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The AMD Radeon RX 480 Preview

Author: SKYMTL
Date: May 31, 2016
 
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AMD’s Polaris architecture has been talked about for some time now but details about the actual cards that will be launched has been kept under close lock and key. Now with Computex fully underway some additional details are beginning to make their way out of the Radeon Technology Group.

Let’s start with some of the more obvious elements that have already been discussed at length since a refresher is in order before going in depth with this one. While NVIDIA recently launched their GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 into high level price points of $699 and $449 respectively, Polaris’ goals are more modest but infinitely more realistic. Instead of leveraging their substantial engineering knowledge to launch a halo product that costs a small fortune, AMD is targeting two key markets for the time being: the mid-level performance segment and notebooks. These are areas where the Radeon lineup desperately needed some reinforcements so it makes sense to start there.


Before anyone reading this sighs in frustration and starts thinking the Radeon Technology Group is abandoning enthusiasts, you should be aware that Polaris is just the tip of a very large and substantial product stack. This initial offering will act like a cornerstone within AMD’s GPU foundation by (hopefully) driving volume sales rather than the strictly limited quantities a niche product would move. This in theory will help the Radeon lineup expand its market share and free up resources to work on those GP104-beaters everyone loves looking at but very few can afford.

So what does this all mean from a performance perspective? Well with the Polaris lineup broken up into two categories dubbed Polaris 10 and Polaris 11, AMD is casting a pretty wide net but it will be focused towards the $199 and lower price points. While competitive analysis against GeForce alternatives is still under NDA until launch on June 29th (yes, you now have an official date!) what we can state is this new lineup will be aiming to bring down the cost of entry for VR-certified GPUs.


The first but certainly not last product being officially unveiled is the RX 480. While it may have a new moniker rather than the typical R9 or R7 designation, from the name alone it should slot somewhere between AMD’s current R9 390 and R9 380. However, affordability is paramount this time around.

Priced at just $199 for the 4GB version and slightly higher for an 8GB equipped alternative, the amount of information we know about it is quite limited. What the RTG is willing to reveal does however point towards an extremely potent yet efficient budget-friendly graphics card. It utilizes a 256-bit GDDR5 memory interface with modules operating at 8Gbps, consumes just 150W of power and includes 36 individual Compute Units. Provided AMD retains the same CU hierarchy as previous Graphics Core Next designs for this fourth generation version, that would lead to 2304 Stream Processors and 144 Texture Units but that could change this time around so I’m only speculating.


The official pictures of the RX 480 show a card that keeps with the previous designs so a black / red color scheme, a dual slot blower style fan and a dimpled heatsink shroud. There are some references here to the Fury X which could point towards a shroud that can be 3D printed for some personalization.


With 150W power draw and some hope this card will overclock, AMD is utilizing a simple 6-pin power input setup which should be par for the course with these new generation $199 GPUs.


The RX 480’s backside reveals a design that’s extremely similar to NVIDIA’s reference GTX 970. The PCB is extremely short but the fan assembly extends past the edge, allowing for a more unified design and also some extra airflow to the internal components.


As a result of architectural improvements (more about those on the next pages) and a set of unknown core clock speeds the RX 480 offers up “over” 5 TFLOPs of single precision performance. For those of you keeping track at home the current R9 390 currently tops the scales at 5.12 TFLOPs while the R9 380X hits about 4 TFLOPs. Unfortunately, past those numbers we can’t really say where the RX 480 will ultimately land within the current gamut of budget-conscious GPUs.

One thing is certain: the Radeon Technology Group is clearly dedicated to Virtual Reality. As a matter of fact, their 800 word press release announcing some of the information above VR was mentioned no fewer than 38 times. While the new RX 480 will likely set a new benchmark in affordable VR performance (through an expanded feature set it supposedly offers the throughput of a $500 GPU in these environments) it remains to be seen how many people want spend mega-bucks on an Oculus or Vive and then grab a mid-level GPU.

Regardless of the marketing and hype surrounding any new GPU launch, I have to laud AMD for effectively targeting an aggressive price / performance segment instead of risking the farm on an ultra expensive initiative. I may actually be more excited about what the RX 480 and its spin-offs will provide than anything else that has launched or will be launching this year. While it remains to be seen how well AMD’s approach works, it looks like one of the largest sections of the graphics card market will have a new “king” in the coming weeks.
 
 
 

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