If you’re shopping for a graphics card in the $200 to $250 range these days, your choice mostly boils down to one question: 2GB or 4GB? Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 960 comes with 2GB of RAM to start, and fancier versions come with four gigs. AMD’s similarly priced Radeon R9 380 performs comparably and can also be had in 2GB and 4GB flavors. Simple enough.
AMD is shaking up that comfortable parallel today with the Radeon R9 380X. This card’s Tonga GPU has more resources enabled than in the familiar Radeon R9 380. On the 380X, all of Tonga’s 32 GCN compute units are turned on, for a total of 2048 shader processors. This card also packs 128 texels per clock of texture-filtering power, versus 112 in the plain 380. The Radeon R9 380X will come with 4GB of GDDR5 RAM clocked at 1425MHz for a theoretical bandwidth peak of 182 GB/s.
Sapphire’s Nitro Radeon R9 380X
Aside from those slightly more generous resource allocations, the R9 380X’s spec sheet looks much the same as the R9 380. This card maintains its counterpart’s 32-pixel-per-clock ROP throughput and 256-bit memory bus. Since Tonga is one of AMD’s newer GPUs, it also gives the R9 380X support for modern AMD features like FreeSync, TrueAudio, Virtual Super Resolution, and Frame Rate Target Control.
We’ve long suspected that a fully enabled Tonga would have a 384-bit memory interface, along with more ROP throughput (48 pixels per clock). In fact, several sources appear to have confirmed that fact. However, the 380X has “only” a 256-bit path to memory. We’re not complaining, though. The 380X’s price and likely performance look to be quite attractive, even if they’re not exactly what we’d expected. Tonga’s color compression capability ought to help wring the best possible performance out of the card’s available memory bandwidth.
Here’s a quick look at the R9 380X’s specs, bracketed by those of the Radeon R9 380 and R9 390 for easy comparison:
|R9 380||–||918||32||112||1792||256||5.5 GT/s||2GB/4GB||190W||$210|
|R9 380X||–||970||32||128||2048||256||5.7 GT/s||4GB||190W||$239|
|R9 390||–||1000||64||160||2560||512||6 GT/s||8GB||230W||$319|
Those are AMD’s reference specs, and as you can see, the 380X offers a little more juice than the R9 380 across the board.
What’s more, AMD’s board partners have already worked over the Radeon R9 380X with custom coolers and boosted clock speeds. Cards from those partners are the ones most builders will be using in their systems, and those cards are also the ones we’ll be using to test the Radeon R9 380X today.
We already shown you Sapphire’s Nitro Radeon R9 380X above. This card comes with an eyebrow-raising 1040MHz GPU clock speed out of the box. The company also gooses the card’s memory clock to 1500MHz, for an effective speed of 6 GT/s. Sapphire’s card arrived in our labs first, so it’s the one we’ll use to represent the 380X’s performance in most of our tests.
Sapphire keeps the 380X’s Tonga chip cool with one of its attractive Dual-X heatsinks. This cooler’s twin ball-bearing fans can stop spinning under light loads for silent operation. From this angle, you can see this card’s numerous copper heat pipes, too.
It might be unusual to note for a graphics card, but the Nitro feels hefty and dense in the hand. That weightiness, and the copper on display, suggests a top-shelf cooler under the Nitro’s shroud. At about 9″ long, this card should be able to fit into most cases without a fuss, too.
Sapphire reinforces the Nitro 380X’s PCB with an attractively-finished aluminum backplate. The card draws power through twin six-pin PCIe power connectors. Sapphire tells us this Nitro 380X will carry a suggested price of $239.99. The company will also sell a reference-clocked model for $229.99.
Asus is also getting in on the R9 380X game, and it sent us one of its Strix R9 380X OC4G Gaming cards to put through the wringer. The Strix comes with a 1030MHz clock speed by default, and a setting in Asus’ included software utility can push the clocks all the way to 1050MHz.
This card’s brawny DirectCU II cooler carries heat away from the GPU with massive heat pipes that snake through an equally substantial fin array. Like the Sapphire card, the Strix can stop its fans at idle for silent running. Builders will want to double-check that their cases can swallow this card’s 10.5″ length without issue, though.
From the top down, we get a better look at this card’s attractive backplate, that enormous heat pipe, and the twin six-pin power connectors. You can’t see it in this picture, but Asus helpfully includes an LED near the power connectors that will glow red if you forget to plug in the required cables. The company also throws a one-year premium subscription for Xsplit Gamecaster in the box for the streamers out there.
The hot-clocked OC4G Gaming card seen above will carry a $259.99 suggested price. Asus will also offer a reference-clocked Strix R9 380X with the same cooler for $239.99.
No, you’re not experiencing deja vu. We’ve also included an Asus Strix Radeon R9 380 card in this review. This card will represent the slightly-less-powerful R9 380 on our bench today. For the unfamiliar, the R9 380 is essentially just a re-badged Radeon R9 285—only this one has 4GB of memory, versus the 2GB on most R9 285 cards.
From the outside, this card looks a lot like the Strix 380X. It’s got a lot of the same perks from its more muscular sibling, like the semi-silent cooler and the Xsplit subscription. This version of the 380 sells for $219.99 on Newegg right now, and Asus is offering a $20 rebate card to sweeten the deal.
The GeForce GTX 960 goes 4GB, too
Going by price, the most natural foil for the Radeon R9 380X in Nvidia’s lineup is the GeForce GTX 960. We already know and love the Gigabyte’s Windforce GTX 960 2GB from when we first reviewed that GPU, but card makers are now offering versions of the GTX 960 with 4GB of GDDR5 that are closer to the 380X’s sticker price. It seemed only logical to pick up the 4GB version of this card to represent the green team this time around.
This card goes for about $230 right now on Newegg. Larger memory size aside, the Windforce is practically identical to its 2GB cousin. This card gives us higher-than-reference 1216MHz base and 1279MHz boost clocks, and it keeps the hot-clocked GPU cool with a whisper-quiet twin-fan heatsink.
Our testing methods
Most of the numbers you’ll see on the following pages were captured with Fraps, a software tool that can record the rendering time for each frame of animation. We sometimes use a tool called FCAT to capture exactly when each frame was delivered to the display, but that’s usually not necessary in order to get good data with single-GPU setups. We have, however, filtered our Fraps results using a three-frame moving average. This filter should account for the effect of the three-frame submission queue in Direct3D. If you see a frame time spike in our results, it’s likely a delay that would affect when the frame reaches the display.
We didn’t use Fraps with Ashes of the Singularity, Battlefield 4, or the Fable: Legends benchmark. Instead, we captured frame times directly from the game engines using the games’ built-in tools. We didn’t use our low-pass filter on those results.
As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Our test systems were configured like so:
|Motherboard||Gigabyte X99-UD5 WiFi|
|Memory size||16GB (4 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance LPX
DDR4 SDRAM at 2133 MT/s
|Memory timings||15-15-15-36 1T|
|Hard drive||Kingston SSDNow 310 960GB SATA|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850|
|OS||Windows 10 Pro|
Here are the full specs of the cards we used in this review, along with their driver versions:
|Driver revision||GPU base
|MSI GeForce GTX 960 Gaming 2G||GeForce 358.91||1216||1279||1753||2048|
|Asus Strix Radeon R9 380 4GB||Catalyst 15.11.1||–||990||1425||4096|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960 4GB||GeForce 358.91||1216||1279||1753||4096|
|Sapphire Radeon R9 380X||Catalyst 15.11.1||–||1040||1500||4096|
|MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||GeForce 358.91||1114||1253||1753||4096|
|XFX Radeon R9 390||Catalyst 15.11.1||–||1015||1500||8192|
Thanks to Intel, Corsair, Kingston, and Gigabyte for helping to outfit our test rigs with some of the finest hardware available. Our thanks to Sapphire, Asus, XFX, and MSI for providing the graphics cards we tested in this review, as well.
Unless otherwise specified, image quality settings for the graphics cards were left at the control panel defaults. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Let’s kick off our testing with a brief stint in Bethesda’s newest post-apocalyptic romp. Fallout 4 uses several of the latest rendering techniques to provide players with the prettiest Wasteland yet.
Looking over this plot of the frame times from a single test run, we can see that all of the cards here are generally delivering a smooth experience, especially considering the lack of large or frequent spikes to the range of 50 ms. Big spikes like that would correspond to a frame-rate drop below 20 FPS, which can translate to a noticeable slowdown during gameplay.
The slightly more copious serving of pixel-pushing resources in the R9 380X helps it edge out the GeForce GTX 960s and the Radeon R9 380 when it comes to average FPS numbers. The Radeon R9 390 and GeForce GTX 970 are in a whole different league, though. We’d expect nothing less of those considerably more muscular cards in this measure of potential performance.
As the plots above hinted, the R9 380X is off to a good start in our advanced 99th-percentile frame time measure. Neither the GeForce GTX 960 cards nor the Radeon R9 380 can deliver frames quite as smoothly as the 380X. To be fair, all of the cards here are hanging pretty close to the 33.3-ms threshold, so they all render the majority of their frames at a rate of 30 FPS or better. Meanwhile, the Radeon R9 390 offers a smoother experience still, while the GeForce GTX 970 rules the roost by a wide margin.
Looking at the “tail” of the frame time distribution for Fallout 4 lets us see how these cards handle the toughest frames they’re tasked with. The R9 380X has a curious hump in the middle of its curve as we move toward the 99th percentile. Even so, its worst frames don’t fall much above the 30-ms mark, so gamers can expect decently smooth frame deliver from the card overall.
Our numbers thus far have already told this tale, but the R9 380 and the GeForce GTX 960s don’t manage quite as low a frame time curve as the 380X here.
In our measures of “badness,” none of the cards spend any time past the 50-ms threshold that tends to produce noticeable drops in smoothness. The 380X doesn’t spend any time beyond the 33.3-ms barrier, either. The R9 380 and the GTX 960s do have a few bad frames past the 33.3-ms mark that might drop the frame rate under 30 FPS briefly, though.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
With Black Ops 3, our frame time plots continue to show smooth performance from the GTX 960 4GB and the R9 380X. The plots from the GTX 960 2GB and the R9 380 get a little spikier than in Fallout 4, but both cards still manage to stay below the 50-ms mark.
The R9 380X comfortably slots in between the GTX 960 4GB and the GeForce GTX 970 in average FPS, and it delivers lower 99th-percentile frame times than the GTX 960 cards and the R9 380 while doing it. Not bad.
Here’s a weird plot. That stairstep pattern you see in these curves isn’t a product of incorrect data. We think it’s actually an artifact of some kind of internal quantization going on in Black Ops 3‘s engine. Hm. We may have to investigate that phenomenon further. For now, though, you can see that the 380X’s frame time curve sits comfortably lower than the GTX 960s and the 380 once more, and even its worst frames aren’t too far above the crucial 33.3-ms threshold.
In our measures of “badness” for Black Ops 3, none of the cards spend any time past the troublesome 50-ms mark. The R9 380X and 4GB GTX 960 barely spend any time above our critical 33.3-ms mark, too. The Radeon R9 380 spends somewhat more time in this range, while the 2GB GTX 960 really struggles. Perhaps this is one game where the extra memory helps.
Battlefield 4 is the first game that gives the R9 380X a bit of trouble. The 380X and the GTX 960s are right on top of one another in our average FPS measurements for BF4, but the Radeon is slightly worse off than the 960s in our 99th-percentile frame time metric.
The 380X only spends a tiny bit of time past the 50-ms mark, but it struggles for nearly a second with frames that take longer than 33.3 ms to produce. The Radeon R9 380 has a harder time still. The GTX 960 cards have much less trouble here. The GTX 960 4GB is a little worse off than its 2GB counterpart, but the difference is minuscule.
The Witcher 3
Here’s another game that trips up the 380 and 380X a bit. You can see a few spikes toward the 50-ms range from both cards. The GTX 960s don’t appear to have as much trouble with whatever the Radeons were chewing on.
As expected from those spikes, the R9 380X leads its class in the potential measure of average FPS, but it falls behind the GeForce cards in our 99th-percentile frame time metric.
In our badness measures, the lower-end Radeons spend a bit of time past the 50-ms mark, resulting in noticeable slowdowns we could feel while play-testing. They also deliver more than a few frames beyond the 33.3-ms threshold. That all adds up to a less smooth experience than the GeForce cards can deliver in this title.
Ashes of the Singularity
Although Ashes of the Singularity‘s built-in benchmark allows us to collect both DirectX 11 and DirectX 12 data, we’ve chosen to collect and crunch numbers in DirectX 12 mode only for the graphs below.
Here’s another test where the GTX 960 4GB and the R9 380X are neck-and-neck in both performance potential and delivered results. If you were hoping for a test that demonstrates the advantages of one card over another, keep reading. This ain’t it.
As the frame time plot above hinted at, Ashes of the Singularity may be the hardest game in our test suite for these cards to run smoothly. Save for the heavyweights, all of the cards tested spend a lot of time past the 50-ms mark, and even the 33.3-ms threshold is a major challenge with our test settings.
We ran the Fable: Legends DirectX 12 benchmark at its 1080p preset. For more information about this benchmark, take a look at our full Fable: Legends rundown.
The R9 380X has a better time of it in the Fable: Legends benchmark. Our frame time plot doesn’t reveal any major spikes in the 380X’s graph, and the card takes the top of its class in both potential and delivered performance.
Though the R9 380X delivers generally smooth performance in Fable: Legends, this benchmark appears to give the GeForce GTX 960 2GB a pretty hard time. That card spends quite a bit more time than we prefer to see past the 50-ms and 33.3-ms thresholds. The GTX 960 4GB is much closer to the rest of the pack.
Please note that our “under load” tests aren’t conducted in an absolute peak scenario. Instead, we have the cards running a real game, Crysis 3, in order to show us power draw with a more typical workload.
No great surprises here. The Radeon R9 380X needs about 50 watts more juice under load to do its thing than the Nvidia cards or the Radeon R9 380. Cards based on Nvidia’s Maxwell silicon continue to be paragons of power efficiency. Let’s see how the extra power used by the Radeons translates into noise and heat.
At idle, these cards are all about as quiet as can be. Any variations in noise levels at idle are likely attributable to changes in the noise floor in our testing environment, not the cards themselves. We’d expect any of them to be inaudible inside a PC case at idle.
Under load, Asus’ Strix R9 380X “beats” the Sapphire card by one decibel. Both cards hang right with the custom-cooled GTX 960s from MSI and Gigabyte, too, despite their bigger appetites for electricity and the corresponding increase in heat production that brings. At least the Asus and Sapphire cards won’t transmit that fact to your ears when they’re running all-out.
Load temperatures attest to the effectiveness of the aftermarket coolers on the Asus and Sapphire cards, too. All of the R9 380X and GTX 960 cards we tested are within a degree or two of one another under load, even with their factory-boosted clocks. Nothing to complain about here.
As usual, we’ll wrap up our tests with a couple of value scatter plots. To make our graphs work, we’ve converted our 99th-percentile numbers into FPS. The best values tend toward the upper left of the plot, where performance is highest and prices are lowest. We use a geometric mean to limit the impact of any outliers on the final score.
And there you have it. Whether you measure the R9 380X by our preferred 99th-percentile method or in traditional average FPS, this card performs better than the GeForce GTX 960 4GB. It also costs slightly more. All told, that means these cards offer similar value propositions. As AMD hoped, the 380X delivers solid performance in the games we tested, even at 2560×1440 with considerable amounts of eye candy turned up.
It’s true that the Maxwell-based GeForce GTX 960 is more power-efficient than the R9 380X, but the aftermarket coolers on the Sapphire and Asus Radeons we tested are more than up to the task of keeping the underlying silicon cool without making any more noise than the competing GTX 960 cards. Builders might notice a bit more heat from their PCs with an R9 380X pushing pixels, but that’s mostly hair-splitting. The R9 380X is a very solid option for its price.
The biggest problem for the R9 380X might be those two dots in the upper-right corner of our scatter plot. Some variants of the GeForce GTX 970 can be had for under $300 right now, and the R9 390 is right there with it. If you’ve been paying attention to our test results, you know that the extra cash buys you a lot more graphics card. Unless the expected $240 street price of an R9 380X is the absolute top of your budget, we think it’s worth saving up the cost of one or two PC games and getting into an R9 390 or a GTX 970.