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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So there you have it: All of AMD’s claims for the Radeon R9 Nano proved true in real life. This pint-sized powerhouse is one of the most capable graphics cards around, flirting with performance on a par with the Asus Strix Fury, a full-sized card with an imposing cooling setup. It demolishes the GTX 970, Nvidia’s most capable mITX graphics card. It runs cool and quiet, and it manages to outpunch both the 290X and 390X while using far less power.

There’s no other graphics card like it. If you want uncompromising gaming performance from a mini-ITX PC and play at resolutions higher than 1080p, the Radeon Nano is easily the most powerful option available. Its diminutive stature and cool performance will allow it to fit into itty-bitty cases that full-sized graphics cards couldn’t even dream of squeezing into.

r9 nanaonmotherboard 3qtrangle rgb 5inch

The Radeon R9 Nano on a mini-ITX motherboard.

“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,” AMD’s Victor Camardo said at a Nano press briefing last month. “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.”

The AMD Radeon R9 Nano does just that. It feels unique. It feels forward-thinking, a harbinger in a world increasingly focused on cramming full PC performance into ever-smaller cases. And more than that, it feels premium, oozing style from every fiber of its being. People may scoff at the Nano’s $650 cost, but it manages to trade performance blows with the $580 Strix Fury and $530 EVGA GTX 980 FTW despite its far more diminutive stature and enviable power efficiency. 

It's amazing. A hell of a graphics card. The Radeon Nano fully justifies its $650 price point.

But most people shouldn’t buy it.

Stumbling points

r9 nano breakout rgb 5inch

The Nano isn’t just a niche product, it’s an ultra-niche product—more a showcase for the space- and power-savings of HBM and Fiji than anything else. Currently, there are only a handful of (admittedly gorgeous) PC cases small enough to fit the Nano, but too compact for a larger graphics card. If size isn’t an issue, it makes more sense to spend your $650 on the far greater performance of a Fury X or GTX 980 Ti. (See: PCWorld’s recent mITX build starring AMD’s liquid-cooled Fury X.)

r9 nano flatangle rgb 5inch

The HDMI 1.4a port on the Radeon R9 Nano hurts its claim to king of the HTPC throne.

What’s more, some technical issues hold back key would-be use cases for the Nano. At this size, the Nano just begs to be used in a killer home theater PC designed around a 4K TV… but the card’s lone HDMI port is 1.4a, not 2.0, which means it’s limited to 30Hz at that resolution. To be fair, Nvidia’s HDMI 2.0-equipped high-end GeForce cards lack HDCP 2.2 support so they can’t play protected 4K content, either. It’s still a bummer in a card like the Nano, however. To find a graphics card with HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2, and H.265 encode/decode, you have to look to the $200 GTX 960 or $160 GTX 950, which don’t offer anywhere near the gaming performance of the Radeon Nano.

Likewise, the small size and big-time performance of the Radeon Nano would make it seem well-equipped for Valve’s impending Steam Machine army, but SteamOS is based on Linux, and frankly, AMD’s Linux drivers don’t perform well at all (though they’re working on it).

Finally, our lingering concerns about the air-cooled Fury still apply to the Radeon Nano. Yes, it’s capable of gaming at 4K resolution—but only at 30 fps to 50 fps on High graphics settings in most games. The golden standard for PC gaming is 60 fps, so you’ll either need to pick up a FreeSync monitor to smooth out your gaming or dial the resolution back to 2560x1440, where the Nano rules the mITX roost—by far—but the GTX 970 mITX still puts on an admirable show. And at 4K, the Nano’s 4GB of HBM is fine now, but I’d be worried about the long-term prospects of so little memory in future games at such high resolutions.

r9 nano straighton rgb 5inch

Add it all up, and you’re looking at a fairly niche market for the Nano—and gorgeous, powerful flagship products for niche markets always command a price premium. The Nano is easily worth the $650 for someone who needs its unique blend of features. Mini-ITX gaming PCs don't need to compromise performance for size anymore.

Finally, let’s loop back to where we began: AMD deserves serious props for pushing HBM’s birth and creating this card in the first place. This is innovation. HBM’s radical power efficiency and space savings is the future of graphics card memory, and small form factors are increasingly becoming the new norm in desktop PCs, flogged on by the energy efficiency in Intel’s recent chips.

The AMD Radeon R9 Nano gives us a glimpse of that future today, fully earning its flagship status and hopefully—hopefully—encouraging case manufacturers and the rest of the component ecosystem into further investments in itty-bitty gaming PCs. The Radeon R9 Nano may not make sense for most gamers today, but I’m thankful it exists, and I can’t wait to see the next version.

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