AMD RX 580 8GB review: a modest GPU refresh breeding more pricey OC cards

Down in the GPU mineshaft the Polaris architecture ticks all the right boxes and that means you can't buy a new RX 580 without spending at twice what you would have at launch.

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB review

The AMD RX 580 was actually a bit of a disappointment when it first arrived last year. That’s not really anything to do with its actual performance – at its initial price point it was capable of knocking the GTX 1060 off its perch atop our best graphics card list. No, the problem was it was essentially just a rebadged RX 480. Boring.

Times, they are a-changing, with new GPUs are popping up all the time. But if you want the best graphics cards right now these are they.

We were hoping the RX 500 series was going to kick off with a bang and a new AMD Vega GPU, but Raja was still working on those right up to their August launch. Potentially while also working on his Intel resume too.

Instead we got a range of essentially rebadged RX 400 series cards, with a slight clockspeed bump and all the impressive Vulkan and DirectX 12 performance the first Polaris GPUs offered too.

What no-one expected, or really cared about at the time, was just how good they would be for cryptocurrency mining. Down in the GPU mineshaft the Polaris architecture ticks all the right boxes and that means pallet loads of the cards are being picked up from the factories and taken straight to the mines.

And that means you can’t buy a new RX 580 without spending at least two or three times what you would have done at launch, which makes it a rather poor gaming purchase for us non-miners. Shame.

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AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB specs

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB specs

Polaris Enhanced. That’s what AMD called the updated range of graphics cards, but they were never expecting to be encouraging anyone who spent their cash on a last-gen Polaris card to upgrade. Despite calling the GPUs at the heart of both the new RX 580 and RX 570 Polaris 20 it is still really the same 14nm Polaris 10 chip they used, to great effect, in the RX 480 and RX 470 cards.

The ‘enhanced’ bit comes from the fact that 12 months on from the initial Polaris release both the 14nm FinFET technology and the 4th Gen GCN architecture used in the latest AMD Radeon cards have had a full year to mature. That means the production process and yields ought to have improved and the resulting GPUs should be more robust.

That’s the main reason AMD are able to release the new RX 580 cards with a higher base clockspeed than the reference RX 480 cards saw at launch. The base/boost clocks of the original RX 480 are 1,120MHz and 1,266MHz respectively, while the reference spec of the RX 580’s Polaris 20 chip is set at 1,257MHz and 1,340MHz. With the general tightening up of the GPU’s manufacturing process they can ship out cards using pretty much the previous chip’s peak performance as a starting point to work up from.

Though if you were hoping for the same 40 compute unit, 2,560 core, Polaris GPU Microsoft are shipping with the AMD-powered Xbox One X you’re going to be disappointed. Outside of the reference clockspeed bump the RX 580 is the same GPU beast as the RX 480. The core configuration is identical – the 14nm Polaris 20 in the new card is still sporting 36 compute units (CUs) with 2,304 stream processors spread out across them. Alongside that are the same 144 texture units and 32 ROPs.

The memory system is the same too, with 8GB of GDDR5 delivering a full 256GB/s of memory bandwidth. And, like the 400 series cards, there are both 4GB and 8GB versions of the RX 580, as well as the RX 570.

All that seems to have really changed then, clockspeed hike aside, is the new RX 580 cards have a higher TDP to allow for the enhanced clockspeeds the new designs are shipping with. Those clockspeeds above are just the suggested reference design specs, but the fact AMD haven’t actually created any reference samples for the new cards is indicative of their refresh/rebadge status, and also that most RX 580 cards would be expensive factory overclocked ones even if the prices weren’t being artificially boosted by the gluttonous mining community.

Our XFX sample runs at 1,366MHz, while the Asus STRIX card hits a heady 1,411MHz out of the box. The original STRIX edition of the RX 480, on the other hand, runs at a default 1,330MHz. That itself was a pretty hefty boost in factory-overclock terms, but the new variant from Asus is almost 100MHz ahead of that.

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB benchmarks

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB benchmarks

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB performance

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB performance

The gaming performance is all pretty much as you would expect. The 8GB Radeon RX 580 performs a little better than the 8GB Radeon RX 480, thanks to those bumped up clockspeeds. There’s no magic in play here, the enhanced Polaris GPUs are more robust and happier to run at higher frequencies, so the 1,411MHz of the Asus RX 580 STRIX card is rock solid running whatever you throw its way.

There are a few inconsistencies though, on our otherwise unchanged test rig the Vulkan performance seems to have dropped off a little with the pre-release driver since we pitched the STRIX versions of Asus’ RX 480 and GTX 1060 against each other.

For the most part though we’re essentially talking about a similar performance delta to that you’d get between a reference clocked card and an overclocked variant. Between the Asus RX 480 and RX 580 cards, with the same cooler, the difference is around 10% for the most part. Though in that specific instance we’re putting two overclocked versions against one another. The more conservatively clocked XFX RX 580 though is still, in general, able to deliver higher frame rates than even the heavily overclocked RX 480.

The fact that, despite the clockspeed and TDP hike, Asus are still able to deliver the same impressive cooling and acoustic performance from their STRIX cards shows how capable both the Polaris enhancements and their own chip-chillers are. The 0dB performance of the Asus card, where the lazy fans don’t get out of bed for anything less than 60°C, is fantastic, making for a superbly quiet gaming experience. The cooler on the XFX RX 580 though is demonstrably weaker on that front than the Asus STRIX edition.

That said, the overall maximum platform power has jumped quite considerably with the newer Polaris design, especially on the STRIX card, to the point where this overclocked Asus is some 20% more thirsty for power than the original reference Radeon RX 480.

The elephant in the room though is the performance of the competing Nvidia cards. The GTX 1060 in 6GB trim still retains a gaming lead in all but the Deus Ex and Hitman DirectX 12 tests, though I expect Doom’s Vulkan scores are likely to change with the release drivers. Even the 3GB GTX 1060 has still got some impressive gaming chops down at the lower end of the resolution spectrum. Though in real terms it’s difficult to recommend a 3GB card as a smart purchase right now, especially when the 4GB RX 580 and RX 570 cards are priced so competitively.

For proper implementations of the more modern APIs the Radeon silicon has the edge, but in legacy games you can see the Nvidia cards still holding sway.

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB verdict

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB verdict

This rebadging and refreshing is something both AMD and Nvidia have done in generations past, but I still hoped there might be a little more to at least the top-end RX 500 cards than just a frequency bump. Especially considering we know there’s a Polaris chip floating around Redmond with a full 40 CUs and 2,560 4th Gen GCN cores inside it. That would have made a tasty RX 590 if they wanted to get one in ahead of the Vega graphics cards.

There’s no argument that the RX 580 is superior to the RX 480, and the Asus STRIX design still makes for an outstanding graphics card, but not by enough to make the latest Polaris variant an automatic pick over an equivalent 1st Gen Polaris. And because AMD essentially gave their partners free rein to clock their cards super-high a huge number of RX 580 GPUs became overclocked cards.

Unfortunately, for us gamers, a huge number of RX 580s also became slaves to the great god of crypto-mining. So it all feels like a bit of a moot point. If you can find an RX 580 8GB for the same price as a GTX 1060 6GB card then we’d say go for the AMD card every time. But the likelihood is you won’t, and maybe never will. These are sad times.