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AMD's Radeon R9 280X and 270X graphics cards

GCN forever?
— 11:00 PM on October 7, 2013

Graphics cards don't tend to have much of a shelf life. The two major GPU suppliers have typically cranked out a new generation of chips on a more or less yearly cadence. For instance, AMD introduced the Radeon HD 4870 in June of 2008. Although the chip was unquestionably a success, it was scrapped and replaced by the first DirectX 11 GPU, the Radeon HD 5870, in September of 2009. Then came the Radeon HD 6970 in December of 2010. The Radeon HD 7970 followed one year later, at the end of 2011, along with the rest of the HD 7000 series. Each successive generation was better than the one before, and each one included major architectural enhancements over the prior model.

After that, a funny thing happened: not much.

In mid-2012, AMD introduced the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition, with slightly higher clock speeds than the original 7970. Late 2012 came and went without much fanfare. AMD talked about delivering a new lineup of GPUs code-named Sea Islands in early 2013, but it later backtracked, claiming there wasn't any such plan after all—or at least not like everyone seemed to think. Instead, the firm introduced the Radeon HD 8000 series for large PC makers, made entirely of the same chips as the 7000 series. Consumers were spared the burden of that re-badging exercise, fortunately.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago at a press event that we live blogged, AMD revealed the first details of a next-gen high-end GPU, code-named "Hawaii." This big, new GPU sports some novel features, including twice the geometry performance of the prior generation and an integrated DSP block for the acceleration of gaming audio. With over six billion transistors, 4GB of memory, and upwards of 300 GB/s of memory bandwidth, the forthcoming Hawaii-based Radeon R9 290X should provide some much-needed new blood at the top of AMD's lineup.

To go with the 290X, the firm also announced top-to-bottom refresh of its Radeon offerings, like so:

Yep, the Radeon HD naming convention is gone, which is probably appropriate since it was running out of numbers—and since "HD" doesn't feel so shiny and impressive anymore.

What you may not realize by looking at all of those reconfigured numbers and letters is that the bulk of the lineup—everything shown above except for the 290X—is based on the same chips as the Radeon HD 7000 series. They've just been given a few tweaks, renamed, and, at least in one case, dramatically reduced in price in order to make room for Hawaii-based cards.

I'd love to tell you more about the Hawaii GPU, but the time isn't quite right yet. Instead, those re-badged offerings are the reason we're gathered here today.

Oh, come on, if you sat through the GeForce GTX 760 and 770, surely you can deal with this. That's what I keep telling myself, at least.

AMD is introducing a host of graphics cards today, including the lowly R7 240 and 250. Cyril is reviewing arguably the most interesting of the new Radeons, the R7 260X. The 260X is a lower-end card based on the same chip as the Radeon HD 7790, but its Bonaire silicon has actually been hiding several features from the same technology generation as the big Hawaii chip. My task is to look at the two higher-cards, the R9 270X and 280X.

R to the ninth

Here's the Radeon R9 270X 2GB reference card from AMD, with a handsome cooling shroud design that looks at lot like the R9 290X's. The 270X is based on the 28-nm "Pitcairn" graphics chip, just like the Radeon HD 7870. This chip has a 256-bit memory interface and a solid collection of graphics resources, including 1280 shader processors. Here are the key specs for the 270X and the card it replaces:

Radeon HD 7870 GHz 1000 - 1280 80 32 4.8 GT/s 256
Radeon R9 270X ?? 1050 1280 80 32 5.6 GT/s 256

Yeah, I put some question marks into a table. That bugs me, but I don't know what else to do. You see, AMD has decided that it will only disclose a single clock speed, the peak or "boost" clock, for its GPUs going forward. In the case of its Hawaii GPU, that decision makes some sense, because a new power-saving algorithm will likely make Hawaii's clock frequency, well, difficult to summarize.

The R9 270X shouldn't be so complicated, though. AMD tells me the 270X has Boost dynamic voltage and frequency scaling tech, which in this case means two clocks: a base clock and a boost one. Usually they're not too far apart. On the Radeon HD 7950 Boost, for instance, the base speed is 850MHz and the boost speed is 925MHz. Thing is, as far as I can tell, the 270X pretty much just runs at 1050MHz. It stayed steady at that speed during our power and noise testing, according to our logs from GPU-Z. So... whatever. It's 1050 frickin' megahertz, 50MHz faster than the Radeon HD 7870.

The bigger change is the memory clock, which has been bumped up from 4.8 GT/s to 5.6 GT/s. That change ought to translate pretty directly into higher performance, making the 270X up to 14% faster than the 7870.

I know, right? Shivers.

Both the 270X and the 280X are slated to arrive at online stores in a few days, on October 11. AMD says the R9 270X 2GB will list for $199.99. Some board makers may offer 4GB variants of the card, as well, and those will start at $229.99. Those prices may be a bit lower than where the Radeon HD 7870 has been recently. You can find some 7870 cards for less right now, but AMD says their availability is limited. Presumably, they're being cleared out in favor of the new hotness that is the 270X.

One thing that may make grabbing a Radeon HD 7000-series card on clearance more attractive is the Never Settle Forever bundle that lets you pick two or three titles from a list of pretty decent games. The new R-series Radeons won't take part in this program.

Peak pixel
fill rate
Radeon HD 7870 GHz 32 80/40 2.6 2.0 154
Radeon R9 270X 34 84/42 2.7 2.1 179
Radeon HD 7950 Boost 30 104/52 3.3 1.9 240
GeForce GTX 660 25 83/83 2.0 3.1 144
GeForce GTX 760 33 99/99 2.4 3.1 or 4.1 192

The 270X's most direct competition from Nvidia is the GeForce GTX 660, which also lists for $199.99. As you can see in the table above, the 270X has substantially higher rates of ROP throughput, shader arithmetic, and memory transfers than the GTX 660. The 660 is pretty seriously outgunned. Nvidia does have some recourse, if it wants. The GeForce GTX 760 is a much closer match for the 270X, but it's currently priced at $249.99. Perhaps we'll see a price cut to counter the new Radeon? We've tested both the 660 and 760 against the 270X, just in case.