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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Testing the RX 480 in 6 benchmarks

As ever, we tested the RX 480 on PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card benchmark system, which is loaded with high-end components to avoid potential bottlenecks in other parts of the machine and show unfettered graphics performance. Key highlights of the build:

  • Intel’s Core i7-5960X ($1,016 on Newegg) with a Corsair Hydro Series H100i closed-loop water cooler ($105 on Newegg).
  • An Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard ($380 on Newegg).
  • Corsair’s Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory ($65 on Newegg), Obsidian 750D full tower case ($140 on Newegg), and 1,200-watt AX1200i power supply ($308 on Newegg).
  • A 480GB Intel 730 series SSD ($250 on Newegg)
  • Windows 10 Pro

To see how hard the 8GB Radeon RX 480 punches, we compared it to some obvious rivals. The current crop of $200-ish graphics cards are represented in the form of EVGA’s GTX 960 SSC, VisionTek’s Radeon R9 380, and Sapphire’s Radeon R9 380X. You’ll also find results for more potent cards: The Sapphire Nitro R390, EVGA GTX 970 FTW, MSI Radeon 390X Gaming 8GB, and the reference Nvidia GTX 980. We’re not including Radeon RX 480 overclocking results for the reasons stated earlier.

radeon rx 480 2 Brad Chacos

I would have liked to pit the reference AMD RX 480 against reference versions of each of those cards; but well, I simply didn’t have any on hand. Of particular importance for comparison purposes: note that the EVGA GTX 970 FTW is a highly overclocked version of the GTX 970, which puts its overall performance midway between that of the stock GTX 970 and stock GTX 980. Read Anandtech’s EVGA GTX 970 FTW review if you want deeper details on how the custom card compares against its stock counterparts.

Beyond the hardware, we test each game with the default graphics settings unless otherwise noted. But we disable all vendor-specific special features—such as Nvidia’s GameWorks effects, AMD’s TressFX, and FreeSync/G-Sync—to keep things on an even playing field.

Got it? Good. Let’s go.

The Division

We’ll kick things off with Ubisoft’s The Division, a third-person shooter/RPG that mixes elements of Destiny and Gears of War. The game uses Ubisoft’s new Snowdrop engine and is set in a gritty post-apocalyptic New York City.

480 division

(Click any graph in this article to enlarge it.)

The Radeon RX 480 delivers a huge performance boost over the current generation of $200 graphics cards, outpunching the Sapphire Nitro R9 390 and the EVGA 970 FTW despite their hefty overclocks. More importantly, the Radeon RX 480 flirts with a  60-frames-per-second average at 1080p resolution with all the bells and whistles enabled in one of today’s more graphically demanding games. That’s damned impressive for a $200 card.

Next page: Hitman performance results

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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