Fighting for the PC: Why AMD and nVidia need to take the lead in making PC gaming more appealing

Graphixxx Cardz

By on August 8, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Back in 1998, my love of 2D gaming was shattered forever by the arrival of the dedicated 3D graphics card — an utterly mindblowing Riva TNT2. I had watched some of my luckier brethren purchase Voodoos and Rages, but my 17th birthday present allowed me to play Starsiege: Tribes (yes, that very one!) in full 32-bit magnificence. No more software graphics for me, no sir, I had nVidia’s 4th-generation, 128-bit mean machine that became the first true mainstream introduction of the GPU.

Not only did the TNT2 feature the first “triple-play” chipset (fully 32-bit frame buffer, colour palette and Z/Stencil buffer) it was the first to offer a full affordable solution for both 2D and 3D hardware processing. Before the end of the year, almost everyone had their hands on a variation (unless you were a 3DFX man) — until the release of the GeForce 256 in 1999 — a single-chip processor with all the trimmings.

Back then, it wasn’t just nVidia and AMD — there were a host of competitors battling it out for your PCI slot, and as a result, innovation grew thick and fast. Very little love was shared between the players, ranging from the once powerful 3DFX and S3, to the now refocused Matrox, and of course our two powerhouses at ATI and nVidia. Much of the demise of competition during the early noughties ended up delivering a complete bloodbath, thanks to the sheer amount of money it took to create new chipsets and the risks required to secure partnerships with console developers and PC hardware houses, such as Dell and HP.

One high profile failure, such as 3DFX’s disastrous play for the Sega Dreamcast, was quickly followed by nVidia’s flattening of the Voodoo 4 and 5. By the end of 2003, there were only two left standing, with the corpses of their now defeated enemies chopped up and sold to various other technology houses for patents.

Nowadays, AMD and nVidia are facing enemies that are playing on different fields – Qualcomm, Intel, Samsung and others battling it out in the mobile space (using technology, ironically, that stemmed from the continued work of S3 and 3DFX), as well as each other. But diversification risks alienating the environment that put them in their positions in the first place – the desktop. The last 10 years have done little to inspire a new generation of gamers to stuff bits into a custom case while bragging about their new tech, as the seductive branches of mobile devices simply offer a simpler solution for quick and easy gaming. Consoles, once lamented as “toys” by hardcore PC gamers have now become the dominant force in AAA titles, even though they feature obsolete technology before they are even released to market.

Sure, nVidia and AMD are usually the ones filling those stockings, but they are kidding themselves if they think they can continue to sit on their laurels and live off royalties from half-decade old hardware.

The fact of the matter is that these big two have dropped the ball entirely when it comes to evangelising their products and markets. Confusing, expensive nonsense like the nVidia Shield (above) risks changing the core message when there is an original marketplace of millions just waiting to be seduced. Because, let’s face it — the way you research, buy and install your cards hasn’t changed at all. It’s still a confusing mess to easily compare models for performance, figure out whether current of future games will work with a particular series, or troubleshoot when things go wrong. I know of at least 3-4 friends who have bought consoles simply to avoid having to figure out whether a Radeon HD 7970 is better than a Geforce GTX 550. Sometimes a higher number means high performance. Sometimes it doesn’t! How is anybody supposed to understand this easily?

Then there’s the process of getting the right cases and power supplies, sorting out cooling, benchmarking and overclocking… I know a lot of you are reading this and screaming at me “BUT THIS IS WHY WE LOVE IT”, and I agree — I love putting together builds myself. But in all honesty, you shouldn’t have to read a ton of reviews, post on forums and check benchmarks to find a graphics card that suits your needs and budget. Many people expect your average punter to drop $400 on a card when they probably only need something that costs $200. That’s an enormous difference in cost — listen to the slapfights when the Xbox One was announced at $100 more than the PS4! (And that’s with a Kinect on top!)

Then there’s the lack of changes in form factor – cards are getting bigger, louder and hotter. You shouldn’t have to buy something that is the size of your forearm and stuff it into your case in such a way that it doesn’t overheat. I get the innovations in power — but what about the innovations in size, or rethinking how stock cards are naturally cooled?

Then there’s the software. AMD has arguably been on a downhill slope of epic proportions when it comes to the state of their Catalyst software suite. The quality of the drivers is absolutely dreadful — each release is rushed (usually thanks to a developer push for included optimisation on release), along with the various versions (stable, beta, profiles included, catalyst display software). Full of bugs, game breaking glitches and the constant “20%” performance increases — each release seems worse than the previous one. Then there’s the fact that the installer still doesn’t offer automatic updates, but instead is filled with completely convoluted and useless settings over those that actually effect games,  and it actively seems like the developers are more focused on pushing out the next product than supporting the one they released 3 months ago. Why the hell do I have to download a game profile? Why doesn’t it just do it for me?

nVidia, for all it’s faults, has dramatically improved over the past 5 years. They have cleaned up their site, and introduced GeForce Experience — a product I initially wrote off as PR garbage — as a fantastic first step towards simplifying and streamlining the PC gaming experience. It automatically checks for driver updates, optimises supported games based on your cards proven performance, and will (soon) be able to automatically record game footage without any external software. These are actual functions that actual gamers want in their GPUs. While the more nerdy of us folk enjoy overclocking and tinkering, the large majority just want BF3 to run without stuttering, crashing or requiring a special profile to download.

But nVidia is not off the hook just yet. As previously mentioned, much of its mobile deviation risks pulling resources from innovation in the desktop, and ultimately console, gaming fields — where arguably the large bulk of games are more profitable and more engaging. A graphics card company that is not pushing boundaries is failing its base and thinking far too much about the short game. Both companies need to work together with case makers to ensure building systems means no short cables or lack of air circulation. Cards need to be smaller and cooled innovatively in order to fit smaller, more portable, systems to meet a changing market. There needs to be huge strides in improving drivers, UI and the entire experience from the moment a new machine boots up.

Otherwise, sadly, consumers will move towards developers that understand the new world order when it comes to gaming – and that’s away from the PC.

Header image courtesy Tbreak.

26 comments (Leave your own)

-innovation in the desktop, and ultimately console, gaming fields.

Aren’t they pretty much dead in the water here with AMD products being used across the board in next gen doesn’t that give them a huge edge here ? Everything being designed from the ground up to run on amd hardware is going to give them such a massive edge,

As for AMD drivers I haven’t had a problem in ages and I constantly use the latest beta drivers :S. If updating is an issue you can set up steam or even windows to auto update for you.

Nvidia as far as I can tell is about to be another corpse in the PC market as it is unlikely developers are going to put much time and effort into optimizing performance for Nvidia systems which will result in a massive performance drop when competing against AMD in the next gen.

 

I think what needs to be pushed more from these manufacturers is a more focused drive for promoting the PC as a superior gaming graphic platform. You see, both AMD and nVidia have had a conflict of interest in the past when it came to marketing for or against consoles vs PC as they both have had large vested interest in selling on both sides of the camp.

Now with the new console range incoming and that nVidia is out of the console deal. nVidia as a company has a massive responsibility to itself to promote it’s PC cards and the PC platform to make up for the console sales short fall. Now more than ever it is important for nVidia to make a clear move to market and price their hearts out.

AMD has had a huge win with XBone and PS4 and the trickle of cash will give them a huge advantage in the market place.

 

Honestly its not really the gfx makers. Its the games makers. I havn’t upgraded my card in nearly 3 years (AMD 6970). There’s no need to. I can play nearly all games on max or near max settings with no problems. In times past, a 3 year old card would start to show its age by now.

Also with the recent popularity in indie games with low gfx requirements it doesn’t really help. Then there’s the fact that so many games are ported from consoles.

There’s supply… but not much demand. I think AMD and nVidia are seeing that and not solely focusing on producing the next uber gfx card.

 
Nasty Wet Smear

May I please have one of those video cards? It seems you have far too many… *Slowly reaches out for them, licking his lips*

 

I wouldn’t write nvidia off at this point. They’re still at around 66% market share by the last steam survey. They also have CUDA which gives them a foothold in some markets, such as computer graphics. Not to mention that they’ve had a very strong line up of cards of late.

 
James Pinnell

I don’t think either company is failing at what they do, it’s more how they do it.

If they want to broaden their market and entice people who are curious about PCs but find the whole thing far too confusing to get into, they need to start thinking about ways to make that process easier and streamlined.

The Steam Box is a great start but doesn’t really allow for a lot of choice.

 

James Pinnell:
I don’t think either company is failing at what they do, it’s more how they do it.

If they want to broaden their market and entice people who are curious about PCs but find the whole thing far too confusing to get into, they need to start thinking about ways to make that process easier and streamlined.

The Steam Box is a great start but doesn’t really allow for a lot of choice.

I agree and Nvidia certainly seem to be going that way with NVIDIA Experience which automates driver updates and even games graphical settings.

 

Perhaps the failing is not with the graphics companies but in the manner in which PC gaming is pushed – ie multiple OS, Dx compatibility, making performance benchmarks, etc…

I think the Nvidia experience is a great leap forward because it tries to standardise what us hardware geeks already know. The annoying thing is that consoles can never compete with the high end PC market, yet they’ll win because that hardcore PC gamer is in the epic minority. Such that it is…

 

Interesting. Still a wee bit nvidia biased, but still interesting article.

Odd thing is I have an AMD 6950. Out of all the cards I’ve put in machines over the last few years, I’ve had little to no driver issues, with the exception of my own card. That one is a bitch. A totally broken piece of hardware. Run any driver newer than 12.6 and it has a hissy fit with something. However it’s actually a hardware issue, not software. Lucky for me that it’s not out of warranty. Not lucky for me is that the techie assigned to test the card, didn’t confirm any of the documented issues, but just ran 3D Mark for 24hrs on it, then certified the card as ok. If I ever meet that techie…

However with the market being heavily AMD focused for the next 5 years post November I don’t think Nvidia are going to be a good buy. AMD do need a better driver department to work on the aesthetics and the functionality of their software, but the basics of the driver work fine, even when overclocking. Nvidia took a good step forwards with their PR program, but they still have a similar amount of issues as they release new drivers. Most of the article’s beef with AMD is that the software doesn’t do everything for them. I don’t get that mentality, never have. It’s like most people having no idea about the car they drive, yet just expecting it work all the time. No wonder mechanics make a killing on the ignorant…

 

Eh, there’s a lot more to PC gaming than a single piece of hardware. Of course it’d make sense for them to increase the number of PC gamers though.

 
James Pinnell

bek:
Eh, there’s a lot more to PC gaming than a single piece of hardware. Of course it’d make sense for them to increase the number of PC gamers though.

GPU makers have more at stake in regards to gaming than any other component maker. Their market dominating positions also provide them with the marketing clout and cash they need to be the evangelists.

 
steve_rogers42

Dude, raging post from the aftermath of the AMD micro stuttering issue thread.

Few things come to mind but.

Confusing, expensive nonsense like the nVidia Shield (above) risks changing the core message when there is an original marketplace of millions just waiting to be seduced

Interesting, since the shield shows off tegra 4 which is aimed at the mobile market, but its also the first device which, with supported hardware, allows you to stream game play onto… Its akin to steambox’s idea of being able to play the games off the box from anywhere in the house, just with a formfactor thats the size of a xbox controller. Anand’s write up puts it in an interesting light, and after seeing the Razer Tablet and how well it has been received (tegra3 iirc) Its nvidia moving to gain more market share since I cant really name any devices that are as mobile as those two that are powered by AMD ships.

I think Nvidia are looking at the mobile space as much as AMD has moved ATI to look at their onboard solutions. I dont think its right to position them in a light that they are straying from the PC masses due to dallying in mobile/lowend etc.

One would have to look at the last console war, and how long it has taken developers to fully utilise the 480 or the 5870 to understand why teams red/green haven’t need to kick off has hard as they did in the years prior to those examples. Simply, whilst awaiting a shift in the PC market to make full use of their technology they have invested in other tech and other area’s. Just look at eyefinity/nvision, we didnt need it, but the new tech allowed for it, and then suddenly it was backward compatible with both companies cards… They will never stray from the core market, but they will always need cash, and other new growing markets are cash cows ready for the taking.

Looking at the mobile market, for tablets especially, I personally wouldnt pick up anything that didnt have a tegra in it, why? Looking at the htpc market, and small formfactor laptops and I wouldnt pick up anything that wasnt AMD fusion or APU based, why? Both questions answer themselves.

What I completely disagree with is

Then there’s the lack of changes in form factor – cards are getting bigger, louder and hotter. You shouldn’t have to buy something that is the size of your forearm and stuff it into your case in such a way that it doesn’t overheat. I get the innovations in power — but what about the innovations in size, or rethinking how stock cards are naturally cooled?

That’s rubbish.

Any 480GTX owner, who picked up a 580GTX due to heat/power/size will tell you its rubbish.

Stock cards have come from a common heatsink and blower to vapor chamber cooling, something that Sapphire (an AMD/ATI exclusive third party company) used to be known for exclusively Similarly AMD’s 7990 uses a ‘tri-cool’ cooling solution that harks back to similar setups from Gigabyte. We have also gone from hunky single slot stock shrouds to the cast aluminium of the Titan and 780 and the cut down open induction of the 560Ti. AMD does need to pick its games up, but since a lot of the AMD home branded GPU’s are mostly found in OEM rigs they leave that innovation to the third party’s who bring to the table all kinds of excellence.

urgh its to late to go on, but seriously man? seriously…

 

Then there’s the lack of changes in form factor – cards are getting bigger, louder and hotter. You shouldn’t have to buy something that is the size of your forearm and stuff it into your case in such a way that it doesn’t overheat. I get the innovations in power — but what about the innovations in size, or rethinking how stock cards are naturally cooled?

This sounds more like it is coming from an enthusiast than an engineer.

I hear stuff like this all the time. “Why doesn’t X company do this” or “Why don’t they make so and so have this?”. It’s a very simplified way of looking at something.

 

The problem you ave with NVIDIA is they are greedy so-and-so’s. When they develop some new way to do something, graphically, they stick seventy patents on it and implement it so only their hardware can use it. When AMD does the same they do a big launch and preach about how technology should be free, or some rubbish. The crap with physX is a prime example, which, in theory, out-performs an on-card utilisation when used on a decent multi-threaded CPU, if NVIDIA did not implement blocks at hardware levels and then at software level with developer incentives to remain GPU-based.

As for Catalyst, I cannot say I use it – I have it installed but not set to run unless I need to change colour profiles or over/underscan properties; two things that a combination of MSI Afterburner and Radeon Pro are unable to do (to my knowledge). And I always take complaints with drivers with a grain of salt because it is like with HDD manufacturers: everyone you talk to seems to have a bias and horror story that is of a manufacture completely different from the next guy. I am yet to find any evidence that is not anecdotal so I am trying to remain unbiased until something more solid surfaces.

My thoughts, at least…

 

excellent article

 

Voodoo… that takes me back.

Anyone else remember how blown their mind was when they first got a 3D card and moved from software to hardware rendering? Probably the biggest jump in gaming from the jump from 2D to 3D (which in my case was first experienced when I saw Wolf 3D in 1992).

IIRC this was around the time of Quake I. I believe I had a 3DFX Voodoo Extreme 2…

I feel old.

 

Can’t agree about Catalyst – it’s way better now than it was a couple of years ago.

I do strongly dislike that both companies make the default situation that you have to run their bloatware. I want lean, mean drivers which Just Work TM at maximum fps for my card, not a pile of junk which takes an inexplicably long time to load.

 
Lord_Apophis

caitsith01:
Voodoo… that takes me back.

Anyone else remember how blown their mind was when they first got a 3D card and moved from software to hardware rendering?Probably the biggest jump in gaming from the jump from 2D to 3D (which in my case was first experienced when I saw Wolf 3D in 1992).

IIRC this was around the time of Quake I.I believe I had a 3DFX Voodoo Extreme 2…

I feel old.

I actually still have a couple of 12Mb Voodoo 2′s sitting in a cupboard which worked great in SLI.

However, that was my first PC, which didn’t come cheap back then, but when I fired up my first game of Mech Warrior 2 on the machine, I was blown away. – I literally didn’t bother going to school for a couple weeks.

One day I’ll build a retro rig and put the ole’ Voodoo 2′s to work.

Today though, I don’t really blink at spending $1000 on a CPU, $2000 on video cards, no idea why I do it, most games are horrible trashy console ports that hardly push the PC these days, it’s almost depressing.

 
James Pinnell

matty: This sounds more like it is coming from an enthusiast than an engineer.

I hear stuff like this all the time. “Why doesn’t X company do this” or “Why don’t they make so and so have this?”. It’s a very simplified way of looking at something.

I’m not an engineer and don’t pretend to be – this is purely coming from an enthusiast with about 15 years of PC gaming experience.

I’m sure a lot of this is pipe-dreamy but in 1995 if you told me you could fit a quad-core CPU/GPU chipset in a device the size of my palm I would have called you a nutcase.

I never wanted to make this out as AMD vs nVidia but on a third read I can see how it comes out that way. I haven’t been impressed with AMD for a fairly long time, outside of the price point, since their performance per dollar is always neutered by poor driver performance and lackluster support.

Additionally, this article was geared towards making PC gaming more accessible to people who would normally steer towards consoles – not many of you all (and me, frankly) that are happy to get your arms deep in mud.

 

lordapophis: I actually still have a couple of 12Mb Voodoo 2′s sitting in a cupboard which worked great in SLI.

However, that was my first PC, which didn’t come cheap back then, but when I fired up my first game of Mech Warrior 2 on the machine, I was blown away. – I literally didn’t bother going to school for a couple weeks.

One day I’ll build a retro rig and put the ole’ Voodoo 2′s to work.

Today though, I don’t really blink at spending $1000 on a CPU, $2000 on video cards, no idea why I do it, most games are horrible trashy console ports that hardly push the PC these days, it’s almost depressing.

Wow, I wonder if they still work. Might have blown capacitors and the like by now.

12 megabytes… that would have been massive back in the day.

I seriously can’t understand anyone spending $2k on graphics cards. The diminishing returns effect is huge above about $400 these days. Just wait 6 months and buy the same gear then! About 1% of PC games would actually noticeably benefit from such equipment.

 
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