AMD Radeon R9 Nano Review

Small, fast and pricey — that’s how AMD wants to establish a whole new product category. But does the Radeon R9 Nano have the performance to back up its price tag?

"In a Class of Its Own"

This is the marketing slogan that AMD keeps feeding us. Over and over, the company tells us just how great it is to game at 4K using a small form factor platform. Believe us AMD, we know. The Tom's Hardware audience certainly appreciates the technical acumen that goes into generating big frame rates in compact enclosures.

We're certainly not surprised to see AMD emphasize the highest resolutions with its newest products. As far back as last year’s FirePro W8100 and W9100, AMD declared high-res 3D to be the killer feature distinguishing it from the competition. The thought process was fairly simple. If you can't beat the other team in a straight-up battle, find a way around them.

So what does all of that have to do with the launch of AMD's Radeon R9 Nano? As we saw in theory when we teased the Fiji GPUs, and then in practice when we reviewed the Fury X, the graphics processor's design shines particularly at high resolutions.

And it’s easy to explain why: a quick look at the Fiji block diagram illustrates the chip's four shader engines, similar to Hawaii's configuration. Each has its own geometry processor and rasterizer, as well as four render back ends that can process up to 16 pixels per clock each. Fiji distinguishes itself by increasing the number of compute units (CUs) per shader unit from 11 to 16. With 64 shaders per CU, each engine ends up with 1024 shaders, or 4096 shaders total. AMD stuck with four texture filter units per CU, which means that there’s a total of 256 per shader engine, as opposed to Hawaii’s 176.

Perhaps you're wondering if the lack of change in the front end bottlenecks the back? We got our answer back when we reviewed the Radeon R9 Fury X. That's why Fiji fares better at high resolutions, but runs into trouble against the competition at Full HD.

The Form Factor as the Next Big Thing?

With our guesses as to AMD's newly-discovered focus on Ultra HD out of the way, we turn to the company's most recent obsession: compact high-end graphics cards for the mini-ITX form factor. There’s no real competition in this space. The nearest threat is Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 970 Mini, which has trouble with high resolutions due to its memory subsystem.

If there’s one thing that Nvidia and its board partners have completely missed, it’s high-end graphics designed for small PCs (though that doesn't stop companies like Falcon Northwest from dropping GeForce GTX 980 Tis into mini-ITX builds). The HBM that AMD takes advantage of on its single-GPU flagship is also a boon for the Radeon R9 Nano. Still, the GeForce GTX 970 Mini shows us that a small card from Nvidia isn't out of the question, even if GDDR5 makes layout more of a challenge.

Without a diminutive 980 variant planned (that we know of), the gap in Nvidia’s line-up is exactly what AMD wants to capitalize on, delivering high performance at demanding settings without generating a ton of heat. As it turns out, AMD's Radeon R9 Nano is a great piece of hardware; there's really nothing like it out there. That’s probably why AMD is setting its price at an eye-popping $649.

A lack of competition shapes our testing. Really, we're forced to narrow our focus to the Radeon R9 Nano versus Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 970 Mini, which is close in size but not as fast.


AMD
Radeon
R9 Nano
AMD
Radeon
Fury X
Gigabyte
GTX 970
Mini
Gigabyte
GTX 970
Mini (OC)
MSI
R9 390X
Gaming 8G
MSI
GTX 980
Gaming 4G
Shader Units
409640961664166428162048
ROPs646456566464
GPUFijiFijiGM204GM204HawaiiGM204
Transistors8.9 Billion
8.9 Billion
5.2 Billion5.2 Billion
6.2 Billion5.2 Billion
Amount of Memory
4096MB4096MB4096MB4096MB8192MB4096MB
Memory Interface4096-bit4096-bit256-bit256-bit512-bit256-bit
GPU Clock Frequency
Up to
1000MHz
Up to
1050MHz
1076MHz+1226MHz+1100MHz1126MHz+
Memory Frequency
500MHz500MHz1750MHz1800MHz1500MHz1750MHz
Price$649 (MSRP)$650 (MSRP)
$313$313$430
$540

MORE: Best Graphics Cards For The Money
MORE: All Graphics Content

In addition to our usual test system, we’re using the X-Hardware X-Trem 4790 for operating temperature, power consumption and noise measurements. This PC case fits well with our test setup, and employs AMD’s preferred mini-ITX form factor.

AMD’s Target: Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 970 Mini

We have a number of mini-ITX graphics cards in the lab, but again, only Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 970 Mini is in a similar league. More specifically, we’re using the Gigabyte’s GTX 970 OC (Mini). The factory-overclocked board can be further tuned by another 150MHz or so. Even at those clock rates, it stays stable, its power consumption remains reasonable and the card doesn’t sound like a jet engine.

Its performance is acceptable for 1920x1080 and often for 2560x1440 as well. In light of its reasonable $320 street price, Nvidia's card actually sits pretty. But is 3840x2160 viable with just 3.5GB of usable memory? We’ll have to see about that. The plan is to test with and without optimized overclocking. In the end, though, it'll be at a disadvantage no matter what.

Gigabyte's GTX 970 OC Mini has the same power target as the reference card: 145W. We managed to raise it by 12 percent, giving us two test points (the original stock frequencies with a stable GPU Boost clock rate of 1151MHz and the manually overclocked version at 1301MHz+).

The cooler is surprisingly strong, but can’t overcome physics. Consequently, it gets loud above 160W. This is why we’re using the original BIOS, without any additional changes to the power target. Usually, end users won’t mess with that either. There are two DVI outputs (one combined with an analog connector), three DisplayPort connectors and one HDMI 2.0 port found on the back of the card. The latter is a feature that is both noticeably and painfully absent from AMD's Radeon R9 Nano with its 4K emphasis.

We’ll find out later how the small Nvidia graphics card fares against AMD’s Radeon R9 Nano, which is supposedly "In a Class of Its Own." Let’s first take a look at AMD’s new offering, though.

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115 comments
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  • nikolajj
    I love this segment. If I was building today, I would do a small build for sure!
  • Eximo
    Looks like the table had a hiccup. GTX970 (OC) is showing a lot of the numbers from the R9-390X, and maybe a few numbers from the 980 column.
  • Yuka
    It is a nice card and I agree, but... It's not USD $650 nice.

    This card is a very tough sell for AMD, specially since ITX cases that can house current long cards are not hard to find or weird enough to make short cards a thing.

    It's nice to see it's up there with the GTX970 in terms of efficiency, since HTPCs need that to be viable and the card has no apparent shortcomings from what I could read here.

    All in all, it needs to drop a bit in price. It's not "650 nice", but making it "~500 nice" sounds way better. Specially when the 970 mini is at 400.

    Cheers!
  • FormatC
    @Eximo:
    The table will be fixed, this was a copy issue :D
  • sna
    no HDMI2.0 in itx small system near the 4k TV is unforgivable AMD , what were you thinking?
  • sna
    73949 said:
    It is a nice card and I agree, but... It's not USD $650 nice. This card is a very tough sell for AMD, specially since ITX cases that can house current long cards are not hard to find or weird enough to make short cards a thing. It's nice to see it's up there with the GTX970 in terms of efficiency, since HTPCs need that to be viable and the card has no apparent shortcomings from what I could read here. All in all, it needs to drop a bit in price. It's not "650 nice", but making it "~500 nice" sounds way better. Specially when the 970 mini is at 400. Cheers!



    well this card is for the smallest case ... not the easy to find huge long itx case.

    I personaly find long itx cases useless ... they are very near to Matx case in size .. and people will pick up MATX ovet ITX any time if the size is the same.

    BUT for 170mm long card ? this is a winner.

    the only thing killing this product is the lack of HDMI2.0 which is very important for itx .. ITX are the console like PC near the tv.
  • Cryio
    The 390X was slower or as fast as a mini-970 in 1080p-1440p in all cases. What gives?
  • FormatC
    As the manually oc'ed version. Please compare it with the 970 Mini @stock :)
  • heffeque
    Quote:
    no HDMI2.0 in itx small system near the 4k TV is unforgivable AMD , what were you thinking?

    I guess that they were thinking about DisplayPort?
  • Nossy
    I'd go with the 950 GTX for a mini ITX build for a 1080pgaming/4k video HTPC.

    For a $650 bucks video card. I'd go with a 980TI and use a Raven RVZ01 if I want an ITX build with performance.
  • caiokn
    Nice to see such a nice product from AMD. I expect their next CPU line to be surprisingly good as well.
  • rhysiam
    While it's great to see a high end AMD card competing with Nvidia on efficiency, I wonder how aggressively they've had to bin the chips to get the Nano down to its TDP. Given the CLC and additional VRMs on the FuryX, these Nano's would have a substantially lower BOM and yet retail at the same price, making them a higher margin product. Reasonable bet they'll be getting the cream of the Fiji crop at the moment.

    It would be interesting to see whether under volting/clocking a FuryX could approach similar efficiency, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that most of them draw a chunk more power. Still, if you told me 6 months ago that AMD would have a high end card that's competitive with Maxwell in both performance and efficiency (particularly the latter), I'm not sure I'd have believed it.
  • tomc100
    The price is a bit high but Nvidia doesn't have a small form factor gpu with this much power and it's good to see AMD not pricing their gpu at ridiculously low prices and selling themselves short in order to compete with Nvidia. Time for Nvidia to drop prices. Now hopefully, their cpu division can keep up with Intel.
  • Au_equus
    AMD and the discrete GPU market needs this badly, but the lack of HDMI 2.0 is just another misstep for AMD. Its like they designed a sports car with the big engine, the high strength chassis, and the wide base with the road gripping tires. Then they put in an automatic transmission without the option for manual...
  • TallestJon96
    "Enthusiasts fond of space-saving gaming PCs have dreamed of a graphics card that runs as fast as a factory-overclocked Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 at Full HD resolution, and even faster at Ultra HD, while being smaller, lighter and even a bit less power hungry."

    They did? And that's oddly specific...

    Anyway, it's a good card, but too expensive, as the extra performance over a 970 isn't worth $300.

    Also, nvidia needs only to release a mini it's 989, and this niche will be filled.

    It's actually a great card, and I would use it if I had it, but the value just isn't there.
  • filippi
    mini it's 989? This is new...
  • XiPH3R
    great conclusion
  • AS118
    This is definitely a strong product for its niche, but I think that the regular Fury X is also a good small card. If I was building a small rig, I'd definitely consider that too.

    I wonder if working with Apple's rubbed off on AMD, they seem to be thinking of small form factors more often lately.
  • Xorak
    I suppose if you absolutely must pack the most power into the smallest case, than so be it. But even then, even the smallest cases seem to have at least one 120mm vent where you could sick the radiator of the Fury X and have a better, cooler solution for the same money. Assuming you could buy one of those, which realistically, you can't right now either.. Just my two cents. I got a 290x and freesync, I'm sitting this round out unless high end prices come way down. But I predict that the next full cycle will be a bigger step up than this one was. We should actually get that die size decrease and maybe 8gb of HBM will be cost effective by then.
  • jkhoward
    This card manages 30 FPS in most titles at 4K which isn't "playable" for most gamers. When paired against the 970 Mini in 1080p they are just about neck and neck.

    I am far from being a NVIDIA fanboy but... I guess I don't see the point in this product if it is $300 more expensive than the 970 Mini and cannot handle 4K with at least 60 FPS.
  • rgd1101
    they should replace the non-X fury with this, and at $500-$550.
  • Benthon
    Who spends $650 on a GPU but wouldn't spend $50+ buying a case that houses 10.5inch graphics cards?

    Nobody. That's the answer.
  • DONC314
    Sorry but I just don't get it. Spec wise it's a pretty good card, no question about that.
    At 600 bucks it is an answer to a question no one asked.
    Hopefully after it's out a while the market will determine a more realistic price.
  • FormatC
    414219 said:
    Who spends $650 on a GPU but wouldn't spend $50+ buying a case that houses 10.5inch graphics cards? Nobody. That's the answer.


    Mini-ITX is a good solution for living room PCs. All this funny gaming towers are too big and ugly to use it in a well-designed room. And to be honest: the whole world is a big market with a lot of different trends.

    I'm just preparing a mini-ITX DIY/Roundup with shorter cards and different Skylake CPUs to show which card goes well with which CPU. Starting with R7 360, over GTX 950 Mini, 960 Mini, 380 ITX, 970 Mini and up to R9 Nano. I'm not sure about a further translation into English, but we got in Germany so much positive response for all of our different mini-ITX projects, that I'm sure it is worth to build real rigs to find an objective conclusion.

    I have a MSI GTX 980 Ti Lightning in my hands, but it is definitely nothing for my living room. I'm playing in my lab :D