AMD Radeon RX 480 review: Redefining what's possible with a $200 graphics card

The $200 Radeon RX 480 is the first graphics card built around AMD's 14nm Polaris GPU, and it changes the game.

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Stacking up against Nvidia GPUs

AMD’s sure kicked the Polaris GPU family off with a bang. The Radeon RX 480 is one hell of a graphics card—one that redefines what’s possible at affordable price points.

Never before could you get uncompromising 1080p/60fps performance anywhere near this cheap. Never before could you get pretty damned decent 1440p performance anywhere near this cheap. And you sure as hell couldn’t get a VR-ready card for anywhere near $200.

Now you can, and it’s all because of the Radeon RX 480. Kick ass.

From power efficiency to performance, AMD’s basically created a more powerful GTX 970 clone for $200. Considering that the GTX 970 was crowned the people’s champion just last generation when it launched at a then-startlingly low $330, the Radeon RX 480 is something AMD should crow about—especially since the RX 480 can go toe-to-toe with the GTX 980 in certain games and situations. 

If you’re disappointed in the results, well, it’s probably because AMD set expectations unrealistically high when it told the Wall Street Journal that the RX 480 “delivers performance equivalent to that of $500 graphics cards used for VR.” It can’t. It doesn’t go toe-to-toe with the GTX 980 or R9 390X/Fury overall; it’s roughly equal to the $330 GTX 970 in Valve’s SteamVR performance test. AMD’s marketing hyperbole may wind up disappointing some, but the card nevertheless rocks if you consider it without preexisting expectations.

So which version should you buy? I’d counsel waiting for custom versions from AMD’s partners to launch in the middle of the month if you can. This fancy little beast should rock even harder with custom coolers and out-of-the-box overclocks.

Memory-wise, the $200 4GB model should be just fine for 1080p gaming. Some games, like Rise of the Tomb Raider, are already exceeding 4GB at 1440p with everything cranked, though, and VR headsets rock a higher 2160x1200 resolution. Topping out your onboard memory limit causes nasty frame-rate slowdowns, which can make you feel pukey in virtual reality. If you’re planning to play at 1440p or to use the RX 480 for VR, I’d recommend spending the extra $40 for an 8GB model.

Radeon RX 480: the bottom line

A word of warning, though. Buy this card because it rocks at standard gaming today. Don’t bite because of promises. A lot of AMD’s marketing spin revolves around future-facing technologies that are up in the air.

Yes, the Radeon RX 480 is a great entry-level option to get into VR, but there’s still no guarantee VR will explode like the industry hopes it will, especially with the first-gen headsets priced so high. The Radeon RX 480’s low price is a key step toward driving wider adoption, and buying one hedges your bets if VR does blow up. But it hasn’t yet, and it might not.

Likewise, DirectX 12 and AMD’s dedicated asynchronous compute engine hardware is a major wild card. Results in early games like Ashes of the Singularity and the dedicated Total War: Warhammer DX12 benchmark show great promise on Radeon cards, and Hitman sees a decent gain, too.

radeon rx 480 2 Brad Chacos

But will that hold true in every game? Only certain genres and PC configurations? Yes, DX12 could very well wind up being a major boon for Radeon cards. But until DX12 and Vulkan games hit the streets in larger numbers and we’re able to observe wider trends, buy the RX 480 because it kicks ass today, not for what it might—or might not—do in the future.

Again: Buy the Radeon RX 480 for what it can do today, and consider all these future-proofing technologies a bonus cherry on top.

And I definitely recommend weighing the risks before you pick up two of these over a $380 GeForce GTX 1070. I only had a single card on hand, so I couldn’t test CrossFire performance, but Radeon chief Raja Koduri made waves when he ran a demo that showed dual RX 480s beating a GTX 1080 in the Ashes of the Singularity benchmark in DX12. But multi-GPU support has waned over the past couple of years, with numerous big-name games patching in CrossFire/SLI late or not at all. DirectX 12’s multi-GPU support is being heralded as the future for extreme system setups, but that puts the onus on time- and money-deprived developers to dedicate money and time to coding in and supporting multi-GPU configurations.

crossfire 480s

Frankly, I’m skeptical about the future of multi-GPU systems (and sad about it). Something to keep in mind.

What I’m not skeptical about is whether you should buy the Radeon RX 480. The answer’s an absolute, unequivocal yes. This is an unprecedented amount of performance in the $200 price range, and unprecedented power efficiency for AMD’s recent GPUs. Even if Nvidia slashes the price of remaining GTX 970 stocks to $200 to match the Radeon RX 480’s price, I’d still recommend AMD’s card.

Really, there are only three graphics cards worth considering right now. If you’ve got deep pockets, Nvidia’s $380 GTX 1070 and $600 GTX 1080 offer mind-blowing performance for high-end gaming rigs. For anything under that, the Radeon RX 480’s the only game in town. Today, every GTX 900-series, R300-series, and Fury card is essentially obsolete. The even-cheaper Radeon RX 470 and RX 460 are coming at some point in the future, and there’s no one who doubts that Nvidia has a GeForce GTX 1060 brewing. But right now, distinct battle lines have been drawn in the opening days of the next-generation graphics war.

For the overwhelming majority of gamers today—the people with less than $300 to spend, and the masses with 1080p or lower-resolution monitors—the Radeon RX 480 is the only graphics card worth considering. AMD’s fulfilled its promise on bring high-end performance to the mainstream.

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At a Glance
  • AMD's first graphics card built around its cutting-edge Polaris GPU delivers big performance and better power efficiency for just $200, or slightly more for an 8GB version.

    Pros

    • Dirt-cheap price
    • No-compromises 1080p gaming, good 1440p gaming
    • Can power virtual reality headsets
    • Big leap in power efficiency over past AMD cards

    Cons

    • Still not as power efficient as GeForce cards
    • Stability and performance issues with slick new overclocking software
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