MSI’s line-up of Radeon 300 rebrands means that the company has to find inventive ways of differentiating its offerings from the 200 series, which for the most part will have the same staying power. Like all vendors, this means looking for improvements in all possible aspects. Some of this will be in optimising the port layout, some possibly in the value-adds in the box, and some vendors will choose to just bin their chips better and grab the higher-clocking ones from AMD. MSI’s Radeon R9 380 GAMING 4GB promises to be a worthy upgrade to the R9 285 and comes with all the bells and whistles – but does it have the performance to match?
MSI’s R9 380 positively oozes quality. It feels heavy and solid, and the plastic cooler shroud doesn’t cheapen the feel of the whole package thanks to a generous use of metal to serve as a brace as well as a backplate sporting MSI’s dragon logo, which covers the entire card. While the use of backplates isn’t rare at this price point, it’s a welcome addition.
Why all the fuss on a mid-range card? For starters, this isn’t a reference design from AMD. MSI’s custom PCB stretches up past the ATX specification for a PCI slot, with a height of 14 centimetres measured from the PCI Express pins to the chromed copper heat pipes, allowing extra space for more componentry. MSI has reworked the power delivery in order to bring down power consumption and accommodate the extra memory chips on the card. The R9 380 GAMING also features the ZeroFrozr update to the TwinFrozr design, which turns off the fans at low temperature levels and keeps the card cool at a near-constant 65 °C under load. The card plus cooler measures 26.6cm, so it is long, but not long enough to cause issues in most cases.
Looking at the port layout, I’m not surprised to see two DVI ports, one DisplayPort and one HDMI 1.4a port. Like the Sapphire R9 380 Nitro I reviewed previously, this means that only one FreeSync monitor can be used on the card at once. Given the price point, I think it’s reasonable to expect that AMD’s partners update their board designs just a little bit to improve on how they deliver their features. The R9 380 GAMING only requires two six-pin PEG power connectors and it has a thermal design power (TDP) of 190 watts.
Stock speeds for the R9 380 GAMING out of the box are 980MHz for the core and 1,425MHz (5.7GHz effective) for the memory. With a 20% increase to the power limit in MSI Afterburner, I set about cranking up the clocks and running tests. With 4GB of RAM on this variant of the R9 380 (double that of the R9 285), I expected that more overclocking wouldn’t yield much benefit thanks to the card’s TDP limits. Given that this card comes overclocked out of the box over the reference R9 380 speeds (970MHz core and 1,375MHz for the memory), this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who overclocks their hardware.
I ran into a few hiccups while trying to find the limits of the card. I got some stable runs from the Heaven benchmark, but several games had an issue at certain clock speeds, most notably Alien: Isolation, which would crash with the core clocked at 1,065MHz. Some of the scores from some games were higher, some were lower, but nothing showed consistent gains at 1,065MHz.
After discovering this I played around with settings, eventually figuring that the 20% power limit increase wasn’t really effective – anything more than 10% on the slider didn’t affect scores at all, which I took to mean that the card is at its power draw limit almost all of the time. Eventually, I settled on an overclock of 80MHz to the core and 95MHz to the memory, arriving at 1,060MHz and 1,520MHz respectively.
The overclocks didn’t translate into much of a difference in synthetic benchmarks. The scores for 3DMark Fire Strike show an 8% increase in performance when overclocked, while Catzilla reports even less than that, with the 1440p results almost identical. Heaven did see some scaling, but that’s not what you’re really interested in, are you? This is a card for gamers, so it should be expected to play games very well.
And it does indeed run almost every game acceptably. While the 380 GAMING finds itself at the bottom of the charts, it’s not very far from the Sapphire R9 380 Nitro, the main competition that we have as a comparison. The only games wherein it’s seen to seriously falter are Thief and Alien: Isolation, where performance isn’t what it should be, especially when overclocked. MSI’s R9 380 does pull in a few wins in our tests once overclocked, but it’s being compared to a card that isn’t very highly clocked to begin with. If the results were jumping all over the place I’d expect that my test card is faulty, but it isn’t – the second-place finishes for the stock-clocked scores were consistent between runs.
Power consumption doesn’t seem to be a problem here either. Total system power draw under load is just over 230W from the wall, and it’s only about 10W shy of the Sapphire Nitro. A 10W gap in this instance isn’t really an advantage one way or another, and these cards stay so cool that there’s less heat to worry about as well.
MSI’s R9 380 GAMING 4GB is a fantastic card as long as you’re not hoping to overclock the crap out of it. With Tonga XT out of the picture for now, there’s no sign of an R9 380X, which would perhaps be a better performer and therefore a better purchase. If you’re playing at 1080p or 1440p then this card is great, and the overall package – which includes a custom PCB, an update to the cooler design, and a backplate – is worth the asking price.
However, if it’s performance you’re after, you probably already know where to begin looking, because this card isn’t aimed at overclockers or enthusiasts – it’s aimed at gamers, and I’d say that it would serve any gamer really well. Except if you play Thief religiously for whatever reason.