Polaris AMD RX480: Reference Card Review

Is it a Game Changer?

Publisher AMD
Platforms tested PC
With any new fabrication process and architecture comes expectation, Polaris from AMD like Nvidia's latest Pascal cards has launched them both headfirst into FinFET manufacturing. This brings with it huge TDP and size gains that can deliver vastly increased performance and reduced cost.

The choice does not always have to be so black and white though and with its spearhead product in the RX480 has team Red created a new king of mass-market graphics?

To start on the obvious area that some may latch onto or be disappointed with as I stated with my announcement video this card IS NOT aimed at or even in the same market as the 1070/1080 cards. No these are at least twice the price or higher and this is the market that VEGA will target when launched later this year or early next.

Polaris is all about the TAM [Total addressable Market] and it aims to lower the entry point for mid to high end graphics and the full VR experiance all for under $200 or £'s. If we take the steam Hardware survey it is up against the single most popular discrete GPU, Nvidia's GTX970 that around 5% of the PC gaming sector has but it is not THAT user base it has in its sights but the much bigger and more lucrative market below. Taking only the next 5 most popular GPU's after this and AMD have a target of GTX960, GTX750Ti's and GTX760 for discrete cards only giving them a 40% bigger marketshare to aim for. The next 3 built in options on CPU push this to over 100% and all at a base price that is just under £100 or $'s less of team greens runaway seller. The target is clear for the card can it equal or edge the 970 from Nvidia and deliver a sizable leap over the competition from the 750Ti, R270 and R380 cards, well let's find out.


Sound off

The card is a functional piece that looks and feels sturdy enough with its stylised Radeon logo and almost Carbon fibre like casing complete with its 6-pin power connector. Measuring 12Cm long it will fit into most gaming towers with ease but if you have a mATX case and such it could be slightly tighter than say the 750Ti. Once clipped in and hooked up acoustics are good if not great with no serious sound issues over any other cards at idle, it can get louder under load though (around 40 db) although with its relatively poor blower this is not a surprise.

For reference our MSi 750Ti has a Db level of 29 when idle and 32 at full load. The 480 delivers 35-42 respectively which is marginally worse than my MSi Frozer 970 card giving me 36 and 41 but in reality outside a DB test here no card sounds terribly loud unless of course you game in a library, in church, without speakers, or breathing. But for the meta data enthused you can adjust your rooms acoustics accordingly.


It's getting hot in here


Temperatures also play into the cards level with it sitting at the desktop happily at 36c all day within my office and under full steam ahead hitting heights of 81c on standard clocks with a small over-clock on the Ram to 8Gbps to match the 8GB models this being a 4GB model to give the best comparison to the GTX970 £180 vs a £250 one. Rumours abound that all cards at launch from 4GB to 8GB are in fact 8GB are in fact...TRUE!. This may depend on your chosen card and luck mind. Its not that uncommon in a production situation and Polaris has had other rumours pointing to production issues. But I have bought both a 4GB and 8GB card for testing from the same supplier, the always top draw Sapphire cards and although I wanted to test them both with the vBios flash at present the tool does not support the card. UPDATE:- The tool has now been updated and I can confirm the flash works, video to follow soon:- Once it is updated though I will confirm the flash works.So if you can find a 4GB launch card grab it for the best bargain yet. Once flashed and the above memory increase of 250Mhz is applied you have a full fat 8GB card for £50 less, not a bad early bird deal.

Much has been made of the cards power draw levels and that it exceeds the PCIe "standard" with it spiking over 75Watts and possibly higher. But the 2 things to take into consideration here are Overclocking the card and how much ram the card has. My tests from my 4GB model obviously get no-where near the levels quoted but from my limited testing thus far my 8GB card can exceed the 150W maximum WHEN OVERCLOCKED but not by a huge amount and this is perfectly normal for any overclocked cards. Under volting and other changes will help but I will update when I have had more time with my cards to test them.

Testing the 4GB card we see idle on desktop it uses between 10W - 20W and maxed out under multiple games tested it hits a peak of 123.7W but this increases with the extra 4GB modules used and encroaches its maximum TDP. Aside the Memory clock I left all other portions at stock for now and I will cover the new Wattman application in another video but the app is simple and similar to other cards tools.

You can also see full comparison videos for the card against the 970, 750Ti, R380 and R270 in the videos on our channel and in this article. More will be added at 1080 & 1440 as I complete them shortly.

So with all the details cleared and what the card delivers in terms of contents what does it have in terms of spec. This 4GB card (and the final ones when delivered) run the memory at 7Gbps rather than the 8GB cards 8Gbps (but I overclocked them by 250Mhz to deliver the same rate as the full card) aside this change the rest of the specs are identical which gives us the base specs:-

Unsurprisingly the 4GB lower bandwidth of 224GB/s is the same speed as the rumoured NEO specs as I predicted months ago. This is all powered from the PCI-e port and the cards 6-Pin adapter to hit the marketed 150W TDP value.


Let's Play


Now it is all about the games after this and with its real rival the GTX970 here I am using my MSI Twin Frozr Partner board that has an overclock to the core @ 1315MHz and Memory @ 1752MHz as standard and maxes out with 120W under full load which is still very impressive for a 28nm card against this newer 14nm 3D "FinFET" board. Once the better cooled and boosted cards launch in the next few weeks I will be reviewing my choice and see how things change. But for these standard boards I would not (and never do) recommend much of an overclock due to the stock fans not being sufficient to keep things in check.

How close does it get to matching the £250 card here? Being 28% cheaper yet in 2 games it runs neck and neck with the green card and right within margin of error. The PC black sheep of Batman Arkham Knight both cards hit a pretty solid 60fps aside the driving sections meaning that the RX480 is on average 0.12% behind the 970 which pretty much means identical.

Forza Apex is the same and even though a DX12 title like another we cover it also falls 0.03% up to the GTX card and again means at this point we are running identical for each and that cost saving with extra future options with its single HDMI 2.0 port and triple Display port1.3/1.4 ports allowing all modern H.265 streaming and players with its HEVC encoding and decoding it is already looking very good value, but will this continue?

Rise of the Tomb Raider again comes close but the 970 edges out with a 3.45% advantage to the tune of a 2fps higher average, but aside this test you would call them neck and neck. DOOM highlights best that the driver here version 16.6.2 still needs some work as it can stutter at points causing unwelcome and mostly un-required dips below the 60 cap at 1080 and without these it would again be a dead heat across both cards. You will notice that most of the tests are from actual gameplay as this is by FAR a more accurate means of testing than many others as it present the results you get in play far more accurately. These are all processed using my Frame analysis tools with FCAT where needed and the detailed results are presented here in the videos and the graph below.

We only start to see bigger gaps as we move into GameWork linked titles (AK not included) so the Witcher 3 minus any hairworks on both as it just steals performance but everything else maxed out we see the biggest gap yet in Nvidia's favour, 7.7% and a 4fps average gap, again these driver issues present themselves not helped by the blackbox addition..



Both Assassins Creed:Unity and Syndicate indicate even bigger gaps and some of this will stem from the tougher time the CPU still has with the crimson driver than the Nvidia one. Unity is by far the worse as it uses far more CPU time than Syndicate having reduced geometry calls and AI, animation with Unity giving us the biggest gap of 38% over the RX480, GPU wise the RX480 is not the issue in most of the gaps we are seeing. Syndicate has a more modest 9% gap and is much closer but pushes the cards deficit to its biggest yet. But help is at hand with a big DX12 title and one that had a troubled launch in Quantum Break.

Now we see the roles reversed and the RX480 commands its own 36% leap over Nvidia on Ultra settings at 1080 the GTX970 struggles to hit 30 and dips to a low of 8. It even crashed a few times and this is like all games tested with the latest NV driver. It highlights the clear and gigantic performance benefit AMD cards now have in DX12 titles over Nvidia cards. GTA V saves face of the 970 with again a 7% gain and a 4fps advantage ending the tests with the MSi 970 being the overall winner. With DX11 titles and Gameworks it can command a 40% lead which is skewed heavily by Unity and the Witcher 3. But DX12 see the opposite and the RX480 gains 36% and this leaves the stock card performing behind the MSI card overall but with upcoming titles from Dice, Square, The coalition and many more this will only increase and improve the cards value and gains . I really feel that Driver updates will claw much of this back on this 4GB reference card and the aftermarket cards to really push this on at an obvious higher cost.

Unsurprisingly this means that if you have a GTX970 then the RX480 even in 8GB mode is really not worth the move unless you can sell your card for more than the £180,$199 dollars this costs. But that was always to be the case and the same stands for R390 or R390X owners as this card will deliver slightly better or worse levels than what you currently have less so on the 390x. But if you have a 750Ti, R270, R380, 950,960 or lower then this card is as good value as expected giving you a card that can run many modern titles at max 1080/60 and with sacrifices a decent lick at 1440P. Throw in the cheapest VR capable card on the market it will certainly address that TAM that AMD touted.

Conclusion

So I should be impressed and in some ways I am but ultimately not by much as it is a shame that in its standard form it feels shackled and struggles to overclock much at all. The power use even though better than previous cards is not as impressive as it should be and far from its Nvidia rivals latest cards. Yes some of this may be down to the chosen factory of origin but VEGA has a big hill to climb with Pascal and power consumption, driver support along with on board resource are going to need to step up the game.

As it stands this is THE best medium to High end card you can buy right now and if you can pick up a launch 4GB card with a Vbios flash to 8GB then it really leaves all other cards trembling with an 8GB Vram allocation. That said I feel it best to wait for the next bout of cards from MSI, Gigabyte, XFX and Sapphire to truly unlock the potential in Polaris 10 and I think when that happens the shackles are off on what it may yet achieve. You can check back to the channel and site to get a look at how far it will take us very soon.