Almost 7 years ago to this day, AMD formally announced their “small die strategy.” Embarked upon in the aftermath of the company’s struggles with the Radeon HD 2900 XT, AMD opted against continuing to try beat NVIDIA at their own game. Rather than chase NVIDIA to absurd die sizes and the risks that come with it, the company would focus on smaller GPUs for the larger sub-$300 market. Meanwhile to compete in the high-end markets, AMD would instead turn to multi-GPU technology – CrossFire – to offer even better performance at a total cost competitive with NVIDIA’s flagship cards.

AMD’s early efforts were highly successful; though they couldn’t take the crown from NVIDIA, products like the Radeon HD 4870 and Radeon HD 5870 were massive spoilers, offering a great deal of NVIDIA’s flagship performance with smaller GPUs, manufactured at a lower cost, and drawing less power. Officially the small die strategy was put to rest earlier this decade, however even informally this strategy has continued to guide AMD GPU designs for quite some time. At 438mm2, Hawaii was AMD’s largest die as of 2013, still more than 100mm2 smaller than NVIDIA’s flagship GK110.

AMD's 2013 Flagship: Radeon R9 290X, Powered By Hawaii

Catching up to the present, this month marks an important occasion for AMD with the launch of their new flagship GPU, Fiji, and the flagship video card based on it, the Radeon R9 Fury X. For AMD the launch of Fiji is not just another high-end GPU launch (their 3rd on the 28nm process), but it marks a significant shift for the company. Fiji is first and foremost a performance play, but it’s also new memory technology, new power optimization technologies, and more. In short it may be the last of the 28nm GPUs, but boy if it isn’t among the most important.

With the recent launch of the Fiji GPU I bring up the small die strategy not just because Fiji is anything but small – AMD has gone right to the reticle limit – but because it highlights how the GPU market has changed in the last seven years and how AMD has needed to respond. Since 2008 NVIDIA has continued to push big dies, but they’ve gotten smarter about it as well, producing increasingly efficient GPUs that have made it harder for a scrappy AMD to undercut NVIDIA. At the same time alternate frame rendering, the cornerstone of CrossFire and SLI, has become increasingly problematic as rendering techniques get less and less AFR-friendly, making dual GPU cards less viable than they once were. And finally, on the business side of matters, AMD’s market share of discrete GPUs is lower than it has been in over a decade, with AMD’s GPU plus APU sales now being estimated as being below just NVIDIA’s GPU sales.

AMD's Fiji GPU

Which is not to say I’m looking to paint a poor picture of the company – AMD Is nothing if not the perennial underdog who constantly manages to surprise us with what they can do with less – but this context is important in understanding why AMD is where they stand today, and why Fiji is in many ways such a monumental GPU for the company. The small die strategy is truly dead, and now AMD is gunning for NVIDIA’s flagship with the biggest, gamiest GPU they could possibly make. The goal? To recapture the performance crown that has been in NVIDIA’s hands for far too long, and to offer a flagship card of their own that doesn’t play second-fiddle to NVIDIA’s.

To get there AMD needs to face down several challenges. There is no getting around the fact that NVIDIA’s Maxwell 2 GPUs are very well done, very performant, and very efficient, and that between GM204 and GM200 AMD has their work cut out for them. Performance, power consumption, form factors; these all matter, and these are all issues that AMD is facing head-on with Fiji and the R9 Fury X.

At the same time however the playing field has never been more equal. We’re now in the 4th year of TSMC’s 28nm process and have a good chunk of another year left to go. AMD and NVIDIA have had an unprecedented amount of time to tweak their wares around what is now a very mature process, and that means that any kind of advantages for being a first-mover or being more aggressive are gone. As the end of the 28nm process’s reign at the top, NVIDIA and AMD now have to rely on their engineers and their architectures to see who can build the best GPU against the very limits of the 28nm process.

Overall, with GPU manufacturing technology having stagnated on the 28nm node, it’s very hard to talk about the GPU situation without talking about the manufacturing situation. For as much as the market situation has forced an evolution in AMD’s business practices, there is no escaping the fact that the current situation on the manufacturing process side has had an incredible, unprecedented effect on the evolution of discrete GPUs from a technology and architectural standpoint. So for AMD Fiji not only represents a shift towards large GPUs that can compete with NVIDIA’s best, but it represents the extensive efforts AMD has gone through to continue improving performance in the face of manufacturing limitations.

And with that we dive in to today’s review of the Radeon R9 Fury X. Launching this month is AMD’s new flagship card, backed by the full force of the Fiji GPU.

AMD GPU Specification Comparison
  AMD Radeon R9 Fury X AMD Radeon R9 Fury AMD Radeon R9 290X AMD Radeon R9 290
Stream Processors 4096 (Fewer) 2816 2560
Texture Units 256 (How much) 176 160
ROPs 64 (Depends) 64 64
Boost Clock 1050MHz (On Yields) 1000MHz 947MHz
Memory Clock 1Gbps HBM (Memory Too) 5Gbps GDDR5 5Gbps GDDR5
Memory Bus Width 4096-bit 4096-bit 512-bit 512-bit
FP64 1/16 1/16 1/8 1/8
TrueAudio Y Y Y Y
Transistor Count 8.9B 8.9B 6.2B 6.2B
Typical Board Power 275W (High) 250W 250W
Manufacturing Process TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm
Architecture GCN 1.2 GCN 1.2 GCN 1.1 GCN 1.1
GPU Fiji Fiji Hawaii Hawaii
Launch Date 06/24/15 07/14/15 10/24/13 11/05/13
Launch Price $649 $549 $549 $399

With 4096 SPs and coupled with the first implementation of High Bandwidth Memory, the R9 Fury X aims for the top. Over the coming pages we’ll get in to a deeper discussion on the architectural and other features found in the card, but the important point to take away right now it that it packs a lot of shaders, even more memory bandwidth, and is meant to offer AMD’s best performance yet. R9 Fury X will eventually be joined by 3 other Fiji-based parts in the coming months, but this month it’s all about AMD’s flagship card.

The R9 Fury X is launching at $649, which happens to be the same price as the card’s primary competition, the GeForce GTX 980 Ti. Launched at the end of May, the GTX 980 Ti is essentially a preemptive attack on the R9 Fury X from NVIDIA, offering performance close enough to NVIDIA’s GTX Titan X flagship that the difference is arguably immaterial. For AMD this means that while beating GTX Titan X would be nice, they really only need a win against the GTX 980 Ti, and as we’ll see the Fury X will make a good run at it, making this the closest AMD has come to an NVIDIA flagship card in quite some time.

Finally, from a market perspective, AMD will be going after a few different categories with the R9 Fury X. As competition for the GTX 980 Ti, AMD is focusing on 4K resolution gaming, based on a combination of the fact that 4K monitors are becoming increasingly affordable, 4K Freesync monitors are finally available, and relative to NVIDIA’s wares, AMD fares the best at 4K. Expect to see AMD also significantly play up the VR possibilities of the R9 Fury X, though the major VR headset, the Oculus Rift, won’t ship until Q1 of 2016. Finally, it has now been over three years since the launch of the original Radeon HD 7970, so for buyers looking for an update AMD’s first 28nm card, Fury X is in a good position to offer the kind of generational performance improvements that typically justify an upgrade.

Fiji’s Architecture: The Grandest of GCN 1.2
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  • TallestJon96 - Saturday, July 4, 2015 - link

    This card is not the disappointment people make it out to be. One month ago this card would have been a MASSIVE success. What is strange to me is that they didn't reduce price, even slightly to compete with the new 980 ti. I suspect it was to avoid a price war, but I would say at $600 this card is attractive, but at $650 you only really want it for water cooling. I suspect the price will drop more quickly than the 980 ti.
  • mccoy3 - Saturday, July 4, 2015 - link

    So it is as expensive as the 980Ti by delivering less performance and requires watercooling. Once Nvidia settles for a TITAN Y including HBM, its all over for the red guys.
  • just4U - Saturday, July 4, 2015 - link

    Well that would be great news for AMD though wouldn't it since Nvidia would have to pay for the use of HBM in some form or another..
  • Oxford Guy - Saturday, July 4, 2015 - link

    AMD could have released a hot leaf blower like the GTX 480 and chose not to.
  • chizow - Monday, July 6, 2015 - link

    No, they couldn't have. Fury X is already a 275W and that's with the benefit of low temp leakage using a WC *AND* the benefit of a self-professed 15-20W TDP surplus from HBM. That means in order for Fury X to still fall 10% short of 980Ti, it is already using 25+20W, so 45W more power.

    Their CUSTOM cooled 7/8th cut Fury is going to be 275W typical board power as well and its cut down, so yeah the difference in functional unit power is most likely going to be the same as the difference in thermal leakage due to operating temperatures between water and custom air cooling. A hot leaf blower, especially one as poor as AMD's reference would only be able to cool a 6/8 cut Fiji or lower, but at that point you might as well get a Hawaii based card.
  • Oxford Guy - Thursday, July 9, 2015 - link

    Your posts don't even try to sound sane. I wrote about the GTX 480, which was designed to run hot and loud. Nvidia also couldn't release a fully-enabled chip.

    Ignore the point about the low-grade cooler on the 480 which ran hot and was very loud.

    Ignore the point about the card being set to run hot, which hurt performance per watt (see this article if you don't get it).

    How much is Nvidia paying you to astroturf? Whatever it is, it's too much.
  • Margalus - Monday, July 6, 2015 - link

    this AMD card pumps out more heat than any NVidia card. Just because it runs a tad cooler with water cooling doesn't mean the heat is not there. It's just removed faster with water cooling, but the heat is still generated and the card will blow out a lot more hot air into the room than any NVidia card.
  • Oxford Guy - Friday, July 10, 2015 - link

    If you can't afford AC then stick with something like a 750 Ti. Otherwise the extra heat is hardly a big deal.
  • zodiacfml - Saturday, July 4, 2015 - link

    My excitement with HBM has subsided as I realized that this is too costly to be implemented in AMD's APUs even next year. Yet, I hope they do as soon as possible even if it would mean HBM on a narrower bus.
  • jburns - Saturday, July 4, 2015 - link

    Probably the best graphics card review I've ever read! Detailed and balanced... Thanks Ryan for an excellent review.

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