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AMD Radeon RX 480 review: Graphics greatness you can actually afford?

It's cheap, but will it make you cheerful?

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AMD’s pixel pumping Radeon RX 480 is slightly old hat now. Despite its close competitor, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060, being alive and well and readily available to buy, the RX 480 has all but disappeared from online retailers – unless you want to pay massively over the odds for one, of course. That’s largely because it’s now been replaced by the newer RX 580, which shares the same GPU / chipset / thingy as the RX 480, but comes with a slightly higher clock speed, allowing it to run just a teeny bit faster compared to its 480 predecessor.

That said, until we’ve taken a closer look at said RX 580 to find out just how much better it is, you can get a pretty good idea of what it’s like by reading my original thoughts on the RX 480. So how does it perform? Forget the benchmarks, let’s give the new RX 480 a good old grope.

As before, I’m not going to get bogged down with the speeds and feeds. You can read my earlier post on the RX 480’s original announcement here for that. Or there’s a handy table comparison table here that puts the new GPU into technical context.

That said, one detail I do need to deal with involves graphics memory. The RX 480 is available in both 4GB and 8GB versions – much like the RX 580. I’m looking at both options here. So, yes, I do have an answer to the 4GB versus 8GB conundrum.

All I’ll add re the new RX 480’s technical gubbins is that, for my money, the most interesting element is that it exists at all given AMD has ditched its long-time manufacturing partner TSMC and shacked up with Global Foundaries. Polaris is the first big GPU to come out of that partnership and it’s being produced on a pretty cutting-edge 14nm process (down from 28nm for AMD previous graphics chips), so it’s a relief to see that AMD and GloFo managed to get the thing out the door. It could have gone horribly wrong.

The caveat to all that involves the relatively modest clockspeeds – modest compared to Nvidia’s latest GPUs, at least. But hold that thought, let’s find out what the RX 480 is really like.

AMD’s new board lacks the visual theatrics of Nvidia’s fancy-pants new Geforce cards

My instinct coming in and having studiously avoided reading third-party impressions was that the 8GB board would be the one to go for. So that’s what I kicked off with. As ever, I’m running things pretty much maxxed out in terms of image quality settings, but refer to my Nvidia Geforce GTX 1080 hands-on for more detail on my non-scientific and intentionally touchy-feely approach. This isn’t about benchmakrs.

Keen as I often am to entirely miss the point, I jumped straight into the irrelevance that is running Doom running at 4K. It’s a thoroughly tedious game in single-player mode and the one thing the RX 480 isn’t cracked up to be is a 4K machine.

But whaddyaknow, it’s actually completely playable even if you do get the odd slight stutter here and there. To be honest, that probably says more about how efficiently coded the latest engine from id is and in turn how badly coded most other games are than it does about the RX 480. Using the Vulkan codepath, Doom seems to fly on just about everything.

Needless to say, it’s really slick at 2,560×1,080 on the 480 and pretty much impeccable at 1080p. Time for a real test, therefore. Let’s try Total War: Attila, a beast of a game that brings the likes of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 to its knees.

The single six-pin power connector means the RX 480 should play nicely with even modest power supply units

At 1080p or 1,920×1,080 pixels, the RX 480 is slick and smooth everywhere, which is a relief. I had feared it might show signs of slowdowns zoomed in among the troop formations at ground level. Jump to 1,440p, however, and you do get a little of that.

It’s fine with the camera giving you a broader, aerial view of the battle and – let’s be honest – that’s what you’re almost always doing in practice. But that ground-level perspective reveals the 480’s limitations. It doesn’t fall apart, but the drop off in frame rates is obvious enough. Needless to say, 4K in Attila is ugly. Even zoomed out, it’s a pretty juddery experience.

Next up is Witcher 3 at 1440p, or 2,560×1,440 pixels. The RX 480 is actually pretty playable, hurrah. It’s hard to spot specific faults with the performance or pick out conspicuous slow downs or dropped frames. The response to inputs feels snappy, too. And yet you also wouldn’t call it buttery smooth.

It’s only when you drop the res down to 1080p that you can really put your finger on the performance shortfall. At 1080p, the rendering is that critical bit more fluid and easy, which is either fine if 1080p is your target or a little disappointing if you have a 1440p panel. Anyway, the 8GB version of the 480 also hangs together surprisingly well when you up the ante to 4K. I wouldn’t actually want to play it at 4K with this card. But neither does the performance fall of a cliff.

Shadow of Mordor is our final destination and I jump straight into 1440p which the 480 handles with surprising aplomb. In isolation, it’s hard to fault. It feels as responsive as this particular game engine ever does, which is to say not terribly, and the frame rates feel smooth and playable. Once again, it’s the step down to 1080p and the slight but undeniable uptick in slickness that confirms the 480 is right at the edge of its abilities running at 1440p. There’s no margin, no performance to spare.

DisplayPorts aplenty. DVI? Not so much

At 4K in Mordor, it ain’t pretty. Well, the rendering quality is pretty, but there’s copious input lag and sluggish production of new frames. I’d guesstimate high teens re the frame rates.

All of which makes the new 480 in 8GB trim a very decent effort from AMD but not quite the game-changing value proposition I was hoping for. It’s not a 1440p killer for £200, that’s for sure. It’s usable at 1440p, don’t get me wrong. But it’s happier at 1080p and, personally, I’ve moved on from 1080p. It just ain’t enough.

But what of the 4GB version? Arguably, it’s academic. After all, the extra graphics memory is all about running at really high resolution, which isn’t the RX 480’s forte in any case. But for what it’s worth, at 1080p I can’t tell the difference at all and even at higher resolutions I’m not sure I can, either. Yup, that includes at 4K.

Certainly, there’s no dramatic drop off, no evidence of texture swapping over the PCI Express bus putting the kibosh on the frame rates. This was a surprise, so I hopped in and out of Witcher and Shadow of Mordor at 1440p over and over trying to sense some advantage with the 8GB board. Maybe it did feel just a little smoother. But maybe I was projecting.

It’s not quite the budget 1440P board we’ve been waiting for

At that point I cheated a little and perused the web for benchmark numbers. Sure enough, various comparison tests reveal that the 8GB board is typically just a few frames per second faster. In other words, not enough that you’ll actually be able to feel the difference.

All of which means that the RX 480 – and by extension the RX 580 – is a pretty nice bit of kit depending on your needs. It’s a great 1,080p gaming card and a workable option for 1,440p with a little tweaking to the odd graphical setting, and it’s also slightly cheaper than its main rival, Nvidia’s GTX 1060, with 4GB variants going for as little as £240 on Amazon and 8GB versions costing around £50-60 more depending on model. Whether that’s good enough is up to you, but when the next cards up (ie: Nvidia’s GTX 1070 and AMD’s RX Vega 56) are going to set you back at least £400, the RX 580 makes a pretty compelling case for those with slightly less-demanding gaming setups.

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