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AMD's Radeon RX 580 and Radeon RX 570 graphics cards reviewed

Iteration marches on

A little under a year since graphics processors moved to next-generation fabrication processes, the market has settled into a comfortable inertia at the important entry-level and mid-range price points. AMD's Polaris-powered Radeon RX 480 has delivered impressive performance at friendly prices for some time, and the Radeon RX 470 still handily outperforms the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti for a few more bucks—and a lot more power from the wall—than the green team's high-end low-end card.

If there's one thing that system integrators, retailers, and PR departments hate, though, it's inertia. Today, AMD is shaking things up a bit differently than the green team has been doing of late. Instead of pairing higher-speed memory with existing GPUs and calling it good, as Nvidia has done with some of its Pascal cards in the wake of the GTX 1080 Ti launch, AMD has been working with GlobalFoundries to improve the 14-nm FinFET process that underpins most of its chips at the moment. AMD calls the result a "third-generation" 14-nm FinFET process, and it's fabricating two respun Polaris chips on this improved 14-nm node along with a new chip for entry-level discrete graphics cards.

Polaris 20 is the "big" Polaris of this generation, and it'll power the Radeon RX 580 and RX 570. The smaller Polaris 21 will soldier on in the Radeon RX 560. Finally, a new, even smaller, and as-yet-unnamed Polaris chip will end up in notebooks and the eminently entry-level Radeon RX 550. To distinguish these massaged Polaris chips from their predecessors, AMD is calling the lineup of graphics cards that bears them the Radeon RX 500 series.

width (bits)
Die size
Polaris 21 16 64/32 1024 128 ??? ??? 14 nm
Tonga 32 128/64 2048 256 5000 355 28 nm
Polaris 20 32 144/72 2304 256 5600 232 14 nm
Hawaii 64 176/88 2816 512 6200 438 28 nm
GM206 32 64/64 1024 128 2940 227 28 nm
GM204 64 128/128 2048 256 5200 398 28 nm
GP104 64 160/160 2560 256 7200 314 16 nm

Despite the new code names, Polaris 20 is basically the same chip as Polaris 10 before it from a microarchitecture point of view. From ROP count to die size, Polaris 20 has practically identical resource complements to Polaris 10 before it. We don't know how Polaris 21 will look quite yet, but if it follows the template of Polaris 11, the chip will have 16 GCN compute units and 1,024 shader processors under its hood. Whether AMD will choose to sell a fully-enabled Polaris 21 part on a Radeon add-in board for gamers remains to be seen.

The as-yet-unnamed chip in the Radeon RX 550 is an interesting new addition to the Radeon lineup at the low end. AMD says it wants to get its 14-nm GPUs into more systems, and the RX 550 will offer e-sports and casual gamers who would typically rely on integrated graphics a cheap path to discrete-card bliss. The GPU in the RX 550 has eight GCN CUs enabled out of an unknown total, so it boasts 512 shader processors hooked up to 16 ROPs and a 128-bit memory bus. AMD board partners will have the freedom to pair 2GB or 4GB of memory with this chip (and most others in the RX 500 series). Most importantly, the RX 550 shouldn't require outboard power from the budget systems it's likely to find a home in, and it'll carry a lightweight expected price of just $80 or so.

In this incredibly competitive segment of the graphics market, it's perhaps not all that surprising that AMD chose to tap GloFo's process improvements by increasing boost clock speeds—and board power—in order to give its higher-end RX 500 cards a leg up against Nvidia's comparable GeForces. Both the RX 580 and RX 570 get solid clock speed bumps compared to their predecessors, but board power is also up 30W on each card. It seems that AMD didn't mind adding a few more watts to the bottom line of these cards' already laggardly power consumption figures to outgun the GTX 1060 and friends. Run-of-the-mill desktop builders are unlikely to mind the added watts (and heat) too much, but the change won't make Polaris 20 parts any friendlier to power bills, small-form-factor PCs, and folks whose climes aren't amenable to much waste heat.

Despite the improved performance on paper, AMD won't be increasing the suggested prices for Radeon RX 500-series cards. 8GB RX 580s will start at $229, while 4GB versions of that card will start at $199. The Radeon RX 570 4GB will maintain the RX 470's $169 suggested price, while 2GB RX 560s will start at $99. AMD says its board partners will be able to tweak memory configurations on all RX 500-series cards, so expect to see 2GB and 4GB RX 550s and RX 560s alongside 4GB and 8GB RX 570s and RX 580s.