game installment, Thief, now in its fourth version, with AMD TrueAudio technology. When playing the game with the TrueAudio enabled ,you don't readily get to appreciate what it has done for your gaming experience; but once you disable it, the difference in audio accuracy, clarity and realism is all too obvious. The difference is as stark as switching from mono to stereo audio as the game environment was very much alive and we could hear audio from behind our head while just donning a standard Sennhieser headset. While it is a tech demo, you'll have to realize that without AMD TrueAudio technology, the CPU will be tasked to process standard audio as most mainstream processors don't have the muscle to process high quality audio algorithms.

A group of tech journalists (like ourselves) checking out the new Thief game demo with AMD TrueAudio Technology in action. In our opinion, it really works out as advertised bringing heightened game realism.

According to audio processing algorithm IP owners like GenAudio and McDSP, their spokespeople mentioned that it would take tremendous CPU processing throughput to accurately render positional audio in real-time with several audio effects. In fact, they sighted that it would take an 8-core CPU to handle such processing elegantly without bringing the system to its knees. Due to the immense processing power required, this is the reason why the industry has brushed it aside and focused on enhancing visual computing while relegating a measly 10% or so CPU processing cycles for standard audio processing tasks with simplified audio rendering that tries to mimic 3D audio via algorithms (such as Creative's EAX, Dolby, DTS and others), rather than real-time interactive audio effects reproduction.

So What is AMD TrueAudio Technology About?

What AMD's TrueAudio technology does is to provide the programmable processing throughput on the GPU's silicon die to offload the CPU from standard audio processing, while having game developers utilize audio middleware partners to enable AMD TrueAudio processing path to incorporate plug-ins for the required high quality audio processing algorithms. We experienced GenAudio's AstoundSurround (3D spatial audio technology) in action at AMD’s GPU14 Tech Day event and we were rather convinced of its accurate positional audio capabilities from demo clips presented.

Would we want AMD TrueAudio Technology? Most certainly. However it might take AMD more time to build a base of middleware plug-ins and games directly supporting this standard. Fortunately, it doesn't alienate anyone as it enhances audio experience for those equipped with suitable AMD graphics cards, while everyone else will hear standard audio. Also, what we heard from the game developers at the show is that incorporating AMD TrueAudio wasn't much effort at all.

Understanding What AMD TrueAudio Technology Means to Games and Developers

We had the opportunity to further speak with an AMD Fellow Engineer, Carl K.Wakeland who’s part of the company’s Multimedia Architecture Solutions Group to answer some sticky questions that might be on some of our readers’ minds:-

HWZ: What would be the impetus for game developers to try and incorporate AMD TrueAudio technology in their games/game engines?

AMD: We will make it easy for gaming developers as we’ll work directly with the middleware partners. By getting suitable middleware guys on board, the game developers needn’t put in much effort nor change the tools they use. All they would need to do then is to check if the system hardware supports AMD TrueAudio and if it does, the game will then latch on to that audio processing path and enable a whole lot of other audio effects and reverbs that would otherwise not be made available on a non-TrueAudio capable machine via the CPU processing route.

HWZ: How did AMD decide to implement an audio DSP in the GPU and can it co-work with the CPU to process more effects?

AMD: It’s all about improving the gaming experience. Whenever there’s any balance CPU cycle budget, the game developers usually task the game with better physics, A.I. or other aspects that don’t leave much room for the audio quotient that’s usually tackled at the tail-end of the game development pipeline. With AMD TrueAudio, there’s dedicated silicon set aside for true real-time audio processing needs with DSPs integrated in the AMD’s GPU.

The middleware can also understand the entire system resource and capabilities by talking to AMD’s drivers and issue processing tasks to both the AMD TrueAudio path and via the CPU – if required. E.g. 1 reverb effect to be processed by each path if necessary.

HWZ: Are there increased costs to the game developers by adopting AMD TrueAudio?

AMD: Not directly due to AMD TrueAudio. Cost of implementation in the game will vary depending on which audio effects and middlware plug-ins the game developers choose to work with. AMD also doesn’t charge any royalty for games using its audio processing path.

HWZ: Seeing that this is a new initiative by AMD and that it will take time to grow the base of AMD TrueAudio enabled systems, what is the key to getting game developers to support AMD TrueAudio technology?

AMD: The answer is getting more things enabled in the middleware. As new games come out and they get the latest drivers from the middlware, it will automatically get the benefits from TrueAudio. Also we’ve an ISV partnering effort that targets not only the middlware but the major game titles. We’re also on the lookout for mutual relationships by working with partners that are already close to AMD or like working with AMD that we can try to convince them in adopting this standard. At the end of the day, a lot depends on our work with the middlware partners as the more base we cover and work with, the higher the chances of newer games coming out that use some of these plug-ins and will eventually automatically support AMD TrueAudio technology.

Some of the current partners for AMD TrueAudio.

HWZ: Will APUs in the future have support this feature?

AMD: No comments on future developments plans, but it is technically feasible. The audio experience is expected to be similar across the hardware but the silicon set aside for TrueAudio is scalable in nature and it can evolve as required. At this point of time, the feature is only available on the Radeon R9 290X and the Radeon R7 260X GPUs as the current feature rollout strategy.

HWZ: Is AMD TrueAudio featured on any of the upcoming next generation consoles from Microsoft and Sony?

AMD: Erm, I can’t comment on that!

In AMD's words, they hope TrueAudio will revolutionize gaming audio quality just as what programmable shaders have done for realistic graphics rendering quality. One last but important bit: AMD TrueAudio Technology is only supported on the Radeon R9 290X, R9 290 and R7 260X. We still can’t fathom why it’s not present in all of the new GPUs but as Wakeland commented, it’s just part of their current roll-out strategy.

Here are some upcoming games that are designed with AMD TrueAudio Technology:-

  • Lichdom
  • Thieft
  • Sonic: All Stars Racing Transformed
  • Murdered: Soul Suspect
  • Star Citizen
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