It's raining GPUs this monsoon season. Following the resounding success of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 launches, it's now AMD's turn. The two companies are taking markedly different approaches this year - while Nvidia has gone the traditional route by releasing a top-end GPU which dethroned its previous-generation flagship, AMD is being much more conservative. The new Radeon RX 480 is a modest, mid-range GPU which will coexist with older models. It should offer compelling performance for its price, but AMD isn't looking to set any world records, which feels like a bit of a retreat.
According to AMD's new, simplified naming convention, the leading X in the model number indicates that this is a gaming GPU, the 4 is to tell you you're getting a fourth-generation part, and the 80 means that this card is positioned for gaming at resolutions beyond full-HD. AMD has already spilled some details of its upcoming Radeon RX 470 and 460 models, which as expected, will line up below the RX 480.
Has AMD ceded the high-end gaming market entirely, or is this a clever strategic move for the struggling chipmaker? Nvidia might be sitting pretty on the absolute performance crown, but there's a lot of opportunity for AMD to mop up value-conscious buyers who don't have unlimited budgets - which is a significantly larger market. Read on to see what the red team has to offer.
The Polaris architecture and RX480 GPU
Nvidia's partners usually roll out their own versions of the same graphics cards with customised circuit boards and coolers right at launch time, but it's much more common for AMD's vendors to push the reference design. Partner brands including Sapphire, Powercolor, XFX, MSI and Asus will be selling only the reference design for quite some time. We have a sample direct from AMD with no partner branding, but you can be quite sure that there are no differences at all between it and the products sold by other brands, apart from a tiny sticker. You can buy whichever one has a lower street price or more attractive box.
The card is fairly boxy, with a cooler that takes full advantage of the short PCB by hanging over its edge in order to suck air in from the front as well as the back. AMD has gone with a highly understated look this generation - the uniformly dotted shroud is subtle and demure, and even the red Radeon lettering doesn't light up. There's none of the flashy silver that makes Nvidia's Founders' Edition cards stand out, or the red accents from years past.
You get three DisplayPort outputs and one HDMI port. DVI is notably missing - AMD says it decided that it was time to move on, but we can't help wondering whether that particular choice was made because the space on the rear cluster was needed for a large air vent. A number of users are bound to be inconvenienced, and will need adapters or at least new cables for their monitors.
There's a single 6-pin PCIe power connector, but it's in an awkward place halfway up the length of the card, where the circuit board actually ends. This might make cable routing a bit of a pain. There has been controversy surrounding the 6-pin PCIe connector, and we'll address it fully in our review.
Under that shroud of course lies the shiny new Radeon RX480 GPU, codenamed Polaris-10. This is the larger of the two currently known 14nm Polaris chips, and it has 2,304 individual programmable execution units organised into 36 clusters. Base speed is 1,120MHz and it can ramp up to 1,266MHz when under heavy load. The memory bus is 256 bits wide, resulting in memory bandwidth of 7Gbps using standard GDDR5 chips. There's no 3D-stacked HBM or even HBM2 memory here - we'll have to wait till the high-end Vega architecture next year to see that, and it feels like a step backwards for AMD following the Radeon R9 Fury series.
There will be 4GB and 8GB versions of the Radeon RX 480. Interestingly, reports indicate that 4GB cards on sale in some countries now are actually 8GB units with half the physical memory disabled at the BIOS level. Users have reported successfully liberating the other 4GB with a BIOS flash. If this is something you're comfortable taking a chance on, you could wind up with quite a nice discount - but there's no guarantee whether you'll actually get a card with 8GB of GDDR5 soldered on.
Another important architectural detail with the Radeon RX480, or more accurately, with the implementation of its reference design, is that the 150W power draw rating bumps right up against the prescribed limit for PCIe supply when using a single 6-pin auxiliary power connector. Early international reviews showed that RX 480 cards were not only capable of pulling more than that much when loaded, but were stressing the motherboard's PCIe slot more than the auxiliary connector. That led to fears of system instability and degradation over long periods of use.
AMD however swooped into action and has released new drivers which force cards to better regulate power draw. This does come at the cost of performance to a small extent, but AMD says the optimisations it makes in the course of driver development offset that, so users should have no problem. Still, it's a minor annoyance and is the best reason yet to wait for custom-designed RX 480 boards from AMD's partners.
Beyond just speeds, AMD has done a lot of work with modern standards support. The Polaris architecture supports upcoming HDR displays, improved audio and VR graphics, and HEVC encoding at 4K/60fps. DirectX 12 and Vulkan for low-level GPU programming which gives game developers deep control over how to use hardware capabilities. Interestingly, AMD is leveraging its position as the supplier of GPUs for both the Xbox One and the PS4, hinting heavily that game developers will have an easier time on its hardware and will be more likely to spend time and effort exploiting its specific optimisations.
We ran a number of synthetic tests to determine how the Radeon RX 480 stacks up against its competition under identical conditions. We then followed up with manual runs through a variety of recent as well as popular older games, which let us explore how far this GPU can be pushed and what kind of experiences buyers can expect.
All testing was performed with the following hardware:
We began testing with AMD's Catalyst 16.6.2 driver which was released at launch time, but also managed to repeat many of our tests with the brand new 16.7.1 driver which not only fixes the PCIe power draw issue but also introduces a "compatibility mode" which caps power draw for those who don't want to even potentially stress their PCs. We have some interesting figures to share based on those tests. All scores below were recorded with the original launch driver unless otherwise noted.
First up, the trusty 3DMark Fire Strike test, which can test the limits of even the latest and greatest GPUs. We recorded 2,637 points in our first run with the launch driver, which is roughly half the 5,200 points our Asus Strix GeForce GTX 1080 managed. With the new driver, that score actually went up to 2,716 which is pretty neat. Compatibility Mode took us down to 2,538, so it's lucky that AMD's regular optimisations softened that blow.
The story was the same with Fire Strike's Extreme and Standard tests - scores went up after the update, but went down below the original level in compatibility mode. There seems to be more of a delta the more stress the card is under - we ran the Ashes of the Singularity benchmark at 4K in Extreme mode got scores of 31.7fps, 30.6fps and 29.2fps respectively with the older driver, newer one, and newer one in compatibility mode.
On the other hand, The Unigine Valley simulation at 1920x1080 showed very little variance between driver versions - there was only a mild increase in the averages from 51fps to 52.2fps, and that went right back down to 51fps in compatibility mode. The minimum and maximum frame rates were also within five fps of each other through all runs. Metro: Last Light Redux also gave us 46fps, 47fps and 46fps in a controlled synthetic run at 1920x1080 using the bundled benchmarking tool. Buyers who need to use this mode don't lose a lot, but they have every right to feel a bit miffed.
Our game and benchmark tests at 4K showed that this GPU does have a lot of bite, but you can't quite get everything that you would with one that costs twice or thrice as much. The Ashes of the Singularity test showed that frame rates will suffer if you try to push 4K with all the settings pushed up high. More importantly, average scores such as these don't reveal stutters and judders caused by inconsistent frame output, but we saw plenty of that on screen. The same test at 1920x1080 gave us a boost from 31.7fps to 42.3fps with much smoother output.
We used GTA V's built-in benchmark to explore how far we could push this mid-range card with its generous 8GB of RAM. The game offers a huge number of performance-related settings, and we chose a mix of quality levels that emphasised image quality. Starting at 1920x1080, we managed a highly playable score of 82.87fps on average, with frame times averaged under 12.06ms. There was still a lot of pop-in, thanks to the way scenery rushes past quickly, but the game was smooth overall. Pushing up to 2560x1440 resulted in the frame rate dropping to 54.1fps on average, with frame times at 18.48ms. At 4K, with all the same settings, that dropped further to 26.66fps and frame times reached 37.5ms.
We could have made 4K more playable by dropping quality settings, but that hardly seemed like a tradeoff worth making. 2560x1440 seemed like the most sensible compromise. You can choose what works best for you in each game - this GPU definitely lives up to its promise of performance beyond 1080p, but there are practical limits to how far it can go. Interestingly, RAM usage stayed well under the available 8GB.
We ran through a section of the new Rise of the Tomb Raider (Review). This is a modern game with a lot of graphical improvements compared to its predecessor, 2013's Tomb Raider. At 1920x1080 with the Very High quality preset, we managed a solid 63fps average with frame times fairly tight at around 15.9ms throughout. Stepping up to 4K introduced dramatic frame time variations, and dropped the average frame rate to a very noticeably choppy 21fps.
DOOM (Review) ran phenomenally smoothly on the recent high-end cards we've tested so it should be interesting to gauge mainstream cards with. We went straight to the Ultra quality preset and still managed 63fps on average at 1920x1080. The average frame time was 16ms and the 99th percentile average was 20.2fps, which is evident in the tight graph, despite the frenetic pace of running, dodging and fighting in this game. At 4K, we managed 32fps on average, with slightly less even (but still healthy) frame times. Knocking the quality down a notch will make 4K usable, and once again 2560x1440 could serve as a happy medium.
Far Cry 4 was no problem even when riding elephants through the lush jungles of Kyrat. Once again, we reached for the highest quality preset, and once again, the RX 480 delivered solid scores at 1920x1080. The 75fps average was thoroughly enjoyable, and frame times were not only tight but also collectively low, averaging at 13.4ms. Things got a lot hairier at 4K though, with large variances. The frame rate was still 30fps, but noticeably less smooth with frame times averaging 33.9ms overall but rising to as much as 52.9ms at the 99th percentile.
Battlefield 4 is a classic, and was enjoyable even on mid- to low-end GPUs last year. We started at 4K at Ultra quality, and things were mostly smooth, until we got to a section with heavy fighting. The average frame rate suffered because of this and came out to 26fps even though the game felt smooth for the most part. Knocking the quality down would make it perfectly playable at 4K without much compromise. We didn't see any need to step down as far as 1920x1080, because performance at 2560x1440 was absolutely fine. The average was 57fps, even accounting for the same battle scene which put a dent in our 4K score.
While gameplay was enjoyable throughout, we did observe that the stock blower seemed to be working overtime to keep the RX 480 cool. We could feel uncomfortably hot air up to two feet from the back of the card. This shouldn't be a problem for most gamers, but it's worth noting. Also of note, AMD has released a new overclocking tool called Wattman with the 16.6.2 driver suite. The interface allows for tweaking a variety of parameters including fan speed and voltage. We didn't think it was a good idea to push our reference card considering its power draw issues, but hopefully we'll look at this functionality in the future.
AMD cites Steam's hardware survey data which says that 95 percent of single-monitor gamers have 1080p or lower-resolution monitors, and 84 percent of GPU sales happen in the range of $100 to $300. That's pretty huge for a sweet spot, and the company targeted it with laser focus. Rather than massive amounts of power, AMD wants to focus on pushing large volumes of cards which will brings users up to a level where features like DirectX 12, VR, and small form factors are widespread.
All of that makes perfect sense, and it's true that most people will be perfectly happy with this level of performance. Buyers of a Radeon RX 480 card are assured that they can enjoy new experiences, and also that they have enough headroom to upgrade from 1080p to at least 1440p within the lifetimes of these cards.
However, that pricing strategy will not apply in India. We've pointed out before that AMD has a huge problem with unrealistic prices and spotty availability - it's been hard to find several of AMD's previous-gen models here, and prices just haven't been able to match Nvidia. Even now, AMD faces a massive setback because its $199 4GB Radeon RX 480 sells at Rs. 22,990 here whereas Nvidia has done its homework and has managed to squeeze its overheads so much that the upcoming $249 GeForce GTX 1060 has the same recommended retail price. If Nvidia's winning streak continues - and we have no reason to suspect it won't - the GTX 1060 will absolutely shred the Radeon RX 480 in India.
As great a GPU as the Radeon RX 480 is, AMD has nothing to work with here other than brand loyalty and maybe a few brand-specific optimisations in games. An earlier launch might have helped the company cover some ground, but that didn't happen. We hope that third-party cards will have more suitable power architecture and coolers, and that might unlock a bit of potential. The company could lower its prices to match Nvidia, but that's unlikely. At the end of the day, AMD's relative position remains weak, and the red team will not gain any significant market share in India despite having come out with a tremendous new product.
Edit, July 29 2016: We performed additional tests on the Radeon RX 480 using the new 3DMark Time Spy DirectX 12 benchmark and found that it slightly edged out Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1060 Founders' Edition. We also tested Doom again with its recently released Vulkan patch and observed frame rates averaging approximately 42fps at 4K as opposed to the GTX 1060's 35fps, using the game's built-in reporting tool. This means that newer games might run a lot better on AMD's latest hardware than current-gen ones do today. What's more, AMD has in fact revised its prices downwards for a second time: the recommended retail prices are now Rs. 20,990 for 4GB cards and Rs. 22,990 for 8GB cards. All of this puts AMD in a much stronger position than when we first tested this GPU. Check out our review of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1060 for more performance-related details.