AMD Radeon RX 480 8 GB Review 450

AMD Radeon RX 480 8 GB Review

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Value and Conclusion

  • According to AMD, the Radeon RX 480 8 GB will retail for $239; a 4 GB version will be available for $199.
  • Outstanding Performance per Dollar
  • Power efficiency improved
  • 8 GB VRAM
  • Improved software voltage control
  • HDMI 2.0b, DisplayPort 1.4
  • Noisy
  • Card runs into temperature and power limit, resulting in reduced clocks
  • Limited GPU overclocking potential
  • Power draw exceeds PCI-Express specification
  • Fans don't stop in idle
  • High temperatures
  • Multi-monitor and Blu-ray power draw still terrible
  • DVI output removed
Today is the day we've all been waiting for! AMD has finally released their new Polaris architecture based on a new 14 nanometer FinFET process from GlobalFoundries. The new Radeon RX 480 brings significant improvements in power efficiency compared to previous generations, even better than Fiji which had the benefit of energy efficient HBM memory while Polaris uses GDDR5 only.

AMD's Radeon RX 480 reference design follows the company's visual theme of recent times and provides performance that's great for 1080p gaming, slightly above the GTX 970 (+4%) and below the GTX 980 (-11%). Compared to its numeric predecessor, the R9 380, the performance uplift is around 40%. This means that the Radeon RX 480 is significantly slower than AMD's previous generation flagships, the Fury (-12 %) and Fury X (-20%). NVIDIA's recent GTX 1070 and 1080 are far ahead, no contest there. These numbers mean that users who currently game on a R9 290, R9 290X, R9 390, R9 390X, GTX 780 Ti, GTX 970 will have a hard time finding a reason to upgrade because very little gaming performance is gained, if any at all. This isn't completely surprising, though, as AMD has made it clear from the beginning that the RX 480 is an upper midrange card, not a high-end one.

As mentioned before, power efficiency is improved significantly, mostly thanks to the 14 nanometer FinFET process. These improvements put the RX 480 roughly on the same performance-per-watt level as NVIDIA's last-generation Maxwell architecture. NVIDIA's current Pascal architecture is still over 70% more power efficient. This makes me wonder about how NVIDIA managed to muster such huge improvements while bumping the GPU clock up to 2 GHz since AMD is still running in the 1200 MHz range with worse power-consumption figures.

The RX 480 reference board comes with a 6-pin power input, which combined with the power from the PCIe slot is specified for up to 150 W power draw. The RX 480, however, consistently exceeds 150 W, reaching 163-166 watts in our tests. While this is a non-issue for most power supplies and motherboards, there are some (very few) that will run into problems with providing over-the-spec power for extended periods of time. I think AMD should have rather opted for an 8-pin power input instead of the 6-pin. This would also have allowed them to go for a higher board power limit, which would have resulted in better performance.

The weakest point of AMD's reference design is certainly the thermal solution. It doesn't use any heatpipes or other high-tech means to keep the card cool. Rather, there is a big slab of metal with a copper core that has the blower fan sending air across its fins. As a result we are seeing temperatures of up to 84°C, which has the card clock down further to keep cool. On average, our card ran 1239 MHz, which is in the upper range of AMD's rated 1120-1266 MHz clock window. What's even worse than the heat is the terrible fan noise. While idle noise is fine with 29 dBA (an idle-fan-off feature would have still been nice), in gaming, the fan ramps up a lot, emitting 41 dBA during gaming (not Furmark). This makes the RX 480 the loudest card launched in recent history, much noisier than, for example, the GTX 1080 (which is almost twice as fast). AMD has mentioned to us that the reference design is deliberately weak to leave room for partners to improve on their custom designs. To me, this sounds a bit like "let the partners deal with the problem".

With Polaris, AMD is introducing a new overclocking control panel called "WattMan," which has tons of options, including voltage control and several ways to adjust the thermal profile. However, overclocking potential on our sample was very slim. All we managed without causing stability issues was an increase of the GPU clock from 1266 MHz to 1335 MHz, which is a lousy 5%; again, the worst I've seen for years on a reference board. This is further complicated by the fact that the card will often clock down during OC because it a) exceeds the board power limit or b) runs too hot. If you increase the power limit using WattMan, you'll run into the thermal limit quicker. It does seem as though there is a huge spread between GPUs on review samples. I've heard of reviewers who see stock temperatures well below 80°C, while others reach up to 89°C. Assuming AMD selected the best cards for press review, retail cards might even be worse, which means higher temps, more noise, and lower performance.

The real highlight of the Radeon RX 480 is its pricing, though. It starts as low as $199 for the 4 GB version, which also comes with slightly lower memory clocks. In this review, we tested the 8 GB version, which is priced at $239. These price tags have both cards claim the price/performance throne of all cards we've tested so far. Especially the 4 GB version seems really affordable; I seriously doubt the extra 4 GB on the 8GB variant will be able to provide an extra 20% performance to make up for the 20% increase in cost. So, AMD has successfully captured the market segment for 1080p cards with the RX 480. This effectively obsoletes all previous AMD cards except for Fiji maybe, which itself has been obsoleted by the GTX 1070. Everything faster is owned by NVIDIA's iron-grip on the high-end, where huge margins are possible. I also expect NVIDIA to drop the price of the GTX 970 further to get rid of its inventory, which could entice potential shoppers to go for NVIDIA's alternative, and then there's the GTX 1060 coming soon.
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