The AMD Vega GPU architecture is the next generation graphics silicon the Radeon-red team are working on for release early this year, with the flagship Radeon RX Vega promising to deliver AMD a graphics card that can finally compete with the very top-end of rival Nvidia’s GPU stack.
Want to know what the best GPU is right now? Check out our guide to the top graphics cards available today.
AMD have announced the naming scheme for what will probably be the flagship Vega card - the imaginatively-titled Radeon RX Vega. It's likely to be the direct replacement for the R9 Fury cards from the last generation of high-end AMD graphics cards.
In 2016 AMD promised their Polaris graphics cards would bring their Radeon graphics cards back into the game, but while the RX 480 and RX 470 have shown impressive DirectX 12 performance against the mid-range GeForce-shaped competition AMD have yet to release a high-end card to give them genuine 4K gaming.
This is where the AMD Vega GPU architecture comes in, aiming to jump in at the high-end and providing the Radeon faithful with a serious GTX 1080 Ti contender.
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AMD Vega release date
AMD have already confirmed that they will be releasing Vega graphics cards in the first half of 2017 and, seeing as they’ve already shown a working Vega 10 GPU at the recent New Horizon event for their Ryzen CPUs, it doesn’t look like they’ll be far away at all.
We also know the first Vega GPU designs have pass the South Korean National Radio Research Agency certification (RRA) which is normally a good indication that they’re almost ready for mass consumption.
AMD also announced the Vega GPU in their professional-class Radeon Instinct deep learning accelerators at the start of December 2016. The top-end Instinct card is the MI25 and likely represents the fastest Vega can go right now.
They had the gaming Vega cards on show at GDC on February 28, going head-to-head with an Nvidia event where the green team showed off the new GTX 1080 Ti GPU.
The latest rumours of release have the first Vega 10 GPUs launching in May, with the Radeon RX Vega coming first, potentially around Computex at the end of the month, but that seems like the saltiest of speculation right now.
AMD hosted a pre-Computex event in Macau last year to show off the Polaris graphics architecture and the scuttlebutt is that they might be doing the same this Summer to fully unveil the first Vega cards just ahead of their release during the Computex trade show in Taipei.
The speculation has come from the always trustworthy WCCFTech and their sources, and claims AMD will be launching the cards at a special event during the month of May. It's possible, plausible even, but would be the first time I can remember that AMD have ever released a graphics card at Computex.
Last year's Macau event was just to offer a deep dive into the Polaris hardware, with the actual hard launch happening at the end of June. I really wouldn't be surprised to see Vega launching in the same way. That said, AMD have been co-marketing alongside Bethesda's Prey, which is releasing on May 5...
AMD lifted the lid on their new Vega GPU architecture in a series of short videos on their YouTube channel. If you don't want to listen to a load of AMD marketing folk we've distilled their tech-essence down for you.
AMD's Scott Wasson is calling Vega "the biggest improvement in our graphics IP in the past five years." And given the few details they've given away today that doesn't look like too much marketing hyperbole.
The redesigned geometry engine in the Vega GPUs is promising much higher performance. "It now has the capability to process more than twice as many polygons per clock cycle than we could in our previous generation," explains Wasson.
But it's the High Bandwidth Cache and High Bandwidth Controller silicon which looks the most exciting and that's all related to moving outside of the limits of the graphics card's video memory. In normal GPUs developers have to fit all the data they need to render into the frame buffer, meaning all the polygons, shaders and textures have to squeeze into your card's VRAM.
That can be restrictive and devs have to find clever workarounds for large, open-world games. The revolution with AMD's Vega design is to break free of those limits. The High Bandwidth Cache and High Bandwidth Controller mean the GPU can now stream in rendering data from your PC's system memory or even an SSD, meaning it doesn't have to come via the card's frame buffer.
"You are no longer limited by the amount of graphics memory you have on the chip," explains Wasson. "It's only limited by the amount of memory or storage you attach to your sytem."
The Vega architecture is capable of scaling right up to a maximum of 512TB as the virtual address space available to the graphics silicon. AMD are calling Vega 'the world's most scalable GPU memory architecture' and they look on the money with that claim at first glance. But it will still depend on just how many developers will jump onboard with the new programming techniques when Vega launches.
This could potentially mean that the recently-announced 4GB versions of AMD's upcoming RX Vega graphics cards won't suffer from having such a relatively small amount of video memory.
At the recent AMD Tech Summit in China AMD showed a demo of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided running with the high bandwidth cache controller off and on side-by-side. The GPU-intensive demo showing a 50% improvement in average frame rate and 100% higher minimum frame rates.
It might well get complicated recommending minimum GPU memory capacities in the system specs of new games once the RX Vega cards launch...
The AMD RX Vega cards will appear as standalone named cards sitting outside the rest of the Polaris-based RX 500 series. Those essentially rebadged cards will get slightly tweaked Polaris GPUs with maybe a very modest boost to their clockspeeds. The RX Vega cards though are going to be completely different beast from GPU to memory architecture.
The first Vega GPU, the RX Vega, will use Vega 10 silicon and is likely to see AMD coming out with a high-end halo graphics card first, with potentially an RX 500-branded version coming later in the same way the GTX 1080 Ti followed Nvidia's Titan X. This first card is likely to be the AMD Vega card we’ve already seen in operation at the New Horizon event, rocking Star Wars Battlefront at 4K and over 60fps.
That’s an 8GB card, and we expect it to also be sporting second-gen high bandwidth memory (HBM2), which will give it an insane level of video memory performance. We’re expecting a 2,048-bit memory bus with bandwidth around the 512GB/s mark.
AMD's Scott Herkelman also recently announced that AMD's board partners would be able to released different versions of the RX Vega card with different memory capacities. It looks like there will be both 8GB and 4GB versions of the card, both utilising second-gen high-bandwidth memory (HBM2).
The new chip design allows for more concurrency in processing non-uniform graphics workloads. Previous designs potentially left large chunks of silicon idle when the GPU was processing smaller operations, bottlenecking the graphics system. The new NCU design though is meant to allow parts of the GPU to work on smaller operations when there is spare capacity, meaning that there shouldn’t be as many wasted, idle parts of the chip.
This should mean more work gets done in the same amount of time as previous GPU designs. How much impact this will have on gaming workloads is difficult to say, but it could end up being important for the lower level APIs like DirectX 12 and Vulkan.
AMD though are likely to also release a higher-level GPU than either 4GB or 8GB HBM2 cards, one that’s based on the same, or similar, spec they dropped into their MI25 professional-class GPU. The peak 14nm Vega 10 chip will come with potentially 4,096 of the newly designed Graphics Core Next (GCN) cores ideally on one monster slice of silicon.
The MI25 professional card can deliver 12 teraflops of single precision computing. That would put it ahead of the Nvidia GTX Titan X which bats around the 11 teraflop mark, so it’s not unreasonably to think that could end up being a new AMD RX Fury.
This top Vega chip would come sporting 16GB of HBM2 and, thanks to the 14nm production process, AMD are aiming to keep it below the 300W point in terms of TDP too.
AMD have said their GCN architecture can be configured to work with both HBM2 and GDDR5, so I expect AMD will hold the top memory tech for just the top two cards in their Vega 10 GPU stack, leaving the cheaper GDDR5 to cover the rest of their Vega cards.
There have also been reports of a Vega 11 GPU too, though the rumour mill has been surprisingly quiet on that front recently. It’s possible AMD have decided the Polaris 12 GPUs will shore up the bottom end of the new 500-series range and we won’t see a Vega 11 chip until later on.
There have though been earlier rumours of a Vega 20 GPU that AMD are working on with GlobalFoundaries. The Vega 20 is reportedly going to be a 7nm GPU releasing in 2018 with up to 32GB of HBM2 and memory bandwidth of a ludicrous-speed 1TB/s. There are also rumours of it sporting 64 NCUs, support for PCIe 4.0 and coming with a teeny tiny 150W TDP.
With GlobalFoundaries looking to hit 7nm production in 2018 that part at least looks plausible. The rest? I’m not so sure; it looks like very wishful thinking to me.
If the rumours of a 7nm Vega 20 are true then it looks like AMD might be moving to a tick-tock design cadence, at least for these upcoming GPU generations. And that makes sense - moving to a whole new manufacturing process with a whole new GPU architecture (which is what 2019's Navi GPU is supposed to be) is a situation fraught with danger. Bringing the benefits of a die-shrink into an existing, mature processor design will be far easier and could put AMD a good distance ahead of their Nvidia rivals in production lithography at least.
But y'know, rumours, salt, etc.
There will be different levels of AMD Vega GPU. The top card may not even get a 500-series designation - that could be their new AMD RX Fury, aiming to go head-to-head with the GTX Titan X or GTX 1080 Ti. As such its price could be anywhere between $1,200 and $800.
Realistically pricing for the upcoming AMD Vega GPUs is going to be entirely based on their relative performance and where the Nvidia competition is pricing their own graphics cards. If the 8GB Vega 10 card, potentially the AMD RX 590, does manage to go up against the GTX 1080 as is promised then we’re probably looking at around $600-$700.
I expect AMD will want to release a Vega 10 card to go up against the GTX 1070 too, and that could be an 8GB GDDR5 version closer to the $500 mark.
We’ve actually seen quite a lot from AMD’s new Vega GPU in benchmark form so far. The 8GB HBM2 version of the GPU has been shown in public at the recent New Horizon event, where it was running a Ryzen-powered gaming rig with the new Star Wars Battlefront Rogue One DLC. It was playing the game at 4K and was able to keep running consistently at over the 60fps mark.
AMD have also shown Doom running at 4K using the flagship Vega graphics card. Running at the game's Ultra graphics settings the frame rate is shown at around 70fps with a few dips below 40fps here and there. That's not far off GTX Titan X performance - no wonder Nvidia is waiting for Vega to release before launching the GTX 1080 Ti.
The demo of the unreleased Vega card was running the Vulkan version of Doom live at the Ryzen event and was shown outperforming the GTX 1080 by 10%. That demo also confirmed the 687F:C1 device ID for the Vega GPU. If that sounds familiar it’s because that designation was seen in the Ashes of the Singularity benchmarking database recently, as well as a C3 revision, offering performance around the GTX 1080 mark too.
So, it seems pretty reasonable to expect the 8GB Vega 10 GPU is going to release with gaming performance akin to the current gen GTX 1080 from Nvidia.
That’s maybe a little disappointing at first glance, but these are all benchmarks running on unreleased, unoptimised drivers. It’s been reported that the Doom benchmarks were run on a slightly modified driver for the old Fiji GPUs so there is potentially more headroom left to come from the first Vega GPUs when they do finally launch.
The big-boy Vega 10 chip, the one that’s meant to be based on the Radeon Instinct professional MI25 card, could potentially hit 12.5 teraflops of single precision processing. The GTX Titan X runs to a little under 11 teraflops for its part, so even if AMD releases the card with a slightly cut-down GPU compared with the one in the expensive MI25 it will still be able to compete with both the Titan X and the upcoming GTX 1080 Ti.