AMD Radeon RX 480 4K/1440p GPU Review: Plenty of power at a superb price
AMD’s RX 480 represents what we’d consider to be the company’s largest mid-range hardware update in several years. Originally codenamed Polaris, the new chip architecture has emerged in the form of the resulting consumer product that we’re seeing for now in the RX 480. On the one hand, Polaris isn’t a totally new take on chip architecture –that will in fact be the planned Vega processor that AMD is expected to unveil in an entirely new GPU later in 2016—but Polaris does come with enough fairly serious changes across the whole GPU core design to make it quite distinct from the GCN architecture which has been behind Bonaire, Hawaii, Tonga and Fiji since around the end of 2011. However, enough remains from the most recent previous Fury line of AMD GPUs to make Polaris less than entirely new.
In any case, The RX 480 is the first 14nm FinFET GPU to come from AMD and in this one spec in particular, it outdoes Nvidia’s new GTX 1080 and 1070 cards with their 16nm designs. However, unlike the new GTX machines, the 480 doesn’t aim for the same killer high level specs (and concordant price tag) that Nvidia put into its latest cards to make them as 4K and 1440p capable as possible for their prices and size. Despite this, for its low price, the RX 480 offers some very cool cutting edge technologies for the wider consumer market and as a mid-range GPU for gamers who want rock solid Full HD performance and good to excellent 1440p gameplay, the RX 480 is an absolute winner despite a few niggling flaws we’ve previously noted in AMD cards. Let’s get down to details.
Right off the bat, the external hardware additions that the RX 480 comes with are a definite positive in this mid-range card’s favor. AMD has really upped the ante on connectivity features with the addition of HDMI 2.0b (one port), DisplayPort 1.3 (2 ports) and DP 1.4 (3 ports) and along with these come cutting edge (for a GPU in particular) specs like High Dynamic Range display and graphics rendering compatibility, FreeSync (via both DisplayPort and HMDI ports!) and of course H.265 decoding for support for 1080p240, 1440p120, and [email protected] Of course, the RX 480 itself lacks the power to reach most of these maximum frame rates for those resolutions during performance with high resolution games but the HEVC support for these resolutions is nonetheless a fine bonus.
As we’d already said, the RX 480 is a mid-range GPU with a focus on mainstream gaming enthusiasts. This means that it lacks the extreme performance specs of cards like the Nvidia GTX 1080 in particular and comes up well behind the GTX 1070 as well in most graphics processing regards but none of these performance deficiencies can really be held against this card when other key factors are taken into consideration. Most importantly, AMD isn’t trying to present the 480 as a 4K GPU in any case and given the card’s rock solid performance at the 1080p and 1440p resolutions/frame rates that the majority of gamers are still aiming to conquer in their personal rigs, the RX 480 comes prices superbly with the specs to match. $199 get you the 4GB RAM version and a small price increment of $39 raises the card’s RAM to 8GB. In other words, with the RX 480, AMD is not trying to match the raw performance of the GTX 1070 or even its own Fury X GPUs. Instead, the company is aiming for top-shelf performance and power efficiency in the much broader regular resolution gaming niche.
With the above in mind, the Polaris architecture of the RX 480 is simply superb. This GPU packs in 36 compute units (CUs), and 64 cores into each CU for a total of 2304 cores. Along with these come 144 texture units, 32 ROPs and all of these backed by a 2MB L2 cache and 256-bit GDDR5 memory bus. Along with these core specs enhancements brought forth in Polaris, there are at least a few major improvements to how the GPU performs on specific graphics rendering processes.
First off the bat, the Polaris hardware comes with a considerably improved shader efficiency and instruction caching. This means that Polaris can now speculatively prefetch instructions and as a result reduce the stalls that might normally happen in the rendering pipeline for an overall performance boost during gaming and other related graphics functions. Prefetching isn’t a new technology in GPUs by any means but the RX 480 has taken it to a new degree of efficiency while maintaining low power consumption.
Finally, the Polaris design in the 480 delivers some highly improved support for delta color compression. Nvidia has also developed similar technologies but from what we’ve heard of AMD’s developments, there have been some serious bandwidth efficiency improvements in Polaris and by compressing color data for games in the GPU, AMD can thus also improve overall performance from the same quantity of raw bandwidth, which in the 8GB RX 480 amounts to 256GB/s.
We should also note how much we like he overall power consumption specs of the RX 480. This is a card that has definitely taken things down a leaner path in terms of watts per day for performance given over previous AMD GPUs. The new 14nm FinFET design of the RX 480 have helped the card deliver a sincerely impressive 2.5x improvement in how well the card performs per watt consumed. In part this is due to the extremely small process nodes that come with the card’s FinFET technology but the power/performance improvements of the 480 are also partly the case because of AMD’s Carrizo APU, which utilizes what is called Adaptive Voltage and Frequency Scaling to let each chip in the Polaris architecture come closer than was previously possible to its maximum theoretical performance. Along with this, AVFS also lets the RX 480 operate at a lower margin of error in terms of its voltage/frequency curve. All technical jargon aside, the RX 480 performs more efficiently and uses less wattage in doing so as a result.
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Quite honestly, we’re impressed with the RX 480 and have very little to find fault with in this latest AMD card. While we’ve had our previous issues with the company when it comes to the noise, heat and power outlay their older cards generate for the performance they deliver, we have noted these metrics to steadily improve across the board with each successive series of GPU releases. The Fury GPUs of 2015 did quite well on power consumption and overall performance and now the new RX cards (with the RX 480 being the best of the current bunch) have taken performance against power consumption and heat generation to an even better level.
That said, the RX 480 still doesn’t quite deliver the sort of optimized power consumption specs that we noted in the Nvidia GTX 1070. This sis lightly disappointing considering how much less hardcore performance at crunching large chunks of graphic data this card is designed to handle. It makes us suspect that if AMD really tried to match the latest Nvidia GPUs even with the current and improved Polaris 10 architecture of the RX 480, they’d fall well behind their competitive rival in terms of how many watts their cards burn and how high of a temperature they run at under full stress loads.
Furthermore, while this certainly isn’t a criticism given AMD’s more mass-market aim with the RX 480, we have to note that this latest card from the company is definitely not a real 4K UHD gaming GPU. It doesn’t match even the Fury X from 2015 in terms of power and that previous card was also a bit weak at 4K gaming performance. Instead, the 480 is aimed squarely at heavy-duty Full HD PC gaming and at a broad but still moderate load of 1440p gameplay. Nvidia’s GTX 1070 is also more of a 1440p graphics card but the RX 480 definitely offers up much weaker chops at dipping into higher frame rate 1440p gaming or full blown 4K UHD gaming at decent frame rates. Again, since the 480 wasn’t designed in this direction anyhow, it can hardly be criticized for failing to reach the 4K finish line but for gamers who are looking for a GPU that can also handle a fair bit of heavy 1440p and moderate 4K loads, the RX 480 is probably not the card of choice in our view. You’d be better off going for AMD’s older Fury cards or even Nvidia’s still very powerful GTX 980 Ti, which is also admittedly more expensive.
Finally, we need to mention that when it comes to overclocking, the RX 480 suffers from the same problems as the new GTX GPUs from Nvidia. Both companies have made a move in the direction of complicating overclocking in their cards and its annoying. The restrictions have mounted, sliders have increased and the RX 480 suffers from the effects in both regards. This is a card whose boost clock goes up to 1267 MHz and it could easily be made stable when overclocking up to between 1320 and 1370 MHz.
The RX 480 GPU from AMD is a definite winner as far as its limits go and for a wide mainstream user base of non-4K gamers who just want solid performance in 1440p and high frame rate Full HD with the extra cool new features of the card’s Polaris architecture, this GPU is a great choice. While we suspect that its 4GB $200 version will be the more popular seller than the 8GB $239 model, we’d argue that it’s better to simply fork over the extra $40 and get double the memory just like that. On the other hand, the RX 480 is similar enough to AMD’s older 390 graphics cards from early 2015 to possibly cause potentials buyers to simply skip this particular model and simply wait for the wholly new Vega processing architecture to come out later this year. Vega will after all be the formal replacement to the 390x cards and their Hawaii architecture. Nonetheless, if you don’t yet own a 390x AMD card and want a solid but affordable new 1440p gaming performer, the RX 480 is a great choice.
• Fabrication process: FinFET 14nm
• GPU Type: Polaris 10
• Shader processes: 2304
• Graphics memory: 4GB/8 GDDR5
• Memory Clock: 7.0/8.0 Gbps
• GPU Clock Max: 1267 MHz
• Memory Bandwidth: 224 GB/s (4GB), 256 GB/s (8GB)
• Power Connectors: 1x 6-pin
• Form Factor: Dual Slot
• FreeSync: Yes
• DirectX 12 Support: Yes
• Transistors: 6.2b
AMD has also loaded their new RX 480 with some of the core technologies necessary for the next generations of gaming displays. Specifically, we’re referring in this case to virtual reality and high-end graphics API technology in the form of DirectX 12 and Vulkan. Referring specifically to VR, the inclusion of this features is an integral part of AMD’s broader plans to “bring virtual reality to the masses” and the RX 480 is one of the concrete new examples of this plan being put into action. What’s interesting about this is the fact that VR in particular is really still very much a niche technology which has found its greatest expression in specialized products like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Both of these are very new and definitely on the pricier side but, we can be pretty sure that both will eventually go down in price and that VR is here to stay this time around (thanks in no small part to display technologies like 4K resolution on the small headset screen ). Thus, the RX 480, despite its more or less conservative graphics processing chops, is already designed to make your PC capable of powering these kinds of VR headsets in an affordable way.
More specifically, the RX 480 is designed to deliver a low level of latency and smoother general frame rates during VR gameplay. This applies particularly to the 8GB version of the RX 480, which will do a better job of ensuring smooth frame times during even memory intensive VR gaming when it comes along.
cutting edge connectivity specs
As we’d already covered above, the RX 480 comes packed quite nicely with some seriously cutting-edge connectivity specs that are designed to make this card more future-proof than one might give it credit for being at a brief glance of its specs. With DisplayPort 1.3 and DP 1.4 along with HDMI 2.0b, the 480 is ready not just for the latest in today’s high-end 4K gaming PC monitors but also for the display monitors of the very near future. These connectivity features are of course also now par for the course for all the major new GPUs of both Nvidia and AMD but the RX 480 offers them up despite it’s not even being a 4K-capable graphics card. Furthermore, along with these ports, there is also HDR support and support for the H.265 HEVC content compression codec. What’s interesting here is that currently, there are no displays with the DisplayPort 1.4 spec built into them but they are definitely on the way and the RX 480 is already prepared for their arrival. Amusingly, since DP 1.4 means 4K graphics at 120Hz and even 5K graphics at 60Hz, the intended visuals of this particular connectivity option in the RX 480 go way beyond the actual card’s capacity to handle them, at least as far as gaming is concerned.
WattMan is the new overclocking utility built into the RX 480 and it does a remarkably robust job of controlling GPU voltage, engine clocks, memory clocks, temperature and fan speed. In basic terms, WattMan is designed to offer up multiple new ways for controlling overclocking and fine-tuning the gaming experience. Thanks to WattMan’s new controls over voltage and per state frequency curve for the company’s GPU clocks, very robust tuning control is possible for users. Thus, the WattMan lets you finely tune your exact gaming experience through a histogram which captures and displays GPU activity metrics for clock speeds, temperature, fan speed and other aspects of card performance. This lets you as a user better grasp or the game and application combination runs from a single interface and configure accordingly. The possible adjustments that can be done through WattMan are a bit too numerous to list here in this section of this somewhat more compact than normal RX 480 review but needless to say, this feature is superb for controlling various aspects of the cards power performance in all sorts of ways which benefit the final overall power consumption and overclocking metrics of the RX 480.
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Finally, we get down the meaty performance benchmarks of the AMD RX 480 GPU. Across power consumption, general performance, specific frame rates at different game settings and measurements for noise generation, we can see how the RX 480 stacks up in terms of its frame rate performance across several resolutions in different games and in other key benchmarks.
General performance during gameplay
To summarize all of the below stats on frame rate performance across different resolutions in a couple of paragraphs: the RX 480 is an excellent performer at Full HD gaming even at high frame rates and completely maximize detail settings. We’ve seen better high frame rate Full HD performance from more heavy-duty 4K-orirented GPUs like the Nvidia GTX 1070 and AMD’s own Radeon Fury X but among mid-range cards, the RX 480 does a superb job and is of course also much more affordable than either of the above cards (you could in fact buy two 8GB RX 480s for the price of just a single Radeon Fury X or a single GTX 1070.
When we up things to 1440p resolution at high detail levels, the RX 480 doesn’t quite match the chops of a much more powerful rival card like the GTX 1070 at handling the most load-heavy 1440p games at the highest possible 70fps+ speeds but it still performs solidly as a 1440p card for a majority of normal playing conditions and this should nicely satisfy most consumers, particularly those who want to enjoy serious 1440p gaming, cutting edge game control/adjustment technologies and both of these first two at a reasonable price.
Finally, for 4K UHD gaming, the RX 480 serves as a tow dipping sort of GPU, meaning that you can definitely use it to play around with light 4K gaming on less intensive games at decent frame rates. However, trying to use the 480 for serious 2160p gameplay in more heavy-duty games like Metro Last Light Redux or Total War: Rome 2 is not going to yield acceptable frame rates. Even playing at 4K with the games we’ve tested below (Hitman 2016 and The Rise of Tomb Raider) strains the card’s capacity for frame rates into the 20’s and low 30’s at 2160p graphic settings. If you want serious 4K gaming, go for the GTX 1080 or possibly even the older Titan X GPU to a lesser extent.
• 1080p performance
When it comes to Full HD gaming, the RX 480 is definitely on what we’d call its home turf. This is card that has been built to deliver its most optimal performance at moderate to high frame rates in Full HD resolution and it does so wonderfully. Yes, cards like the GTX 1070 or AMD’s own Radeon Fury X outperform the 480 in terms of high frame rates under 1080p resolution because they’re designed to kick up the speed at which even higher resolutions like 1440p and 4K UHD 2160p process in the games that handle them but the RX 480 delivers comfortable great performance that will satisfy the mainstream of PC gamers and that’s what it was built to do.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p)
AMD RX 480: 63 fps
GTX 1070: 108fps
GTX 1080: 131 fps
GTX Titan X: 104 fps
GTX 980Ti: 101 fps
AMD Radeon R9 Fury X: 76 fps
Hitman (2016) (1080p)
All Hitman (2016) frame rates in all resolutions below measured under following conditions: DirectX 12
• Ultra Quality settings
• 16x AF
AMD RX 480: 75 fps
GTX 1070: 86 fps
GTX 1080: 107 fps
GTX Titan X: 79 fps
GTX 980 Ti: 77 fps
AMD Radeon R9 Fury X: 86 fps
• 1440p performance
Moving up to 1440p performance, we’re now dealing with graphics that on any normal-sized PC monitor would be visually indistinguishable from 4K graphics in terms of observable detail. Thus, the 1440p resolution of basic UHD gaming is a great level at which gamers can go beyond Full HD without suffering the slowdown caused by full blown 4K graphics and highest possible detail levels that to date plagues all existing GPU’s (even the GTX 1080 to some degree). That said, while a wide range of graphics cards from both Nvidia and AMD can handle 1440p gaming quite well even if they don’t manage to render high frame rates in full 4K, the best new PC games can still give trouble to even a superb GPU at maximum detail settings in 1440p resolution. This is to some extent the case with the performance of the RX 480. It’s a solid performer with 1440p game graphics but the card doesn’t quite cut the ice as deeply as the GTX 1070 or the AMD R9 Fury X cards do in 1440p gaming.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1440p)
AMD RX 480: 44fps
GTX 1070: 71fps
GTX 1080: 90 fps
GTX Titan X: 72 fps
GTX 980 Ti: 70 fps
AMD Radeon R9 Fury X: 68 fps
Hitman (2016) (1440p)
AMD RX 480: 58fps
GTX 1070: 66fps
GTX 1080: 81 fps
GTX Titan X: 61 fps
GTX 980 Ti: 59 fps
AMD Radeon R9 Fury X: 67 fps
• 4K UHD (2160p) performance
4K UHD gaming is the definite maximum metric of a GPU’s gaming chops and to-date no GPU we’ve managed to review has ever managed to deliver 50fps+ frame rates across the board to all games at 4K graphics settings and high detail levels consistently. This applies even to the single best consumer market GPUs like the GTX 1080 and it applies particularly to the RX 480, which is in any case not built to be a real 4K GPU. This isn’t to say that the 480 doesn’t handle 4K UHD gaming to a certain limited but often reasonable degree, but this card is mostly only good for dipping your toes into 4K gaming. Serious fans of PC games in full consistent 4K would be much better off going for the Nvidia flagship GTX 1080 for conquering this frontier.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (2160p)
AMD RX 480: 23fps
GTX 1070: 37fps
GTX 1080: 46 fps
GTX Titan X: 38 fps
GTX 980 Ti: 37 fps
AMD Radeon R9 Fury X: 28 fps
Hitman (2016) (2160p)
AMD RX 480: 31 fps
GTX 1070: 38fps
GTX 1080: 47 fps
GTX Titan X: 36 fps
GTX 980 Ti: 36 fps
AMD Radeon R9 Fury X: 35 fps
In terms of power consumption, AMD has developed a considerably more advanced card than many of its previous models as power efficiency. While the RX 480 doesn’t match the award winning Radeon R9 Nano of 2015 for truly lean power use during full stress loads or idle running, this card does come much closer than many AMD models to matching the generally far superior level of power efficiency that Nvidia’s GPUs have classically won out with against their AMD counterparts.
At a full stress test with just the power outlay of the RX 480 GPU itself being measured, the card does a very decent job of using up what would average out to about 161 watts of total daily power draw. During idle testing, the RX 480 performs even better, drawing only about 62.5 watts. If power testing for the 480 is made to include its entire associated PC rig, with motherboard, CPU and all other parts of a full gaming PC setup, the overall power draw with the 480 working under worst-case full-limits settings of use delivers a power draw of about 2407 watts, with 90 watts used under full PC rig idle conditions. These are decent performance results and compare very nicely to the power draw we’d expect from Nvidia’s older and newer GPUs. If you want an idea of how much worse AMD’s older heavy-duty GPUs compare, the 4K-oriented Radeon R9 295x2 draws a massive 507 watts of power under full load conditions, and that’s just the card operating by itself. Even Nvidia’s 980 Ti GPU eats up about 250 watts (GPU alone, without PC rig consumtion included) under full load conditions. Thus, the RX 480 is a lean performer, beaten in performance per watt only by the GTX 1070 and Nvidia’s own R9 Nano.
Heat and Noise generation
In terms of noise generation, the AMD technology of the RX 480 delivers lesser than average performance by the standards of both major AMD and Nvida cards. This card isn’t annoyingly noisy but it’s also not as quiet as some other GTX and Radeon cards we’ve seen. During idle conditions and from an average distance of a couple feet or so while using a PC, the RX 480 delivers an almost perfectly average decibel output of 37 DBa. This is normal enough and on par with the noise levels of major cards like the GTX 980, GTX 980 Ti and even more powerful cards like the Titan X from Nvidia. It’s a slightly better idle noise level than that of AMD’s own R9 Fury X card, which is definitely on the loud side even when not doing much processing.
When under full processing load stresses, the RX 480 takes its noise level up to about 42 decibels and if the card’s operating temperature should exceed 82 degrees Celsius (something which is very possible under full and prolonged gaming stress, then the 480 gets a bit louder, reaching about 43 to 44 decibels. This is still within normal noise parameters however.
For an idea of what these noise levels mean in comparative practical terms, take a look at the listing below:
• Jet takeoff (200 feet): 120 dBA (intolerable noise)
• Shout (5 feet): 100 dBA
• Heavy truck: (50 feet) 90 dBA (Very loud)
• Urban street: 80 dBA
• Normal conversation at 5 feet: 60 dBA
• Office, classroom: 50 dBA (Moderate)
• Living room: 40 dBA
• Bedroom at night: 30 dBA
• Rustling leaves: 10 dBA Barely audible
As for heat generation, the RX 480 is also rather average. During prolonged idle running, the card will run at about 35 degrees Celsius and this is well below what we’d call a problematic idle running temperature (about 47 degrees or hotter). On the other hand, when fired right up to Load conditions of heavy performance for long enough to hit a peak temperature, the RX 480 does indeed get quite hot, reaching as high as 83 degrees Celsius. This is however still fairly normal performance range given that other newly released GPUs like the GTX 1080 and the much older but still impressively powerful Nvidia Titan Z hit slightly higher load temps of 84 to 85 degrees.
As we’d said above, the AMD RX 480 is definitely not a serious 4K UHD gaming GPU. It’s more of a Full HD and 1440p performer. Of course, the card can be used to push out the frame rates at a decent speed for lighter 4K graphics on less intensive games but it will seriously bog down with any more serious new-release game that has been designed with heavy details, lots of action and 4K texture support. If you want to explore 4K UHD gameplay more deeply, you’re better off going for AMD’s own R9 Fury X, or Nvidia’s stunningly powerful flagship GTX 1080, Titan X or GTX 1070 GPUs. Even in an SLI configuration, the RX 480 is likely to slightly underperform a single heavy duty 4K-capable GPU like the GTX 1080.
AMD is selling the RX 480 for what we consider to be a great price. The 4GB model is available for just $199.99 and the 8GB version sells for only $40 extra at $239.99. Given this GPU’s overall performance and roster of VR, Vulkan and DirectX 12 support features, we consider the RX 480 to be a solid deal at these prices.
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• Superbly priced
• Rock solid 1080p game performance
• Great 1440p gaming
• Designed to power VR headsets
• Much better power efficiency than older AMD cards
• Polaris GPU loaded with new features
• Still not as power efficient as the best Nvidia offerings
• Weak overclocking performance
• Some 1440p frame rate issues
• Not really a 4K GPU