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AMD's Mantle API Gives Devs Direct Hardware Control

Now that AMD is powering all four major gaming platforms – namely the Wii U, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC – the company has finally revealed its secret weapon to bind these platforms together: the low-level high-performance "Mantle" graphics API. This will allow developers to "speak the native language" of AMD's Graphics Core Next architecture used in modern AMD-based graphics cards and APUs.

"With Mantle, games like DICE’s 'Battlefield 4' will be empowered with the ability to speak the native language of the Graphics Core Next architecture, presenting a deeper level of hardware optimization no other graphics card manufacturer can match," the company said on Wednesday. "Mantle also assists game developers in bringing games to life on multiple platforms by leveraging the commonalities between GCN-powered PCs and consoles for a simple game development process."

The name is interesting in that AMD revealed its "Hawaii" Radeon R7 and R9 generation of GPUs at a press event in Hawaii, a beautiful island shaped by the active volcanoes along the Pacific Ring of Fire. The mantle is commonly known as the layer below the earth's crust, and is associated with volcanism. Based on a "global" diagram, the GCN architecture serves as the core, followed by the Mantle Driver, Mantle API, and the graphics applications serving as the "crust".

According to AMD, the Mantle benefits include reducing the CPU overhead to enable 9X more draw calls per second than other APIs. This will provide PC gamers proper multi-tasking scaling on the CPU without the need to handle all the background draw calls required by the older APIs. Other Mantle benefits include leveraging optimization work from next-generation game consoles to PCs, and new rendering techniques. Thus with direct access to all GPU features, developers can unlock higher graphics performance on consoles and gaming rigs with GCN-based GPUs.

The first company to support the Mantle API is Electronic Arts. The Frostbite 3 engine, developed by EA subsidiary DICE, will supposedly render natively with Mantle in Windows without the need for DirectX when running on GCN-based GPUs and APUs, but the engine will still be compatible with other rendering APIs. Johan Andersson from DICE indicated that AMD's API is similar to the one found on consoles where developers have direct access to the hardware for optimal performance. Mantle is also compatible with DirectX HLSL to simplify porting.

Support for Mantle will arrive in Battlefield 4 in December as a free and automatic update.

Will Mantle become another case of the Glide API? 3DFX created that API back in the mid-90s so that developers like id Software would have direct access to the Voodoo GPUs. Once additional GPUs became common on the market, OpenGL became the favorite until Microsoft beefed up the relationship between Windows and DirectX. Now smartphones and tablets have reignited OpenGL support, developers want to shun DirectX, and AMD is producing an exclusive API. However, this time around, this GPU spread isn't locked to mere gaming PCs.

"AMD’s approach to providing a consistent gaming experience on the PC, in the living room or over the cloud — all powered by AMD Radeon graphics found in AMD graphics cards and accelerated processing units (APUs). The four pillars of the Unified Gaming Strategy — console, cloud, content and client — come together with the introduction of Mantle," the company said.

There's talk that Mantle is open-source, meaning Nvidia could add support to GeForce GPUs. But given the company's recent collaboration with Valve and Linux, Nvidia may be more inclined to focus on better supporting OpenGL (just a guess). Regardless, additional information regarding Mantle will be released at the AMD Developer Summit, APU13, taking place Nov. 11-13 in San Jose, California, and we will likely be there, but without the hula skirts.

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