Before we get too deep into our thoughts and feelings about Polaris and the Radeon RX 480, let's break out a couple of our famous value scatter plots. We'll first look at the performance-per-dollar these cards offer going by the potential measure of average FPS. To accurately reflect the changes in price many of the graphics cards in our tests have experienced since their release, we've averaged the prices of those cards on Newegg right now. We used the RX 480 8GB card's $240 suggested price for these results.
The RX 480 8GB card we tested delivers a hair more performance potential than the GTX 970, but at a significantly lower price than the average going rate for that card on Newegg right now. We'd have to test the 4GB RX 480 to be truly sure of its value proposition, but just imagine a similar dot at $200, and AMD might have quite the hit on its hands.
Going by the measure of performance potential that average FPS provides, the RX 480 is sometimes slightly faster than the GTX 970, and it's sometimes a little slower. Those familiar with the long-running battle between the GeForce GTX 970 and the Radeon R9 290 should be getting a sense of deja vu right now. What's nice about the RX 480 is that AMD is extracting that kind of performance from a die that's roughly half as large as Hawaii with what is, in many respects, a smaller engine inside.
Next, let's take a look at our 99th-percentile-FPS-per-dollar graph. We take the geometric mean of the 99th-percentile frame time each card delivers across our test suite and convert it into FPS to make our higher-is-better logic work.
The RX 480 just barely squeezes past the GTX 970 in this measure, but its appealing price tag helps it plant a flag that's the highest and leftmost on our 99th-percentile FPS chart. Once again, imagine a little dot in a similar place on the $200 line. That's pretty incredible performance in our advanced metrics for a card at this price point.
Indeed, what's most notable about the RX 480 compared to past Radeons of any price is its consistently smooth frame delivery. Where AMD's older cards have trailed the GeForce competition in delivering smooth gameplay—often by wide margins—the RX 480 chalks up a huge improvement in both our advanced 99th-percentile frame time and "badness" measures compared to the Radeon R9 380X. We're completely comfortable calling the RX 480 the equal of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 970 in those regards. That's excellent progress from the red team, and we hope that whatever mojo is responsible for this turn-around works its way into every future AMD graphics card.
On the other hand, the RX 480's power consumption and noise figures aren't as rosy as we might have expected them to be. Our power consumption tests today aren't perfectly comparable to those in our older reviews, but one Radeon R9 290-powered system with a similar CPU and motherboard drew about 400W under load when we reviewed that graphics card as part of a larger test a while back. The Radeon RX 480 delivers similar performance to that card while shaving about 140W off the total power draw of our system. TR readers helpfully point out that using board power as a rough guide, the RX 480 is about 90% more efficient than the R9 290 before it, considering the performance we measured. Either way, that figure seems to fall short of the 2.8X performance-per-watt increase that AMD often touted with Polaris.
If you care about noise and heat, the performance of the reference cooler on the RX 480 will probably leave you wanting, too. It's quite loud at full tilt, and it lets the GPU underneath get quite hot under load. Perhaps AMD needs to set the designer of the Wraith cooler loose on its graphics cards, as well. Like the Founders Edition GeForce GTX 1080 we just reviewed, we think most buyers will probably be best off waiting to see what sort of custom cooling AMD's board partners have in store before dropping two Benjamins or more on a reference card.
Like we've noted, the 4GB version of the RX 480 delivers efficiency and performance figures that are both pretty similar to a GTX 970, and it pulls off this feat for a $200 suggested price. We think that's a nice place to be. A performance jump like this hasn't happened around this price point for a long, long time, and it's quite welcome. The RX 480 8GB offers a bit of "future-proofing" in memory-hungry games like Rise of the Tomb Raider for $40 more. Either card should meet Oculus' and HTC's recommended specs for a Rift or Vive, so aspiring VR junkies can put the $65 to $150 extra that a GTX 970 would command right now toward a VR headset. Regular gamers can just enjoy fast, smooth gameplay in traditional titles and pocket the cash.
Right this second, the RX 480 sets a new bar for performance and smoothness at its price point, and it's undoubtedly the midrange card we'd recommend to most—at least, once AMD's board partners get their hands on it. It'll be interesting to see what Nvidia's answer to the RX 480 will be, but for now, we're excited to see where AMD will go now that it has its eyes on the stars.