Let's get the messy stuff out of the way first. Radeon RX Vega 64 is late. It's hot. It's aimed at the competition's third-fastest product (which is 15 months old, uses a lot less power, and is quieter). And a lot of the architecture's new features are future-looking, rather than beneficial today.
AMD chose a $500 price point to match the 1080, then gave Nvidia enough time to make sure cryptocurrency-inflated prices on its cards were reigned in ahead of Vega 64's launch. So now you have a whole handful of third-party GTX 1080s in stock at $500 online.
Yes, AMD does surprise us with performance that typically exceeds our expectations. Based on the company's earlier hints, we were anticipating Radeon RX Vega 64 to tie GTX 1080, at best. However, AMD enjoys an advantage in Doom, The Division, and Dawn of War III. It roughly matches GeForce GTX 1080 in Ashes of the Singularity, Hitman, Metro, and Rise of the Tomb Raider. And it only really loses in Ghost Recon and The Witcher 3. The card is exceptional for 2560x1440 and respectable at Ultra HD, where you'll need to make quality compromises in certain games for smooth frame rates.
Of course, AMD had to flog its Vega 10 GPU to get there. Gaming power consumption in excess of 280W is particularly painful when GeForce GTX 1080 is 100W lower. Even the much faster GeForce GTX 1080 Ti barely passes the 210W mark, based on our measurements. Obviously this isn't an ideal situation, especially when we factor in the temperature and noise measurements. So Vega 64 includes two BIOSes with three power profiles each, allowing enthusiasts to dial in the right balance between performance and acoustics. We plan to test the various outcomes of these settings, but suspect that enthusiasts paying top-dollar for high-end graphics won't want to readily give up frame rates in exchange for a quieter fan. After all, certain GeForce GTX 1080 partner cards already address Vega's shortcomings and have been sitting on shelves for months.
We're hopeful that miners won't snatch up what stock of Radeon RX Vega 64 is made available at launch, so gamers at least have the opportunity to choose between AMD and Nvidia. The Ethereum hash rates we measured using Claymore's GPU Miner v.9.8 were higher than Radeon R9 Fury X, but not so compelling that we'd expect a rush on these $500 cards. For its part, AMD tries to stack the deck in favor of enthusiasts with its Radeon Packs. But to get the $300 in discounts, you have to also purchase an $850 Samsung CF791 monitor, Ryzen 7 1800X, and 370X-based motherboard. It'd be great to see AMD expand the list of options, and we do recognize the company's attempt to keep miners from pricing out everyone else.
There remain plenty of questions to answer about Radeon RX Vega 64. How might we see the driver-based High-Bandwidth Cache Controller option used on the desktop moving forward? Where does the Draw Stream Binning Rasterizer affect performance most? How long will it take game developers to embrace the idea of primitive shaders, and what real-world impact might they have on geometry throughput? The same goes for Rapid Packed Math; we've already seen demos of 16-bit data types improving frame rates without affecting quality. But when will gamers realize a return on buying into this technology?
You see, there's a lot of interesting stuff happening under the hood of Vega. Some of it, like the inherent pricing advantage of FreeSync-capable monitors versus G-Sync, is accessible today. A lot isn't, though. And the card's environmental weaknesses are certainly palpable in daily use. AMD couldn't leave any performance on the table if it wanted a shot at GTX 1080, and that much is apparent in its many features and settings designed to bring power back the other way. We are glad to now have a choice between GeForce and Radeon at the $500 price point. But we don't see the outcome as a definitive win in any one metric.
What prospective buyers of Radeon RX Vega 64 cards may be hoping for are big gains over time, similar to what we saw from Radeon R9 290X and Radeon R9 Fury X. AMD's driver teams have a knack for extracting additional performance from new hardware designs, and this generation is doubly promising for all of the untapped potential tied to Rapid Packed Math, primitive shaders, the Draw Stream Binning Rasterizer functionality, and Vega 10's HBCC. Potential isn't enough to earn our endorsement, but it's clearly part of AMD's Vega story.
Radeon RX Vega 56 is up next on the bench, and AMD seems far more confident in that card's ability to compete against GeForce GTX 1070 in a price/performance face-off. We're looking to add more power analysis, comparisons in VR, and a week-long look at RX Vega availability. Stay tuned!
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