Hardware review: Sapphire Radeon R9 380 Nitro


“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” [Am I in the right place? Is this a GPU review? THIS IS WHY YOU SHOULDN’T EAT MUSHROOMS FROM YOUR GARDEN. – Ed.] Shakespeare wasn’t talking about graphics cards when he wrote that line, but the saying certainly applies to AMD’s latest rebranding move for the Radeon 300 series. Sapphire’s R9 380 Nitro isn’t exactly something you haven’t seen before – it’s based on the Tonga GPU family, and the R9 285 has been a great GPU for value-seekers for months now. The rebrand gives AMD’s partners time to perfect their offerings from the 200 series, and the R9 380 Nitro 4GB is a great deal for gamers wanting to experience what high-end GPUs are capable of.

Technical specifications
Cooler: Sapphire custom Nitro dual-fan cooler
Stream processors: 1,792
Memory bus: 256-bit
Memory: 4GB GDDR5
Outputs: DVI-I, DVI-D, HDMI and DP1.2a ports
Recommended PSU: 500W (2x 6-pin PEG connectors)
Benchmark scores and general performance
Testing done on Windows 8.1 with the GeForce 353.30 and Catalyst 15.7 drivers
Core i7-4790, 8GB DDR3-1866, 256GB SanDisk SSD, Antec Edge 750W

BioShock Infinite 1080p – 100.85 fps avg. (GTX 970 – 145.18)
Dragon Age: Inquisition 1080p – 32.8 fps avg. (GTX 970 – 50.01) (R9 380 Mantle – 32.2)
Grand Theft Auto V – 56.6 fps avg. (GTX 970 – 70.38)
Metro: Last Light Redux – 30.63 fps avg. (GTX 970 – 48.83)
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – 65.08 fps avg. (GTX 970 – 85.08)
Hitman: Absolution – 48.8 fps avg. (GTX 970 – 62.87)
Thief – 56.8 fps avg. (GTX 970 – 73.8)
Tomb Raider – 38.9 fps avg. (GTX 970 – 58.1)
Civilization: Beyond Earth – 80.7 fps avg. (GTX 970 – 115) (R9 380 Mantle – 80.42)

Price and supplier information
Supplier: Sapphire Technology
Website: www.sapphiretech.com
RRP: R3,899


The R9 380 Nitro is pretty short, with the circuit board measuring 22.7cm long. The Nitro cooler has an overhang at the end of the card, but it isn’t nearly long enough to cause a headache for the majority of cases this card will fit into. The cooler is a dual-slot design, so CrossFire setups shouldn’t be a problem at all for smaller cases with seven or less PCI brackets.

The Nitro cooling solution is beefy, with four heat pipes branching out from the all-copper block, and aluminium fins covering the entire card for maximum cooling benefit. The two 100mm fans feature dual ball bearings and are whisper-quiet at idle and only barely audible at full load. It is odd not seeing a backplate on a high-end Sapphire card, but the Nitro is aimed at gamers and not enthusiasts, who would more appreciate the Toxic range of GPUs from Sapphire with their full backplate.

Port-wise, we have two DVI ports, one HDMI 1.4a port and one full-sized DisplayPort 1.2a connector. This means that triple-monitor setups are going to be a bit tricky. Either you have three identical monitors on the two DVI ports and HDMI, or one monitor on each different connector, making use of adaptors to convert the ports to either HDMI or DisplayPort. A DisplayPort hub can be used to enable you to run up to four displays at once, but those are commonly limited in terms of the resolutions they offer.


Feature-wise the R9 380 (which is officially part of the Tobago family based on Tonga) offers everything that AMD’s most recent GCN updates have added, like TrueAudio support, FreeSync support, XDMA CrossFire, Virtual Super Resolution (VSR) technology, AMD LiquidVR and full HSA 1.0 software compliance, the first of AMD’s discrete cards to do so. That’s pretty much the same deal as AMD’s new Fury family, with only high-bandwidth memory (HBM) cut out of the picture.

The R9 380 does really well at 1080p, a resolution to which it’s more suited thanks to the 256-bit bus. With the ultra preset for BioShock Infinite we crack the 100fps barrier, mighty impressive if you’re on a 60Hz monitor and intend to use VSR in future to improve image quality. Infinite‘s benchmark doesn’t simulate combat scenes, so you can expect a drop to around 80fps for some of the heavier fight scenes in the game, especially against Handyman.

The R9 380 Nitro holds its drink well heading into Dragon Age: Inquisition, although the frame rate drops to just over 30fps – playable, but certainly at risk of stuttering and poorer performance in busy fights. The minimum frame rate recorded by the benchmark was 18.1fps, but this is a worst-case scenario. That’s offset somewhat by the Mantle results, which have a similar average, but we saw a minimum of 26.6 frames per second, which is much more palatable.

Our GTA V benchmark run went smoothly throughout, never showing any hitches or artefacts, and we’re running the game pretty close to the limits in the options menu. But if GTA V was a great test case for performance, Metro: Last Light Redux takes us back into 30fps territory. The GTX 970 doesn’t end up doing so well either, as this game is tremendously taxing on both memory bandwidth and shader performance.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is Monolith’s most recent RPG-esque brawler and it runs really well here on the ultra preset. We’re now able to see a clear pattern of performance emerge, with the GTX 970 only being around 35% faster across the board. NVIDIA’s competition to the R9 380 is the GTX 960, but we’re still waiting for a review sample to arrive to see how it stacks up.

The rest of our benchmarks, namely Hitman: Absolution, Thief, Tomb Raider and Civilization: Beyond Earth, all deliver very playable results at 1080p with our high-end presets, which is really pleasing. Some tweaks here and there will be required to hit the 60fps mark for specific games, like disabling TressFX for Tomb Raider, but this kind of performance was usually reserved for high-end cards like the R9 280X just over a year ago. Now you can get it for cheaper, with more VRAM added in.

Tying everything together, Sapphire’s R9 380 Nitro 4GB offers more bang for the buck than I thought it would. The only real negative is the port layout, as only having one DisplayPort connector is a problem for multi-monitor use, and some of Sapphire’s competitors are now rolling out cards with three of them. The casual gamer, or someone who uses dual displays, won’t see this downside at all, so I can’t take any marks off my score for it.

In the coming weeks, I’ll also be testing out CrossFire performance with another R9 380, to give us an idea of how much further we could push this GPU up the value scale if you had two of them kicking about in your system.

8 Sapphire’s R9 380 Nitro presents good value for money for 1080p gaming, and 4GB of VRAM will ensure that it stays relevant for modern games that like to load up on the details and textures.

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