The AMD Radeon R9 380X Review
It has been a while since we’ve seen a new graphics card launch, the last of which was AMD’s capable little Nano. Historically, the time right before and during key events in the retail calendar like Black Friday and the Christmas shopping season is low time for new GPU products but high time for A-list game releases. GPU vendors typically hunker down with their existing wares and avoid launching anything new into an environment that’s rife with heavily discounted merchandise. AMD is bucking that trend by introducing the R9 380X, a $230 card that may prove to be a lynchpin within their lineup in the coming months.
With the R9 380X, AMD is trying to thread a very thin needle with a product many had expected months ago. A price of $230 for reference-clocked versions and up to $260 for higher performing models means (if everything goes according to plan) it should be able to overcome the lower priced $210 GTX 960 4GB while plugging a gap between the R9 390 and R9 380 in AMD’s product stack. However, overclocked versions come perilously close to the pricing structure of AMD’s R9 390 ($290-$300) and NVIDIA’s GTX 970 ($299 after rebates, with a free game) and that could pose a problem as gamers seek an optimal price / performance ratio for their purchases. This is a pricing segment that has been oddly underserved in the last year or so and with good reason: it is book-ended by extremely capable options.
On the subject of pricing, we have an interesting situation as well. While AMD’s own PR team has pegged the R9 380X as starting at $230USD and running to $240USD, most board partners and even retailers we’ve spoke to agree with the $230 to $260 range we’ve indicated in the paragraph above. Since they’re ultimately the ones who set the final price and AMD’s numbers use the nebulous “starting at” moniker so we’ll side with the folks on the ground on this one. The ASUS R9 380X STRIX OC we were sampled rings in at a cool $260.
The core being used in the R9 380X hasn’t been seen before in its fullest form, which is a surprise given how much of AMD’s lineup consists rebrands. This is a fully enabled version of the 28nm Antigua architecture or the artist formerly known as Tonga. In this iteration it has four additional Compute Units cores spread across the core’s four shader engines. That results in 2048 cores and 128 texture units. Meanwhile, the back-end operations remain the same as previous Tonga-based cores with 32 ROPs and a 256-bit GDDR5 memory interface.
In addition to this, Antigua -like Tonga before it- incorporates all of the additional power and rendering efficiency optimizations found in other GCN 1.2 cores. That leads to improved instruction set handling, better tessellation performance, enhanced lossless delta color compression algorithms so memory bandwidth is more effectively utilized and a number of other improvements over the GCN 1.1-based Hawaii generation. Perhaps most importantly for this class of part, it incorporates decode / encode of 4K H.264 video.
Past the obvious design changes and where this card falls in relation to AMD’s current product stack, there has obviously been a concerted effort to distinguish the R9 380X from previous generations. Currently, the R9 280X occupies the coveted $250 price bracket and it actually has nearly identical specs. However, while the core, Texture Unit and ROP counts are the same, the Tahiti-based card actually has a higher amount of theoretical memory bandwidth and comes with faster clock speeds.
On the flip side of that equation, the Antigua core incorporates a noteworthy number of design updates which are specifically meant to do more with less while also offering a wider feature set. As a result this card has a TDP envelope that has been drastically reduced in comparison to previous designs and elements like VSR, full DX12 / Vulkan support and FreeSync compatibility have been included.
From a competitive analysis standpoint, the R9 380X really can’t be compared directly against anything in the NVIDIA stable. The GeForce lineup has purposely avoided wading into the wide segment between $200 and $300 in order to keep some performance separation between the GTX 960 and GTX 970. Obviously, this choice hasn’t impacted their sales in any way. While there are some overclocked GTX 960 4GB SKU’s that edge up to the aforementioned $210 to $215 range, their pricing is generally trending downwards these days. The same can be said of AMD's own R9 380 and R9 390.
The $260 ASUS R9 380X STRIX OC we received for this review follows the design guidelines of this well-received series to perfection. With a double slot cooler and a length of 11” this certainly isn’t a compact card by any stretch of the imagination but ASUS’ DirectCU II heatsink should be worth the sacrifice in size. Its dual fans are meant to remain at idle during reduced load scenarios and spin up to very low RPM levels due to the inherent efficiency of AMD’s core design. It’s a great cooler and one we’ve raved about in the past.
Under the heatsink is an 8-phase all digital VRM design with ASUS’ signature Super Alloy Power components. That means upgraded MOSFETS, capacitors and chokes.
Specifications are right in line with expectations as well; that means a mildly overclocked core and reference-spec memory are being offered. According to ASUS this leads to performance that’s on average 4% better than a reference card in their standard mode and about 1-2% higher than that when using their GPU Tweak software in its OC Mode.
The STRIX’s underside is covered in a full-length backplate even though there aren’t any mission-critical components located hereabouts. Meanwhile power input needs are covered by a single 8-pin connector and the rear I/O plate houses an HDMI 1.4a, a single DisplayPort connector and two DVI outputs.
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