AMD R9 280 Preview; Tahiti Lives Again
In what is becoming an almost biweekly occurrence, AMD is launching another graphics card into the channel. After the R7 265 some folks may have been under the impression that things would quiet down for a while but, in AMD's eyes there still wasn’t an R-series competitor for the GTX 760. Enter the R9 280, a simple rebrand of the HD 7950 Boost ASIC. If you know how the HD 7950 Boost performs, you may as well stop reading now since there’s absolutely nothing new to see here.
For those keeping track at home, the R9 280 becomes the twelfth product in the R-series and likely not the last one either. It will be released this week but once again this is a largely paper launch and we will only be seeing broad scale availability sometime down the line, likely in the second or third week of March.
Like quite a few launches as of late, there won’t many reference R9 280 cards as board partners are being encouraged to reuse their existing HD 7950 and HD 7950 Boost stocks and “upgrade” them via a simple BIOS flash. This will lead to most products being custom cooled and potentially overclocked but there will be very little to differentiate the 280 from its predecessors.
This situation means compatibility with TrueAudio is missing in action as well. How AMD plans on growing this potentially game-changing feature continues to be a mystery to us considering only a handful of their cards actually support it.
As a matter of fact, we’ve heard from multiple sources that the retail HD 7950 shortages were partially caused by board partners withholding shipments of the older cards so they could resell them as R9 280s. Hopefully this will mean a sudden deluge that will satisfy the needs of gamers and miners alike but it also points towards the dangers of rebranding existing products.
The R9 280 is a virtual carbon copy of AMD’s HD 7950 Boost with a few small exceptions. While it uses the Tahiti Pro core with 1792 Stream Processors, 112 TMUs and 32 ROPs, its maximum engine frequency has been increased by 8MHz. Unfortunately, AMD has added their nebulous “up to” clock speed which does away with perfectly understandable Base and Boost indicators. This means in the right (or wrong) conditions, the 280 can exhibit significant performance fluctuations since it doesn’t have a cap on minimum frequencies.
As AMD transfers older generation ASICs to their latest naming scheme, the only other differentiating factor is price. It seems like the R-series moniker adds a premium of about ten bucks, making the R9 280 more expensive than the HD 7950 Boost’s last suggested retail price. As retailers take full advantage of the ongoing crypto currency mining craze we expect the actual street cost to be around $300 to $350, making this card an abysmal value for gamers. Once things stabilize the R9 280 could still become a price / performance powerhouse but for the time being at least, the laws of supply and demand will have the final word.
Performance is pretty straightforward with the R9 280 supposedly beating the GTX 760 in certain benchmarks. However, we all know how well the HD 7950 Boost stacked up against NVIDIA’s significantly less expensive $250 card. It isn’t noticeably faster at 1080P or 1440P and we expect the situation to repeat itself with the newest addition to the Radeon lineup unless there’s some secret mojo going on behind the scenes. It isn't all doom and gloom though since the R9 280's 3GB of memory will hold a significant advantage as more bandwidth-hungry DX11 games are rolled out.
The ironic thing about AMD’s rapid-fire launches is NVIDIA’s reaction: dead silence. As AMD goes about launching “new” cards that simply repeat the positioning and performance of discontinued SKUs, there really isn’t any need for knee jerk reactions from the other side of the fence. The GeForce lineup is fundamentally strong and judging from AMD’s insistence on pricing the rebrands at points above their predecessors, there’s no new competition on the price / performance front either. If you feel the GPU market has entered a period of protracted stagnation, you're not the only one.
If AMD’s short term strategy is to rebrand every possible previous generation card (and there’s nothing to indicate otherwise) they’re going to be scrambling come April and May. Hopefully the engineers find a way to cascade the Hawaii architecture down into lower price points since the only truly new cards in AMD’s 2014 lineup continue to be the R9 290 and R9 290X and to a lesser extent, the Bonaire derivatives. In the coming months, remaining competitive at their current price points may become increasingly hard for Radeon cards.
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