AMD Radeon R9 Fury X 4 GB Review 348

AMD Radeon R9 Fury X 4 GB Review



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To say that AMD is at the forefront of new technology in the PC-graphics field is an understatement. The company rigorously pursues and in many cases introduces new technology into the PC consumer-graphics space. AMD's past two memorable technological breakthroughs in this space were Graphics CoreNext, a powerful new number-crunching machinery for the GPU, which made not just AMD, but also a lot of crypto-currency enthusiasts a lot of money, and the first GPU with GDDR5 memory in their giant-killing Radeon HD 4870. The past year hasn't been kind to AMD in terms of GPU-market share, which is partly because the company didn't introduce anything major since 2013; all due to competition from NVIDIA with its "Maxwell" architecture and probably also because the company is focusing on high-volume ISV deals, such as new-generation game consoles, and the development of the chip we're reviewing today, the Radeon R9 Fury X.

The R9 Fury X is not a case of AMD taking its existing tech and up-scaling it. The company probably can't do that anymore. AMD and NVIDIA's common foundry partner for GPUs, TSMC, has seen major setbacks in implementing its next silicon fabrication tech, which threw both companies' product-development cycles off the track. While it hit NVIDIA hard, which had to rework its "Maxwell" architecture for the existing 28 nm process, it hit AMD harder. The company was already hitting 275W TBP (typical board power) with its previous-gen high-end chip, the R9 290X, and making the kind of SIMD increase that it did with its new chip could have adversely affected TBP. The card has the same exact TBP as the R9 290X at 275W, but at a whopping 45% increase in its number-crunching machinery. So AMD has obviously done something very big with the physically very small R9 Fury X - High Bandwidth Memory (HBM).

Stacked High Bandwidth Memory (HBM) is the biggest innovation in video card memory since GDDR5 (circa summer 2008). It is complemented by a transfer of video memory from physical chips surrounding the GPU package - over 32-bit-wide data paths, each. More on this later.

The Radeon R9 290 and R9 290X hit NVIDIA's high-end GPU lineup back in fall-2013. The $399 R9 290 was faster than the $999 GTX TITAN and the $650 GTX 780; while the R9 290X held out on its own until NVIDIA made a product intervention with the GTX 780 Ti and GTX TITAN Black to reclaim those two price points. That didn't affect AMD's competitiveness until NVIDIA launched the "Maxwell" based GTX 970 and GTX 980. Some of the major complaints with the R9 290/X were that it was very hot and noisy. We dreaded the prospect of a dual-GPU card based on the "Hawaii" silicon, but were pleasantly surprised when the dual-GPU R9 295X2 turned out to be cooler and quieter than single-GPU NVIDIA chips. It could do so because AMD tapped into liquid cooling. The card shipped with a factory-fitted, close-loop liquid cooler. Close-loop liquid coolers for CPUs were taking off around the same time, and so the two-piece contraption strung together by coolant tubes didn't really affect the product's standing with buyers. NVIDIA launching a prohibitively expensive GTX TITAN-Z helped too. Given the Radeon Fury X has the same board-power rating as the R9 290X, AMD also gave it a liquid-cooling solution in an effort to clinch the heat-and-noise game against NVIDIA's high-end "Maxwell" GPUs, including the GTX Titan X and the more recently launched GTX 980 Ti.

AMD is pricing the Radeon Fury X at US $650. This and $550 have traditionally been the price-points at which AMD launches its high-end, single-GPU products. NVIDIA prepared for this product launch by introducing the GTX 980 Ti at $650, based on the same silicon as the GTX Titan X, and cutting pricing of the $550 GTX 980 down to $500. The Radeon R9 Fury X has its task cut out for itself in repeating the R9 290 series launch in which the biggest winner was the consumer.

Radeon Fury X Market Segment Analysis
R9 390X
GTX 780 Ti
GTX 980
Fury X
GTX 980 Ti
GTX Titan X
R9 295X2
Shader Units2816288020484096281630722x 2816
ROPs6448646496962x 64
Graphics ProcessorHawaiiGK110GM204FijiGM200GM2002x Hawaii
Transistors6200M7100M5200M8900M8000M8000M2x 6200M
Memory Size8192 MB3072 MB4096 MB4096 MB6144 MB12288 MB2x 4096 MB
Memory Bus Width512 bit384 bit256 bit4096 bit384 bit384 bit2x 512 bit
Core Clock1050 MHz876 MHz+1126 MHz+1050 MHz1000 MHz+1000 MHz+1018 MHz
Memory Clock1500 MHz1750 MHz1750 MHz500 MHz1750 MHz1750 MHz1250 MHz


At the heart of the Radeon R9 Fury X is the most talked about GPU of the season, codenamed "Fiji." It is a multi-chip module of three important components - the GPU die itself, built on TSMC's 28 nm process, a specially designed silicon substrate layer that seats and connects the GPU die with the HBM memory stacks, called interposer and built by UMC on its 65 nm process, and four 1 GB HBM stacks made by SK Hynix on a 20 nm-class node. AMD had technical assistance from some of the industry's brightest VLSI teams, including from UMC, Amkor Technology, ASE Group, and SK Hynix.

Let's begin with the GPU die itself. It features a familiar component hierarchy to the previous-generation "Hawaii" silicon. The Graphics CoreNext stream processors, however, are of a newer generation, GCN 1.2, which made its debut with the "Tonga" silicon that powers the Radeon R9 380 and R9 285.

The GPU die features four shader engines, just like "Hawaii," but the compute unit (CU) count per shader engine has been increased to 16 from the 11 on "Hawaii." Each CU packs 64 stream processors, so there are 1,024 stream processors per engine and 4,096 on the chip in total. There are 16 render back-ends, which is the same as in "Hawaii," so the ROP count remains the same at 64. The higher CU count, however, means that the TMU count is at 256 instead of the 176 on "Hawaii." The biggest change, however, is the 4096-bit wide HBM interface which wires out to four 8 Gigabit HBM stacks.

AMD didn't announce any changes to the ancillaries - the multimedia engine, XDMA CrossFire (no bridge cables required), display controllers with support for DisplayPort 1.2a and HDMI 1.4a, and PCI-Express gen 3.0 x16 host interface remain the same as on "Hawaii." There is one notable change, though, since the reference design card lacks DVI connectors. It features three DP 1.2a and one HDMI ports. All ports are on the first slot elevation, making this card truly single-slot capable with aftermarket liquid-cooling blocks (the piggybacked DVI connector that extends into the second slot denies NVIDIA cards this cool feature unless you're skillful enough to solder out the DVI connector without accidentally shorting any pins).

High Bandwidth Memory and Interposer

With Windows 10 and its companion DirectX 12 API on the horizon, and high display resolutions such as 1440p and 4K Ultra HD getting increasingly more affordable - 1440p displays start at $250 and 4K starts at $400 if you know where to look - the demands on video memory to catch up have never been higher. GDDR5 served the industry well since its debut in 2008. It has driven five generations of GPUs since, but is approaching its design limitation for performance upscaling through clock-speed increases.

For any memory standard (including HBM), memory speed/bandwidth and power draw don't scale linearly. Beyond a point, the equation tapers too much in favor of power requirements, and so, an increasingly disproportionate amount of power is required to achieve higher clocks. This is what necessitates a new memory standard. HBM is just starting out on that same curve, and hence, has much better energy efficiency than GDDR5. HBM trades frequency for bus-width and offers vertical stacking of DRAM dies. This generation of HBM allows vertical stacking of up to four DRAM dies, with a fifth logic die holding the PHY and connections out of the stack.

The Fiji package features four 8 Gb HBM stacks, each with 1,024-bit wide memory bus. Since such a wide bus per stack would take up an obscene number of pins on a standalone memory chip package, AMD decided to integrate it into the GPU package, using a specially designed substrate called the interposer to deal with the wiring problem.

The interposer is essentially a very large silicon die that acts as a substrate for other dies. There's no number crunching or storage happening here as there is just a vast network of microscopic wires running between the HBM stacks and the GPU die. The interposer is built on a 65 nanometer silicon fab node. It may not sound like much in the 20 nm-class era, but compared to conventional fiberglass PCB wiring, wires on the 65 nm node are infinitesimally smaller, as are bumps, points of contact between two dies or between a die and a substrate. AMD innovated microscopic bumps specifically for contact between the GPU die and the interposer because wiring between the GPU and the memory is just so dense.

The interposer has microscopic bumps on the side that faces toward the GPU die and HBM stacks and conventional bumps, also on the side, that face toward the main fiberglass substrate of the GPU package. With the memory moved to the GPU package, and more importantly, the most sensitive wiring of the video card (that between the memory and GPU) moved to the GPU package, there's not much action on the PCB. The pins on the package are for power, system bus, and display I/O, which gives AMD greater quality control.

Another major benefit of moving the memory to the GPU package, however, is the savings in PCB real-estate. Sure, the package in itself is bigger than "Hawaii" or any GPU ever made, but since there are no memory chips surrounding it, all that's left on the video card's PCB are the GPU package, VRM, and display I/O. This allows AMD to create some extremely compact products. The reference PCB of the Radeon R9 Fury X is just 19 cm long. Dual GPU video card PCBs made using this chip will be smaller than even single-GPU cards made using "Hawaii," which should also benefit notebook MXM designers.


Package Front

We've received our sample in a box specifically crafted by AMD for review purposes.

Final retail cards will come with the usual accessories, like driver CD, adapters, and power cables.
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