AMD has been so quiet for so long, that its new architecture, Polaris, really needs to make a splash. The company has been losing market share to Nvidia steadily since Maxwell, and Polaris is meant to be the phoenix rising from the ashes. Price to performance is the name of the game when it comes to AMD, and that only makes their first Polaris release – the mid-range RX 480 – make a lot of sense.
While Nvidia is pushing boundaries in the top-tier of enthusiast cards. AMD is instead choosing to set the tone for the market where most sales take place. Midrange cards are what make or break companies at times, as is evident with the GTX 970 and the success it brought to Nvidia. At the time the 970 was simply ahead of itself in terms of frames per dollar, but the RX 480 is redefining those boundaries for the next generation before the team in green has a say.
And generally, that’s what critics seems to be agreeing on, with the review embargo on the RX 480 dropping late yesterday. Performance wise the debut of Polaris plays out – sometimes – just a touch above the GTX 970 and AMD’s previous R9 390, which make it a compelling purchase at only $200 (or $240 for the arguably better 8GB version). Anandtech gave the card a glowing first view, praising it’s attention to pushing the VR market.
Because AMD is launching with a mainstream part first they don’t get to claim to be charting any new territory on absolute performance. But by being the first vendor to address the mainstream market with a FinFET-based GPU, AMD gets the honor of redefining the price, performance, and power expectations of this market. And the end result is better performance – sometimes remarkably so – for this high volume market.
Tom’s Hardware agrees too, pointing out the increased power efficiency and decent cooling that the reference design seems to offer. They do mention that temperatures are still a bit bothersome (with the card sometimes not able to reach its advertised Boost Clocks), but overall there isn’t a card out there this good, this cheap.
In the end, we get performance somewhere between a Radeon R9 290 and 390 at dramatically lower power and a $240 price tag. Compare that to GeForce GTX 970 with half as much memory for ~$280 and Radeon R9 390 8GB in the same neighborhood. It’s hardly what we’d call the cusp of a revolution, particularly since you still have to pay $600 for a Rift or $800 for the Vive. But we certainly appreciate the combination of smaller, faster, cooler and quieter, all for less money.
Ars Technica were disappointed by the apparent lack of any real evolution and relegating the RX 480 to a standard release, but still praised the card for achieving what it promised to be.
If we widen the scope to include Nvidia, AMD perhaps does a little better. AMD has always had the better value graphics cards at the low- to mid-range end of the market, particularly with recent parts like the R9 380X and R9 390. With the RX 480, AMD has not only killed off the GTX 960, but the far more expensive GTX 970, too.
They also note that Nvidia has a competitor waiting in the wings, meaning the real impact of the RX 480 won’t really be known until Nvidia show their hand.
But with Nvidia being ballsier than ever with its product releases—skipping not one but two product generations with the GTX 1070—it may dare to go further still. I just wish AMD had dared to go further with the RX 480, too.
Ultimately though, that’s some pretty positive praise for the RX 480, which proves AMD still knows what it’s doing with the mid-range market. In a way, this is really where AMD need to thrive. There’s no point in them going toe to toe with Nvidia in the enthusiast market when most of the money is here. And if RX 480 is anything to go by, AMD still has some fight.
Last Updated: June 30, 2016