Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
AMD RX 480 review: The best budget graphics card, but for how long?

Specs at a glance: AMD RX 480
Calculate units 36
Texture Units 144
core clock 1120MHz
Raise the clock 1266MHz
Memory bus width 256-bit
Memory speed 8GHz or 7GHz
Memory bandwidth 320 GB/s or 224 GB/s
Memory size 8GB GDDR5 or 4GB GDDR5
Outputs 3x DisplayPort 1.3, 1x HDMI 2.0b with support for 4K60 HDR
Publication date June 29
Price 8GB (as reviewed): £215, $230. 4GB: £180, $200

Brave? Reckless? In despair? Whatever you think of AMD’s decision to cede the top end of the graphics card market (at least for now) to Nvidia and launch the mainstream-aimed RX 480 instead, the fact remains that at £180/$200 it’s the best graphics card you have. can buy. It’s faster than Nvidia’s GTX 970 and (usually) faster than an R9 390, making it more than powerful enough to meet minimum specs for virtual reality – and it’ll also hurtle through demanding 1080p games at a smooth 60 FPS. It even does a decent job at 1440p, as long as you turn down a few settings.

As a consumer product, then, the RX 480 is a success, even if one of AMD’s key points – that it will help drive VR adoption – is a bit suspect. After all, VR headsets still cost over £500.

But – and sadly there always seems to be that with AMD – the RX 480 isn’t a great debut for Polaris 10, the first GPU based on an all-new, theoretically more efficient 14nm FinFET manufacturing process. At 150W, the RX 480 sits in the same power envelope as the GTX 1070, but offers less performance. It also gets hotter, reaching 80 degrees Celsius, and sometimes even struggling to meet the advertised boost clock – and that’s in a large, well-ventilated case. It’s an improvement over AMD’s previous cards, but they were always power-hungry beasts and the bar has been raised ever since.

Of course, none of that matters to the consumer who is determined to get the best bang for the buck. And since the sub-£200/$200 market is hottest for discrete graphics cards, the RX 480 is a smart move to take AMD’s market share to more respectable levels. But Polaris 10 is already being pushed hard in the RX 480, and graphics nerds hoping that AMD would regain its performance edge in the future may wonder whether AMD intended to make a mainstream card or not – thanks to less-than-stellar efficiencies with Polaris – his hand was forced.

Polaris 11: The new old

Indeed, a quick look inside the RX 480 shows why its performance hasn’t taken as much of a leap forward as you might think. There’s a new chip, called Polaris 10, which… well, just isn’t very new. To be terribly similar to the older GCN 1.2 architecture used by the Fiji GPUs that previously powered the Fury X and the R9 290X, albeit on a smaller scale. There is a single graphics command processor, four Asynchronous Compute Engines (ACE), two hardware schedulers, and 2 MB of L2 cache in addition to the RX 480’s 4 GB or 8 GB of memory. There are a total of 36 compute units (CUs) and 144 texture units delivering just over five teraflops of FP32 performance.

Specifications at a glance

R9 Anger X R9 rage R9 390X R9 390 R9 290X RX 480
Stream processors 4096 3584 2816 2560 2816 2304
Texture Units 256 224 176 160 176 144
ROPs 64 64 64 64 64 32
Raise the clock 1050MHz 1000MHz 1050MHz 1000MHz 1000MHz 1266MHz
Memory bus width 4096 bits 4096 bits 512-bit 512-bit 512-bit 256-bit
Memory clock 1GHz 1GHz 6GHz 6GHz 5GHz 8GHz or 7GHz
Memory bandwidth 512 GB/sec 512 GB/sec 384 GB/sec 384 GB/sec 320GB/s 256 GB/s or 224 GB/s
Memory size 4GB HBM 4GB HBM 8GB DDR5 8GB DDR5 4GB GDDR5 8GB or 4GB GDDR5
Typical board power 275W 275W 250W 250W 250W 150W

That puts the RX 480 in line with or above that of the GTX 970 and R9 380 and just below the R9 390’s 5.9 teraflops. Take the GTX 970 out of the picture – which is priced at Nvidia’s more premium scale – and despite all the pre-release buzz, the RX 480 just fits between two of the company’s existing cards. This is not a groundbreaking product.

Still, there are some features in the RX 480 that you won’t find in older graphics cards. There’s DisplayPort 1.3 HBR, HDMI 2.0b (finally!) and support for HDR content. With no consumer HDR PC monitors around, you’ll need to buy a TV to actually watch HDR content, though AMD says it’s working with monitor manufacturers to get models to market as soon as possible. Native FP16 (half-precision computation) support has also been introduced for the first time, and while that won’t mean much to gamers, those performing heavy computing tasks such as computer vision or machine learning will benefit from the reduced memory usage of FP16 instructions.

The R9 Nano (left) and RX 480.
Enlarge / The R9 Nano (left) and RX 480.
The back of the RX 480.
Enlarge / The back of the RX 480.

On the outside, the RX 480’s reference cooler – on which many of the launch cards are likely based – is based on the Fury X. The soft-touch, dimpled plastic top panel looks smooth without being ostentatious, while the simple fan design is good to scoop hot air away from the GPU, even if it’s a little noisy under heavy load. It’s also an elaborate design, with the fan hanging over the edge of the circuit board. Expect smaller partner cards with custom coolers ideal for small ITX builds coming in the near future.

One thing to note about the RX 480 is the memory. AMD has picked up the fast 8GB/s GDDR5 memory from the RX 480 since its announcement, which – when coupled with its 256-bit bus – results in 256GB/s of memory bandwidth. However, it turns out that only the more expensive 8GB version of the card (£215/$230) will have 8GHz GDDR5, while the cheaper model has a slower 7GHz GDDR5 for just 224GB/s of bandwidth. Even then, AMD doesn’t promise that all 8GB versions will have the faster memory, saying that “you may see configurations that differ from our reference specs.”

The difference between the two isn’t huge, and there will probably only be a few frames in the real world. But since the 8GB, 8GHz GDDR5 RX 480 is what’s being tested here – and indeed what AMD is sending to all reviewers at launch – double check what speed the memory is running at on the card you’re looking to buy before parting ways of a cash.

By akfire1

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