Full review: AMD Radeon RX 480

The Radeon RX 480 is the first graphics card built around AMD's 14nm Polaris GPU, and it changes the game.
  • Brad Chacos (PC World (US online))
  • 29 June, 2016 23:00

Hug your monitors and hide the kids’ games. With today’s launch of the Radeon RX 480 (329 for 4GB version, $399for 8GB version on Newegg), the next-generation graphics war is officially on, with both AMD and Nvidia now offering graphics cards built around underlying processor technology that represents a massive two-generation leap over what we’ve used for four long years. Welcome to the future.

While Nvidia went for shock and awe with the ferociously powerful $1200 GeForce GTX 1080 and $780 GTX 1070, AMD’s employing guerilla tactics to win the hearts, minds, and dollars of the masses, complete with an ad campaign rife with revolutionary undertones. The Radeon RX 480 is the first graphics card capable of cranking out VR without breaking the bank. Equally as impressive, it’s the first $300+ card capable of delivering uncompromising 1080p gaming and damn fine performance at 2560x1440 resolution. This thing kicks the butt of the last generation’s Radeon 380 and GeForce 960.

Let’s dig in.

Meet Polaris and the Radeon RX 480

Most of the Radeon RX 480’s boost stems from its use of AMD’s new “Polaris” GPU cores, which the company’s been teasing for half a year now. The industry’s been stuck using 28nm GPU cores since 2011, with all graphics cards released since then essentially iterating around the same underlying technology as both AMD and Nvidia skipped the 20nm generation. Polaris embraces both 14nm transistors as well as advanced “FinFET” technology that make those shrunk-down transistors even more power-efficient. (Nvidia’s new Pascal GPUs utilize 16nm FinFET transistors.)

radeon rx 480 specs

Moving to 14nm lets AMD cram more technology into its GPUs, too. As you can see in the chart above, the Radeon RX 480 contains 2,304 stream processors, which are AMD’s equivalent to Nvidia’s CUDA cores—though it’s impossible to compare the two radically different architectures in sheer core counts alone. AMD’s previous $300+ graphics card, the Radeon$ R9 380, packed 1,792 stream processors by comparison, and the more powerful Radeon R9 380X contained 2,048. The number of onboard compute units expanded from 28 CUs in the R9 380 to 36 CUs in the RX 480.

AMD was also able to crank the RX 480’s clock speeds. The reference Radeon RX 480 boosts up to 1,266MHz out of the box, with a base clock of 1,120MHz. Its predecessors topped out at 970MHz. A big jump in stream processor count paired with a big jump in clock speeds means a big jump in overall performance—which we’ll get to in a bit. (Such a tease!)

polaris gpu core

A breakdown of the RX 480’s Polaris GPU, for you GPU nerds out there. The Polaris GPU also brings enhanced geometry engines, improved shader efficiency, updated memory and delta color compression engines, and more.

Team Red supersized the memory in its $300+ offering, too. The older R9 380 and GeForce GTX 960 both started with 2GB of onboard RAM, though pricier 4GB versions were also available. But the Radeon RX 480’s $329 version contains 4GB of memory, while an 8GB version—the model tested here—will sell for $399.

That’s traditional GDDR5 memory, by the way, not the exotic high-bandwidth memory found in the Radeon Fury series or the newer GDDR5X memory found in Nvidia’s GTX 1070 and 1080. Sticking to GDDR5 no doubt helps AMD keep costs down—crucial in a $300+ graphics card—and to be honest, it still holds up just fine for in-game performance. It’s important to note that the two RX 480 variants are clocked at different memory speeds: The 4GB model tops out at 7Gbps, while the 8GB model hits 8Gbps. AMD says the memory specs in custom cards by partners such as VisionTek, Asus, and Sapphire might vary, but will hit 7Gbps minimum. Look for custom boards to land mid-July.

radeon rx 480 7 Brad Chacos

Note how much smaller the Radeon RX 480’s PCB is; the back third of the card is just shroud and fan.

Considering all the shader processors and RAM that AMD stuffed into this thing, it’s remarkable how small the card’s circuit board actually is, as we mentioned in our visual preview of the RX 480. While this is a full-length card (just under 9.5 inches in order to accommodate the cooling system’s heat sink and single blower-style fan), the PCB itself is only an inch or so longer than the diminutive Radeon Nano, and that card benefits from high-bandwidth memory’s extreme space savings. The RX 480’s memory chips must be laid out on the board itself. Custom mini-ITX versions of this card could be exciting.

The Radeon RX 480 also swipes the Radeon Nano’s and the Radeon Fury X’s sense of style, mimicking their sleek black exterior and prominent Radeon branding, though the RX 480 feels a bit more lightweight and plasticky in hand. But you’ll only hold it in your hand to install it anyway. The Radeon RX 480 looks flat-out stunning—though as with the Nano, there’s no backplate on the reference version.

radeon rx 480 1 Brad Chacos

You’ll get stunning visuals out of this thing, too. Polaris supports high dynamic range video via its singular HDMI 2.0b port and trio of DisplayPort 1.3/1.4 connections.

polaris hdr

Those fancy new DisplayPorts also support video refresh rates up to 120Hz at 4K resolution or 60Hz at 5K resolution. DVI connections on reference designs have been phased out as planned, just like on the Fury cards. But fear not if you’re still rocking a DVI monitor: Custom boards often add DVI connections right back in. DVI really is going the way of the dodo, however, so it’s time to think about upgrading your display to a model with superior HDMI/DisplayPort connections.

Improvements flow out of the RX 480, too: When it comes to compute-intensive video-decode/encode operations, the Polaris GPU is more powerful than any previous AMD processor.

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480 decode

The card sips down 150 watts of board power via a single 6-pin power connector on its edge. Nvidia’s GTX 1070 draws the same amount of power, but via an 8-pin connector for more overclocking headroom. We’ll get more into comparisons when we look at the RX 480’s power use.

Overall, the Radeon RX 480 is an awfully attractive card that screams quality—not something you’d expect to find in the $300+ price range. It’s a big change from AMD’s previous R200 series. But hardware is only half of the equation.

Next page: The Radeon RX 480’s software tricks

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AMD WattMan

AMD typically reserves new features for its yearly flagship software launches, but it’s rolling out a great new tool alongside the RX 480: AMD WattMan. WattMan’s essentially a supercharged version of the OverDrive overclocking tool AMD has included in its control panel for a while now, with some cool new capabilities and a highly unfortunate name that brings old Sony Walkman cassette players and crappy superheroes to mind. Seriously—who thought WattMan sounded better than OverDrive?

If you’re the overclocking type, WattMan (found in Gaming > Global Settings > Global WattMan) delivers everything you need to tweak your RX 480’s power limit, fan-speed minimums and maximums, target-temperature minimum and maximums, GPU and memory clocks, and individual GPU and memory voltage levels. It’s pretty comprehensive, and AMD took things one step further with the introduction of GPU frequency-curve controls, which let you customize the overclocks for various dynamic power management states (DPMs).

amd wattman

The AMD WattMan interface in Radeon Settings. (Click to enlarge)

The RX 480 ships with a default frequency curve that affects clock speeds across the various DPMs, and you can apply an overclock by increasing that curve by a set percentage. Alternatively, you can manually set the overclock limits for each DPM using AMD’s new dynamic GPU frequency curve controls. That will let you tailor the overclocking profile to better fit your specific GPU’s potential, but the lack of an automated tool to find your card’s limits may restrict its usefulness in real-world scenarios. (To be fair, there are scanning tools to find your GPU’s limits for the Nvidia’s GTX 10-series cards, but they’re buggy as hell all and irritating to use.)

Increasing the power limit is vital to the RX 480 overclocking process, AMD representatives said. You can boost the RX 480’s power limit by up to 50 percent.

You’ll find another handy tool at the top of the “Global WattMan” settings page in the form of a histogram that tracks your card’s current peak and average GPU activity, temperature, fan speed, and engine/memory clock speeds, and then displays the results as a graph over time. Studying the histogram can really help you hone in on how your card’s behaving, which is crucial to the overclocking process. Per-game histogram tracking can also be enabled in the new “Profile WattMan” tab in your profiles.

amd wattman profile

A histogram tracking the Radeon RX 480’s behavior in Far Cry Primal.

Dorky name aside, the new WattMan tools, combined with the existing per-game overclocking options in the Radeon Settings app, provide GPU tweakers with a seriously robust, easy-to-read set of tools for boosting game performance across the board or in specific games. It’s wonderful to see what Radeon Settings, AMD’s sleek new control panel, is evolving into.

Unfortunately, our test system was afflicted by an issue that prevents us from being able to include overclocking results in our performance section. We managed to push our card to a five-percent simple frequency increase on the GPU clock, or a 1,335MHz max, which AMD engineers said was higher than their own sample. We also eked out an additional 150MHz in memory clock speeds.

amd wattman borked

Rats.

But applying the overclock actually caused performance to decrease, sometimes drastically. The more we increased the power limit, the worse performance became, no matter how high we cranked the fans or fiddled with temperature settings. The Global WattMan section also appeared to have some stability issues, infrequently crashing the entire Radeon Settings app when we opened it.

AMD engineers speculate the performance hiccup could be an issue with our motherboard’s power delivery, but there was no way to get a new mobo set up in time for testing. For what it’s worth, I’ve overclocked dozens of cards in this system without issue, and I heard from other reviewers who ran into similar problems with performance decreases during overclocking. AMD says its engineers and many other reviewers hadn’t run into the issue, however, so your mileage may vary.

Don’t let our bizarre technical hiccups ruin your impression of this seriously slick, horribly named tool though. I dig it a lot—if it works.

The future

While WattMan may be the only high-profile new addition to join existing Radeon features like support for stutter-free FreeSync displays and the surprisingly potent Frame Rate Target Control, AMD’s also loaded the RX 480 with everything needed to support the next generation of gaming goodies. Namely, virtual reality and cutting-edge “close to the metal” graphics APIs like DirectX 12 and Vulkan.

“Bringing virtual reality to the masses” is the big marketing hook AMD’s using to push the RX 480. It feels a bit weird, since the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are still new, niche gadgets with US$600 to US$800 price tags that are anything but mainstream. AMD’s $329 card helps make the PCs you need to power the headsets much more affordable, at least. Think of it as laying the groundwork for wider adoption down the road.

The Radeon RX 480 delivers the raw firepower needed to certify as “Capable” in Valve’s SteamVR performance test, but the VR readiness doesn’t end there. AMD says the card offers lower latency and smoother overall frame times. That will pay dividends in traditional gaming and is doubly important to maintain a feel of immersion in VR. If frame rates start sputtering in VR, you’ll start spewing in real life. The 8GB of RAM in the $399 version helps ensure games that gobble up memory will stay smooth, too.

Another key weapon in the Radeon RX 480’s VR arsenal is its dedicated asynchronous compute engine (ACE) hardware. If your card does have trouble maintaining smooth frame rates in a VR game, the Oculus Rift uses a technique called “Asynchronous Timewarp.” Asynchronous Timewarp checks your headset’s position right before displaying an image, and if your head position has moved since the last frame was rendered, Timewarp will adjust the image slightly to match your current orientation. It reduces judder and keep you from hurling.

The GCN architecture that Polaris is based on includes ACEs that basically act as traffic cops, directing myriad graphics tasks to take best advantage of all available Radeon graphics resources simultaneously, rather than using a queue-based “preemption” approach that forces the GPU to complete one task before moving on to another. ACEs let Radeon GPUs do more things at the same time—like performing Asynchronous Timewarp calculations without disrupting the main graphics pipeline.

AMD recently added a new API for its ACEs. Dubbed Quick Response Queue, it allows developers to flag specific tasks—such as the aforementioned Timewarp—as high priority. The GPU’s ACE hardware then assigns high-priority tasks ahead of normal tasks, so time-critical functions get the quick attention they deserve while standard tasks continue to process, albeit with fewer resources.

Here’s an AMD-supplied diagram that illustrates how asynchronous compute, standard preemption, and the new Quick Response Queue behave.

async qrq

The Radeon RX 480’s ACE hardware can also deliver big benefits in the latest games, just now trickling out, that tap the all-new DirectX 12 and Vulkan APIs. ACE delivers even more benefits with titles that lean heavily on both your processor and your graphics card—strategy games, for instance—and in situations where your graphics card significantly outclasses your CPU.

You’ll see the benefits materialize in our Ashes of the Singularity DX11 vs. DX12 benchmarks later. Meanwhile, this AMD-supplied benchmark shows how Dota 2 behaves in DX11 vs. its beta Vulkan mode. (Vulkan rose from the ashes of AMD’s aborted Mantle API.)

dota 2 dx11 vs vulkan

Nvidia’s new GTX 10-series cards include several new features designed to improve asynchronous compute performance, but until more DX12 games start hitting the market, we won’t be able to thoroughly compare the Nvidia and AMD implementations. AMD’s ACE hardware gave AMD a solid boost over GTX 900-series cards in Ashes of the Singularity.

But enough chit-chat. Let’s throw some games at AMD’s first Polaris-based graphics card.

Next page: Testing the AMD Radeon RX 480

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Testing the AMD Radeon RX 480

As ever, we tested the GeForce GTX 1080 on PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card benchmark system, which is loaded with high-end components to avoid potential bottlenecks in other parts of the machine and show unfettered graphics performance. Key highlights of the build:

  • Intel’s Core i7-5960X with a Corsair Hydro Series H100i closed-loop water cooler.
  • An Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard.
  • Corsair’s Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory, Obsidian 750D full tower case, and 1,200-watt AX1200i power supply.
  • A 480GB Intel 730 series SSD.
  • Windows 10 Pro

To see how hard the 8GB Radeon RX 480 punches, we compared it to some obvious rivals. The current crop of $300-ish graphics cards are represented in the form of EVGA’s GTX 960 SSC, VisionTek’s Radeon R9 380, and Sapphire’s Radeon R9 380X. You’ll also find results for more potent cards: The Sapphire Nitro R390, EVGA GTX 970 FTW, MSI Radeon 390X Gaming 8GB, and the reference Nvidia GTX 980. We’re not including Radeon RX 480 overclocking results for the reasons stated earlier.

radeon rx 480 2 Brad Chacos

I would have liked to pit the reference AMD RX 480 against reference versions of each of those cards; but well, I simply didn’t have any on hand. Of particular importance for comparison purposes: note that the EVGA GTX 970 FTW is a highly overclocked version of the GTX 970, which puts its overall performance midway between that of the stock GTX 970 and stock GTX 980. Read Anandtech’s EVGA GTX 970 FTW review if you want deeper details on how the custom card compares against its stock counterparts.

Beyond the hardware, we test each game with the default graphics settings unless otherwise noted. But we disable all vendor-specific special features—such as Nvidia’s GameWorks effects, AMD’s TressFX, and FreeSync/G-Sync—to keep things on an even playing field.

Got it? Good. Let’s go.

The Division

We’ll kick things off with Ubisoft’s The Division, a third-person shooter/RPG that mixes elements of Destiny and Gears of War. The game uses Ubisoft’s new Snowdrop engine and is set in a gritty post-apocalyptic New York City.

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(Click any graph in this article to enlarge it.)

The Radeon RX 480 delivers a huge performance boost over the current generation of $300 graphics cards, outpunching the Sapphire Nitro R9 390 and the EVGA 970 FTW despite their hefty overclocks. More importantly, the Radeon RX 480 flirts with a 60-frames-per-second average at 1080p resolution with all the bells and whistles enabled in one of today’s more graphically demanding games. That’s damned impressive for a $200 card.

Next page: Hitman performance results

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Hitman

The Radeon RX 480 walks into Hitman with a default advantage, because IO Interactive’s Glacier engine heavily favors AMD hardware.

Programming note: Hitman automatically caps the game’s Texture Quality, Shadow Maps, and Shadow Resolution at medium on cards with 2GB of onboard memory. The EVGA GTX 970 FTW and VisionTek R9 380 were thus tested with those lower graphical settings. I’ve still included them in the graphs below so you can see the comparative DX11 vs. DX12 performance on those cards, but note that their results aren’t a direct apples-to-apples comparison with the others.

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480 hitman 1440 dx12
480 hitman 1080 dx12

Surprise! The Radeon RX 480 solidly outpunches the overclocked EVGA 970 FTW, and it finishes in a dead heat with the overclocked Sapphire R9 390. That lead increases slightly if you use Hitman’s DirectX 12 support, which results in slightly lower average frame rates for GeForce cards, and higher average frame rates for AMD cards—but only if the card has 4GB of memory or more. Frame rates absolutely tank in DX12 with the 2GB cards.

Next page: Rise of the Tomb Raider performance

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Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider favors GeForce cards—which makes it even more impressive that the Radeon RX 480 trades blows with the overclocked EVGA 970 FTW across the board. It’s also the most drop-dead gorgeous game I’ve ever laid my eyes on.

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480 rotr 1080

AMD’s new card falls between the custom, overclocked R9 390 and R9 390X here, and it utterly demolishes the older $300 graphics cards.

Next page: Far Cry Primal

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Far Cry Primal

Yep, we use two different Ubisoft games in our lineup—but Far Cry Primal runs on a completely different engine than The Division. Far Cry Primal uses the latest version of the long-running and well-respected Dunia engine. We test the game with the free 4K HD Texture Pack installed.

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480 fc 1080

This game scales well across the board, and the RX 480 beats the EVGA 970 FTW across the board. At 1080p resolution, however, everything from the GTX 970 on up bunches together, with AMD’s $300 card delivering essentially the same frame rates as the GTX 980 and Radeon 390X. Performance gaps widen a bit at 1440p, though. And the competing $300 graphics cards never once came close to hanging with the RX 480.

Next page: Ashes of the Singularity

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Ashes of the Singularity

Between the bolted-on DirectX 12 support in Hitman and Rise of the Tomb Raider and the inherent difficulties in testing Windows Store apps—which don’t support traditional overlays or benchmarking tools like FRAPS—there’s only a single game with a stellar DX12 implementation to test: Ashes of the Singularity, running on Oxide’s custom Nitrous engine.

Ashes was an early standard-bearer for DirectX 12, and it’s still the premier game. (It’s fun, too!) The performance gains it offers with DX12 over DX11 are eye-opening—at least when running on Radeon cards.

480 aots 1440 crazy
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480 aots 1080 high

The Radeon RX 480 can’t compete with the EVGA 970 FTW in standard DirectX 11 mode. But as with all the rest of AMD’s cards, flipping over to DirectX 12 causes performance to skyrocket—so much so that the Radeon RX 480 suddenly nudges out even the mighty GTX 980 in most tests. Why wouldn’t you use DX12 if you owned this card?

Ashes’s DX12 implementation makes heavy use of asynchronous compute features, which are supported by dedicated hardware in Radeon GPUs, but not in the older GTX 900-series Nvidia cards. In fact, the software preemption workaround that Maxwell-based Nvidia cards use to mimic the async compute capabilities tank performance so hard that Oxide’s game is coded to ignore async compute when it detects a GeForce GPU. Those cards actually perform worse when running AoTS in DX12.

Speaking of poor performance, the $300 2GB graphics cards from last generation really can’t handle playing at 1440p (or even 1080p, in DX12) on Ashes’ “crazy” preset.

Next page: SteamVR performance and synthetic benchmarks

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SteamVR

VR benchmarks haven’t been able to keep up with graphics technology. More granular VR benchmark tools promised from Crytek and Basemark haven’t hit the streets yet.

That leaves us with no easy way to quantify the Radeon RX 480’s potential performance increase over the competition except for the SteamVR benchmark. Having said that, this tool is better as a pass/fail test for determining whether your rig can handle VR than it is for making head-to-head GPU comparisons. Here the RX 480 falls—barely—in the test’s green “capable” limits, just behind the EVGA 970 FTW.

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3DMark Fire Strike and Fire Strike Ultra

We also tested the RX 480 and its rivals using 3DMark’s highly respected Fire Strike synthetic benchmark, which runs at 1080p.

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Next page: Power and heat

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Power

Radeon Fury R200- and R300-series GPUs absolutely thirsted for power and sucked down massive amounts of energy. Nvidia’s supremely efficient Maxwell architecture completely owned AMD’s GCN architecture on this score.

So how does the Radeon RX 480 stack up? Let’s take a look.

Power is measured on a whole-system basis by plugging the PC into a Watts Up meter, then running a stress test with Furmark—which Nvidia calls “a power virus”—for 15 minutes. Our power and temperature tests represent a worst-case scenario, pushing a graphics card to its limits.

480 power use

AMD’s Polaris architecture improvements and the leap to 14nm process technology has clearly paid dividends for the Radeon RX 480. The card offers performance roughly in line with the Radeon R9 390 or 390X, but it draws hundreds of watts less power. Hot damn. That’s great!

When you compare the RX 480’s power efficiency against Nvidia’s GeForce cards, however, these gains look slightly less impressive. The RX 480’s gaming performance falls somewhere between that of the GTX 970 and GTX 980, and its power draw falls smack dab in the same place. To put it another way, leaping forward two full generations essentially helped AMD draw even with Nvidia’s last-generation product. Our test system draws the same 244W when equipped with either the GTX 970 or the GTX 1070, but Nvidia’s newer Pascal-powered GPU delivers performance slightly exceeding a Titan X’s.

Heat

With that out of the way, let’s peek at the thermal results for this cornucopia of cards.

Remember: Only the Radeon RX 480 and GeForce GTX 980 are reference designs; all the other cards sport custom coolers of various efficiency. That makes this somewhat of an apples-to-oranges affair, but there are still things we can learn.

480 gpu temps

Right off the bat, the Radeon RX 480 runs far cooler than the old R200-series reference cards. The reference Radeon R9 290 hit 92 degrees Celsius, and the R9 290X hit a whopping 95 degrees max under load. (Those aren’t listed in this chart, but I have the data saved.) In fact, the Radeon RX 480 rarely surpasses 78 degrees in actual gameplay scenarios; as I said, we test a worst-case scenario.

We don’t have the equipment to test noise levels, but here’s an AMD-supplied chart that compares the RX 480 with the reference GTX 970.

radeon rx 480 noise

Bottom line: The RX 480 runs relatively cool and quiet, especially for a reference card. Once AMD partners like Sapphire and XFX slap beefy custom-cooling solutions on the card, it’ll no doubt run deliciously cool and quiet.

Be warned that temperatures ramp up very quickly once you start inching up the power limit during the overclocking process, however; you’ll need to really ramp up the fan speed to compensate, and that will make the card significantly louder. That’s true whenever you overclock, but it’s amplified with this reference board.

Next page: Bottom line

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Shaking up the mainstream

AMD’s sure kicked the Polaris GPU family off with a bang. The Radeon RX 480 is one hell of a graphics card—one that redefines what’s possible at affordable price points.

Never before could you get uncompromising 1080p/60fps performance anywhere near this cheap. Never before could you get pretty damned decent 1440p performance anywhere near this cheap. And you sure as hell couldn’t get a VR-ready card for anywhere near $300.

Now you can, and it’s all because of the Radeon RX 480. Kick ass.

From power efficiency to performance, AMD’s basically created a more powerful GTX 970 clone for $300. Considering that the GTX 970 was crowned the people’s champion just last generation when it launched at a then-startlingly low US$330, the Radeon RX 480 is something AMD should crow about—especially since the RX 480 can go toe-to-toe with the GTX 980 in certain games and situations.

If you’re disappointed in the results, well, it’s probably because AMD set expectations unrealistically high when it told the Wall Street Journal that the RX 480 “delivers performance equivalent to that of US$500 graphics cards used for VR.” It can’t. It doesn’t go toe-to-toe with the GTX 980 or R9 390X/Fury overall; it’s roughly equal to the US$330 GTX 970 in Valve’s SteamVR performance test. AMD’s marketing hyperbole may wind up disappointing some, but the card nevertheless rocks if you consider it without preexisting expectations.

So which version should you buy? I’d counsel waiting for custom versions from AMD’s partners to launch in the middle of the month if you can. This fancy little beast should rock even harder with custom coolers and out-of-the-box overclocks.

Memory-wise, the $329 4GB model should be just fine for 1080p gaming. Some games, like Rise of the Tomb Raider, are already exceeding 4GB at 1440p with everything cranked, though, and VR headsets rock a higher 2160x1200 resolution. Topping out your onboard memory limit causes nasty frame-rate slowdowns, which can make you feel pukey in virtual reality. If you’re planning to play at 1440p or to use the RX 480 for VR, I’d recommend spending the extra $70 for an 8GB model.

Today, not tomorrow

A word of warning, though. Buy this card because it rocks at standard gaming today. Don’t bite because of promises. A lot of AMD’s marketing spin revolves around future-facing technologies that are up in the air.

Yes, the Radeon RX 480 is a great entry-level option to get into VR, but there’s still no guarantee VR will explode like the industry hopes it will, especially with the first-gen headsets priced so high. The Radeon RX 480’s low price is a key step toward driving wider adoption, and buying one hedges your bets if VR does blow up. But it hasn’t yet, and it might not.

Likewise, DirectX 12 and AMD’s dedicated asynchronous compute engine hardware is a major wild card. Results in early games like Ashes of the Singularity and the dedicated Total War: Warhammer DX12 benchmark show great promise on Radeon cards.

radeon rx 480 2 Brad Chacos

But will that hold true in every game? Only certain genres and PC configurations? Rise of the Tomb Raider actually loses some frames on average in DX12, though it sees increased minimum frame rates. Hitman’s bolted-on DX12 performance varies. Yes, DX12 could very well wind up being a major boon for Radeon cards. But until DX12 and Vulkan games hit the streets in larger numbers and we’re able to observe wider trends, buy the RX 480 because it kicks ass today, not for what it might—or might not—do in the future.

Again: Buy the Radeon RX 480 for what it can do today, and consider all these future-proofing technologies a bonus cherry on top.

And I definitely recommend weighing the risks before you pick up two of these over a $800 GeForce GTX 1070. I only had a single card on hand, so I couldn’t test CrossFire performance, but Radeon chief Raja Koduri made waves when he ran a demo that showed dual RX 480s beating a GTX 1080 in the Ashes of the Singularity benchmark in DX12. But multi-GPU support has waned over the past couple of years, with numerous big-name games patching in CrossFire/SLI late or not at all. DirectX 12’s multi-GPU support is being heralded as the future for extreme system setups, but that puts the onus on time- and money-deprived developers to dedicate money and time to coding in and supporting multi-GPU configurations.

crossfire 480s

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the future of multi-GPU systems (and sad about it). Something to keep in mind.

What I’m not skeptical about is whether you should buy the Radeon RX 480. The answer’s an absolute, unequivocal yes. This is an unprecedented amount of performance in the $300-$400 price range, and unprecedented power efficiency for AMD’s recent GPUs. Even if Nvidia slashes the price of remaining GTX 970 stocks to $300 to match the Radeon RX 480’s price, I’d still recommend AMD’s card.

Really, there are only three graphics cards worth considering right now. If you’ve got deep pockets, Nvidia’s GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 offer mind-blowing performance for high-end gaming rigs. For anything under that, the Radeon RX 480’s the only game in town. Today, every GTX 900-series, R300-series, and Fury card is essentially obsolete. The even-cheaper Radeon RX 470 and RX 460 are coming at some point in the future, and there’s no one who doubts that Nvidia has a GeForce GTX 1060 brewing. But right now, distinct battle lines have been drawn in the opening days of the next-generation graphics war.

For the overwhelming majority of gamers today—the people with less than $400 to spend, and the masses with 1080p or lower-resolution monitors—the Radeon RX 480 is the only graphics card worth considering. AMD’s fulfilled its promise on bring high-end performance to the mainstream.