The arrival of Nvidia’s GeForce RTX graphics cards has left many consumers underwhelmed, with the promise of a ray tracing-enabled tomorrow not doing much for enthusiast PC gamers today. With ongoing rumblings about new AMD graphics cards on the horizon, many are awaiting the Red Team’s response to Team Green’s next-gen RTX graphics cards.
There are many reasons AMD could make waves in the GPU market next year, which we'll discuss below, but most of the following points are hypothetical or opinion (based on what we know today). A lot depends on how things could go for AMD at this point. We of course don't know exactly how things will play out. But let's consider what 2019 and beyond might look like for AMD on the graphics card front.
What’s Good for CPU Is Good for GPU?
AMD’s Ryzen processors marked the return of real competition in the CPU market, seemingly forcing Intel to adjust its strategies with its 14nm product stack (not that Intel will admit it) as it stumbles to reach the 10nm processing node. The debut of Ryzen in 2017 resulted in an almost immediate benefit for the consumer: Intel was suddenly selling CPUs at a lower cost-per-core with the arrival of its 8th generation Coffee Lake silicon, and pricing and performance between the two processor peddlers has been increasingly competitive ever since.
If AMD takes the lessons it learned rolling out its first- and second-generation Ryzen CPU lineups (presenting a compelling price-to-performance ratio and focusing on its advantages) and can somehow bottle that momentum into its graphics products, AMD could snag a sizeable chunk of Nvidia’s consumer market share, as it did with Intel in the CPU segment. However, this will depend on the next major graphics release the company puts forth.
New GPU Lithography & Architecture Inbound
AMD already has new Vega-based Radeon Instinct graphics built on its 7nm process in the pipeline, and CEO Lisa Su gave gamers a glimmer of hope when the new AI and machine learning GPUs were announced, by stating the company plans to bring the new process to consumer GPUs in the future. That future appears to be coming quite soon, with AMD verifying that its roadmaps and products (including “Navi,” it’s next graphics architecture) are on track for production at TSMC’s 7nm fab.
Newer AMD technologies like XGMI (essentially Infinity Fabric over PCIe, AMD's answer to Nvidia's high-bandwidth NVLink tech) and Asynchronous Compute support could also give AMD the potential to close the performance gap with its competitor. However, this depends entirely on whether or not AMD can put forth a product that competes with the likes of Nvidia’s top tier offerings in rasterized game performance.
As 2018 is starting winding down, it’s clear that AMD isn’t ready to bring a new graphics architecture to market before the end of the year. However, with 7nm production well under way, there is hope that the company will launch a new architecture in early 2019. Either way, AMD should have new high-end cards on offer in the not-too-distant future.
Ray Tracing Still Isn’t a Thing (Yet), but AMD Already Has It
As we previously noted, the promise of ray tracing glory in real time in your favorite games can’t be substantiated at present. There aren’t any titles (again, as of right now) that take advantage of Nvidia’s Tensor and RT core-packed Turing GPUs and the company's ray tracing acumen. We've also conjectured that widespread ray tracing adoption will have to filter through gaming consoles (an industry in which AMD is clearly the dominant force) to gain mainstream acceptance. Although there are several games coming soon, Nvidia has placed a large bet on the feature taking off with only a small handful of titles in the pipeline close to the launch date. Still, for many, the up-front hardware cost of entry to ray tracing glory (at least, Nvidia’s version of it) is just too steep (at least, until RTX 2070 arrives in October or pricing comes down).
Still, Nvidia’s investment in making real-time ray tracing available at a consumer gaming level is admirable, and it could spike developer interest for ray tracing in general. However, developers don’t have to buy into Turing-based GPUs in order to implement real-time ray tracing techniques in their games. AMD also has its own ray tracing technology called Radeon Rays.
Unlike Nvidia’s RTX ray tracing technology, Radeon Rays is an open-source developer tool that conforms to the OpenCL 1.2 standard (RTX runs over the DXR API), so it can be deployed with non-AMD hardware and in multiple OS environments. Nvidia’s tech requires proprietary hardware (its Turing GPUs) in order render the ray-traced effects and rasterized gameplay in parallel. But AMD’s Radeon Rays (and the latest release of ProRender) can support real-time GPU acceleration of ray-tracing techniques, mixed with traditional rasterization-based rendering on the Vulkan 1.1 API, which is fully supported by GNC-based AMD GPUs loaded with the latest version of Radeon Software Adrenalin.
Similar to RTX, Radeon Rays has yet to make an appearance in a PC game, and at present, it’s not known if there are any plans in the near-term to make AMD's ray tracing an in-game reality. So too, performance of such a feature is just hypothetical until it's put in the spotlight with a working game demo (which, as far as we know, hasn’t happened yet). It’s also possible AMD may not be that interested in ray tracing for games, despite a heavy presence in the professional market with Radeon Rays. However, the framework is there for the company to pursue Nvidia down the ray-traced rabbit hole if the technology becomes the next must-have feature in PC gaming graphics (as Nvidia likely hopes).
A Possible Price Advantage?
The high price of Nvidia’s new RTX-series graphics cards also weighs heavily on enthusiasts, with the top-end RTX 2080 Ti starting at a not-so-cool $1,000 (or $1,200 for a Founder’s Edition model) and the RTX 2080 starting at $700, although cards available at retail often exceed these MSRPs. AMD usually launches new graphics architectures at a competitive price point for similarly performing counterparts (see Vega 64 vs. GTX 1080, for example), but this time around Nvidia has given its competition a high price ceiling to work with.
If AMD can get in the same same performance ballpark as Nvidia with rasterized game performance as the 20 series cards, pricing may be more reasonable than the asking price of RTX.
Additionally, the most recent set of tariffs could mean increased pricing for many PC components, including GPUs. Although AMD’s Drew Prairie seemed confident that the company would be able to avoid price hikes with its CPU supply chain, the representative could not comment on the aftermarket (AIB) GPU market.
Both major graphics manufacturers will have to deal with the new tariffs somehow, by way of avoidance with clever sourcing and shipping agreements, or paying the taxes and absorbing or forwarding the cost to consumers (or likely some mixture of both). What each company will do is yet to be determined. But either way, AMD has plenty of price runway to launch its next-generation Navi graphics cards, and its cards could be made even more attractive if the company does a better job of avoiding costs and price hikes than Nvidia.
Uncertainty Abounds, but There's Plenty of Opportunity for AMD
With Nvidia’s focus on ray tracing, its high RTX-card price points, and less-than-stellar generational gains for traditional rasterized gaming performance, AMD has been handed an opportunity to close the gap or even take the lead over its competitor in the GPU market. As we’ve noted, this will all depend on where the aforementioned chips land in the performance and price stack when AMD launches its next generation graphics architecture. The only thing we know for sure at this point is that AMD has new graphics cards coming (likely in the first half of 2019). While we'd still put AMD in underdog territory on the graphics side, its recent successes on the CPU front with Ryzen proves the company can deliver an exciting, competitive product after years of less-than-stellar silicon.
Note: As with all of our op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom's Hardware as a team.