The RX480 is rocking AMD's new Polaris 10 architecture and delivers affordable gaming to the masses.
The new 14nm FinFET Polaris architecture first materialised as a mid-range GPU designated as the Radeon RX 480. The 14nm manufacturing process was a big move forward from the previous 28nm and provided a higher density of transistors on the GPU so that it could do more with a smaller thermal and power consumption profile. The result is a graphics card that can be had for under $400AUD that allows gamers to enjoy respectable performance at 1440p or decent performance at 1080p. DX11 titles benefit from the new architecture but the end-game with the RX480 was affordable DX12 and VR for the broader PC gaming community.
This review is based on an AMD sample with the reference cooler - models with after-market coolers are now available. Although alternative coolers are usually more desirable with lower noise, lower temps and factory overclocks with better performance, the reference cooler is still worth a look as it is more affordable, and exhausts all of the hot air out the back of the card and away from the internal components.
The card is relatively compact as a reference design, the 6-pin power connector sits about mid-way along the top of the card and is easy to access. The reference design model is pretty... well... "reference" looking but seems quieter than other AMD reference cards we've seen in the past. This GPU is pitched squarely at the mid-range - it's affordable to most who take their gaming at least a little bit seriously. There are 4GB and 8GB versions available to suit different budgets.
Let's take a moment to look at this "Mid-Range" concept. Gaming in the mid-range is harder to judge than high-end or entry-level. At the high-end, gamers usually aspire to play the latest AAA titles with all the eye candy on at 1440p or perhaps push the envelope to 4K. These high-end games are taxing and both cards and monitors can be a significant investment. Entry-level on the other hand usually involves lower resolution gaming, capping out at 1080p. Expectations of eye candy are typically low or medium for relatively recent titles. An entry-level card can still play many eSports titles and is generally fine for older games that still rock. The troublesome mid-range is a much broader area with a population that includes the bulk of gamers according to Steam Surveys - happiness really depends on what games people play and what their expectations are. Our rule of thumb is that a mid-range card should play just about anything at 1080p with the settings at high (perhaps with AA scaled back and shadows at medium or low) and still achieve around 55-65FPS.
Releasing the RX 480 instead of a high end card makes sense when you consider how many gamers reside in the broad mid-range and the small market (relatively speaking) that will splash out for a GTX 1080. The RX 480 is a good 'all-rounder' and will meet the minimum requirements for most VR applications for those who want to get on board.
With FreeSync monitors, high resolution gaming at 1440p is smoother than it would otherwise be and 1080p gaming is an absolute blast for the price. Let's take the example of someone who needs a 2560x1440 resolution display for work/study/productivity but also wants to game at that native resolution without dropping too much eye candy. A FreeSync enabled display will even out the FPS and make gameplay at higher quality settings but frame rates in the low 50s much smoother than a non FreeSync display.
Interestingly, for a grass roots gamer card aimed at the budget conscious gaming enthusiast, the RX480 reference card doesn't have a DVI port. Many gamers are likely to be still using monitors limited to VGA or DVI connections. The card comes with 3xDisplayPort and 1x HDMI.
This is a reference cooler, usually avoided by enthusiasts where possible but the RX480 reference sample we received actually wasn't too bad. At idle, it was practically silent and although it made some noise under load, we found a scenario where the reference design cooler was preferable over the after-market style but more on that later when we look at the Fragabyte practical build. The aesthetic design of the reference cooler has been improved and as a black graphics card it won't clash with most builds.
The Crimson software from AMD was stable throughout all of our testing. We didn't see any memory leaks, lockups or other issues at a system level, nor did we experience any in-game issues or driver crashes. There is a new feature called 'Wattman' - it allows you to set the overclocking parameters in an intuitive way. The usual reminders are there that overclocking can reduce the longevity of your GPU or even kill it. Personally, I really like the layout and ease of use that Crimson provides.