Mantle Showdown: AMD’s Radeon R9 290X

Part 1: How does Mantle perform at the high-end?

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In this series we’ll be looking at the benefits of AMD’s Mantle API over Microsoft’s DirectX 11. For those of you who may not be familiar with Mantle it’s a graphics API that AMD introduced late last year as an alternative to DirectX 11. Mantle differs from DirectX 11 in a few key ways. First it allows game developers to have much tighter control over the resources on AMD’s GPUs than DirectX can offer. It also enables game developers to make an order of magnitude more draw calls than DirectX can without running head long into a CPU bottleneck. For multi-GPU systems developers now have complete control over how their game renders with Mantle as opposed to the limited controls in DirectX. In summary Mantle is about accomplishing two major goals: giving developers the freedom to pursue performance and removing software bottlenecks so that users can see the full potential of their hardware. For more on what Mantle is and how it works you can check out Charlie’s aptly titled article: AMD’s Mantle is the biggest change to gaming in a decade.

This is a five part series; in part 1 we’ll be looking at the performance of AMD’s flagship single GPU the Radeon R9 290X. Our test system is built around Intel’s Core-i7 5960X which is a $1050 chip that has eight cores and uses Intel’s socket 2011. With 16 Gigabytes of DDR4 at 2.6 Ghz and a quad channel memory controller we consider this system to be a high-end PC. We chose not to use a multiGPU system because it’s a very small portion of the market and we would not recommend any of the currently available options to users that demand stable and consistent gaming experiences.

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Games that Support Mantle

With all that out of the way let’s run through what games we’ll be benchmarking today. First up we have the recently released turn-based strategy game Civilization: Beyond Earth. This is a game that launched with Mantle support and is very CPU intensive. It also showed very significant gains with Mantle in our initial review. Next up with have Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare which also launched with Mantle support. Running on the same Frostbite 3 engine used in the Battlefield series Garden Warfare is a third person shooter with a more upbeat atmosphere than most games. Then there’s Thief, a first person stealth game that patched in support for Mantle after launch. Prior to this article we’ve never tested Thief so it will be interesting to see what we find.

Following those games we have Sniper Elite 3 which just recently patched in support for Mantle. Rebellion, the developer of gratuitous headshot simulator 2014, was very up front about the performance gains they were seeing in the Mantle version of their game. Finally we have the very first Mantle title, Battlefield 4. This game saw a number of different releases aimed at improving the stability and performance of the Mantle version of this game. Now, almost a year later, it seems like high time we revisited this title. Those are the five games we’ll be testing in this series. As you might expect these games support both the Mantle API and DirectX 11 so we can do as close to an apples to apples comparison as possible.

Test system highend mantle

For the sake of transparency we want you to know that AMD provided the R9 290X GPU we’ll be testing today along with codes for all the games we’ll be looking at. Intel provided the CPU we’re using, we have Gigabyte to thank for the motherboard, and Corsair for our CPU water cooler and Vengeance memory. All the other parts we’re using were purchased at retail without the knowledge or consent of those companies. As always you can find our raw testing data on OneDrive. We took no outside input for this article other than the suggestions and support coming from our lovely forums, thanks guys.

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Our Benchmarks

As part of our procedure we cook our GPUs before benchmarking them by running the benchmark in loop for five minutes prior to capturing our data. Gathering benchmarking data in DirectX 11 applications is easy thanks to the existence of a tool call Fraps. In comparison gathering data from a Mantle based application is a much more difficult task because of the lack of a tool with similar functionality to Fraps. Instead we have to use each game’s built-in benchmarking tools. For some games like Sniper Elite 3 this means after the built-in benchmark runs it will save a nice formatted copy of the results so that we can analyze them in Excel.

But for other games with less thoughtful developers this means that we have to try and measure rendering performance in any way we can. Plants Vs Zombies was the game we ran into the most trouble with due to a lack of documentation and no console commands. Those issues limited us to capturing only a snapshot of the game’s average frame rate from one point in time. Forgive me if I’m dwelling on this issue but to preserve the consistency and integrity of our data set we’ve limited our results to average frame rates only. If anyone is thinking of building a third-party Mantle benchmarking tool, please do; I’ll be endlessly grateful to you.

R9 290X Mantle Performance

This graph is pretty telling in that we see performance gains for Mantle over DirectX in every game we tested. In first and third person shooters Mantle offers about ten percent more performance than DirectX but in our only strategy game Mantle blows away DirectX by nearly doubling its frame rate.  Just to drive this data home let’s look at these results in a table format.

R9 290X Mantle Performance Table

On average, across all our games, Mantle brought a 21 percent uplift over DirectX 11. There are also a couple of important points to keep in mind here: first off we had every setting in these games maxed out at 1080P with the exception of Battlefield 4 which only had 125% super sampling rather than the full 200% that the games supports. Either way all of our benchmarks were designed to hit at least 60 frames per second and be as GPU bottlenecked as possible.  The performance increases you see in these benchmarks come from either alleviating the CPU bottlenecks present in DirectX or from wringing every little bit of performance out of our R9 290X thanks to better resource use by developers. In the case of Civilization: Beyond Earth I’m going to make an educated guess that uncorking the CPU bottleneck is responsible for most of that performance gain.

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Mantle Improves Performance on High-end Hardware

Clearly Mantle offers current Radeon R9 290X owners an easy way to boost the performance of their hardware for free. That’s good news for those users that purchased their hardware with the belief that Mantle enabled games would eventually come this far into the mainstream. It’s also good news for AMD and its partners in the video game industry who have stacked up quite a bit of support for this API. For prospective buyers of AMD’s high-end GPUs Mantle is more icing on the cake than a must have at this time. That is unless you only plan on playing Civilization: Beyond Earth, in that case then a R9 290X looks like the only option.

There’s been a lot of debate about the value of Mantle over the past year and based on the testing that we’ve done in this article it’s safe to say that Mantle offers a tangible performance benefit on high-end PCs.S|A

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Thomas Ryan is a freelance technology writer and photographer from Seattle, living in Austin. You can also find his work on SemiAccurate and PCWorld. He has a BA in Geography from the University of Washington with a minor in Urban Design and Planning and specializes in geospatial data science. If you have a hardware performance question or an interesting data set Thomas has you covered.