AMD Radeon RX 480 header

During AMD’s Computex 2016 live stream, the company finally announced the launch of their next-generation Polaris GPU architecture, and detailed the first card in the lineup that will be available on 29 June 2016 – the Radeon RX 480. It’s a new naming scheme for the company that consumers will need to get to grips with, but it means that Polaris represents a significant break from AMD’s current lineup in the market, which includes families like the Radoen R9 300 series. While performance has yet to be determined, one important aspect of the RX 480 has just been finalised by the company – the card will retail with a $199 suggested price.

Trying to get a sense of what this card is capable of, especially at a $199 price point, is a bit difficult. The current landscape at this price point is filled with cards like the Radeon R9 380 and the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960, and it looks like this will be, at the very least, twice as fast as either of these solutions. Compared to past high-end solutions, it could at least be faster than the outgoing GeForce GTX 980.

AMD Radeon RX 480 hardware comparison

RX 480 GTX 970 R9 380 GTX 960
 GPU family name  Polaris 10/Ellesmere Maxwell Antigua Maxwell
 Shader core count  2304 1664 1792 1024
 Single-precision throughput 5.6 TFLOPS 3.5 TFLOPS 3.4TFLOPS 2.3 TFLOPS
 Base clock 1050 MHz 970 MHz 1127 MHz
 Boost clock 1178 MHz 1178 MHz
 Raster operators 56 32 32
 Texture units 104 112 64
 Shader module count 36 13 28 8
 Memory 4/8GB GDDR5 4GB GDDR5 2/4GB GDDR5 2/4GB GDDR5
 Memory bus width 256-bit 256-bit 256-bit 128-bit
 Memory bandwidth 256 GB/s 224 GB/s 176 GB/s 112 GB/s
 Outputs Displayport 1.4, HDMI 2.0 Displayport 1.2a, HDMI 2.0, DVI Displayport 1.2a, HDMI 1.4a, DVI Displayport 1.2a, HDMI 1.4a, DVI
 HDCP 2.2 support Yes Yes No No
 Thermal power limit 150W 145W 190W 120W
 Power connectors 1x 6-pin 2x 6-pin 2x 6-pin 1x 6-pin
 Launch price $199 $285 $199 $199

The important thing to note here is the launch price for the RX 480. At $199, it’s essentially targeting the same people who were looking at buying a GeForce GTX 960, or Radeon R9 380. AMD’s goal with the RX 480 is to increase the total addressable market (TAM) for VR solutions to reach to, and that means they have to put a lot of peformance into this price point if they want to see some success.

Looking at other features, AMD is reaching for parity with NVIDIA by offering Displayport 1.4 compatibility (as soon as the standard is ratified by VESA), and it supports HDMI 2.0, which means that a new generation of TVs and computer monitors running up to UltraHD 4K at 60Hz will work just fine with this card. All of AMD’s previous innovations come along with it – FreeSync, LiquidVR, PowerTune, XDMA Crossfire, it’s all there. Whereas the GeForce GTX 1080 was not the market shaker some expected it to be at $699, the RX 480 is set to significantly alter expectations in the budget market.

During the livestream, it was also announced that Polaris 10 on the desktop would cover the $100 to $300 price points. There are at least two more card reveals on the way for Polaris 10 to fill in the gaps for these price points, and I’m left wondering how AMD will cover the $350 to $500 market between now and Vega’s release. There are several factors to consider here, chief of which is that the Radeon R9 Fury, R9 Nano, and R9 Fury X all still pull their weight in terms of benchmark placement, and all three cards perform at a higher level than the RX 480 does.

The R9 Fury and R9 Nano in particular are both around 10% faster at stock settings, and recently saw price drops down to $479 each. AMD might bring that down to $350 in the near future for a price update, possibly just after 29 June, and that means that they’ll still have an effective counter to the GeForce GTX 1070, especially if it becomes difficult finding a custom cooled design close to the $379 RRP. This also means that the Hawaii cards are probably finally at the end-of-life stage now, and rumors have been going around for months that AMD has stopped making them.

Given that the RX 480 offers an effective replacement for the R9 390, I’m happy with the way things have turned out so far. Buying into the R9 390 series at this point is a mistake.

AMD Radeon RX 480 power efficiency

During the Computex stream, AMD’s head of the Radeon Technologies Group, Raja Kodouri, stated that the RX 480 achieves a 1.7x improvement in performance-per-watt compared to the previous 28nm process AMD built their cards on, stacking up to a 2.8x increase thanks to “AMD technologies”, which no doubt will mimic the gains and tricks seen with NVIDIA’s VR features in Pascal. NVIDIA boasted that the GeForce GTX 1080 was capable of beating two GTX 980 cards in SLI when using specialised VR features, which still has to be tested independently.

AMD Radeon RX 480 crossfire performance

Where things get really interesting is the promised Crossfire performance. Previous benchmark leaks on the internet suggested that two RX 480 GPUs, previously known by their codename of 64DF:C7, were capable of beating or matching NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 1080, or at least surpassing the GeForce GTX Titan X. Now we have AMD promising the exact same thing, showing a live demo on their stream with Ashes of the Singularity running on two systems, one of which had two Radeon RX 480 cards in XDMA Crossfire. Not only is this setup brutally efficient when it comes to scaling performance, the pair of cards also is cheaper than a single GTX 1080.

One thing to note though is that the RX 480 will come in two configurations – one with 4GB of GDDR5 memory and the other with 8GB, so depending on which model you opt for, the 8GB cards might come in at just over $250 each. Still, that’s a hell of a lot better than the price/performance ratio of the GeForce GTX 1080 Founders Edition, the only currently available model retailing at $699 overseas (and well over R12,000 locally!).

Also note the GPU utilisation numbers on the chart – 51% for the Crossfire pair, and 98.7% for the GTX 1080. Multi-GPU setups inherently see per-card utilisation drop as more cards are added to the same workload, and at this stage its difficult to figure out what AMD is saying with those numbers. Is the Crossfire setup bottlenecked? Is there more performance on tap, and AMD is limiting the system’s performance to make a point? Is one RX 480 equivalent to 60% of the performance of a GTX 1080, and therefore scaling efficiency seen here is above 85%? We’ll have to wait until 29 June to find out.

Design-wise, AMD is using their new reference cooler design on the RX 480, and the surprising thing is that it both lacks DVI ports of any description and is using a very short PCB – just as short, it seems, as the GeForce GTX 960 and GTX 970 reference designs. AMD has been playing up their “power in small packages” game ever since the launch of the Radeon R9 Fury X, and it looks like they’re going to continue this with the Polaris desktop parts. The reference cooler has an overhang at the front of the card, and the underside has intake vents for the blower-style fan to draw cool air in. This makes it ideal for multi-GPU setups that need to vent all their heat outside the chassis, and the display connector setup at the rear means that the entire second PCI slot serves as an exhaust vent.

Because the RX 480 has a 150W TDP, I’m hoping that one of AMD’s partners will be brave enough to try and turn this into a single-slot, air-cooled design. Those of you water-cooling this puppy will have to find or cut your PCI bracket to size to turn it into a single-slot design, but it’s time that AMD tried this again just for fun. Also, a single-slot version of this reference design would be sweet.

AMD’s promises for the RX 480 signal a dramatic upheavel in the graphics market, and I don’t think anyone is quite prepared for the change that’s coming. We’re looking at a potential 2x performance improvement across the board for cards under the $300 mark. Everything from Trinidad to Cape Verde is going to be replaced by a Polaris 10 part, and only the weakest of weak GPUs are going to stay on GCN version 1.1 until AMD can replace those with Polaris 11, currently destined for mobile rollouts.

The AMD Radeon RX 480 is set to launch and go on sale on 29 June 2016, and AMD’s NDA for reviews goes up on the same day. Who’s upgrading?

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