With the launch of the new Radeon R9 380X, AMD’s stepping up to fill a massive hole in the graphics card universe, between the “it’s solid for most games at 1080p” Radeon R9 380 / GeForce GTX 960 tier at roughly $200, and the “This rocks for 1440/high” R9 390 / GTX 970 at roughly $300.
Nvidia hasn’t bothered releasing a 960 Ti (or what-have-you) for the GeForce 900-series family, and when AMD refreshed its entire Radeon lineup in one fell swoop this past June, there was no R9 300-series equivalent to the older Radeon R9 280X. The crucial $200 to $300 price point lay dormant, and gamers looking for modern graphics cards with uncompromising 1080p chops were left wanting unless they wanted to splurge on one of the $300-plus options. Frankly, $300 is over the budget of the vast majority of gamers, and the GTX 970 and Radeon R9 390 are overkill if all you want is to hit 60 frames-per-second on your 1080p with all the eye candy cranked to 11.
Enter the $230 AMD Radeon R9 380X. You read that right: not $250, but $230. This is why healthy competition rocks.
Radeon R9 380X tech specs
Rather than being a cut-down R9 390, the Radeon R9 380X is a beefed-up R9 380: more stream processors, more memory, faster memory and core clocks, et cetera. Where the R9 380 offers GPU clock speeds up to 970MHz and a pricier 4GB memory option, those are both the starting point for the new card. The Radeon R9 380X is basically the Tonga GPU (which first appeared in the older R9 285) unleashed—which, as one of AMD’s newer GPU architectures, means it has full support for all the latest Radeon software features, like FreeSync, Frame Rate Target Control, and Virtual Super Resolution.
The chart above shows nitty-gritty details for the reference R9 380X, but don’t expect to see cards packing those specs on store shelves today. AMD says the first wave of R9 380X products will be overclocked, custom-cooled models by a wide range of AMD partners like VisionTek, Asus, XFX, Gigabyte, HIS, PowerColor, and VTX3D, with prices for custom variants starting around $240.
AMD sent us a Sapphire Nitro R9 380X for review. When I saw it, I couldn’t help but smile: Sapphire recently sent us a Nitro R9 390 for testing, and as you can see in PCWorld’s massive graphics card roundup, that card’s cooling solution is no joke—keeping even the power-hungry 390 cool and ludicrously quiet. The custom Dual-X cooling solution Sapphire slapped on the 380X isn’t quite the same as the Tri-X cooler on its Nitro 390/390X cards, but it still proved effective (as you’ll see later) and almost utterly silent.
There’s no doubt about it: Sapphire’s cooling solutions are rapidly shaping up to be one of the best around, and the thermal control it provides helped Sapphire crank this card’s core clock speed to 1040MHz and its memory clocks up to 6GBps. AMD says most of the 380X cards available on day one will feature 50MHz to 60MHz overclocks, much like this one.
Sapphire’s Nitro R9 380X features many other niceties as well: thick copper heatpipes, dual ball-bearing fans, black diamond chokes, a card-length heatsink with horizontal fins, and an eye-catching backplate with a deliciously futuristic design. It’s a sturdy, premium-feeling card.
Connectivity-wise, there’s DVI-D, DVI-I, HDMI, and DisplayPort, the last of which is a must-have if you’re considering going with a FreeSync display (which is recommended if you plan on using it for 1440p gaming, the niche AMD’s pushing it for). The R9 380X requires a pair of 6-pin connectors to draw power, with a 190-watt TDP rating.
AMD Radeon R9 380X benchmark tests
We booted up PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card benchmark system to test the Sapphire Nitro R9 380X. Here are the relevant tidbits:
While AMD’s positioning the card as an entry-level 2560×1440 gaming option, the text on Sapphire’s Nitro R9 380X box says it’s aimed at gaming at high levels at 1080p. As such, we’re comparing the card against both cheaper 1080p-focused graphics cards—the $200 VisionTek R9 380, $200 EVGA GeForce GTX 960 SSC, and $160 EVGA GeForce GTX 950 SSC—as well as the pricier $300-and-up Sapphire Nitro R9 390 and EVGA GeForce GTX 970 FTW, which are great 1440p options.
Every game was tested using its in-game benchmark, using the default graphics settings stated unless noted otherwise, with V-Sync, G-Sync, FreeSync, and any vendor-specific features (like Nvidia’s Multi-Frame-Sampled Anti-aliasing technology) disabled.
While some high-profile DirectX 12 benchmarks have arisen in recent months, we’re not using them yet, as they’re based on unfinished titles. No DirectX 12 games are currently available, though they’re expected to start trickling out before the end of the year. Simply put, while DirectX 12 is incredibly exciting in theory, in practice it’s too early to start testing cards with it yet.
Note that any ‘0’ scores on these charts mean we didn’t test that particular graphics card using that particular setting, because we’re mixing 1080p and 1440p. You can click on any graph to enlarge it if you’d like.
Got it? Good. Let’s dig in.
Grand Theft Auto V’s memory requirements at higher settings and resolutions can hammer top-end cards, but it scales well and isn’t as intensive at 1080p or 1440p. Because the game doesn’t have overarching preset graphics settings like “Medium” or “Ultra,” we tested it a few different ways: with FXAA enabled and every option set to Normal at 1080p, with FXAA enabled and every option set to Very High at 1440p, and using the same 1440p settings but with 4x MSAA and Reflection MSAA enabled.
GTAV’s favoritism towards Nvidia cards shines through here. Note that while we test with everything set to Normal at 1080p to level the playing field, the Radeon R9 380X can turn the vast majority of settings up to High or Very High and still hit a constant 60fps. (We’ll probably start testing at higher graphics settings in the future.) Without MSAA enabled, the R9 380X averages over 50fps even at 1440p.
The card cruises past the crucial 60fps barrier at High settings in Dragon Age Inquisition too, delivering performance that’s a solid 5 to 10 frames per second faster than the $200 options. DAI’s Ultra setting almost goes overboard on the quality and anti-aliasing options, which nukes frame rates but doesn’t offer a comparable increase in eye candy in return. Still, if you want to crank everything to 11, the Sapphire Nitro R9 380X can do so to the respectable tune of 44fps at 1080p. It hits similar frame rates with High settings at 1080p—far below what the R9 390 and GTX 970 offer.
Nvidia’s “The way it’s meant to be played” logo holds a prominent place in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s start-up splash screens, but the game actually favors Radeon cards, as our testing has consistently proven over the past year. Because the in-game Ultra preset doesn’t truly boost everything to 11, we test “Ultra” by manually cranking every graphics option to its highest setting, using the optional memory-gobbling HD Ultra Texture Pack on 1440p cards with 4GB of RAM, but not when we’re testing at 1080p resolution.
The Radeon R9 380X hits the crucial 60fps average at both 1080p/Ultra—again, a 5fps to 10fps lead over the R9 380 and GTX 970, respectively—and 1440p/High. If you’re fine with dialing things down slightly, to 1080p/High, you’ll enjoy blistering 90fps frame rates. That’s responsive gameplay.
Alien Isolation’s gameplay is terrifying, but its performance is anything but. Every card we’ve tested—even the lowly $100 GTX 750 Ti—hits 60fps at 1080p/Ultra, while the Sapphire Nitro R9 380X clears 100fps. It hits 71fps at 1440p, but once again, still lags far behind the beefier R9 390 and GTX 970, each of which deliver 20fps more.
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition is an amped-up remake of a sleeper hit game. Its Extreme graphics settings really lean on multiple passes of intensive anti-aliasing options, which drastically reduces frame rate. Pay more attention to the High settings results here. As with every other game, the R9 380X’s results are solidly above the $200 options at 1080p, but far below the $300 cards’ oomph at 1440p.
Similarly, Metro: Last Light Redux is a glitzed-up version of the superb, haunting Metro: Last Light. The R9 380X performs well here, though it falls south of 60fps—a critical bar to hit in first-person shooters—at 1440p/High. Not at 1080p/Ultra, however.
We also test all cards using 3DMark Fire Strike, a synthetic benchmark, but one that’s well respected and oft-used within the industry.
As usual these days, AMD’s cards consume more power than Nvidia’s, though the fact that the R9 380X is more potent than the GTX 960 no doubt plays into the 100W difference between the two cards. 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. It’s basically a worst-case scenario situation. During most actual gameplay, power usage hovered between 270W and 300W for the R9 380X.
Considering the higher power draw it makes sense that the R9 380X runs a wee bit hotter than the R9 380 and GTX 960. It also runs a wee bit hotter than the $300 graphics cards, but those models tend to have far larger heatsinks and additional fans. Sapphire’s cooling solution holds up superbly in practice and as I mentioned earlier, it runs damned near silent.
“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.”
The extra oomph in AMD’s R9 380X pushes it over the smoothness hump by offering a roughly 8- to 15-percent boost in frame rates compared to its little brother—not a large jump, but a clear one. This card routinely clears 60fps at 1080p at High or Ultra settings, its 4GB of memory seems more future-proof than the 2GB found in base-level R9 380 and GTX 960 models, and Sapphire’s cooling solution is utterly superb. The R9 380X is a clear and worthwhile upgrade over the older Radeon 7850/7870, though existing R9 280X owners will want to sit pat.
While you can certainly use the R9 380X as an entry-level 1440p gaming solution, you won’t be able to hit a consistent 60fps with High graphics settings in most games. In more strenuous newer games—like Witcher 3—that’s likely to dip far lower, at which point you might want to invest in a FreeSync monitor as well. Or better yet, if you really want to get into 1440p gaming, save your dollars and spend the extra $50 on a R9 390 or GTX 970. The extra money is worth it there (and the Sapphire Nitro R9 390 and EVGA GTX 970 FTW I’ve tested both rock). Those cards simply blow away the R9 380X at 1440p.
Alternatively, you could consider shopping around for the precious few R9 290 cards that are lingering at online retailers. We’ve seen them selling for as little as $200—yes, just $200—as they’re being flushed from the system and it delivers superior performance to the R9 380X, though it falls short of the newer R9 390 and GTX 970.
That said, the R9 380X fills a crucial hole in the market, and it’s the best 1080p/60fps card around—for now, at least. I’d be shocked if Nvidia didn’t have a GTX 960 Ti waiting in the wings, but even if it does, the company will be hard-pressed to meet AMD’s fiercely competitive pricing on the $230 R9 380X. While the R9 380’s street pricing has drifted as low as $180, the GTX 960 still sells for a solid $200 and up, and the GTX 950 ain’t far behind at $160 and up. Nvidia doesn’t have much wiggle room unless it drops prices across the board—or it releases a card with better performance than the R9 380X, and priced higher accordingly.