A Review of the AMD Radeon R9 NANO 4K-capable GPU
AMD has spent the last several months refining and releasing a whole whack of new GPUs for the gaming market and in our observation, has also put quite some emphasis on putting out new graphics cards that cater as much as possible to the growing market for 4K-capable gaming capacity. The AMD Radeon R9 Nano is one of the most recent examples of this type of card for this new gamers market and this is one of the angles from which the Nano has been marketed.
However, what also makes the Nano unique, even more than its supposed 4K UHD graphics credentials, is the fact that this is one of the most compact supercharged PC GPUs on the market today. With the Nano, we have a graphics card that packs some very serious punch while coming in a very tightly packed little package.
In this regard, the new AMD card is definitely rather impressive and its capacity to deal with heat generation and effective processing output is all the more interesting to note given just how small the card is. On the other hand, when it comes to 4K gaming at serious resolutions, the verdict on the AMD R9 Nano re a bit weaker than we’d like, as we’re about to see.
The business of creating small form-factor (SFF) components is a serious market in the PC world and what at first started as only a light effort at shrinking the main components of current PCs has turned into something of a race for the greatest possible miniaturization with the greatest possible performance power being kept. In this regard, the Nano from AMD is not only an innovative winner of a graphics card, it’s also almost certainly a step into the future of PC GPU technology.
This is also one of the most fundamental and obvious good things about this card: While GPU’s don’t lend themselves well to SFF miniaturization due to all the real estate that’s needed for their GPU core, memory chip cluster and RAM, AMD has done an applause worthy job of cramming as much as possible into as small a space as possible with this model, and bringing it as close as we’ve ever seen a heavy-duty graphics card get to actually having an SFF design. This has thus made the Nano ideal for gamers who want some serious kick while having to deal with tighter than normal PC space.
However, beyond this, the Nano is genuinely a very powerful performer. While we’re hesitant to call this a true 4K graphics processing card, it still works superbly at delivering some absolutely stunning high frame rate Full HD gaming and also manages some very decent sub-4K UHD gameplay at solid frame rates. What’s even better is the fact that all of this is achieved despite the cards small size.
We’d argue that some of the key factors in making the R9 Nano so superb at delivering the goods despite its tiny size lie in its amazingly efficient power management design and the card’s equally impressive new high bandwidth memory (HBM). The first of these two, the HBM is not only much more energy efficient than the older GDDR5 design of previous AMD cards, it’s also integrated into an extremely compact stacked design in a multi-chip module, which eliminates the need for external memory chips and due to its compactness also delivers RAM much more quickly than GDDR5 can.
The second factor, the GPU’s power management technology, is possibly even more interesting than its HBM. In the Nano, AMD kept the core configuration of the much larger Radeon Fury X GPU with all 64 GCN compute units included, adding up to 4,096 stream processers and a gigahertz clock speed but managed to do this while sticking to a board power consumption of just 175W! This is indeed very impressive considering that the Nano’s cousins, the Fury X and slightly weaker Fury GPUs rate 275W despite nearly identical processing specs.
5.0 - 1 Review
The AMD R9 Nano’s design is generally superb and the compactness makes what this GPU can do look all the more impressive. Thus, the card does have a valid space in the market for those who want a smaller, more heat and energy efficient graphics card. However, a few points do stick out against this pretty damn cool “4K” GPU.
First of all, it’s not a great 4K performer. While the Nano won’t shy away from ultra HD gaming graphics, it also doesn’t leap at them and really deliver a high frame rate attack. In other words, it does what a number of AMD GPUs on the market are all already delivering albeit with larger physical designs. Thus, aside from an excellent tradeoff in performance for size, the Nano is not really a 4K GPU in the fullest sense of the word. Given this, the card’s high price is also largely unjustified and especially if you want to get your hands on genuine 4K graphics processing power, which you can, for the same price, but with a different GPU.
In our final view, the AMD Radeon R9 Nano 4K GPU is not quite what it’s hype puts it to be in terms of K4 graphics rendering. However, by all other definitions of powerful graphics processing and particularly for HD gaming, the Nano performs admirably while delivering excellent compactness. While we’d like to see it sell for a somewhat lower retail price, if you’ve got the money and think space savings are more important than full-blown 4K gaming performance, this is your graphics card of choice. Those of you who want more serious performance with 4K graphics would be better off with a card like the Titan X or the AMD R9 295X2, both of which sell for similar prices.
Shader Units: 4096
Core Clock: 1000MHz
Memory Clock: 500 MHz
Memory Bandwidth: 512 GB/s
VRAM: 4096 MB HBM
Form Factor: Compact, single slot
Total Memory Bus width: 4096 bit
Transistors: 8900 million
Manufacturing Process: 28nm
Power Supply: 175 watts
The main highlights of the Radeon R9 Nano are, like we mentioned, its compact sized design, its air-cooled architecture, the cars wonderfully efficient power management and the high bandwidth memory architecture that the Nano shares with a number of the latest AMD GPUs. The new Fiji chipset in the Nano is also a unique and superbly designed processor core that’s worth mentioning.
Starting with the card’s size and design, the Nano looks remarkably like AMD’s other new GPU the Fury/ Fury X. Both comes with a matte black and red covering finish and both cards also include essentially the same customized black processing board inside their outer casings. However, the Nano, as its name suggests, is quite a bit smaller than the Fury cards by AMD.
While still too large to warrant being called a genuinely SFF (small form factor) processing card, the Nano is nonetheless about three quarters the length of the AMD Fury X and its 6.5 inch body is also roughly a quarter inch slimmer than its Fury cousins. Thickness on the other hand is the same as that of the bigger GPUs. What also makes the entire design of the Nano so much more compact is the lack of an entire liquid cooling apparatus and radiator attachment. That’s right, this is an air-cooled GPU and one of the few 4K-level AMD cards that offers this type of cooling. Amusingly, despite the fact that Nvidia’s Titan cards (like the Titan X) also feature air cooling, they’re monsters in comparison to the size of the Nano, with the Titan X in particular being nearly twice as long as this new AMD machine.
Basically, with its compact design, AMD is aiming for the card being used in mini-ITX PC enclosures and in this regard, the company has done an excellent job since the card will not only fit such enclosures, it will also fit with room to spare.
Moving on to the internal highlights of the Nano, we also see that it comes with all of the accessory technologies AMD has been adding to most of its newer graphics cards. Thus, the Nano comes with features like Crossfire, FreeSync, LiquidVR and ZeroCore. Under all of these there is the cool new and highly compact Fiji chipset architecture, which comes with the deservedly acclaimed and very efficiently packed high bandwidth memory (HBM) of the Nano. With the HBM, you get your hands on 4GB of RAM and an attendant memory bandwidth of a very robust 512 GB/s. Furthermore, the Nano also offers a quoted base clockspeed of 1000MHz.
What also makes the Fiji core of the Nano so unique is the fact that it simply works much more efficiently at lower temperatures and with lower power usage. The fundamental feature of Fiji is that it manages to increase the number of compute units per shader from 11 to 16. Thus, the chipset delivers 64 shaders per compute unit and each of its engines comes with 1024 shaders, totaling up to 4096 for the entire Fiji architecture and 4096 stream processors. This is a major improvement over the 2048 shader units of the GeFoce GTX 980 and even a slight improvement over the Fury’s 3584 shader units.
And best of all, these processing specs and the gigahertz clockspeed of the Nano are all achieved by a typical board power of just 175W, which is a major improvement over the 275W of the Fury X and a massive improvement over the power usage of older notably inefficient AMD cards which regularly consumed more than 300 watts.
We should also note that the max clock speed of the Nano, at 100MHz, is about 50MHz lower than that of the AMD Fury X. This seems like a minor difference but the Nano also seems to have been intentionally throttled by AMD so that it doesn’t quite reach even the 1000MHz maximum, resulting in a lower overall clockspeed that can indeed affect gaming performance. However, this is also likely intentional on AMD’s part, in their effort to create a card that can fit into smaller rigs without overdoing it on both heat generation and overall power usage.
Finally, the Nano comes with three DisplayPort 1.2 ports and even offers a single HDMI 1.4 port, meaning that as far as PC connectivity goes, this little card is very much ready to handle anything you need for your wider rig. The inclusion of the HDMI 1.4 port is a cool bonus in that it offers one more option for somewhat limited but still decent 30 fps gaming through the HDMI 1.4 ports found in many 4K PC monitors. 30 frames isn't great but it's tolerable as a secondary option for PC gaming and, more importantly, gameplay on 4K TVs which lack DP 1.2 ports but have HDMI sockets.
5.0 - 1 Review
General performance during gameplay
As a GPU designed around the concept of delivering maximal power within a minimal package, the R9 Nano is a rather unique GPU and we’d have to say in all fairness that it deliver some truly superb performance for its size. However, as a GPU for its target market of 4K and UHD gamers, the Nanos is going to be something of a disappointment, especially given its price. This graphics card does not deliver the kind of 4K performance you can get with a number of other Nvidia and AMD cards that cost the same as the Nano and the compact size benefit doesn’t really make up for that deficiency. Full-sized gaming rigs are more efficient than ever and the small savings in bulk that the Nano offers is offset by the added performance that larger cards like the GTX 980 Ti, Titan X or AMD R9 295-X2 offer even if they’re somewhat larger.
On the other hand, the Nano is an absolutely excellent card when it comes to gaming at high-frame rate Full HD and a superb card for gaming at 1440p graphics. However even here, more affordable cards that cost even less can do almost as well and the real high performer 4K-capable AMD and Nvidia cards can obviously handle both of these resolutions while also delivering 4K at higher frame rates. In other words, the Nano is something of a potential orphan card, without a single broad gamers market in which it will solidly fit and leave all users satisfied, at least until its price decreases by a couple hundred dollars.
In terms of overall power consumption, the Nano is a much less demanding heavy duty GPU than many we’ve seen before. Overall max power consumption under heavy use conditions could shoot up to a somewhat hefty 300 watts but more commonly stayed well below this at around the 200 watt mark with a measured wattage of 180 to 190 watts even for 4K games at a high resolution setting. Lower end power consumption during 4K gaming and HD gaming seems to range between 140 and 150 watts.
In other words, the Nano is a better power performer than pretty much every other UHD-capable GPU we’ve looked at and even manages to do much more with less power than many more conventional HD-oriented graphics cards from AMD.
b> Heat generation
In terms of heat generated, the Nano performs rather admirably. For an air-cooled GPU within such a compact design, this card manages to maintain even peak temperatures that don’t go above 78 degrees Celsius while maintaining an even idle temperature of about 30 degrees celsius. This is higher than what we’ve seen with some other cards but you need to keep in mind the overall cooling architecture and compactness of the Nano. Furthermore, those 78 degrees are what gets generated under some of the hardest 4K graphics processing conditions.
A large part of the reason why the Nano does so well at sustaining a relatively decent temperature like this lies in the dedicated cooler in the Nano’s voltage regulator, which comes in the form of a thick heat pipe and a cooling body with fins. Partly due to this, the Nano can avoid the really hot temperatures created by older AMD cards, which could hit temperatures in the mid to high 80s, or even more compact Nvidia cards like the GTX 970 Mini, whose max temperatures under stress tests hit as high as 92 degrees Celsius.
Simply put, the Nano is still noisy, even if its peak fan noise doesn’t hit the ears as hard as that of some older AMD GPU’s has been known to. Under idle conditions, the Nano manages a decibel level of 28db but even when stressed under heavy gaming loads, doesn’t take things above about 37 decibels, which is definitely a win in our estimation. On the other hand, while the fan manages to be fairly quiet, some of the other sounds this little GPU creates are definitely notable, with an audible high-pitched coil whine that ranges between emitting a low whirring sound to something more like a screeching whistle. However, this might vary from specific unit to specific unit.
Essentially, the AMD Radeon R9 Nano is not a 4K GPU in our view. Yes, it can manage 4K UHD graphics to some extent but the frame rates reached for all but the lightest of 4K gaming loads simply don’t match those of more hardcore 4K gaming GPUs like the Titan X or the AMD R9 295x2.
For example, 4K gameplay at very high detail in a heavier game like Crysis 3 delivers a maximum of 10 frames per second with the Nano and a fps of 24.3 for Crysis 3 at low detail settings in 4K. While Crysis 3 isn’t easy on any GPU (even an explicitly 4K version) 10 fps is useless for real 4K PC gaming at high detail levels. One exception we found was the GPU’s performance in a lighter 4K game like Metro Last Light, with which the Nano managed to deliver 4K in a medium graphics setting at 35 frames per second.
We could describe the frame rates for other games at 4K resolutions but they all average at the lower end of the fps scale and pretty much deliver a conclusive verdict on this GPU’s weaker 4K gaming chops.
For gaming at 2560 x 1440 resolution, the R9 Nano also performs well, delivering a frame rate of 64.8 for Metro Last light under this resolution and a more or less decent 36 fps in Crysis 3 at 1440p resolution.
On the other hand, when it comes to HD games at high frame rates, the Nano delivers the results admirably. A game like Grand Theft Auto V was rendered at a max fps of 94 while The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt managed to play at 59.2 fps. For Metro Last Light, HD gaming came in at 97 frames per second, which is also superb as far as Full HD goes.
The AMD Radeon R9 Nano is not a cheap GPU and given its performance metrics, it doesn’t entirely deserve the high price it retails for. It’s currently retailing for $650 and much of this price is being charged for the compact design in our view. The problem with this is that unless you genuinely need a compact GPU, the Nano doesn’t deliver the value of its price tag in other regards.
5.0 - 1 Review
• Excellent at Full HD and 1440p resolutions
• Very low power consumption
• Relatively quiet
• Fiji chip architecture
• Compact design
• Simpler air cooling
• Not really a 4K GPU
• Too expensive for its specs
• Cheaper GPUs deliver the same capabilities