AMD deserves some serious props for even creating the Radeon R9 Nano in the first place.
This pint-sized powerhouse is the latest in a long line of AMD technical innovations that skate to where the puck is going, rather than where the puck is lingering today. Built around revolutionarily tiny—and fast—high-bandwidth memory, the six-inch Radeon R9 Nano delivers flagship-level performance in a form factor that fits where most other graphics cards simply can’t.
In an age where graphics cards keep expanding with heat pipes and heat sinks and fans in order to push performance to 11, the Nano’s more holistic design approach is a breath of fresh air, dragging mini-ITX (mITX) graphics cards out from the shadows and into the spotlight. It truly feels forward-thinking—the first top-tier graphics card designed for a future where mainstream computing increasingly shifts towards NUCs and Steam Machines and small-form-factor designs and PCs-on-a-stick. There’s no other card out there like quite it, and the Nano will bring tremendous joy to the people pining for its particular blend of high-end features.
But pushing the PC ecosystem forward isn’t possible without some growing pains. The $650 Radeon Nano rocks, but it won’t appeal to everybody—not by a long shot.
Let’s dig in.
AMD Radeon R9 Nano under the hood
The $650 asking price for the Radeon R9 Nano shocked some people, but AMD’s deft design of the Nano goes a long way toward justifying the flagship-level cost. This is the most powerful mini-ITX graphics card ever created, and every aspect of it screams premium.
How Nano’s so small: @Gordonung’s Project Quantum dissection shows Fiji GPU vs a 290X board http://t.co/0gGG3aAqM6 pic.twitter.com/p3xSCHjqeI— Brad Chacos (@BradChacos) September 2, 2015
The Nano’s six-inch length is its most notable feature, naturally, enabled by the tremendous space and power savings of high-bandwidth memory, which is integrated with the GPU. The card’s a hair smaller in both length and width than Asus’ GTX 970 DirectCU Mini, the Nano’s closest GeForce-based miniature competitor. (Nvidia doesn’t offer mini-ITX variants of the GTX 980 or 980 Ti.)
One more: The @AMDRadeon R9 Nano is slightly shorter than the Asus GeForce GTX 970 DirectCU Mini mITX graphics card pic.twitter.com/z8JHa9d4qp— Brad Chacos (@BradChacos) September 2, 2015
And it’s downright puny compared to the hulking Asus Strix Fury. The Fury is AMD’s other air-cooled graphics card built around a Fiji GPU and cutting-edge high-bandwidth memory.
Well look what just showed up from @AMDRadeon: The R9 Nano. Asus Strix Fury shown for size comparison. pic.twitter.com/O7D2NaE1L9— Brad Chacos (@BradChacos) September 2, 2015
Here’s a picture of the Radeon Nano next to a pencil and a battery for yet more scale.
More comparisons: The @AMDRadeon R9 Nano vs. a AA battery and a #2 pencil. pic.twitter.com/enjHx7pD7j— Brad Chacos (@BradChacos) September 2, 2015
The Nano takes its design cues from AMD’s other flagship, the also $650, water-cooled Radeon R9 Fury X. The Nano features a black metal shroud with a soft-touch aluminum finish, with RADEON emblazoned in bright red across its front and outer edge. It lacks a backplate, however, and for cooling it sticks to a single fan integrated in the shroud, sitting atop a card-length heat sink with horizontal fins. The GPU itself stays chilly thanks to a hybrid flattened-heatpipe/vapor-chamber solution. There’s even a dedicated copper heatpipe just for the Nano’s voltage regulator module.
Our deep dive into the Nano’s design shines even more light on its inner workings, but the important part is that the cooling setup works well, as you’ll see once we wade into benchmarks. That’s a good thing, because AMD says customized Nanos from its graphics vendor partners (like Asus and Sapphire) won’t necessarily be available. If they ever are, it’ll be at least three months after launch—and even then, third-party vendors won’t be allowed to touch the GPU’s base specs.
Speaking of which, those specs are no joke. The Radeon R9 Nano packs the same full-fat, 4096 stream processor-strong Fiji graphics processor as the Fury X, along with the same 4GB of HBM. The Nano’s GPU isn’t an exact mirror of its bigger sibling, however: In order to squeeze Fiji into a mITX form factor without liquid cooling, AMD reduced the clock speed of the Nano’s GPU enough to allow the card to consume a mere 175 watts of energy over a single 8-pin power connector. The Fury X, on the other hand, requires two 8-pin connectors and 275W.
There’s more to it than the listed specs, however. On paper, the Fury X is clocked at 1050MHz, while the Radeon R9 Nano hits up to 1000MHz—but the Nano uses an aggressive version of AMD’s PowerTune technology to dynamically adjust the clock speeds to meet the card’s thermal and power targets. Observing real-time clock specs for the Nano using GPU-Z, it ran at 650MHz to 680MHz in the Furmark benchmark (which both AMD and Nvidia call a “power virus”), typically 859MHz to 926MHz in 3DMark’s Fire Strike (though it dropped to 700MHz during the last, most stressful scene), and 852MHz to 917MHz in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
That seems like a recipe for stuttering and frame rate issues, but nope: Games ran like a champ, while the card stayed cool and relatively quiet. AMD said the Nano would outpunch the older Radeon 290X flagship while using drastically less power, and spoiler alert: It does.
It also drastically outperforms the GeForce GTX 970, the most powerful mITX graphics card in Nvidia’s arsenal. Heck, the downclocked Fiji GPU in the Radeon R9 Nano even trumps a full-sized GTX 980 in most cases.
Next page: Testbed details and gameplay benchmarks
PCWorld’s faithful graphics card testing system was pressed into action yet again for this review, loaded with all sorts of high-end parts to avoid introducing bottlenecks that don’t stem from the GPU itself. Our build guide for the PC has all the nitty-gritty details, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:
- Intel’s Core i7-5960X with a Corsair Hydro Series H100i closed-loop water cooler. No CPU bottlenecks allowed!
- An Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard
- Corsair’s Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory, Obsidian 750D full tower case, and 1200-watt AX1200i power supply
- Games and the operating system are installed on a 480GB Intel 730 series SSD
- Windows 8.1 Pro. We’ll be upgrading to Windows 10 soon, but haven’t yet.
The $650 AMD Radeon R9 Nano is an odd little beast, so we compared it against numerous other graphics cards. On Team Red, we pit the Nano against the older Radeon 290X that AMD’s so keen to compare it against, as well as the aftermarket $470 Asus Strix version of the Radeon 390X, the $650 Fury X, and the air-cooled $580 Asus Strix Fury. On Nvidia’s side, there’s the GTX 980 Ti of course, because it’s the same $650 price as the Nano. We also included both the reference GTX 980 as well as EVGA’s overclocked, custom-cooled GTX 980 FTW. And because the most powerful mITX graphics card Nvidia offers is the GeForce GTX 970, we also tested an AMD-supplied mITX Asus GTX 970 DirectCU Mini, as well as the full-sized EVGA GeForce GTX 970 FTW, which sports similar tweaks to EVGA’s GTX 980 FTW.
Every game was tested using in-game benchmark tests at both 4K and 2560×1440 resolutions, with the default graphics settings stated unless noted otherwise. V-Sync and any vendor-specific features were disabled.
Let’s kick things off with Grand Theft Auto V, which traditionally favors GeForce cards. That holds true here, but look at where the Nano lands: Far ahead of the GTX 970s, roughly equal with the air-cooled Asus Strix Fury, and lingering near the GTX 980s in most configurations. At 4K resolution with all graphics settings jacked to “Very High,” FXAA enabled, anisotropic filtering set to x16, and all sliders cranked to the max, the Nano actually outperforms the reference GTX 980. That’s crazy for such a small, cool-running card.
Using the same settings at 2560×1440 widens the performance gulf between the Nano and the GTX 980s—with the EVGA 980 FTW claiming a sizeable 9 frames per second (fps) advantage—but activating 4x MSAA and 4x reflection MSAA at the same settings drags performance back to comparable levels (though Nvidia still claims the crown). You’re much more likely to use MSAA options at 1440p than you are at 4K.
Next up: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, which favors Radeon cards despite bearing an Nvidia splash screen when the game boots up. Here, we see the opposite of what we saw with GTA V: the Nano comes in slightly behind the Fury, slightly ahead of the overclocked EVGA GTX 980, and far ahead of the reference GTX 980. The one exception is at 4K resolution with all graphics options manually cranked to their highest available settings (which the default “Ultra” preset doesn’t do), where the EVGA 980 FTW ekes out a slight win.
The GTX 970s? Not even in the equation. Note that the $650 Nano doesn’t approach the performance levels of the full-sized $650 GTX 980 Ti or $650 Fury X, however.
Dragon Age Inquisition isn’t only one of the best PC games released in the past year, it can hammer even beefy graphics cards at 4K resolution. No card hits even 30fps at Ultra settings at 4K. The Nano, Fury, and the GTX 980s all hang closely here at both resolutions.
Alien Isolation is terrifying, gorgeous, and scales well across all hardware. The usual suspects turn in a tight cluster of results with everything set to Ultra at 4K resolution, but the Strix Fury and EVGA 980 FTW pull ahead a bit at 1440p—though the Nano also plants itself firmly ahead of the reference GTX 980. Again, the GTX 970 duo fails to compete, with the Asus 970 DirectCU Mini falling a full 20 fps behind the Nano. AMD was right: Nvidia’s most powerful mini-ITX GeForce card simply can’t compare to the Nano.
Next page: Gaming benchmarks continued.
Given Unreal Engine 3’s ubiquity in the gaming world, no graphics card review would be complete without at least one UE3 benchmark. Bioshock Infinite’s our guinea pig. The performance trend we’ve been seeing with other titles continue here.
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition ’s Extreme preset hits graphics cards even harder than Dragon Age, thanks to some extreme anti-aliasing.
Metro: Last Light Redux is a gorgeous HD remaster of an impressive, densely atmospheric game, built using 4A Games’ custom 4A Engine. We test with both PhysX and SSAA disabled. AMD’s cards win out here, with the gulf widening as you move down to lower graphics detail settings.
Next page: 3DMark Fire Strike, heat, and power use results.
The Nano’s score in 3DMark’s widely respected Fire Strike and Fire Strike Ultra synthetic benchmarks fall between the reference GTX 980 and the amped-up EVGA model.
The real story with the Nano is just how much performance AMD managed to squeeze of the card while keeping its energy consumption and temperatures in line.
While it sucks a bit more juice than the reference GTX 980, it performs closer to the EVGA GTX 980 FTW, which uses much more power. Simply put, the Fiji GPU flirts with the vaunted power efficiency of Nvidia’s Maxwell architecture in the Nano. And look at how much power the Radeon R9 290X and 390X consume in comparison.
Power is measured by plugging the entire system into a Watts Up meter, then running a stress test with Furmark—again, the test dubbed a “power virus” by both AMD and Nvidia—for 15 minutes.
Temperatures hovered around a consistent 75C degrees during gameplay, just as AMD promised, though it maxed out at 78C during the strenuous Furmark benchmark. I was worried that the single fan design would prove loud under duress, but subjectively, it stayed nice and quiet throughout—not the quietest graphics card I’ve ever heard, yet far from the loudest, as well. It won’t disturb you.
The Nano’s design is vastly improved over the Radeon R9 290X’s, and that comes through emphatically in the tiny card’s heat and power results.
Next page: Further considerations and the bottom line
So there you have it: All of AMD’s claims for the Radeon R9 Nano proved true in real life. This pint-sized powerhouse is one of the most capable graphics cards around, flirting with performance on a par with the Asus Strix Fury, a full-sized card with an imposing cooling setup. It demolishes the GTX 970, Nvidia’s most capable mITX graphics card. It runs cool and quiet, and it manages to outpunch both the 290X and 390X while using far less power.
There’s no other graphics card like it. If you want uncompromising gaming performance from a mini-ITX PC and play at resolutions higher than 1080p, the Radeon Nano is easily the most powerful option available. Its diminutive stature and cool performance will allow it to fit into itty-bitty cases that full-sized graphics cards couldn’t even dream of squeezing into.
“For anyone who wants to build a small form factor chassis capable of playing 4K, the Nano is really interesting and that’s exactly where we targeted it,” AMD’s Victor Camardo said at a Nano press briefing last month. “For those people who want power efficiency, who want high-performance, who want a good overall gaming solution that’s optimized to take advantage of all aspects of the product, and not just push one curve or the other to the max.”
The AMD Radeon R9 Nano does just that. It feels unique. It feels forward-thinking, a harbinger in a world increasingly focused on cramming full PC performance into ever-smaller cases. And more than that, it feels premium, oozing style from every fiber of its being. People may scoff at the Nano’s $650 cost, but it manages to trade performance blows with the $580 Strix Fury and $530 EVGA GTX 980 FTW despite its far more diminutive stature and enviable power efficiency.
It’s amazing. A hell of a graphics card. The Radeon Nano fully justifies its $650 price point.
But most people shouldn’t buy it.
The Nano isn’t just a niche product, it’s an ultra-niche product—more a showcase for the space- and power-savings of HBM and Fiji than anything else. Currently, there are only a handful of (admittedly gorgeous) PC cases small enough to fit the Nano, but too compact for a larger graphics card. If size isn’t an issue, it makes more sense to spend your $650 on the far greater performance of a Fury X or GTX 980 Ti. (See: PCWorld’s recent mITX build starring AMD’s liquid-cooled Fury X.)
What’s more, some technical issues hold back key would-be use cases for the Nano. At this size, the Nano just begs to be used in a killer home theater PC designed around a 4K TV… but the card’s lone HDMI port is 1.4a, not 2.0, which means it’s limited to 30Hz at that resolution. To be fair, Nvidia’s HDMI 2.0-equipped high-end GeForce cards lack HDCP 2.2 support so they can’t play protected 4K content, either. It’s still a bummer in a card like the Nano, however. To find a graphics card with HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2, and H.265 encode/decode, you have to look to the $200 GTX 960 or $160 GTX 950, which don’t offer anywhere near the gaming performance of the Radeon Nano.
Likewise, the small size and big-time performance of the Radeon Nano would make it seem well-equipped for Valve’s impending Steam Machine army, but SteamOS is based on Linux, and frankly, AMD’s Linux drivers don’t perform well at all (though they’re working on it).
Finally, our lingering concerns about the air-cooled Fury still apply to the Radeon Nano. Yes, it’s capable of gaming at 4K resolution—but only at 30 fps to 50 fps on High graphics settings in most games. The golden standard for PC gaming is 60 fps, so you’ll either need to pick up a FreeSync monitor to smooth out your gaming or dial the resolution back to 2560×1440, where the Nano rules the mITX roost—by far—but the GTX 970 mITX still puts on an admirable show. And at 4K, the Nano’s 4GB of HBM is fine now, but I’d be worried about the long-term prospects of so little memory in future games at such high resolutions.
Add it all up, and you’re looking at a fairly niche market for the Nano—and gorgeous, powerful flagship products for niche markets always command a price premium. The Nano is easily worth the $650 for someone who needs its unique blend of features. Mini-ITX gaming PCs don’t need to compromise performance for size anymore.
Finally, let’s loop back to where we began: AMD deserves serious props for pushing HBM’s birth and creating this card in the first place. This is innovation. HBM’s radical power efficiency and space savings is the future of graphics card memory, and small form factors are increasingly becoming the new norm in desktop PCs, flogged on by the energy efficiency in Intel’s recent chips.
The AMD Radeon R9 Nano gives us a glimpse of that future today, fully earning its flagship status and hopefully—hopefully—encouraging case manufacturers and the rest of the component ecosystem into further investments in itty-bitty gaming PCs. The Radeon R9 Nano may not make sense for most gamers today, but I’m thankful it exists, and I can’t wait to see the next version.