AMD Radeon R9 Nano 4 GB Review 95

AMD Radeon R9 Nano 4 GB Review

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Value and Conclusion

  • The AMD Radeon R9 Nano is available online for $650.
  • Extremely compact
  • Power efficient
  • Dual BIOS
  • Support for AMD FreeSync
  • Supports AMD Virtual Super Resolution and Framerate Target Control
  • Very expensive
  • No HDMI 2.0 support
  • Coil noise
  • Average clock speed well below advertised 1000 MHz
  • Fan doesn't turn off in idle
  • Complicated overclocking
  • No backplate
Back when AMD presented the R9 Nano at its live stream event, we were truly impressed by the card because it has the potential to be a game changer in the small-form-factor market. With its tiny dimensions and traditional aircooling, it should fit most SFF cases that have space for a dual-slot card. We did also wonder about AMD's plans to address the cooling challenges in compact enclosures.
With our R9 Nano review completed, we now have a better understanding. The card delivers excellent performance that no other compact card can compete with. I see the R9 Nano as the optimum choice for 2560x1440p gaming, with most titles being well playable at 4K if you turn off AA and are willing to reduce settings a little bit. For 1080p, the card seems to be overkill, especially due to its high price. Averaged over our test suite, we see the R9 Nano 10% faster than the R9 390X, just 3% slower than the R9 Fury, and 13% slower than the R9 Fury X at 4K. This means the card is 10% faster than the GTX 980 and 14% slower than the GTX 980 Ti. But all this doesn't matter if you need a compact card as the R9 Nano is the fastest choice with such a form factor.
In addition to the AMD review sample, we purchased a retail Sapphire R9 Nano, which is the exact same card in terms of components, PCB design, and specifications. Due to AMD's approach to frequency selection, each card will perform slightly differently because each board's heat output is slightly different, which will change the selection of clocks to stay within the power limit. Between both our samples, we see the AMD reference board in the lead consistently with roughly a 1% performance advantage. While this is new for AMD, NVIDIA cards have behaved like this for years.

With just 15.5 cm in length, the R9 Nano doesn't have a lot of space for a thermal solution, so AMD had to be creative in how to reduce the card's heat output. AMD did so by setting the card's power limit to 175 W, and the GPU will adjust clocks accordingly to stay within that power envelope. This means that the advertised 1000 MHz GPU clock is rarely reached in gaming, a more realistic value an average of 875-950 MHz, depending on the game and resolution. Initially, I was worried that performance would be horrible with all this throttling, but that's not the case. I find it to be a reasonable compromise to achieve the goal of such a small card. In idle, the single-fan cooler is quiet, though it could be quieter, and an idle-fan-off feature would be welcome, too, as it could prove useful for dead-quiet media PCs. During gaming and with good airflow, noise levels reach 36 dBA, which is reasonable. Once you cram the card into a small case with limited airflow, the cooler will ramp up to keep temperatures in check, resulting in a somewhat noisy 41 dBA, which is definitely not something you'd want in your living room. What really turns me off is the massive coil whine on the AMD sample; we recorded it for you in our video on page 35. No matter the FPS, you will always hear an electrical chirping that will change in volume and frequency depending on the game's scene, which makes it even more pronounced. I wonder how their engineers missed this again (remember the HD 7990?). Surprisingly, the Sapphire R9 Nano retail card has less coil noise, and while still audible, I'd say it's acceptable. With only two cards, this leaves me to wonder what level of coil noise is the norm. Had I bought a card with such massive coil noise as the AMD review board, I'd return it instantly.
I also wonder why AMD didn't include a backplate on such an expensive product; it would have added to the look and feel of the card at a tiny cost increase, and I seriously doubt a backplate can interfere with the installation into SFF cases when engineered properly.

Power efficiency of the R9 Nano is greatly improved over all previous AMD products, including the R9 Fury, which makes performance per watt comparable to recent NVIDIA releases. Looking at the numbers, I'm wondering why AMD didn't implement a similar system on cards like the R9 390X, which would have made a huge difference and brought something new to the product stack.

A major drawback of the R9 Nano, especially when it comes to media-PC usage, is the lack of HDMI 2.0 support. Without HDMI 2.0, you can only run 4K at a refresh rate of 30 Hz, which should be enough for video playback, but is definitely a big no-no for serious gaming. There might be a way to use a DisplayPort to HDMI 2.0 adapter, but that will add some extra cost to the purchase, and the same goes for dual-link DVI support.

Last but not least: pricing. With $649, the R9 Nano is expensive, really expensive. The only card with a worse price/performance ratio is NVIDIA's GTX Titan X. AMD's R9 Fury X comes at the same $649 price level, which means that if you can fit the R9 Fury X into your case and have ruled out the GTX 980 Ti, the Fury X should be the card to buy. The R9 Nano really only makes sense for a small form-factor build where money doesn't matter. Here, it's the only option on the market with nothing in sight from NVIDIA because they don't have HBM memory, which allowed for such a compact design in the first place. If you plan on using 1080p resolution only, cards like the Gigabyte GTX 970 Mini and various compact GTX 960s will suffice, at much lower pricing. But for 1440p and beyond, the R9 Nano is the only choice, and it's a little technology marvel that completely owns it own niche.
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