AMD Radeon R9 Nano review: A powerful taste of the PC's incredible shrinking future

There's no other graphics card quite like the AMD R9 Nano, which packs full-size performance into its six-inch frame—but it's not for everyone.

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PCWorld’s faithful graphics card testing system was pressed into action yet again for this review, loaded with all sorts of high-end parts to avoid introducing bottlenecks that don’t stem from the GPU itself. Our build guide for the PC has all the nitty-gritty details, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

The $650 AMD Radeon R9 Nano is an odd little beast, so we compared it against numerous other graphics cards. On Team Red, we pit the Nano against the older Radeon 290X that AMD’s so keen to compare it against, as well as the aftermarket $470 Asus Strix version of the Radeon 390X, the $650 Fury X, and the air-cooled $580 Asus Strix Fury. On Nvidia’s side, there’s the GTX 980 Ti of course, because it’s the same $650 price as the Nano. We also included both the reference GTX 980 as well as EVGA’s overclocked, custom-cooled GTX 980 FTW. And because the most powerful mITX graphics card Nvidia offers is the GeForce GTX 970, we also tested an AMD-supplied mITX Asus GTX 970 DirectCU Mini, as well as the full-sized EVGA GeForce GTX 970 FTW, which sports similar tweaks to EVGA’s GTX 980 FTW.

Every game was tested using in-game benchmark tests at both 4K and 2560x1440 resolutions, with the default graphics settings stated unless noted otherwise. V-Sync and any vendor-specific features were disabled.

nano gtav

Let’s kick things off with Grand Theft Auto V, which traditionally favors GeForce cards. That holds true here, but look at where the Nano lands: Far ahead of the GTX 970s, roughly equal with the air-cooled Asus Strix Fury, and lingering near the GTX 980s in most configurations. At 4K resolution with all graphics settings jacked to “Very High,” FXAA enabled, anisotropic filtering set to x16, and all sliders cranked to the max, the Nano actually outperforms the reference GTX 980. That’s crazy for such a small, cool-running card.

Using the same settings at 2560x1440 widens the performance gulf between the Nano and the GTX 980s—with the EVGA 980 FTW claiming a sizeable 9 frames per second (fps) advantage—but activating 4x MSAA and 4x reflection MSAA at the same settings drags performance back to comparable levels (though Nvidia still claims the crown). You’re much more likely to use MSAA options at 1440p than you are at 4K.

nano mordor 4k
nano mordor 1440

Next up: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, which favors Radeon cards despite bearing an Nvidia splash screen when the game boots up. Here, we see the opposite of what we saw with GTA V: the Nano comes in slightly behind the Fury, slightly ahead of the overclocked EVGA GTX 980, and far ahead of the reference GTX 980. The one exception is at 4K resolution with all graphics options manually cranked to their highest available settings (which the default “Ultra” preset doesn’t do), where the EVGA 980 FTW ekes out a slight win.

The GTX 970s? Not even in the equation. Note that the $650 Nano doesn’t approach the performance levels of the full-sized $650 GTX 980 Ti or $650 Fury X, however.

nano dai 4k
nano dai 1440

Dragon Age Inquisition isn’t only one of the best PC games released in the past year, it can hammer even beefy graphics cards at 4K resolution. No card hits even 30fps at Ultra settings at 4K. The Nano, Fury, and the GTX 980s all hang closely here at both resolutions.

nano alien isolation

Alien Isolation is terrifying, gorgeous, and scales well across all hardware. The usual suspects turn in a tight cluster of results with everything set to Ultra at 4K resolution, but the Strix Fury and EVGA 980 FTW pull ahead a bit at 1440p—though the Nano also plants itself firmly ahead of the reference GTX 980. Again, the GTX 970 duo fails to compete, with the Asus 970 DirectCU Mini falling a full 20 fps behind the Nano. AMD was right: Nvidia’s most powerful mini-ITX GeForce card simply can’t compare to the Nano.

Next page: Gaming benchmarks continued.

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