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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RX 480 power draw

Radeon Fury R200- and R300-series GPUs absolutely thirsted for power and sucked down massive amounts of energy. Nvidia’s supremely efficient Maxwell architecture completely owned AMD’s GCN architecture on this score.

So how does the Radeon RX 480 stack up? Let’s take a look.

Power is measured on a whole-system basis by plugging the PC into a Watts Up meter, then running a stress test with Furmark—which Nvidia calls “a power virus”—for 15 minutes. Our power and temperature tests represent a worst-case scenario, pushing a graphics card to its limits.

480 power use

AMD’s Polaris architecture improvements and the leap to 14nm process technology has clearly paid dividends for the Radeon RX 480. The card offers performance roughly in line with the Radeon R9 390 or 390X, but it draws hundreds of watts less power. Hot damn. That’s great!

When you compare the RX 480’s power efficiency against Nvidia’s GeForce cards, however, these gains look slightly less impressive. The RX 480’s gaming performance falls somewhere between that of the GTX 970 and GTX 980, and its power draw falls smack dab in the same place. To put it another way, leaping forward two full generations essentially helped AMD draw even with Nvidia’s last-generation product. Our test system draws the same 244W when equipped with either the GTX 970 or the GTX 1070, but Nvidia’s newer Pascal-powered GPU delivers performance slightly exceeding a Titan X’s.

RX 480 heat generation

With that out of the way, let’s peek at the thermal results for this cornucopia of cards.

Remember: Only the Radeon RX 480 and GeForce GTX 980 are reference designs; all the other cards sport custom coolers of various efficiency. That makes this somewhat of an apples-to-oranges affair, but there are still things we can learn.

480 gpu temps

Right off the bat, the Radeon RX 480 runs far cooler than the old R200-series reference cards. The reference Radeon R9 290 hit 92 degrees Celsius, and the R9 290X hit a whopping 95 degrees max under load. (Those aren’t listed in this chart, but I have the data saved.) In fact, the Radeon RX 480 rarely surpasses 78 degrees in actual gameplay scenarios; as I said, we test a worst-case scenario.

We don’t have the equipment to test noise levels, but here’s an AMD-supplied chart that compares the RX 480 with the reference GTX 970.

radeon rx 480 noise

Bottom line: The RX 480 runs relatively cool and quiet, especially for a reference card, though it can get a little noisy at full tilt. Once AMD partners like Sapphire and XFX slap beefy custom-cooling solutions on the card, it’ll no doubt run deliciously cool and quiet.

Be warned that temperatures ramp up very quickly once you start inching up the power limit during the overclocking process, however; you’ll need to really ramp up the fan speed to compensate, and that will make the card significantly louder. That’s true whenever you overclock, but it’s amplified with this reference board.

Next page: Bottom line

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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