AMD RX Vega 64 & Vega 56 Performance Review
AMD’s RX Vega 64 and RX Vega 56 graphics cards are finally here and in all my time in this industry, I have never experienced anything like this launch. This architecture is AMD's best hope to effectively compete in both the high end CPU and GPU markets at the same time. Due to a successive string of disappointing processor architectures coupled with competitive GPUs, that never happened. The Threadripper series changed that equation in a big way by putting the screws to Intel’s HEDT lineup so the ball is now in the Radeon Technologies Group’s court to complete the successful one-two punch.
The importance of Vega and its place in the AMD ecosystem cannot be denied since it is supposed to be around for the forseeable future. It is also an attempt to once again compete against NVIDIA’s higher end graphics cards more than two years after the HBM-totting R9 Fury X (which felt more like a science experiment than anything else) came out. Both Radeon fans and people hoping for an alternative to NVIDIA’s GeForce cards alike have some pretty big hopes for Vega.
AMD is launching a pair of cards today: the Vega 64 and Vega 56. Meant to compete against the GTX 1080 (no, not the GTX 1080 Ti or Titan X), the Vega 64 represents the architecture’s uncut and unedited flagship. It will be going for between $499 and $699 depending on the version you end up buying while availability is slated for today. The Vega 56 meanwhile is a cut down version of the 64 which will retail for $399 and its availability is slated for August 28th.
Now that you have some context it should be easier to understand why this launch is so bizarre. After merrily leading all of us down the Vega path for 18 months or so with sneak peaks at the feature sets and inner workings of Vega, AMD has given press less than three days to analyze their new cards. They’ve also insured that two of those days land on the weekend, the one time many of us get to spend with our families. Now you can take this as just yet another entitled reviewer complaining but the “18 months of cookie crumbs followed by three days of testing” benefits no one. It is insulting to everyone from readers to press to the folks who worked so hard to bring Vega to fruition. It has actually been such a condensed launch that AMD actually requested we prioritize testing on the Vega 56, a card that will only be available at the end of this month. I’m guessing they feel the metrics on this one will be better.
Not allowing the journalists and YouTube personalities to have enough time to properly analyze a product does have its benefits. Give us a large window, more testing will be done and there’s a likelihood we may end up finding some potentially damaging information. This isn’t a conspiracy theory of mine either but rather a well-honed marketing strategy that has been used by some of this world’s largest companies. Granted, no one is making us pop this out on Day 0 but there are tangible benefits to being among the first to publish content. That’s why this review will be a fraction of its normal size since I focused on testing as many games as possible rather than going into our usual architectural deep dive.
So with all of that being off my back, let’s get on with the show and take a look at what’s under the bonnet of AMD’s Vega 64 and Vega 56.
The new 12.5 billion transistor Vega 10 core has more improvements baked into it than I could possibly get to in this shortened review but there are nonetheless some key callouts that need to be discussed. First and foremost, this layout is nearly identical to the one used on AMD’s Fiji core from a block diagram standpoint but that doesn’t necessarily mean this is a simply copy / paste of that design. Rather, AMD calls this the most sweeping change to their architecture since the introduction of Graphics Core next about five years ago.
Underpinning this core is AMD’s ubiquitous Infinity Fabric which links the graphics core to the other on-chip logic blocks like the display engine, memory controllers and other components. This should allow Vega to be more easily scalable than past designs and be incorporated into other areas of AMD’s product stack with a minimum of reworking.
There has also been a fundamental change to the Compute Units themselves, necessitating a renaming to Next Generation Compute Units. Each of these 64 NCU’s includes 64 SIMD units, 4 texture units, 64Kb of local data share and 16Kb of L1 cache while being tuned for higher speeds and support for rapid pack math. There is also a Next Generation Geometry engine (NGG) which has a new, faster geometry pipeline for developers who want to take advantage of it.
The last addition is the High Bandwidth Cache subsystem which allows users to set aside some of their system memory for use if a game requires more than the 8GB of video memory supported by Vega. While Vega won’t be memory limited in any of today’s games and this feature won’t be beneficial right now, it is there for some future-proofing. We’ll go into the details of HBC on a separate page in this article.
Currently the RX Vega lineup is made up of three distinct cards, the Vega 64 Liquid cooled has the preeminent position with its extremely Base and maximum clock speed of 1406MHz and 1667MHz respectively. It also comes decked out with 4096 Stream Processors 256 Texture Units and 64 ROPs. Those architecture specifications are actually quite interesting since they align perfectly with the Fiji XT core in AMD’s previous flagship GPU, the R9 Fury X. However, the differences between those two graphics cards is like night and day from an architecture perspective with Vega 10 being finely honed for higher clocks and increased overall engine efficiency.
Vega 10 also happens to be the first graphics card to use HBM2 memory, a feature which may have contributed to its extended delays. In this case the Vega64 has 8GB running at 945MHz, operating across a 2048-bit wide interface which results in 483 GB/s of bandwidth. This is actually a bit lower than the Fiji series of cards but according to AMD, Fiji never required that much bandwidth to begin with and the higher memory speed on HBM2 allowed them push an optimal amount of data through a much narrower bus.
AMD is hoping the RX Vega 64 Liquid Cooled will end up bridging the gap between NVIDIA’s GTX 1080 and GTX 1080 Ti and its sky high price of $699 proves that. In addition, you won’t be able to buy this card individually. Rather, it will only be purchasable in a so-called “Radeon Aqua Pack” which also includes a monitor, Ryzen 7 processor, an X370 motherboard and two “free” games. Basically, your $699 purchase will lead to spending over $2000 on what amounts to a whole new setup. You can learn a bit more about those packages here.
Move a bit further down market into a more accessible price point and you get the RX Vega 64. This card boasts the exact same core specs as the Liquid Cooled version but comes with an air cooler and lower clock speeds. It starts at $499 when bought individually but if purchased as part of the Radeon Black Pack the price goes up to $599. On the positive side, the first few hundred buyers of that package will get the oh-so-sexy Limited Edition RX Vega 64 with its brushed aluminum shroud. Nonetheless this card is supposed to compete against NVIDIA’s extremely popular GTX 1080, a product that has remained in its lofty $549 position for the better part of five months now after launching at $599 last July.
The last but certainly not least card in AMD’s new lineup is the RX Vega 56. Priced at just $399 and not attached to any ridiculous bundle, I think this is the GPU many of you will look closely at. It’s competitor is the golden goose of NVIDIA’s lineup; the $379 GTX 1070. As the name suggests, the Vega 56 has 56 of its NCU’s enabled granting 3584 cores, 224 Texture Units and 64 ROPs, which also happens to be theexact same specs on the R9 Fury. Coincidence? Maybe. Clock speeds are pretty respectable as well with a maximum frequency of 1471MHz while the base clock gets reduced to 1156MHz. Memory has been given a small cut too but only on the clock side where there’s 8GB of HBM2 on a 2048-bit interface running at 800MHz. That actually results in a pretty significant drop in bandwidth to 410 GB/s.
All of these cards look pretty good on paper, at least until we get to their comparative power consumption against NVIDIA’s opposites. The RX Vega 64 Liquid Cooled is supposed to split the difference between the GTX 1080 and GTX 1080 Ti and yet it seems to consume almost 100W more than the GTX 1080Ti. Let me get that to sink in for a moment; you could be running two GTX 1080’s full tilt and those would only consume a few more watts than the single Vega 64 LC. To make matters even more interesting, we have to remember that AMD uses typical board power in their specifications whereas NVIDIA lists maximum board power. With that in mind, these AMD cards may conceivably require even more juice than what’s listed.
The standard Vega 64 doesn’t really fare all that much better but instead of a small nuclear reactor to power it, you’ll only need a hydroelectric dam on your local river. All kidding aside, seeing a possible consumption figure just south of 300W on a card that‘s supposed to compete against the 180W GTX 1080 is worrying to say the least. It looks like AMD pushed these cards to extreme levels to equal what NVIDIA has on tap.
Unfortunately while the Vega 56’s cuts have pushed its power envelope to a much more reasonable 210W it too is up against a very efficient NVIDIA GTX 1070. The delta between the two is “just” 60W but we’ll have to test that for ourselves.
So now that AMD has finally laid the new cards bare for all to see, there’s just a few questions (other than performance of course!) that still need answering. First of all, how much of a mess will availability be? This isn’t a question of “if” since availability problems with Vega are a foregone conclusion due to extremely limited core production numbers coupled with potential demand from miners. I’ve already seen some internal distributor listings with $50 to $100 markups on what amounts to phantom stock. I’d also like to know what AMD’s sudden rush is.
After slowly plodding along with this launch, the quick pedal to the metal mentality of this last week is highly questionable, if not suspicious. Could they have caught wind of something NVIDIA may or may not be planning? We’ll have to see. Until then, we have a bunch of benchmarks to get to. So without any more yammering on this page, let’s get on with the review.
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