AMD R9 Fury X Review; Fiji Arrives

Author: SKYMTL
Date: June 23, 2015
Product Name: R9 Fury X
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After nearly two years of waiting, rumors, hope and disappointment the AMD’s Fiji architecture and the R9 Fury X are finally here. Not only does this pairing hope to compete against the best NVIDIA has to offer but it represents the best hope for AMD’s graphics division as they move forward into the future.

While AMD may not have been leading the graphics race for some time now, if history is any indication, they are obviously willing to take chances on new technologies. For example, the HD 4000-series was the first to boast native support for GDDR5 memory and the now-standard 28nm manufacturing process debuted with the HD 7900-series parts. This time around it is the addition of an innovative High Bandwidth Memory (HBM) interface which is supposed to drastically enhance memory performance while lowering manufacturing costs and memory subsystem overhead.

Since the launch of their Hawaii architecture, things haven’t been easy for AMD’s graphics unit. While the R9 290X and R9 290 were relatively successful on the gaming front, other than a slight jump in sales due to the popularity of crypto-currency mining, their momentum couldn’t be sustained. One of the main reasons for this was their lack of follow-up products which could have brought forth better performance and lower power consumption. The possibility was certainly there but for whatever reason AMD decided to abandon any potential of a follow-up to Hawaii. Instead of those potential launches, AMD’s board partners were left marketing an older architecture while the GeForce lineup was refreshed with Maxwell-based graphics cards.

While the situation went from bad to worse when NVIDIA introduced the GM200-based TITAN X and GTX 980 Ti, there were some faint glimmers of hope along the line. The R9 285 incorporated AMD’s new Tonga GPU which was based upon a thoroughly revised Hawaii-type core but with plenty of updates built into its svelte frame. There was also the feature-rich Omega drivers and FreeSync’s successfully implementation of DisplayPort’s Adaptive Sync protocol. So even though the new product front may have been quiet for the Radeon lineup, AMD was anything but quiet over the last 20 or so months.

While many have criticized AMD for missing opportunities and letting NVIDIA run away with market share within the graphics card industry, that was then and this is now. Water under the bridge so to speak. Right now, at this moment we have Fiji, an architecture which represents a paradigm shift that will likely impact every future GPU design. It shows how, contrary to the diatribes of their vocal critics, AMD may have actually been playing the long game for the last two years rather than falling into that all-too-familiar rut of near sightedness.

So what makes Fiji and the R9 Fury X so unique and more importantly, why should gamers sit up and take notice? First and foremost this is the first mass-produced product to use HBM to enhance memory bandwidth while also lowering BOM costs. AMD has also worked hard to enhance overall process efficiency and performance over their previous generation products. That means cramming more transistors into a 28nm-based die (8.9 million transistors to be exact) and substantially better performance while still offerings power consumption savings versus the outgoing Hawaii architecture. It may sound impressive in writing but in practice it is nothing short of revolutionary.

For the time being Fury X stands preeminent in the current Radeon lineup and it will surely be followed up by the air-cooled Fury and the mini-ITX friendly Fury Nano. There’s also a dual Fiji card which will be introduced before Indeed, unlike with the Hawaii architecture’s dead end lineup of just two cards, AMD hopes the Fury X and by extension the Fiji architecture will headline a whole new product stack once their rollout is fully complete.

From a raw specifications standpoint the Fury X is indeed impressive. It boasts a massive 4069 Stream Processors and 256 Texture Units which represents a 45% increase over a fully enabled Hawaii XT / Grenada XT core while clock speeds have the ability to hit a peak of 1050MHz. Expect those speeds to be extremely consistent since AMD has equipped their flagship card with an integrated water cooling unit to keep temperatures well under control. That means performance which should be well ahead of even the R9 390X we reviewed.

One area which seems to have been left by the wayside is the ROP count which remains at 64, a number that has been carried on since the Hawaii days. According to AMD, this shouldn’t cause a bottleneck since additional resources have been allocated to facilitating data transfer within the core so additional ROPs weren’t needed. We’ll get into this in a bit more detail later. Plus, a good amount of die area has been set aside for the high Bandwidth Memory interface.

In many ways the Fury X is acting as a testing platform for the first generation of HBM. There may be “just” 4GB of it operating at a relatively paltry 500MHz but the way it is utilized ensures that bottlenecks won’t happen, even in high detail 4K scenarios where the core itself will likely become a limiting factor long before the memory interface gets saturated. One of the primary reasons 4GB of HBM won’t limit this card is due to the titanic 4096-bit wide interface which grants an effective bandwidth of half a terabyte per second.

With this being AMD’s flagship part it naturally receives their full stable of features as well. That means DX12 compatibility (though not a full 12.1 feature level certification), Virtual Super Resolution support, Framerate Target Control and of course FreeSync abilities. There’s also an updated display scaler with improved quality and an enhanced video decode engine with support for HEVC.

Before we get too far into this particular rabbit hole something needs to be mentioned about the Fury X’s price. At $649 it puts expectations for performance right in line with NVIDIA’s GTX 980 Ti. That’s an impressive claim to start things off since higher end Radeon cards have typically launched for significantly less than their GeForce opposites due to slightly slower performance metrics. In our recent article detailing what AMD needed to accomplish to effect a comeback in the GPU market, suitably high yet competitive pricing was among our “must do” elements. And here we have it.

Despite a long list of positive take-aways from our conversations with AMD about Fiji, actual availability was a topic that was never quite addressed head-on. There’s a good reason for that. The Fiji core alongside its associated interposer and HBM modules don’t necessarily represent bleeding edge technology but making this holy union into something that can be mass produced is likely a challenge of epic proportions. As with all new designs, getting yields and production volumes up to the point of broad-scale retail availability probably won’t happen for some time to come.

With all of this being said, the R9 Fury X is a bright new hope not only for AMD but the gaming market as a whole. What was a one-horse field will now once again become an arms race between AMD and NVIDIA….provided this new card can deliver on all of its lofty promises.

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