AMD says it’s going after that chunk of the market buying $100 to $300 graphics cards—84% of gamers, according to its internal data. The company wants a big install base of VR-capable PCs so that as HMDs become more affordable, enthusiasts have the hardware needed to enjoy virtual reality comfortably.
At this very moment, that means the Radeon RX 480 needs to be as fast as or faster than the Radeon R9 290 and GeForce GTX 970. Both HTC and Oculus use those as baseline recommendations for powering their headsets. Although the 480 isn’t always as fast as both cards, it seems to always beat at least one, and in many cases it outperforms even faster boards like the Radeon R9 390 and 390X. We think it’s safe to say that Radeon RX 480 satisfies AMD’s aim in this one regard.
But don’t let aggressive marketing overwhelm reason. The HTC/Oculus recommendations are a reasonable floor for enjoying VR. Just like conventional PC gaming, when you’re down at that level, you make quality compromises to keep the experience smooth. Though AMD claims the 480 enables a premium VR experience, we say it’ll get you in the door. Let’s put our muted enthusiasm into numerical terms. The Radeon R9 390 scores a 7.4 in Steam’s VR Performance Test. Radeon RX 480 achieves a 6.6. An old Radeon R9 290 isn’t far off at 6.5.
How about on a desktop monitor? What can you expect the RX 480 to do in a more traditional environment? Max out 1920x1080, by all means. Crank your resolution to 2560x1440, even. In almost every case, the Radeon RX 480 is faster than the old R9 290. In most, it beats the R9 390. And in some tests, the 480 even passes our current recommendation for 2560x1440, the R9 390X. Just don’t be surprised if you need to dial back quality in certain titles to yield better performance.
AMD is extremely proud of the efficiency gains it’s seeing from Polaris, too. To be sure, matching the performance of a 250W Radeon R9 290 or 275W R9 390 with a 150W GPU is nothing short of stellar. But, uh, Nvidia just launched its GeForce GTX 1070 at a similar 150W TDP, and that card is faster than a 250W Titan X. The rising tide of FinFET lifts all boats, in this case. Company representatives made it a point to mention Polaris’ gains aren’t solely attributable to 14nm manufacturing. Rather, architectural improvements facilitate up to 15% more performance per Compute Unit versus the Radeon R9 290’s implementation of GCN. No doubt, that plays a role in 480’s ability to keep up with more complex GPUs using fewer resources.
In the end, we get performance somewhere between a Radeon R9 290 and 390 at dramatically lower power and a $240 price tag. Compare that to GeForce GTX 970 with half as much memory for ~$280 and Radeon R9 390 8GB in the same neighborhood. It’s hardly what we’d call the cusp of a revolution, particularly since you still have to pay $600 for a Rift or $800 for the Vive. But we certainly appreciate the combination of smaller, faster, cooler and quieter, all for less money. Moreover, AMD says the 4GB version’s performance isn’t far off, and that card should start at $200. Expect the cost-conscious crowd to veer in that direction instead.
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