AMD Radeon RX Vega review: Vega 56, Vega 64, and liquid-cooled Vega 64 tested

Find out whether RX Vega was worth the wait.

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Radeon RX Vega: Buying advice

So was the wait for Vega worthwhile? It’s complicated, made more so by the fact that cryptocurrency miners have greatly inflated today’s graphics card prices—and Nvidia’s next-gen Volta chips loom in the near future.

dsc02025 Brad Chacos/IDG

One thing’s for certain: The $399 Vega 56 will be the best buy of the bunch when it launches on August 28. It runs cooler than the GTX 1070 Founders Edition and delivers more performance than Nvidia’s card in many games, hanging tight even in titles that favor GeForce hardware. Sure, it uses more power, but not remarkably so. The Vega 56 is also a huge step up over the (theoretically) $240 8GB Radeon RX 580, delivering between 25 percent and 45 percent more performance depending on the game and resolution you’re looking at. The value of FreeSync is alluring indeed if you’re looking to get into 1440p or 1080p/144Hz gaming without breaking the bank. 

Speaking of which, current street prices for GTX 1070 cards are another point in Vega 56’s favor, as the cheapest GTX 1070 currently available on Newegg is the MSI GTX 1070 Gaming, for $470. That’s a whopping $120 over the GTX 1070’s $350 MSRP. Fingers crossed miners don’t similarly jack up Vega prices after launch. Considering how large the GPU die is, and how limited HBM2 production appears to be, I don’t expect there to be abundant supplies floating around to combat demand by miners and pent-up gamer demand for Vega.

The $500 air-cooled Vega 64 is a trickier proposition now that GTX 1080 prices are finally starting to settle down around the card’s $500 MSRP. Vega 64 trades blows with the reference GTX 1080 depending on the game you’re playing, but it uses a ton of electricity to do so. The only real reason to buy Vega 64 over a GeForce GTX 1080 is if you plan to pair it with a FreeSync monitor for 1440p or ultrawide gaming at a high refresh rate (like the superb, hassle-free Nixeus EDG 27), or 4K gaming (often sub-60fps).

Affordable adaptive sync or vastly superior power efficiency? Pick your pleasure. There’s no wrong answer... unless you choose Vega and don’t get a FreeSync monitor.

dsc02078 Brad Chacos/IDG

We can’t recommend the liquid-cooled Vega 64 no matter how gorgeous it looks. The card’s performance results leave me very interested in seeing what overclocked Vega 64 cards with custom cooling solutions can do in the future, but at this time the liquid-cooled Vega 64 has too many strikes against it. The coil whine isn’t guaranteed to affect every unit, yet even taking that off the table, the awkward tubing, wild power draw, essentially GTX 1080-level performance, and the fact that it’s limited to a $699 “Radeon Aqua Pack” edition render it undesirable for the most part. It’d be much easier to swallow if it were available in a standalone version for $100 less. As-is, the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti blows it away in performance for roughly the same price.

In fact, give the Radeon Pack editions of all these cards a hard pass unless you already planned to pick up both Prey and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (a $120 value) at full price, build a swanky Ryzen 7 system with a premium motherboard, or want a swanky $950 Samsung monitor (that blows away FreeSync’s value proposition) for $750—and all only at select retailers, as part of a single massive purchase. Again, our Radeon Pack explainer dives into the details, but the bundles don’t really make sense for most buyers the way they’re configured, and the $100 surcharge pushes the Vega cards into the “not worth it” range unless you plan to put the extras to good use.

Radeon RX Vega: The big picture

dsc02074 Brad Chacos/IDG

Taking a step back, it’s great to see AMD finally return to enthusiast-class graphics cards. Dedicated FreeSync owners finally have worthy high-end gaming options to drive their displays! Competition is back!

But it’s hard not to feel a bit let down by Vega on the gaming front.

Nvidia launched the Pascal GPU-based GTX 10-series 15 months ago, in May 2016. It’s taken AMD this long to release graphics cards that merely compete with the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080, and Vega needs a far larger die size (486mm vs. 314mm) and far more power to do even that. The Titan Xp and GTX 1080 Ti still reign comfortably supreme in performance. This is after AMD mocked Nvidia’s forthcoming Volta GPU architecture during a video revealed at CES in January, stoking hopes that Vega would be an utter beast.

poor volta AMD

Eight months later, Vega can only battle with the aging GTX 10-series, and Nvidia’s already showed off Volta in its ultimate-data-center form. Volta-based GeForce graphics cards can feasibly drop at any point and ruin Vega’s fun, though Nvidia may wait until the new year. Vega 56 and Vega 64 hold up pretty well in raw performance against Nvidia’s graphics cards today, but you have to wonder how they’ll manage when fresh Volta cards arrive.

Taking a step even further back, AMD’s Vega architecture works in important features—like FP16 and the technically stunning high-bandwidth cache controller—that seem potentially interesting for gaming in the future but designed more to earn the company a foothold in data centers and machine-learning scenarios. That’s where the real money is these days, so the focus there makes sense. Nvidia creates different GPUs for different market segments, but the much smaller AMD simply can’t afford to do so.

Radeon RX Vega ain’t bad, but it ain’t mind-blowing despite some nifty tricks, and it’s awfully late to the game. Here’s hoping its successor, Navi, will be able to push the gaming envelope in 2018…and that the wait won’t be as excruciatingly long as it’s been for Vega.

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