The AMD Radeon RX 470 4GB Review
If I would say that I wanted to have a frank discussion about entry-level graphics cards, many of you would likely respond with a resounding “Yeah, let’s not”. You’ll then go on to read about the affordable yet high-flying RX 480 or the equally impressive GTX 1060 and call it a day. Historically the reason for this reaction was pretty straightforward: the GPUs within the $200 to $300 are typically the ones which provide the most bang for your buck. With the RX 470 AMD is attempting to change that equation in a big way, by providing a low cost gaming solution but not offering up performance like a sacrificial lamb.
The sub-$200 segment has always been an interesting one for graphics cards and I use the term “interesting” loosely. Truth be told, it’s been likened to the garbage bin of GPU performance since cards within it may be low priced but paying just a few bucks more usually netted you a much better gaming experience. Nonetheless, it is here where vendors achieve their volume shipments. These are the GPUs bought by the vast majority of budding gamers, are included in many pre-configured off the shelf systems, populate thousands of computers in Asia’s “PC Bang” facilities and are the darlings of eSports leagues. That’s a massive potential market for the AMD RX 470 and with its specifications and feature set, there’s a good chance it could become a dominating presence in short order.
I typically don’t get too excited about these budget-focused cards and as a matter of fact, we typically don’t review them. In my eyes at least, the RX 470 is different since with it AMD is trying to move the yardsticks forward by a country mile. It does this by utilizing a slightly cut-down 14nm Polaris 10 core with four SIMD arrays locked. This isn’t just a replacement for the R7 370, it could actually be a suitable step forward for R9 380 and R9 380X users too. It looks like the days of incremental upgrades for entry-level gamers are about to become a thing of the past. But could the RX 470 actually be considered an "entry level" card?
Speaking of incremental upgrades, I think a little bit of a history lesson is needed. Over the last three years the vast majority of AMD’s solutions within the $99 to $199 range have been rebrands. On one hand that points towards the GCN architecture’s staying power but it also means NVIDIA has been left nearly unchallenged when it comes to inter-generational performance and efficiency improvements. As such, a drastic change was needed.
The RX 470 steps into this world 2048 Stream Processors, 128 Texture Units and 32 ROPS which aligns perfectly with AMD’s outgoing R9 380X. Meanwhile, the Polaris architecture’s ability to hit substantially higher core frequencies than its predecessors will also prove to be a major point of differentiation and we’ll likely see this card hitting 1206MHz. When you add all of these elements together and take into considering the numerous baseline architecture-level improvements Polaris brings to the table, there’s a very good chance AMD’s RX 470 could nearly double up on the R7 370’s in-game framerates.
On the memory side of this equation, there’s 4GB of GDDR5 but the maturity of this memory technology has allowed for some additional speed bins which weren’t available when the 300-series was launched. In the RX 470’s case that means modules running at 6.6Gbps across a 256-bit wide bus.
All of this has been accomplished without any increases in power consumption versus the previous generation but that doesn’t necessarily mean the RX 470 will be a performance per watt leader. While the Polaris architecture’s 14nm FinFET manufacturing process has obviously allowed for vast improvements in efficiency, AMD is still facing an uphill battle on the TDP front. This card may have a 120W TDP but that’s equal to NVIDIA’s GTX 1060 6GB, a card which offers substantially more performance. However, within AMD’s present and past lineups the RX 470 seems to be a superstar in this regard.
Pricing is a also a key component of the RX 470 but that’s a bit more of a moving target since AMD is considering this to be a “virtual” launch. As such, there won’t be a reference design thrown into the retail channels (though large system builders will likely receive cards directly from AMD) and board partners will be taking on responsibility for designing cards around that cut-down Polaris 10 PRO core. That also means pricing could vary quite wildly with some cards hitting well north of AMD’s stated $179 price like the MSI RX 470 4GB Gaming X we are reviewing today which comes in at a hefty $199.
So let’s discuss that price for a moment since it causes something of a logjam within a number of segments and it highlights what I was talking about earlier when I said this market is exceedingly cluttered. The RX 470 obviously does nothing to help that perception. At $179 it is a stone’s throw away from the RX 480 4GB which in itself offers nearly identical performance as its 8GB sibling at 1080P. Add in the premium for a card like the Gaming X and we’re talking about identical pricing despite the 470’s diminished specs. This is a real head scratcher for me.
The MSI RX 470 4GB Gaming X is obviously meant to be a premium solution and it follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessors, albeit with a pretty minimum core overclock. In this case its anemic 48Mhz core bump and 100MHz memory increase (when its OC mode is enabled, which it was for this review) won’t allow for all that much differentiation from reference-clocked models but realistically, there will be some.
For the record, I'm still in the process of working with AMD's partners to get a $179, stock-clocked RX 470 into my hands so we can see what baseline performance looks like.
So what does that extra $20 pay for? In this case its MSI’s awesome Twin Frozr VI cooler and enhanced components. Naturally the Gaming X also includes LED lights around its heatsink’s “gills”, an 8-pin power input connector, supposedly-increased overclocking headroom and some striking good looks. This is all wrapped up into a package that isn’t all that compact at just over 10 ¾”.
To be perfectly candid with you, the first thought I had when AMD announced the $179 price tag was a shocked “well that can’t be right”. That was quickly followed by an assumption the card they sent –MSI’s obviously-upgraded GAMING X – was actually $179 but that proved to be wrong too. Unless that core overclock can have an impact or you value heavily upgraded cards, this one may end up being a hard sell in some people's eyes. All is not lost though since at the lower end of the market, every few dollars can have a significant impact upon the overall value quotient.
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