Back in December of last year, AMD’s Radeon Technologies Group began slowly trickling out the plans for what would be their first GPU architecture built for the now-modern FinFET processes: Polaris. As part of a broader change in how GPU architectures have been handled – more information is now released ahead of launch – AMD laid out what they wanted to do with Polaris. Aim for the mainstream, radically improve power efficiency, lay the groundwork for HDR displays, and, of course, improve performance.

Now six months later we are seeing AMD’s plans come to fruition, as the Polaris GPUs are in full production, and the first retail products are launching today. Kicking off the Polaris generation in the desktop market will be AMD’s Radeon RX 480, which is aiming for the mainstream market. We’ve already seen the card, the price, and AMD’s marketing spiel back at Computex 2016, so now it’s time to take a look at the final, retail hardware.

AMD Radeon GPU Specification Comparison
  AMD Radeon RX 480 (8GB) AMD Radeon RX 480 (4GB) AMD Radeon R9 390 AMD Radeon R9 380
Stream Processors 2304
(36 CUs)
(40 CUs)
(28 CUs)
Texture Units 144 160 112
ROPs 32 64 32
Base Clock 1120MHz N/A N/A
Boost Clock 1266MHz 1000MHz 970MHz
Memory Clock 7-8 Gbps GDDR5 7Gbps GDDR5 5Gbps GDDR5 5.5Gbps GDDR5
Memory Bus Width 256-bit 512-bit 256-bit
Transistor Count 5.7B 6.2B 5.0B
Typical Board Power 150W 275W 190W
Manufacturing Process GloFo 14nm FinFET TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm
Architecture GCN 4 GCN 1.1 GCN 1.2
GPU Polaris 10 Hawaii Tonga
Launch Date 06/29/16 06/18/15 06/18/15
Launch Price $239 $199 $329 $199

At the highest level, the RX 480 is based off of a fully enabled version of AMD’s Polaris 10 GPU. This is the first Polaris GPU to hit the market, and is the larger of the two GPUs. The total transistor count is 5.7 billion, which takes up 232mm2 on GlobalFoundries’ 14nm FinFET process. That this GPU is built at GloFo and not TSMC is a significant departure for AMD, who previously has used partner TSMC just shy of forever, and is the first time AMD and NVIDIA haven’t used the same fab in some 13 years. We’ll touch upon the foundry issue more in the full review, but the important thing to take away right now is that with the split in foundries, it’s no longer architecture alone that dictates whether a given NVIDIA or AMD GPU is better; process now plays a part, and the playing field is no longer even.

As it’s using a full Polaris 10 GPU, the RX 480 ships with all 36 CUs (2304 SPs) enabled. Ignoring architectural efficiency for the moment, this puts it somewhere between the Radeon R9 390 (Hawaii) and Radeon R9 380 (Tonga) in terms of CU count, with AMD having spent a good chunk of their 14nm density gains on adding CUs. Note that the CUs themselves have not substantially changed – it’s still 64 stream processors and 4 texture units per CU – which is where the 144 texture unit counts comes from.

On the backend of things, RX 480 is equipped with 32 ROPs. This is fewer than Hawaii’s 64 ROPs, but it is consistent with mainstream parts, as ROP needs don’t scale nearly as quickly from one generation to the next like compute (CU) needs. These 32 ROPs are paired with 2MB of L2 cache, which is twice as much L2 cache per ROP as the bulk of AMD’s last-gen lineup. The increased L2 cache has a die space cost – which is now easier to pay with the 14nm process – and helps to improve performance and cut power consumption by keeping more data on-die.

However once you go off-die, you will run into RX 480’s VRAM, which is a small story in and of itself. Once again common for mainstream AMD cards, AMD has stuck with a 256-bit GDDR5 memory bus here. Attached to this bus is either 4GB or 8GB of VRAM, with AMD offering two capacities for RX 480. The reason for offering multiple capacities is that AMD wants to hit the $199 price point with the card – the traditional sweet spot for mainstream cards – which would be hard to do with an 8GB card at this time. By offering both, AMD can hit that price while offering a full 8GB card at a slightly higher price for buyers with a bit more flexibility and/or greater VRAM needs.

Where things get tricky here however is the memory speeds. Officially, 7Gbps GDDR5 is the minimum speed for both RX 480 capacities, and this is the speed that AMD’s 4GB reference card runs at. However for their 8GB reference card, AMD has opted to ship the card with faster 8Gbps memory in order to further boost performance. I suspect that AMD would have liked to have used 8Gbps memory throughout, but the aforementioned price target required AMD to make some concessions to comfortably reach it. Otherwise for the higher priced 8GB card, AMD didn’t need to pinch pennies, and as a result they were able to ship it with 8Gbps memory.

AMD Radeon RX480 Memory Bandwidth
  AMD Radeon RX 480 8GB Reference AMD Radeon RX 480 4GB Reference AMD Radeon RX 480 Min Requirements
Memory Clock 8Gbps GDDR5 7Gbps GDDR5 7Gbps GDDR5
Memory Bus Width 256-bit 256-bit 256-bit
Total Mem Bandwidth 256GB/sec 224GB/sec 224GB/sec

The end result is that we have an odd schism between AMD’s card requirements and what they actually ship. The reference 4GB RX 480 meets the RX 480 minimum specifications, whereas the reference 8GB card is de facto overclocked relative to those same specifications. As we’ll see in our benchmark results, the difference in performance isn’t too great, but I don’t think this is an ideal outcome for consumers. My biggest concern right now is what happens when AMD’s partners start shipping their custom cards; if they opt for slower memory buses, then this would mean that custom 8GB cards could end up slightly underperforming the official reference card. But we’ll have to see how that plays out.

Moving on, let’s talk about power consumption. As AMD has made clear over the last several months, one of the major goals of Polaris was power efficiency, and this is where we see some of the first payoffs from that decision. RX 480’s official Typical Board Power (TBP) is 150W, over 20% lower than the last-generation R9 380, and 45% lower than the otherwise performance-comparable R9 390. Consequently the card only requires a single 6-pin PCIe power connector for external power, making it a more friendly option for power-limited desktops that don’t offer additional power connectors.

In terms of design, the reference RX 480 is a double-wide, blower-style card measuring 9.5-inches long. Notably, this is the first AMD retail reference card since the Radeon R9 290 series to use a blower, giving AMD the opportunity to show that they’ve learned from 290’s excesses and that the company can build a better blower. Given AMD’s mainstream ambitions, a blower makes a lot of sense for a $199, 150W card, as a fully exhausting card is going to be the most compatible with the wide variety of desktop designs out there. AMD doesn’t need to worry about whether the cooling built into the chassis can handle 150W of heat, since the card can remove the vast majority of the heat on its own. The blower design does add some length to the card though; the PCB is only 7-inches long, while the space requirements for the radial fan push the card out to the full 9.5-inches.

For connectivity, buyers will find 3 DisplayPorts and an HDMI port; AMD has done away with the DVI port for their reference design. As this is a new card on a new architecture, both port types support their latest respective standards. For DisplayPort this means support for the 1.3 and 1.4 standards, adding the newest, fastest HBR3 signaling mode, along with full HDR support. Meanwhile for the HDMI support, HDMI 2.0b is supported, offering 4Kp60 support with HDR.

For today’s launch, this is going to be a full reference launch. All of AMD’s partners are shipping AMD’s reference design in 4GB and 8GB capacities, which means the differences between the vendors will come down to pack-in items, support, and whether anyone charges a premium for the aforementioned items. Card availability is said to be good, but at this point I’m going to be surprised if most retailers don’t sell out by the end of the day, as these days it’s rare for video cards not to sell out, even mainstream cards. Looking at the slightly longer term, AMD isn’t able to state exactly when we’ll see custom RX 480 boards hit the market, but from what I gather it will be sooner rather than later.

Moving on, with two different capacities there are two different prices for the RX 480. The entry level 4GB card will be launching at the previously unveiled price of $199. Meanwhile the 8GB card will launch at $239, a $40 price premium for the extra 4GB of memory and the higher memory frequency. I do not have a good idea of what the split is between 4GB and 8GB cards, but I suspect that it will be the 8GB cards that are more plentiful.

Finally, looking at the competitive landscape, just as was the case last month with NVIDIA’s GTX 1000 series and the high-end market, the Radeon RX 480 series is launching uncontested into the mainstream market. At least for the time being all of NVIDIA’s products are positioned well above the RX 480 – with GTX 1070 starting at $399 – which means what competition there is for AMD is composed of last-generation 28nm cards, particularly the GTX 970 and GTX 960. As these are last-generation cards, neither one is strictly comparable to the RX 480, and in the long run these cards have a limited shelf life as they’re due to be discontinued sooner than later.

Summer 2016 GPU Pricing Comparison
  $659 GeForce GTX 1080
  $429 GeForce GTX 1070
Radeon R9 390X $329  
  $259 GeForce GTX 970
Radeon RX 480 (8GB) $239  
Radeon RX 480 (4GB) $199  
AMD's Path to Polaris
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  • D1v1n3D - Friday, July 1, 2016 - link

    I think it is funny did all these Nvidia people forget what 970 landed on cost wise and then the limped along 3.5gb ram. AMD has many more models to come for instance the GDDR5X models and the hbm2 models AMD is just bringing in cash flow off a very capable mid-range card i will be buying one for my mini itx that currently is running 1gb 6950hd talk about an upgrade and at such an amazing value and allowing me to not stress my 450w PSU you guys and your unrealistic crossfire the latency alone would drive me up the wall to much fluctuation from so many sources gpu x 2 and cpu. maybe when it's two hbm2 cards crossed maybe the latency will be nonexistent.

    currently waiting for fm2+ refresh I sure hope they have one more before fm3/+ boards come out.
  • monohouse - Sunday, July 3, 2016 - link

    it's a prayr-view, pray for AMD !
  • monohouse - Sunday, July 3, 2016 - link

    "Wise gamers" ? is such a thing even exists ?, do you know I play Doom 2 on a GTX 780 Ti ? so what ? more graphic resources are never a bad thing, I also play many DX9 games on windows XP so what ? a technologically fast video card benefits not only the bloat-filled spyware-infested windows 10, it's also good for accelerating old software (that is, if you can make it work / are given drivers to make it work)
  • monohouse - Sunday, July 3, 2016 - link

    but now that you mention smart gamers ? this is how I see it: there are 2 types of gamers:
    the first type are the ones that don't know what they are going to run on the system, their load is variable and they jump from one game to another, never knowing which game they will run next because they wait it's release

    and the second are the ones that do know what they will run ahead of time and will not run anything but what they know

    I classify them as static and dynamic types of gamers, so the RX 480 is it good or not good ? the question in my opinion is more complex than it seems, because I believe that there is more to video cards than just performance watts heat noise and price, you have to look at the bigger picture, at things like OpenCL (and you know that AMD are pretty good at that), at things like hardware quality (how precise is the graphic calculation) (which is also a department where AMD is better (usually, excluding the brilinear filtering of the 9600XT) and also have to look at image quality produced by the card(s), also look into stuttering (if there is any, and how much) all these aspects are just hardware related, but hardware does not exist on it's own, it exists together with driver, so not less important than looking at hardware quality is also software quality (a department which is usually pretty bad with AMD) how stable is the driver ? is there any BSOD ? is there any rendering bugs ? and of corse the performance of the driver.

    how does this relate to type of gamers ? consider it: you know what you are going to run in the card, it could be a OpenCL program or some very specific games - then all you need is to find out how the card (with it's driver) is handling this specific load - and based on that decide if you want to buy/use it

    but for the dynamic gamer this is much more complex because there is no way to predict what the software/load is going to be, so the decision is more difficult whether or not to buy, so here is my way:

    static gamer buy what suits your load, if RX 480 can run your OpenCL/games well enough, stable and fast enough looking good then you have no problem to buy it

    but for dynamic gamer I have to disagree on all the posts mentioned here, and all the estimationing cliche "1080p gaming", there is no line you can draw and all games having an equal load at a given resolution, there is no such thing as "this card will last me 2 years at 1080p", for the dynamic gamer this strategy is flawed, because nobody knows the future (that being said, console generations do have an impact because modern games are console games) and in addition some games are pre-built for a specific FPS target, and game engines are differently designed. so for the dynamic gamer I would not recommend RX 480, because it's performance already struggles with games that exist in the present, so for the dynamic gamer the best bet is the highest performing card (only under the condition that it runs every already released game at higher than the required FPS for you)
  • K_Space - Saturday, July 9, 2016 - link

    Apologies for reading your comment so late, however it is was not posted under the parent thread:
    1) why wouldn't wise gamers exists? :) "the gamer self" does not exist in vacuum, a wise human who plays games is a wise gamer.
    2) your analysis of the static vs dynamic gamer is really well put, though your use cases are broader, so user is more apt than gamer (and really fit with the gamer does not exist in a vaccum statement earlier). You have put plenty of caveats that we almost essentially agree: whilst no one can predict the future precisely, one can certainly develop some foresight by looking at trends/as well as typical use scenarios to predict future use cases. It's what IT departments do all the time anyway, "wise" gamers are no different :) Just as you'd predict after DX11 was released that most if not all AAA games will feature the buzz word tessellation, you would rightly predict that with the current gen of consoles future AAA games will be more VRAM heavy than current ones. multi core CPUs will be utalised more than they would in current DX11 games, etc. Ditto with the 1080p statement, if im planning a future GFX purchase I'd factor in if I'm considering to stick to native 1080p display or a denser display and act accordingly. By your definition a dynamic gamer does not know what their future games will demand, but their interests are typically static even if the games change; thus if hypothetically speaking i likes MOBA or indie games I'd hazard a good guess that a 480 and not a 1070 card is what I need for future indie/MOBA games. Remember, these "predictions" don't need to be pin point accurate, just something that will get me to my next upgrade cycle.
    3) RTG has been quite spectular with their driver support releases. previous GCN cards have been reaping these benefits to this day. I've the additional benefit of retroscopy in considering how they promptly dealt with the 480 powergate fiasco.
  • dmark07 - Sunday, July 3, 2016 - link

    I'm a little confused as to when benchmarks were performed for the NVIDIA 1070FE card. The only articles on Anandtech for this generation of NVIDIA cards only has benchmarks for the 1080. I wish your team would have written an article about the 1070 first before adding numbers for them to this article. As it appears, this either indicates someone used the 1080 numbers and labeled them as 1070FE or this was a biased move with unpublished numbers that could have been pulled out of thin air... This is very uncharacteristic of Anandtech. Don't get me wrong, I've been looking forward to a full breakdown of the 1070 but the Anandtech team use to stick to the standard of performing a write up on a card prior to using benchmarks for that card in comparisons.
  • Ranger1065 - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    Speaking as someone who has happily visited this site for many years, it's clear the Anandtech "team" is not what it used to be. I'm tired of visiting here only to NOT find the reviews I'm interested in and so I visit Anandtech less and less frequently. It's a shame because I know the staff are capable of writing really good reviews but my patience and faith in Anandtech is just about exhausted. Other sites may not have the detail that Anandtech does (if and when they actually post a review) but the difference is not huge and at least they do actually post reviews that people care about.
  • Murloc - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    this is not a scientific publication, they can put whatever "unpublished" numbers they want in there.
    But yes, the issue is that they've become slow at posting and are unable to solve the issue.
  • Keinz - Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - link

    Each and every time I bother reading the comments I'm reminded why free speech for the dumb is a very, very, VERY bad thing.
  • beast6228 - Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - link

    Too bad you didn't add the r9 295x2 to the benchmarks it would have destroyed most of the cards.

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