AMD Radeon VII 16GB Review: A Surprise Attack on GeForce RTX 2080


AMD’s Radeon VII announcement was a bit of a surprise to everyone. But regardless of whether you’re a gamer, a content creator, or a reviewer eager for some competition in the high-end graphics market, we can all agree that even an unexpected entry is a breath of fresh air.

The Radeon VII doesn’t quite aspire for tier-one billing. Rather, it goes up against Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2080—a card that only recently usurped Nvidia’s former flagship, the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti. As a result, Radeon VII is ideal for gaming at 2560 x 1440 with details cranked up or 3840 x 2160 with some quality compromises to keep frame rates fluid. To sweeten the deal, AMD is offering a three-game bundle with Radeon VII that includes Resident Evil 2, Devil May Cry 5, and The Division 2—one of the better bundles we’ve seen.

Of course, bonus games are a great differentiator, all else being equal. But first, Radeon VII has to prove itself against capable competition. If we take the geometric mean of each game in our benchmark suite’s average frame rate at QHD, Radeon VII is 26% faster than Radeon RX Vega 64. That’s a truly impressive gain. However, the same equation puts Radeon VII at just over 92% of GeForce RTX 2080’s average frame rate in our 11 games. It’s obviously possible to reshuffle the deck using different titles that might be better-optimized for AMD’s GCN architecture. Granted, our benchmarks were run on Nvidia's Founders Edition card, which enjoys a 5%-higher GPU Boost rating than the least-expensive 2080s out there. But even parity between the two boards would be less than stellar from a card launching months later, particularly when AMD’s biggest selling point—16GB of HBM2—isn’t as big of a factor at 2560 x 1440.

Radeon VII’s heavy-hitting memory subsystem improves the new card’s advantage over Radeon RX Vega 64 at 3840 x 2160. The geometric mean of its average frame rates grows to almost 33% higher, exceeding 63 FPS compared to Vega 64’s 48 FPS. AMD even comes a little closer to GeForce RTX 2080 Founders Edition by achieving 93% of its average frame rate across our suite. But of course, average frame rates aren’t everything. AMD knows that its big strength is Radeon VII’s 16GB of HBM2 and 1 TB/s of bandwidth, so the company is beating that drum hard with data showing where 8GB and 11GB cards may be overrun, resulting in ugly frame time spikes that manifest as stuttering. We think this topic deserves further exploration, and we plan to run additional tests using multiple products from both companies to isolate frame time aberrations using practical examples, rather than hand-picked benchmarks conceived to make 16GB look necessary at a time when it’s especially convenient.

At least for gaming, then, we’d stop short of spending $700 on Radeon VII. The $800 GeForce RTX 2080 Founders Edition we tested tends to be a bit faster, it uses a lot less power, and it’s significantly quieter. The many 2080s available between $700 and $800 exhibit very similar attributes as Nvidia's reference design. Since two of the three games in AMD’s bundle (Devil May Cry 5 and The Division 2) aren’t available yet, there's plenty of time for additional testing before losing out on those extras. And AMD says it’s working on a potentially more elegant way to handle cooling, rather than spinning its fans up from idle to maximum speed in a matter of seconds.

The company says it controls throttling and fan control on Vega 20 through a network of 64 sensors that create a junction temperature, rather than the edge temperature reported by a single sensor that was used previously. As a result of this more informed reading, the company can be extra aggressive about extracting maximum performance from Vega 20 without exceeding the GPU’s limits. In thermally-constrained scenarios, Radeon VII should run a couple of percent faster with its clock rates modulated according to junction temperature. But because AMD is pushing this GPU hard at the expense of power and heat, there’s no real way to tame the unrefined cooler without giving up peak performance. Any attempt to make Radeon VII quieter is going to cost cooling, leading to lower clock rates. As a result, AMD is fighting an uphill battle against third-party GeForce RTX 2080s selling for $700. Even with a three-game bundle, we think it needs to be less expensive than its primary competition.

But again, that’s for gaming. Content creation is another matter entirely. We don’t have many rendering or encoding workloads in our suite. However, as we recently saw in our Nvidia Titan RTX review, extra memory makes a big difference in workloads able to utilize it. In fact, it can be the difference between a successful run and a crash. Bandwidth-intensive metrics like LuxBall HDR show that Radeon VII is capable of beating monsters like Titan RTX in the right situations. AMD also puts the hurt on GeForce RTX 2080 in the SPECviewperf 13 energy and medical viewsets, both of which presumably benefit from lots of fast on-board memory. Catia, NX, and SolidWorks go AMD’s way, too.

Our Cinema4D and Blender tests favor GeForce RTX 2080. However, once you start getting into more specialized workloads that incorporate specific optimizations for either AMD or Nvidia, recommendations become much harder to generalize. If you already know that your 8K Adobe Premiere projects utilize more memory than what you get from 8GB or 11GB cards, Radeon VII at $700 becomes an almost affordable alternative to the $2,500 Titan RTX with 24GB of GDDR6 (and a lot less memory bandwidth).

In the end, then, Radeon VII looks like the right card for the right kind of customer. By arming it with two times the HBM2 as Radeon RX Vega 64 and moving moving up to 1 TB/s, AMD uncorked its Vega 20 processor to serve up significantly more performance. Some workloads reward Radeon VII with a win over GeForce RTX 2080. Others show Nvidia retaining its lead. But AMD is clear that average frame rates don’t tell the whole story. Under certain conditions, 16GB of memory may also be the key to lower frame times and smoother performance. AMD didn’t give us enough time with Radeon VII to dig deep into those claims. We certainly plan to, though. And perhaps by the time we’re done, the company will have fixed the hardware monitoring issues we encountered and smoothed out Radeon VII’s meteoric fan curve.

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