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Radeon RX 480 delivers more bang for less buck

An average computer's benchmarks

As a longtime computer owner, builder and gamer, I understand that almost primordial instinct to upgrade. I knew earlier this year that a new Nvidia graphics card was likely on the way, but after a night or two of valiantly trying to stop myself from upgrading too late in a graphics cycle, I went out and picked up a GeForce GTX 980 Ti. A few months later, the GTX 1080 was out, offering better graphics, faster graphics, more graphics for less than I had recently paid for a now outdated card.

The pain was almost physical.

Despite decades of chasing the digital dragon, I still almost always succumb to spending too much money to upgrade a computer that will be outdated all too soon.

So it's nice, almost quaint, to see a major component builder offer up something new that's not meant to be the biggest, baddest, best version of whatever.

AMD's Radeon RX 480, out now for $199 and $239, isn't designed to outperform Nvidia's top-of-the-line GTX 1000 series of graphics cards. It's meant to be just enough to run VR and today's high-end games. But it is also designed to attract an audience perhaps not ready to jump in, both feet first, to the latest bit of Nvidia graphics tech at a cost of $700 or so.

The biggest surprise, though, isn't that AMD is going for "just enough" with this new card; it's the performance the 8 GB version of the card manages to eke out for just $239. At less than half the cost of the GTX 1080, you get a card that manages to stay within striking distance of the competition. Drop in two RX 480s using AMD's CrossFire technology, and you've got a computer that can actually outperform a PC with a GTX 1080 for quite a lot less money.

A single RX 480 with 8 GB of memory performed admirably well against the GTX 1070, and actually outperformed the GTX 980 Ti while running Hitman on DirectX 12, according to Polygon tests. While the GTX 1080 crushed the RX 480 in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Ashes of the Singularity running on DX12 also showed little frame rate difference between the cards. (It's worth noting that our benchmarks for The Witcher 3 and Rise of the Tomb Raider both included hair effects turned on.)

With a base clock speed of 1120 MHz, the RX 480 runs a bit faster than Nvidia's 980 Ti and Titan X, and a fair bit slower than both the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080. The RX 480's memory bandwidth is lower than that of any recent Nvidia cards and of AMD's own R9 390. But it does manage a fairly impressive texture fill rate and, most importantly to AMD, does all of this while drawing just 150 W of power, breaking even with the GTX 1070 and beating out the rest of the competition.

amd polaris


Polaris

The RX 400 series of Radeon graphics cards are the first to use AMD's Polaris GPUs. The concept behind the Polaris is to try and solve the increasingly problematic power issue. Essentially, while semiconductors grow more powerful as they continue to shrink, the power benefits aren't really improving. In other words, the cost of running these cards in terms of power has been slowly going up. Last year's R9 390 for instance, topped out at 275 W.

AMD turned to Samsung and GlobalFoundries' 14 nm FinFET technology to put the smallest transistors to date in its Polaris cards, which decreased power consumption and increased efficiency. By comparison, Nvidia's Pascal technology uses a 16 nm FinFET process.

The new line of AMD cards will include a 2 GB RX 460 and a 4 GB RX 470. The 480 is available in both 4 GB and 8 GB versions.

AMD-built boards

The AMD-built Radeon RX 480 we tested came with 8 GB of 8 Gbps GDDR5 memory. The reference card features a relatively no-frills design with no extra lighting and a single fan encased in a removable, perforated plate.I was surprised to find that the card doesn't include a DVI-out port and, like both the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080, it only has a single HDMI port. It also comes with DisplayPort jacks.

The single fan and shroud design result in a relatively quiet card, though with the other fans in my computer off I could easily hear the high pitch of the card's fan running.

Radeon WattMan

In line with AMD's push for more energy-efficient graphics cards, the roll out of the RX 480 comes with a major update to Radeon's Crimson Software.

The software does away with AMD Overdrive and replaces it with Radeon WattMan, a powerful set of overclocking and tweaking tools that gives owners the ability to adjust clock speeds, voltages and thermals. And all of those tweaks can be set up and assigned to specific, supported games.

WattMan has a built-in graphical user interface that makes it pretty easy to control GPU voltage, engine clocks, GPU and memory clocks independently, fan speed, and temperatures. The interface includes charts that track and record the GPU activity, temperature, and clock and fan speeds while playing a game. This makes it a lot easier to go in and look at how specific applications or games impact your graphics card. Your tweaks can then be tied to specific games, which will launch the overclocking settings when you start the game and stop them when you exit.

The software allows you to do things like setting a GPU frequency curve control, maximum acoustic levels for your fan or set temperature limits.

While Radeon's software doesn't include some of the extras you find with Nvidia, like capture, streaming and grabbing software, Crimson goes all-out in terms of handing control of graphics and the card over to users.

On top of the WattMan app (which always makes me think of a They Might Be Giants song), Radeon's Crimson software also lets you set a target maximum frame rate for a game, have games take control of the update rate of supported monitors, and turn on a feature that can share complex graphics tasks across all Radeon resources to speed up performance.