For a while, it wasn't an urgent issue. But it has become an increasing problem over the last couple of years. First 4K monitors, then virtual reality, put ever-increasing demands on video cards, to the point where you'd often need one of the highest-end current cards (or a pair of them) to keep the frame rates flowing smoothly with the settings cranked up on the most demanding games.
But that's all changing very quickly. Which is to say: It started changing in mid-May 2016, when Nvidia dropped the performance bomb that is the GeForce GTX 1080 ($549.00 at NVIDIA)(Opens in a new window) .
When we wrote this in late June 2016, both of those new Nvidia cards were still tough to find in stock at their MSRPs, and it was unclear whether that was due to seriously pent-up demand, limited yields, or both. But it's impossible to deny the impressive performance jump that Nvidia delivered with its latest architecture (\"Pascal\") and shrinking the manufacturing process.
Now, it's AMD's turn to do much the same, but at a more enticing price point. The Radeon RX 480 that we're looking at here is the company's opening shot in a new line of mainstream-aimed cards, actually built around a slightly smaller 14nm process. And it comes in at a price point that will raise serious interest from far more gamers than Nvidia's recent offerings.
Equipped with 4GB of memory, the card will have a suggested price of $199, while the 8GB model we tested should sell for about $239. These cards can't deliver the frame rates of the GeForce GTX 1080 or the GTX 1070. But at a fraction of those card's prices, they don't have to do that to be damn impressive.
And the Radeon RX 480 is damn impressive. It's fully capable of delivering the muscle necessary for VR gaming, easily outpacing the GeForce GTX 970, which is the baseline video-card recommendation for the Oculus Rift headset. In fact, in many of our newer benchmark tests, AMD's new card kept pace with or even bested the GeForce GTX 980, a card that, when we wrote this, was still selling at around the $400 mark.
Mind you, with AMD's new card listing for half that, we expect the price of the Nvidia GTX 980 to drop quickly, so long as there's enough stock left of those now previous-generation cards to fulfill orders. But it illustrates how far AMD has come here in one fell swoop. What a difference a year makes.
The Radeon RX 480 is the first AMD card based around the company's new \"Polaris\" graphics-processor line, built using its own process-node reduction to 14nm using 3D-stacked FinFET transistors. It's not dissimilar to what Nvidia achieved with Pascal. Here's a relative diagram of how the process technology has gotten smaller over the last decade or so, direct from AMD.
The Radeon RX 480 is based around one of two new Polaris chips from AMD, this one dubbed \"Polaris 10.\" There will be a \"Polaris 11,\" as well, but it's a smaller, less-powerful slice of silicon, not a bigger one.
As you might guess, then, AMD has at least a couple of lower-end cards in the works, which are expected to hit the market soon. Details on those forthcoming cards haven't fully been announced yet, but AMD says the one-step-down Radeon RX 470 will be aimed at 1080p gaming, while a Radeon RX 460 is being targeted at e-sports enthusiasts.
The first thing that stands out about the RX 480's specs, compared to Nvidia's recent cards, is the top clock speed: 1,266MHz. That would have been impressively high a couple years ago, but the GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 run at speeds approaching 2GHz, and we were actually able to overclock the latter GPU to just above that mark. That doesn't mean the Radeon RX 480 doesn't perform well. But the card's lower clock speeds are likely the primary reason that AMD isn't expected to launch a card to compete with Nvidia on the high end until its \"Vega-class\" cards arrive, which are expected sometime in late 2016 or in 2017.
The company is calling its latest Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture in the Radeon RX 480 \"4th Generation,\" which is a bit of a leap given previous versions were designated 1.2, 1.3, and so on. But that's just splitting marketing hairs. AMD also claims that these new parts will deliver a performance-per-watt improvement of up to 2.8 times. That sounds impressive (and it is), but in the fine print of the press presentation we were given, it's made clear that the company is comparing these 400-series parts with AMD's 200-series counterparts on the efficiency front. So those improvements come across not one chip generation, but two if you count the \"Fiji\" chips in the Fury card line, including the AMD Radeon R9 Fury X\"title=\"ziffcat: 27160, class: zdcse\">\"title=\"ziffcat: 27160, class: zdcse\">\"title=\"ziffcat: 27160, class: zdcse\">\"title=\"ziffcat: 27160, class: zdcse\">.
Still, the Radeon RX 480 is rated at 150 watts, which is less than the 165-watt rating of the GeForce GTX 980. But the GeForce GTX 1070 is also rated at 150 watts, and it is a significantly more powerful card, though looking at heat output/power ratings across these companies should be taken as a veryrough comparison at best. Both chip rivals doubtlessly benefit greatly on the efficiency front from the much-reduced process nodes that their latest cards' core silicon now being made on. But to get a real sense of which architecture is more efficient, and to see where that efficiency really matters, we'll have to wait to see what mobile chips both companies release, and the power draws those parts require.
Aesthetically, the Radeon RX 480 isn't quite as flashy as Nvidia's new cards, with its flat sides and pocked plastic surface, compared to the GTX 1070's multi-angled surface that's made mostly of metal. The AMD card also lacks lights to illuminate the Radeon logo on the edge, and there's no protective back plate.
Of course, starting at $199, the Radeon RX 480 is also much more affordable than the $449 Founders Edition of the GeForce GTX 1070 that we tested. So it's understandable that AMD's card isn't as flashy. Those with case windows may miss the lighting, but if that kind of visual flair is what you're after, we're fairly certain that non-reference versions of the Radeon RX 480 will be available with some sort of lighting in the weeks and months after the RX 480's initial launch.
AMD has definitely made improvements on the port front from its previous-generation high-end Fury cards. The Radeon RX 480's single HDMI port is a 2.0 model, a feature that the Fury cards lacked. HDMI 2.0 allows for 4K resolutions at a 60Hz refresh rate. Given how many low-price 4K HDTVs with HDMI inputs are flooding the market, this is an important addition that catches AMD's card up with Nvidia. (Nvidia had HDMI 2.0 ports in its previous-generation GTX 900-series cards.)
There are no DVI ports here, which will complicate things for those with older monitors. But AMD ditched those ports with its previous-generation Radeon R9 Fury cards, so it's unsurprising that we don't see any here.
The three DisplayPort connectors on the Radeon RX 480 also support High Dynamic Range (HDR) for a wider color gamut and brighter colors, as do Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 cards. This technology is still very much nascent in the real world, especially for gaming and PC monitors. While we've seen demos of HDR and can confirm it's more instantly eye-catching than 4K or stereoscopic 3D, it's tough to say, at least at this point, how much of an impact HDR will have on the gaming space.
It's also worth pointing out that the memory on the RX 480 is of the familiar GDDR5 variety, not the newer High-Bandwidth Memory (HBM) found on the company's previous-generation, higher-end Radeon R9 Fury cards, nor the new, faster GDDR5X from Micron that's in the GeForce GTX 1080. The card does feature ample portions of what it has, though: 4GB in the base model, and 8GB in the version we tested. If you plan to stick mostly to 1080p or 1440p gaming, you could probably get by with the lesser allotment. But we'd suggest getting the 8GB version if you have any aspirations of stepping up to gaming at 4K, or if you like to tweak games by downloading optional high-resolution texture packs.
The larger impact of the decision not to go with HBM (which was almost certainly a cost issue) is that the Radeon RX 480 isn't as small of a card as the tiny, HBM-equipped AMD Radeon R9 Nano. The stock version of the Radeon RX 480 is 9.5 inches long. That's still shorter than the 10.5-inch GeForce GTX 1070, but the Radeon RX 480 in its reference-card trim isn't small enough to fit in most Mini-ITX PC cases.
Interestingly, however, when you flip the Radeon RX 480 over, you can see the circuit board itself is much shorter than the actual card body, measuring just 7 inches long. Given that, we wouldn't be surprised to see shorter versions of this card in the months ahead. So, if the stock version of this card is too long for your current case, you may have more options soon.
If it's been a few years since you've owned an AMD graphics card (or your hands-on experience stopped during the days of the ATI brand), it's important to point out that the company has recently undertaken a major overhaul of its software. The functional but slow (and largely text-based) Catalyst Control Center is now gone.
Back in November of 2015, AMD replaced it with Crimson, a more visually appealing and (in most ways) easier-to-navigate application that's also much quicker to launch than the old Catalyst software was.
We won't delve much into Crimson here, as it's now more than a year old. For a much deeper dive on Crimson, please check out this Crimson rundown story(Opens in a new window) from our sibling publication, ExtremeTech. But with the driver revision for the Radeon RX 480, we are seeing one key change with Crimson, around overclocking.
Like Crimson, WattMan is much more visually oriented, with real-time graphs of things like clock speed, temperature, and fan speed. If you have a high-resolution display, it can give you a massive amount of info about your card and its current settings from a single screen. 59ce067264