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AMD Radeon R9 285 Review: Tonga and GCN Update 3.0

On paper, the new Tonga-based R9 285 looks to be slightly slower than the R9 280 it is intended to replace, but there's more than meets the eye.

Radeon R9 285 Holds its Own at $250

When we average out the benchmark performance across all of the tests we've taken for this article, we are left with the following aggregate results. These are normalized to the Radeon R9 270X, which represents the 100% baseline. Note that these numbers do not include Mantle performance. We also decided to leave Assassin's Creed IV out of this average result as we're a bit skeptical that it represents a typical scenario.

This is not a situation that we expected to see. Based on the specifications alone, we thought that the Radeon R9 285 would fall behind the Radeon R9 280 when it comes to average game performance. In actual benchmarks it comes very close, sometimes beating and sometimes losing to the Radeon R9 280 by a small amount, and slightly besting its predecessor on average. This indicates that AMD's new lossless color compression scheme is effective enough to compensate for the raw memory bandwidth deficit that the 256-bit Radeon R9 285 suffers compared to the 384-bit Radeon R9 280. That alone is an impressive technical accomplishment.

From the perspective of a gamer, the Radeon R9 285 isn't quite as impressive when compared to the Radeon R9 280 it will replace. Sure, performance-per-watt has improved significantly, and it's nice to have access to new features such as TrueAudio, a revamped 4K-compatible UVD/VCE, and bridgeless CrossFire. But the most important metric to a gamer is FPS-per-dollar, and this doesn't change much vs. the Radeon R9 280.

Having said that, the Radeon R9 285 is a wonderful option at $250 and probably represents the best product a gamer can buy for that price, just as the Radeon R9 280 did. I certainly wouldn't recommend that current Radeon R9 280 owners upgrade to the Radeon R9 285, as there wouldn't be a noticeable performance improvement. But for folks coming from entry-level graphics cards, the Radeon R9 285 is an excellent upgrade choice and delivers true high-detail 1080p gaming.

We'd also like to address the GeForce GTX 760's position on our average performance chart. Seeing the 760 sit just below the Radeon R9 270X wasn't something we expected, and this situation caused us to re-run the majority of benchmarks and cross-reference them with other tests we've taken. The results were consistent, though, and we believe this situation is the result of a combination of factors including some newer game titles such as Thief (that favor the GCN architecture), mixed with some high-detail settings that don't sit well with the GeForce GTX 760's 192 GB/s of memory bandwidth (bandwidth that doesn't benefit from lossless color compression). We wouldn't count out the GeForce GTX 760, a card that uses even less power than the Radeon R9 285, but we're beginning to wonder if it's time to re-assess its position over a wider range of benchmarks.

As for Nvidia's other offerings, the GeForce GTX 770 performed admirably, beating out the Radeon R9 280X. It's also no secret that this company is rumored to have its next-generation GPU architecture poised on the horizon. If so, this could have a major impact on the $250 market, depending on what kind of competing products are released over the next quarter. Of course we won't have anything concrete to conclude about that until Nvidia tips its hand.

Before tying this up, we should also mention some updates to AMD's Never Settle game bundle promotion.  Dubbed the Never Settle: Space Edition, new titles have been added to the mix including the upcoming Alien: Isolation (a gold-tier option), and Star Citizen (which includes an AMD-themed in-game racing spaceship, a gold- or silver-tier option). While Nvidia is offering Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel with its GeForce GTX 770/780/Titan cards, we do think that AMD's bundle offers more choice.

In the final analysis, we have no reservations that would prevent us from recommending the Radeon R9 285 at the $250 price point. Having said that, we're just as enthusiastic about the end-of-lifed Radeon R9 280, especially if we see prices drop as it is cleared out. While the Radeon R9 285 does offer compelling new features, lower power usage, and a good value proposition right now, the best part may come to consumers after some time has passed: a cheaper-to-manufacture 256-bit memory interface may provide AMD with more room to lower prices in the future.