The brand new AMD Radeon RX 480 is here, their first genuinely new graphics card in a very long time and a fascinating counterpoint to Nvidia’s Pascal bluster.
What better way to test your new GPU than with the best PC games of 2016?
The Radeon RX 480 has been built from the ground up for DirectX 12 and represents the first flush of AMD’s new Polaris graphics architecture and the first ground-up reworking of their Graphics Core Next (GCN) design in years. Key to AMD’s new design is the production shrink of the smallest transistors in their GPUs down to a miniscule 14nm.
For the last five years graphics lithography has stalled, stuck on the 28nm process. That makes increasing performance, while also improving efficiency, a major stumbling block for GPU designers. As you jam ever more complex silicon into a graphics card and run it at ever higher clockspeeds the amount of energy needed to power them rises massively.
If you're an impatient sort, click below to be taken directly to architecture info, our benchmark data, and that all-important out-of-10 score:
AMD Radeon RX 480 specs
The industry expected a shift to 20nm a few years back. But thanks to difficulties in producing stable circuitry at that level, at a price point that was even vaguely affordable, we’ve been stuck with the increasingly geriatric 28nm node for far too long.
AMD were relying entirely on the arrival of the 20nm process to reduce the power draw of their GCN chips; with it missing-in-action their GPUs started to look like power-hungry dinosaurs compared with the lithe Maxwell architecture Nvidia produced in lieu of a shrink in the production process. The green team had seemingly seen the tiny 20nm writing on the wall and put all their design efforts into maximising Maxwell’s efficiency, to great effect.
Thank the silicon gods then Samsung and Global Foundries have perfected their 14nm FinFET production process and have allowed the GPU race to get going again. FinFET? That’s essentially the same technology Intel has been using for years in its Tri-Gate 3D transistors, a micro-engineered miracle enabling the industry to circumvent the electrical leakage you get with teeny-tiny componentry.
But all we really need to know is that with the switch to a new, itty-bitty transistor lithography you can either jam loads more transistors into a chip to make beefy graphics processors or stick to previous levels and bask in the increased efficiency you’ve just created.
Which route have AMD taken with the Radeon RX 480? This time around it’s all about efficiency.
AMD have decided to switch things up with Polaris, going instead for the mainstream jugular rather than straight for the high-end with its new launch. That’s almost the completely opposite approach Nvidia have taken with their Pascal GPUs, where they went big straight away with the ridiculously-expensive GTX 1080.
The reasoning? AMD have said they’re specifically looking to lower the entry point of VR gaming by releasing a brand new mainstream card at an affordable $229 price point. As well as “making the next millions of gamers PC gamers,” or so says AMD’s Evan Groenke, Senior Product Manager at AMD.
There’s also the fact that this is where the big volume of graphics card sales reside, so it’s not a purely altruistic stance. AMD claim 84% of PC gamers only buy $100-$300 graphics cards, so if AMD can get the jump on Nvidia in this segment then they could shift a whole lot of GPUs.
But this mainstream approach is not without its pitfalls either.
Historically you release your new GPU architecture with a big, speedy graphics card right from the off so you can immediately deliver unprecedented levels of graphics performance and cross your fingers the trickle down effect will have everyone salivating over what your more affordable versions will offer.
When you go in at the mainstream, however, you’re pretty much just trading on pricing. The gaming performance your new GPU offers is likely to already exist in last generation’s higher-tier cards, only for more cash.
So then, it’s almost a question of which gets your blood running faster: whole new levels of graphics performance or cheaper, more efficient GPUs?
In these questionable economic times, and with Nvidia demanding a fortune, one kidney and your second-born child (not your first...c’mon, they’re not monsters) in return for a GTX 1080 Founders’ Edition, AMD’s choice might turn out to be a very good one.
Certainly reports are there’s a lot of cards already on the shelves, should the demand present itself. I’ve spoken with retailers who say there is much better stock of the new AMD Radeon RX 480 than there currently is of either Nvidia’s GTX 1080 or 1070.
The RX 480 is the first of the new Polaris cards and comes complete with the full Polaris 10 GPU at its heart. There’s no chopped-off shaders here, the RX 480 has the full monty of 36 Compute Units (CUs), rocking 2,304 shaders and running either a 4GB or 8GB GDDR5 memory capacity across its 256-bit memory bus.
There is another Polaris 10 card waiting in the wings, the upcoming Radeon RX 470, which offers a cut-down version of the RX 480’s chip. That will come with 32 CUs and 2,048 shaders, and stuck with a 4GB memory capacity on the same bus.
AMD claims that thanks to new memory and colour compression algorithms it can now get the same level of performance out of a 256-bit memory bus as it did from the 512-bit buses of old.
That spec places it between the last-gen Radeon R9 380X and R9 390, but because of the production process shrink the GPU itself is much smaller and yet still packs in 5.7 billion transistors into its 232mm2 package.
It’s also able to run at peak levels using much less power than either of those last-gen cards too; sporting a TDP of just 150W. There’s only a single 6-pin PCIe power connection on the 8GB Radeon RX 480 card I’ve been testing.
AMD Radeon RX 480 performance
So, how does it perform?
Initially I have to say I was a tiny bit underwhelmed. Across my DirectX 11 test suite the 8GB Radeon RX 480 provides a decent generational uplift in performance over the Radeon R9 380X, around 25-30% quicker at standard 1440p and 1080p resolutions, but goes onto essentially just trade blows with the competing Nvidia GTX 970 across the resolution spectrum.
Though really that’s not a bad start. Being able to compete with a card that was - and in some cases still is - retailing for well over the $300 mark is pretty good. But it’s not massively exciting for a brand new AMD graphics card to only be able to keep parity with the competition’s third-tier GPU from its out-going generation.
But these are changing times, with the gradual switch towards DirectX 12 games gathering pace. And how prepared AMD are for this DX12 future is seemingly apparent from the handful of DirectX 12 benchmarks we’ve been able to push through the Radeon RX 480.
The Hitman benchmark represents the starkest difference between AMD and Nvidia, with the RX 480 offering an almost 190% performance boost over the GTX 970 at max DX12 settings at 1440p. It’s a similar story with the Total War: Warhammer DX 12 beta benchmark. That said, both titles are heavily tied into AMD’s partner program, and they did supply us with the pre-release Warhammer code themselves...
The Rise of the Tomb Raider DX 12 performance on the RX 480 though is much closer compared with the GTX 970, except at 4K where AMD more than doubles its performance. I’m not going to start suggesting anyone sitting on a 4K monitor ought to consider the RX 480 as the solution to any GPU woes they might be experiencing, but it’s an impressive performance lead nonetheless.
Physically that stock, dual-slot blower design works well with the more efficient GCN 4.0 architecture too. The 14nm Polaris chip can get relatively hot under full load - hitting 83C at its peak, but even then it wasn’t overloud either. You can bet third-party coolers will soon bring that temperature down.
And, speaking of third-party versions, the PCB is a lot shorter than the cooling shroud around it, which would suggest there's going to be some funky mini-ITX designs doing the rounds very soon.
But the best bit? None of that hideous electrical chip-whining that can set your teeth on edge. Score.
In terms of overclocking though it's a little less interesting. The Polaris 10 GPU seems to be running close to its limits at its 1,266MHz Boost clockspeed, and we could get barely anything extra out of our reference card. I've spoken to other GPU testers and they've managed less than a 10% clockspeed bump, which hardly translates into any extra performance - there's precious little headroom to play with here.
AMD have taken a calculated risk with the RX 480, releasing it as their inaugural GCN 4.0 graphics card, rather than opting for the more traditional stance of releasing their fastest GPU first. The cynic may say that’s because they don’t yet have the single GPU performance to best Nvidia’s GTX 1080, but even so it’s worth AMD getting in early and hitting the volume, sub-$300 market before the competition.
Though I'd bet the house on it not being long before Nvidia release their mid-range Pascal counterpoint to the RX 480. They'll wait to see what performance and price they need to beat and there's likely to be an almighty fight a-brewing.
But AMD's risk might just pay off if the demand matches the reported supply of RX 480 cards.
Though if I was just basing this review purely on the RX 480’s current DirectX 11 performance I could have simply filled this page with a GIF featuring a gentle shrug of my shoulders. The RX 480 delivers about what you’d expect from a generational GPU update, yet brings little new to the DX11 table in terms of performance.
Thankfully that’s not all this new AMD card, with its 4th Generation GCN architecture, has to offer. AMD’s background work with their low-level Mantle API has set them up perfectly for a future in which DirectX 12 has been so heavily influenced by their own original approach.
AMD then has been prepping for this future for a long time and this impressively affordable first tip of the Polaris hat is a powerful DX12 graphics card.
So, who should consider the new RX 480 for their next GPU upgrade? Realistically if you're still rocking an AMD R9 380 or a GTX 970, or above, then you're not really going to be getting a huge amount more for your money. But anyone rocking anything older than that in their machines is going to see some serious performance improvements, which are also going to stretch on into the DX12 gaming future.
The RX 480 has got a measure of future-proofing with its hefty frame buffer, the architecture to deal with the DirectX 12 revolution and a few tricks up its sleeves for future monitors and their HDR aspirations.
We can’t say how much difference in performance there is right now between this 8GB version and the $199 4GB card that’s also due out at the same time, but that $30 premium might just be worth it for future peace of mind.
The ball now is in Nvidia's court. Can they produce a competing mainstream card, for the same price, and one that's capable of the same levels of DirectX 12 performance? Fingers crossed we'll soon see, because it's unlikely to be long before the DX12 battle royale really kicks off in earnest.