Size, power, or noise: When it comes to graphics cards, you typically get to pick two at the expense of the third. But AMD’s looking to shake things up with its powerful, yet pint-sized Radeon R9 Nano, a premium graphics card designed for itty-bitty mini-ATX builds and home theater PCs. The R9 Nano won’t quite make the August launch promised earlier this year, but the company’s revealing the card’s full list of features and design details ahead of a September 10 release date.
And hot damn does it look intriguing. This card could, theoretically, transform a mini-ITX PC into a 4K gaming powerhouse without any of the usual compromise.
“We look at the Nano as sharing the halo or flagship status with the R9 Fury X,” AMD’s Victor Camardo said in a press briefing. “Similarly to how we announced the Fury X and the Fury—one has a liquid cooling solution for those who want to push the cards to the limits, and the Fury for those who wanted a more traditional form factor—we’re introducing the Nano… for those people who want the greatest amount of power efficiency and care about form factor and size.”
Under the hood of the AMD Radeon R9 Nano
We’ve known some basics about the R9 Nano ever since its unveiling at E3 in June. The 175W card measures a mere 6 inches in length, but packs up to 30 percent more performance oomph than AMD’s pre-Fury flagship, the Radeon R9 290X.
Now we know how.
The Nano’s Fiji GPU packs a full 4096 stream processors—more than the air-cooled Fury cards that meet or beat Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980, and the exact same number found in AMD’s top-of-the-line Fury X, which itself featured a shortened board length. The Nano, like the Fury and Fury X, also boasts 4GB of revolutionary high-bandwidth memory clocked at 512GB/s and delivered over an ultra-wide 4096-bit bus. (The R9 Nano wouldn’t exist without HBM’s dramatic space savings over the traditional GPU/memory combo, actually).
“In no way is this a cut-down, low-speed, ‘value’ product,” says Camardo.
Of course, stuffing all those stream processors into such a tiny package—and one that’s air-cooled, unlike the Fury X—does require some finessing. While the Fury X hits core GPU clock speeds up to 1050MHz, the R9 Nano dials that back to 1000MHz tops. More aggressive PowerTune settings, which keep the card pulling around 175W, mean you’ll more often see clock speeds around 900MHz during gameplay.
In practice, Camardo said, you can expect to see performance levels around the same as the air-cooled Fury, which hit maxed-out 1440p or solid 4K gaming performance. “There’s nothing else in [the mini-ITX form factor] class that can drive a 4K display” in gaming, Camardo boasted.
AMD Radeon R9 Nano design
If you wanted to push things even further, you could move the card’s power target higher and overclock its core (but not memory) speed—but in doing so you’ll be negating some of the Radeon Nano’s key features: Its paltry 175W power requirement, and its quietness. AMD says the card runs at a mere 42 decibels, or the same relative ambient noise level as a library. That’s a full 16 decibels softer than the Radeon R9 290X’s noise under load.
AMD paid attention to complaints about the horrid coolers on reference card designs for the R200-series graphics cards, too. The Nano aims for a 75C temperature while gaming, or 20 degrees less than the R9 290X. And that’s with an air cooler and a six-inch length!
That sort of efficiency can be chalked up partly to Fiji’s vastly improved power handling—AMD boasts it offers up to twice the performance per watt compared to the 290X. Camardo says the company placed a lot of thought into the Nano’s cooling design as well.
“We spared no expense, we left no stone unturned, and we really pushed our engineering teams to do their utmost,” Camardo said of the Nano’s cooling.
The card features a copper heart pipe dedicated solely to cooling the voltage regulator module. “I don’t believe anyone else in the industry is doing something like this,” Camardo said. “I know [other companies] have plates that go over VRMs, but never actually a dedicated heat pipe just for voltage regulators as a separate, standalone cooling solution.”
AMD intentionally arranged the heat sink’s fans to run horizontally across the Nano, the easier to blow hot air out of the case rather than down at the motherboard. Underneath, the GPU’s cooled using a hybrid flattened heatpipe/vapor chamber solution. There’s no backplate on the card, in order to help facilitate air circulation to the board, and the fan itself is integrated into the card’s shroud—which means you won’t be able to 3D-print your own Nano front plate, as you can with the Fury X.
Aesthetically, the Radeon R9 Nano takes its design cues from the Fury X, with a brushed-aluminum finish, metal shroud, and matte-black PCB. That’s nothing but a good thing, as the gorgeous Fury X absolutely screams “premium” from every pore.
And if you disagree, well, you’re out of luck: The Nano will only be available in its reference design at launch, though Camardo says you may see custom variants from board partners late in the year, at least three months after the Nano’s launch. If those do come to fruition, they’ll be visual tweaks only—under the hood, custom variants will pack the same configuration as AMD’s reference Nano.
More with less (volume)
AMD’s keen to point out just how far 4K gaming PCs have come in such a short time. Just last year, playing games at 4K resolution required the use of multiple high-end graphics cards in a massive PC tower. Earlier this year, the launch of graphics cards like Nvidia’s beastly GeForce GTX 980 Ti and AMD’s Radeon Fury X finally enabled true single-GPU 4K gaming. And now, mere months later, the Radeon Nano is promising to bring ultra-high-resolution gaming into itty-bitty mini-ITX boxes even smaller than AMD’s radical Project Quantum PC.
Well, if AMD’s power and performance claims hold true in real life, that is.
“There’s really nothing else in this class,” Camardo said. “For anyone who wants to build a small form factor chassis capable of playing 4K, the Nano is really interesting and that’s exactly where we targeted it: For those people who want power efficiency, who want high-performance, who want a good overall gaming solution that’s optimized to take advantage of all aspects of the product, and not just push one curve or the other to the max.”
We won’t know for sure if reality matches the promise until we get our hands on the Nano, but the song AMD’s singing sounds pretty darn enticing in theory. And AMD knows just how unique this card is: the Radeon R9 Nano will retail for $650, the same price as the water-cooled Radeon Fury X and Nvidia’s GTX 980 Ti, when it hits stores on September 10. Look for independent reviews to land around the same time.