The $150 to $200 price range is crucial for AMD, Nvidia, and all of their assorted partners. The overwhelming majority of graphics cards sold cost less than $200, with cards in that price range delivering a solid 1080p experience in modern games—and over 50 percent off all PC gamers rock 720p or 1080p displays, according to the Steam hardware survey. Mainstream graphics cards are a big deal.
The tables turn when you hit the $200 mark. First revealed at E3, the Radeon R9 380’s “Tonga” graphics processor is the same one found in the R9 285, which first launched in August 2014. But don’t let the rehashed GPU dissuade you: The Radeon R9 380 is loaded with support for AMD’s newest features and delivers the best raw performance you can find for $200 today, surpassing Nvidia’s $200 GeForce GTX 960—albeit at the expense of much higher power usage.
Meet the new mainstream 1080p champion. Let’s dig in.
Inside the Radeon R9 380
You won’t find much new inside the R9 380 that wasn’t already available in the R9 285. Glancing over the spec sheet below, the only noticeable difference between the two is that the max clock speed was nudged up from 918MHz in the R9 285 to 970MHz in the “new” R9 380. The memory speed also received a borderline-negligible 100MHz bump.
Because of that, we won’t spend much time detailing the Radeon R9 380’s deepest, darkest details—just check the chart above if you’re interested. It’s available in models with 2GB or 4GB of memory, and since the Tonga GPU is still relatively new—August 2014 wasn’t that long ago—the R9 380 packs full support for DirectX 12 and helpful AMD features like FreeSync, Virtual Super Resolution, and Frame Rate Target Control, unlike the $150-and-up Radeon R7 370, which is based on a GPU from 2012.
VisionTek kindly sent us one of its 2GB R9 380s for testing, and you couldn’t ask for a better representative. The VisionTek Radeon R9 380 sticks to stock specs from clock speeds to memory configuration, but spruces things up with a nice dual-fan custom cooling solution featuring a card-length heat sink and copper heat pipes. Those heat sink fins run across the length of the card to help vent heat out of the rear more easily, a design feature that AMD itself recently crowed about when introducing the Radeon R9 Nano.
A rigid, black metal backplate—shown above, in the intro—is another nice touch, as is VisionTek’s limited lifetime warranty on the card if you register it within 30 days of purchase. That drops to one year if you don’t register. The killer warranty and thoughtful build quality isn’t free, however, as VisionTek charges $230 for this particular card.
Connectivity-wise, the VisionTek Radeon R9 380 offers DVI-D, DVI-I, HDMI 1.4a, and DisplayPort, the last of which is a must-have if you’re thinking of investing in a FreeSync monitor to make your PC games super-smooth.
AMD Radeon R9 380 benchmark tests
As ever, we tested the VisionTek Radeon R9 380 on PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card benchmark system. Here are the relevant tidbits:
We retested several additional graphics cards to get a sense for the Radeon R9 380’s value, including Nvidia’s competing $160 GeForce GTX 950 and $200 GeForce GTX 960, with both being EVGA Super Superclocked models. Read: not stock, though we also downclocked the GTX 950 to reference base clock speeds to represent very roughly stock performance for that card. Note that doing so doesn’t provide a direct simulation of the stock GTX 950’s behavior, however, due to the way Nvidia’s GPU boost works.
We also tossed in an older VisionTek R9 270X. Ideally, it would’ve been nice to test the $150 Radeon R7 370, which performs slightly slower than the 270X, but alas, we don’t have one on hand. And since gamers on a budget may also have or be considering the older GeForce GTX 750 Ti or GTX 650 Ti Boost, we tested EVGA versions of those, as well.
Every game was tested using its in-game benchmark, using the default graphics settings stated unless noted otherwise, with V-Sync and any vendor-specific features disabled. We stuck to 1080p resolution alone, since going any higher is really pushing these cards further than they’re designed to go. The Radeon cards were tested with AMD’s newest Catalyst 15.7 drivers, while the GeForce cards used Nvidia’s 355.65 drivers.
Grand Theft Auto V is notorious for hogging memory at higher resolutions, but it scales well and performs admirably at 1080p. Because the game doesn’t have preset graphic levels, we enabled FXAA, set all configurable detail settings placed to Normal, and cranked all the sliders in the Graphics menu to the max.
Note that frame rates look great here, but they’ll drop a bit once you start cranking the details beyond “normal.” That said, both the Radeon R9 380 and GTX 960 hit frame rates north of 60 frames per second with most options set to High or Very High, though we didn’t formally benchmark the games using higher detail settings.
Spoiler alert: GTA V is the only raw gaming benchmark that the GTX 960 wins.
It manages to keep the race tight in Dragon Age: Inquisition at Ultra settings, though the performance gap widens in the R9 380’s favor once you start to tone things back—which you may be likely to do, as dropping down to High settings lets you crack the fabled 60fps barrier with the R9 380, and flirt with it with the GTX 960.
Nvidia may claim a place of honor on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s splash screens, but AMD’s cards utterly pound GeForce GPUs in performance. The Radeon R9 380 again flirts with 60fps on Ultra settings—which we test by manually cranking every graphics option to its highest setting, though we do not use the optional memory-gobbling HD Ultra Texture Pack on 1080p cards—and beats the GTX 960 by roughly 15fps at High settings. Whew.
Every graphics card tested, even the $150 models, easily surpass 60fps on Alien: Isolation’s Ultra setting. Like GTA V, this game scales like a champ—but it’ll scare the crap out of you. Seriously, this is a terrifying, stress-inducing game. It’s wonderful.
Next page: Gaming benchmarks continued; 3DMark Fire Strike, heat, and power use results.
Bioshock Infinite is both our obligatory Unreal Engine 3 title, as well as a popular game that both Nvidia and AMD have had plenty of time to optimize their drivers for. Again, the R9 380 beats the GTX 960 SSC, by almost 5fps.
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition’s anti-aliasing options manhandle graphics cards at the Extreme preset. Both $200 graphics cards crack 60fps on High and perform roughly similarly, with the AMD card again holding a slight edge over Nvidia’s.
Metro: Last Light Redux is a gorgeous HD remaster of an impressive, densely atmospheric game. The song remains the same here: The VisionTek R9 380 holds a slight lead over the EVGA GTX 960 SSC, though both perform well on Ultra settings.
The VisionTek Radeon R9 380’s the clear winner in 3DMark’s synthetic, but widely respected Fire Strike benchmark, as well.
Power use is where AMD’s card stumbles a bit, as usual. AMD’s Radeon GPUs simply aren’t as efficient as Nvidia’s power-sipping Maxwell architecture. Power is measured by plugging the entire system into a Watts Up meter, then running a stress test with Furmark—which both AMD and Nvidia dub a “power virus”—for 15 minutes.
VisionTek’s cooler handles the extra heat with aplomb, however. Temperatures for the Radeon R9 380 and the EVGA GTX 960 SSC are roughly equal, and both are pretty chilly.
Final page: Conclusion
Bottom line: The new 1080p champ
Add it all up and there’s only one conclusion to reach: Despite the higher power draw, the Radeon R9 380 is clearly the best graphics card for the money in the $200 price range. It consistently out-performs the heavily overclocked GTX 960 SSC in everything but GTA V, though Nvidia’s card hangs closely enough to be tempting if the R9 380’s power draw is a concern, or if you’re building a home theater PC and need an HDMI 2.0 port to output a 60Hz signal to a 4K TV. (The GTX 950 supports HDMI 2.0; the Radeon R9 380 is limited to HDMI 1.4a’s 30Hz at 4K.)
For your money, you’ll get a mostly uncompromising mainstream 1080p gaming experience, hovering around 60fps at Ultra settings in many cases, though you may need to tone down some of the more extreme anti-aliasing options or set the graphics options to High in some of most strenuous titles—but only if the 60fps barrier is sacrosanct to you. If you’re fine with a console-quality 30fps, the VisionTek Radeon R9 380 never faltered below that mark, even with all the bells and whistles enabled in the most strenuous games.
But if console-quality graphics aren’t a bother, you can save some money by dropping down to the $150-$170 price range, where the tables turn and Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 950 reigns supreme. Graphics cards in that range can hit 40fps-plus at 1080p on High graphics settings.
For most people, we’d recommend saving your pennies for a few weeks more and stepping up to the $200 price range. The leap in graphics performance is massive, delivering a much more compelling 1080p gaming experience for a price that still won’t break the bank. It’s crazy how much performance you can get for $200 these days (though the R9 380 is not an upgrade from the older R9 280 and 280X, which were priced higher).
When Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 960 made its debut, we said that AMD needed to drop the Radeon R9 285’s price to $200 to remain competitive. With the Radeon R9 380, AMD did just that—and the little bit of extra oomph in the card’s clock speeds help make AMD’s offering the most enticing for mainstream gamers today.
As far the specific vendor implementation goes, the VisionTek Radeon R9 380’s stock-clocked offering may not push the envelope as fiercely as some other custom-cooled designs on the market, but the overall package is very clean and competent indeed, and that limited lifetime warranty is pretty darn enticing.
Brad Chacos spends his days digging through desktop PCs and tweeting too much. He specializes in graphics cards and gaming, but covers everything from security to Windows tips and all manner of PC hardware.