Sapphire Radeon RX 5600 XT Pulse Review 163

Sapphire Radeon RX 5600 XT Pulse Review

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Value and Conclusion

  • The Sapphire Radeon RX 5600 XT Pulse retails for $289.
  • Faster than GeForce RTX 2060
  • Affordable, only a small premium over MSRP
  • Extremely quiet in gaming
  • Idle fan stop
  • Much better energy efficiency than Polaris or Vega, now on par with NVIDIA Turing
  • Backplate included
  • Dual BIOS
  • PCI-Express 4.0
  • 7 nanometer production process
  • BIOS shenanigans—customers will have to flash on their own
  • GPU and memory overclocking limited by slider range
  • Wrong fan control configuration, a little bit of RPM overshoot as the card heats up
  • Some driver bugs when it comes to monitoring
  • High multi-monitor power draw
  • No hardware-accelerated raytracing
Today, AMD released their Radeon RX 5600 XT, which is based on the same Navi 10 silicon that powers the Radeon RX 5700 Series. We have two launch-day reviews for you: Sapphire RX 5600 XT Pulse and ASUS RX 5600 XT STRIX TOP. Cards from PowerColor and MSI have arrived too, but too late to be covered today.

AMD originally intended for the Radeon RX 5600 XT to go up against NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 1660 Super and GTX 1660 Ti. On Thursday last week, (!) they informed us that a specs change was coming through a BIOS update that unlocks additional performance. On the same day, we received the updated BIOS, which increases GPU clock, memory clock, board power limit, and GPU voltage. I've covered graphics card launches for well over a decade and such a thing never happened before. All parties involved always had plenty of time to work towards the launch with known products and specs. In the following days, several board partners reached out to me, asking for feedback on whether they should follow AMD's lead or stick with the announced specs. This just shows how much confusion was created overnight—with just three business days left to launch. Since this is a hard launch, RX 5600 XT cards will be available at retailers today, which created another problem. Production boards were already shipped, most of them already in their destination country, so reworking the BIOS in the factory was out of the question. I talked with nearly all board partners, and they all decided that customers will have to flash the BIOS themselves after purchase. Whether this will entail a 1-click updater to run or a more complex WinFlash-based mechanism is still unknown to some partners. While a GPU BIOS update will be child's play for many, it is a huge deal for less experienced gamers, and the chance of things going wrong is not zero. It's also a fundamental change from the "it just works" mechanics consumers are used to. They'll now have to first learn about the fact that such an update exists, do some research, and spend their time changing the product to bring it to its official specs. Remember, we're talking about a $300 purchase that's considered premium by the vast majority of the market. AMD could have postponed the launch a bit to give partners more time to get things in order. Let's just hope they are generous with RMAs and supportive of cases where something goes wrong with the BIOS flash. Thankfully, some cards, such as the Sapphire Pulse, include a dual-BIOS to survive a bad BIOS flash, but not all cards have it.

AMD provided us with the following statement: "Based on ongoing testing with our board partners, we have raised the GPU core and memory frequencies for overclocked Radeon RX 5600 XT SKUs to take advantage of increased thermal and electrical headroom built into partner's custom designs. The updated VBIOS has been made available to our board partners for inclusion in select OC SKUs at launch. AMD is dedicated to disrupting the market with industry-leading compute products, and the new VBIOS makes the Radeon RX 5600 XT an even more powerful contender for high-performance 1080p gaming. Previously announced product specs are unchanged, as they remain AMD's recommended reference design specs." AMD also confirmed that "RX 5600 XT does not replace RX 5700".

This also clarifies that not all RX 5600 XT cards will receive a BIOS update. Rather, it is a per-model decision by the board partners, which of course makes sense because not all cards will be able to handle the higher clocks and heat output. It also creates a huge performance range for the RX 5600 XT to sit in. Based on our testing that range seems to be around 10%—a performance spread that's usually covered by two or three different model with clear naming differences. That's the reason why we tested both the old and new BIOS to get a feel for what to expect. As a result, it's no longer feasible to fire up your favorite shopping comparison engine to type in "RX 5600 XT" and buy the cheapest model listed. At the end of the day it is what it is. While things could have certainly been planned and executed much better, the end result for gamers is that they get 10% free extra performance.

Overall, when averaged over our testing suite at 1080p resolution, we see the RX 5600 XT (with BIOS update) beat the NVIDIA RTX 2060—an important win. The card also slightly beats AMD's aging Radeon RX Vega 64, which is just as important a victory. The NVIDIA GeForce 16-series is far behind with the GTX 1660 Ti 17% slower and the GTX 1660 Super 19% slower. AMD's next-fastest SKU, the Radeon RX 5700, is only 6% faster, though, and much more expensive. NVIDIA's RTX 2060 Super is 10% faster than the RX 5600 XT. With the old BIOS, things were drastically different as the card could only match the Vega 56 and wouldn't even beat the GTX 1070 Ti, so I can understand why AMD decided to change things overnight. Overall, the RX 5600 XT is a great card for 1080p gaming, with plenty of headroom for future titles, but it can also handle 1440p well, maybe not at Ultra details in every single game, but it'll be a very decent experience overall.

Sapphire's Pulse looks great and exactly follows the visual theme set by their previous Pulse-Navi cards. Under the hood there's some changes to the cooling configuration, though. The main heatsink now provides cooling for GPU, memory, and VRM (the 5700 Series used a separate plate), and the number of heatpipes has also been reduced, but thermal performance is spot on, even with the BIOS update's higher heat output. We measured 73°C, which is perfectly fine and still leaves you plenty of headroom for overclocking. Other cards with much bigger (= expensive) coolers do a little bit better, but the differences are mostly of academic value. What really counts are noise levels, and here, the Sapphire Pulse scores a slam dunk. Noise levels are as low as 28 dBA—whisper quiet while fully loaded—on a card that's just $10 above MSRP. With those noise levels the card actually beats all competing NVIDIA cards I'm aware of. Yes, you read right, AMD is now quieter than NVIDIA! Sapphire also included the highly popular idle-fan-off capability with their card, which completely shuts off the fans in idle, browsing, productivity, and light gaming. Some competing NVIDIA cards lack that capability, too.

The secret sauce behind these impressive thermals is that AMD undervolted their Navi 10 GPU. Normally, the GPU is designed to run at 1.15 V to 1.20 V. On the RX 5600 XT, it ticks at 0.9 V before the BIOS update and 1.0 V after the update. This brings with it tremendous power savings at the cost of maximum operating frequency, but limited frequency is actually something AMD wants. Both RX 5600 XT and RX 5700 have the same shader count, the difference is only in frequency and memory bus/capacity. A heavily overclocked RX 5600 XT could thus match or even beat the more expensive RX 5700, cannibalizing the latter. That's why AMD is happy with low operating voltages, which also improve performance per watt. Actually, before the BIOS update, the RX 5600 XT was more efficient than Turing (check the Performance per Watt page). With the BIOS update, some increase in voltage was required to achieve the new GPU frequencies. AMD basically traded 20% efficiency for 10% performance—a reasonable move in my opinion because noise and thermals aren't impacted that much.

With a typical gaming power draw of 160–170 W, the Sapphire RX 5600 XT is still very power efficient, matching the RTX 2060 almost exactly. This means people who are upgrading from an older graphics card won't have to worry about upgrading their power supply, too, which would incur additional expenses.

Back when NVIDIA launched the RTX 2060 with 6 GB VRAM, the Internet was full of hate. Now, AMD does exactly the same, and it still makes perfect sense for me. 8 GB VRAM on a card that's targeted at 1080p/1440p isn't worth it, especially if you have to meet a certain price point to make the card attractive. Looking through our performance results, I can identify only a single clear case: Assassin's Creed Origins. Here, we see the RX 5600 XT fall behind at 1440p, but all the other games are running fine. If you absolutely must have 8 GB VRAM, then be ready to pay for it: the RX 5700 and RTX 2060 Super have you covered. It's not something I would do in this case where money matters.

The next and certainly bigger controversy will be real-time raytracing support. NVIDIA's RTX 2060 supports hardware accelerated raytracing, while the RX 5600 XT does not. While proliferation of RTX is limited today, several big titles with RTX support are coming out this year. Next-gen consoles will also have support for hardware raytracing, which will further push game developers to embrace the new technology. Still, I would say raytracing isn't the most important capability in this market segment right now. On the other hand, RTX 2060 is barely more expensive than RX 5600 XT and has that unique selling point, making this a close call.

In the end, and mostly because of the BIOS update, Sapphire's Radeon RX 5600 XT Pulse has become a worthy contender for the sub-$300 segment. It is priced at $289, which is a very reasonable increase of only $10 over the AMD MSRP. I talked to various partners, and they say $279 is almost impossible to reach—their margins are paper thin, in some cases less than on comparable NVIDIA SKUs. They also mentioned that AMD was not willing to adjust their pricing, no matter what, which is probably another reason why they went the "performance up" route instead of the "price down" approach. We also looked at other RX 5600 XT cards today, but they are all more expensive than the Pulse and offer similar performance without vastly better thermals, which is why Sapphire's Pulse would be my first pick for a RX 5600 XT.

Comparing the RX 5600 XT board design with the $299 EVGA RTX 2060 KO we reviewed yesterday, we can immediately see huge differences in manufacturing cost. AMD's VRM uses much more expensive components, and the overall complexity is higher, too. The PCB itself is also more expensive, typically a 12-layer PCB is used for the RX 5600 XT, whereas the RTX 2060 can make do with just 6 layers. All this suggests that NVIDIA is better prepared for a price war with AMD. The big unknown is ASIC pricing: NVIDIA's 12 nanometer Turing is bigger in die size, but cheaper to make per mm² than AMD's 7 nanometer Navi.

At the end of the day, for you as customer, all this doesn't make any difference, though. You now have two very similar options that both have comparable average performance with very similar pricing, and power/heat/noise is no longer a clear win for NVIDIA, either. I wouldn't be surprised if competition will heat up even more in this segment. The Radeon RX 5700 non-XT and RTX 2060 Super will become more difficult to sell, too, because their performance uplift doesn't justify the higher cost unless you absolutely must have 8 GB of VRAM. That's why I think pricing for these two SKUs might be coming down soon, too. Looks like 2020 will be an interesting year for graphics hardware.

If you don't feel like a computer expert and "BIOS update" is something you've never done, and it scares you, I'd strongly recommend holding off on your RX 5600 XT purchase until the currently fluid situation has stabilized and we know if there's any gotchas to watch out for. The next batches of cards that will reach retailers will all come with the right BIOS installed, but nobody knows when that happens or how to distinguish them on shopping sites. I also uploaded all the BIOS files here for you to take a look at.

Update: Sapphire informed me that all RX 5600 XT cards purchased in the US should come with the correct BIOS preinstalled even if they were purchased today. In case your card still shows the wrong clocks, do contact Sapphire support.
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