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.
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.
The cards at hand
To show what its fresh Polaris GPUs can do, AMD sent over a trio of Radeon RX 500-series cards for our perusal.
MSI’s RX 570 Gaming X 4G reps the slightly cut-down Polaris 20 GPU in tandem with 4GB of 7 GT/s GDDR5 memory. To keep the GPU cool, MSI taps one of its excellent Twin Frozr VI coolers. This twin-fan design has earned a TR Editor’s Choice award in one of its other iterations. Here, MSI threads twin heat pipes through a slim fin stack that slips nicely into the confines of a dual-slot design. Despite its relatively modest dimensions, we observed rock-solid 1281 MHz boost clocks from this card in operation.
We wish MSI had reinforced this card with a backplate for the looks, but you can’t have it all, we guess. The RX 570 Gaming X 4G will go for $189.99 at e-tail.
In fully-enabled Polaris 20 territory, Sapphire’s Nitro+ Radeon RX 580 carries over the company’s classy design language from its RX 480 cards. The Nitro+’s metal backplate features a geometric design that’s eye-catching without being garish, and the Sapphire logo on the side of the card lights up in a pleasing shade of light blue.
Sapphire carries heat away from the Polaris 20 chip using four beefy heatpipes and a tall, dense fin stack. We don’t have official base and boost clocks for the Nitro+ card just yet, but we observed a solid 1411 MHz boost speed from our sample in our tests. Sapphire pairs this card with 8 GT/s GDDR5, and builders will pay $249.99 for the package.
The PowerColor RX 580 Red Devil Golden Sample will likely get the adrenaline flowing for the pubescent, or at least the pubescent at heart. If you can get past the Hot Topic-approved iconography scattered over this thing, we observed 1430 MHz boost clocks out of the box—an impressive figure for a Polaris GPU. The Red Devil sports 8 GT/s GDDR5, as well.
The monster two-and-a-half-slot cooler on board the Red Devil could let overclockers extract the most from the Polaris 20 GPU, and PowerColor reinforces the card’s enormous fin stack with a suitably devilish backplate. All that metal doesn’t come cheap, though. The RX 580 Red Devil Golden Sample will go for $270 online.
Because of its sane dimensions and reasonable $250 price tag, we elected to test the RX 580 using the Sapphire Nitro+ card. The Red Devil Golden Sample’s slightly higher stock clocks are tempered by its $270 price tag and outsize cooler. We figure if you can stomach paying $40 over the suggested price for one of these cards, you should probably start looking at GeForce GTX 1070s.
Our testing methods
Since the Radeon RX 500 cards are derived from existing hardware that we’re quite familiar with by now, we didn’t feel it was necessary to revisit every game in our test suite for this article. Instead, we ran some quick tests using three games: GTA V, Crysis 3, and Hitman (using that game’s DX12 renderer) to get a sense of how the new Radeons improved over past products.
As always, we did our best to deliver clean benchmarking runs. We ran each of our test cycles three times on each graphics card tested, and our final numbers incorporate the median of those results. Aside from each vendor’s graphics drivers, our test system remained in the same configuration throughout the entire test.
|AMD Ryzen 7 1800X
|Gigabyte Aorus AX370-Gaming 5
|16GB (2 DIMMs)
|16GB (2x8GB) G.Skill DDR4-3866 (rated)
|Intel 750 Series 400GB (system drive)
2x Corsair Neutron XT 480GB SSDs
1x Kingston HyperX 480GB SSD
|Windows 10 Pro with Creators Update
Our thanks to Gigabyte, G.Skill, Kingston, Corsair, and Intel for their contributions to our test system, and to EVGA, MSI, AMD, and XFX for contributing the graphics cards we’re reviewing today.
|XFX Radeon RX 470 RS 4GB
|Radeon Software RX 500 series press beta
|XFX Radeon RX 480 RS 8GB
|MSI Radeon RX 570 Gaming 4G
|Sapphire Radeon RX 580 Nitro+
|EVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti SC Gaming
|EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 3GB SC Gaming
|EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB SC Gaming
For our “Inside the Second” benchmarking techniques, we now use a software utility called PresentMon to collect frame-time data from DirectX 11, DirectX 12, OpenGL, and Vulkan games alike. We sometimes use a more advanced tool called FCAT to capture exactly when frames arrive at the display, but our testing has shown that it’s not usually necessary to use this tool in order to generate good results for single-GPU setups.
You’ll note that our test card stable is made up of non-reference designs with boosted clock speeds and beefy coolers. Many readers have called us out on this practice in the past for some reason, so we want to be upfront about it here. We bench non-reference cards because we feel they provide the best real-world representation of performance for the graphics card in question. They’re the type of cards we recommend in our System Guides, and we think they provide the most relatable performance numbers for our reader base. When we mention a “GTX 1060” or “Radeon RX 470” in our review, for example, just be sure to remember that we’re referring to the custom cards in the table above.
With that exposition out of the way, let’s talk results.
Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto V can still put the hurt on today’s graphics cards, so we ran through our usual test run with most of the game’s settings turned all the way up at 2560×1440.
In GTA V, minor clock-speed bumps lead to minor improvements in performance. Each RX 500-series card is a bit faster and smoother than its RX 400 predecessor, but not by much, and not by enough to catch the GeForce GTX 1060 duo. The RX 580 makes quite the try of it, though.
These “time spent beyond X” graphs are meant to show “badness,” those instances where animation may be less than fluid—or at least less than perfect. The formulas behind these graphs add up the amount of time our cards spend beyond certain frame-time thresholds, each with an important implication for gaming smoothness. The 50-ms threshold is the most notable one, since it corresponds to a 20-FPS average. We figure if you’re not rendering any faster than 20 FPS, even for a moment, then the user is likely to perceive a slowdown. 33 ms correlates to 30 FPS or a 30Hz refresh rate. Go beyond that with vsync on, and you’re into the bad voodoo of quantization slowdowns. 16.7 ms correlates to 60 FPS, that golden mark that we’d like to achieve (or surpass) for each and every frame. And 8.3 ms corresponds to 120 FPS, an even more demanding standard.
Our time-spent-beyond-X graphs continue the theme of minor performance improvements. The RX 570 lops nearly a second off its predecessor’s time spent chewing on frames that drop the instantaneous frame rate below 60 FPS, while the RX 580 halves its forebear’s already-impressive results here. Moving on.
Like GTA V, Crysis 3 can still challenge today’s graphics cards at its more demanding settings. We ran through our usual test area at 2560×1440 on the game’s High preset with the “SMAA Low 1x” anti-aliasing setting.
Crysis 3 proves a bit more favorable for these new Radeons compared to GTA V. The RX 580 pulls ahead of the GTX 1060 pair in both our average-FPS metric of performance potential and in the measure of delivered smoothness captured by the 99th-percentile frame time. The RX 570 performs a tad better than the RX 470, but the clock-speed bump over the Polaris 10 card doesn’t vault the 570 to new heights of performance for its weight class.
In our time-spent-beyond-X measures of “badness,” the RX 570 duo offers tangible improvements in our one-minute run of Crysis 3. The RX 570 nearly halves the amount of time the RX 470 spends on tough frames that would drop the instantaneous frame rate below 60 FPS, while the RX 580 spends nearly one-seventh of the time the RX 480 does on similarly-challenging frames. In both cases, the RX 500-series cards deliver smoother gameplay than the RX 400-series cards do.
Hitman (DirectX 12)
Hitman was one of the first heralds of the DirectX 12 API, and we’ve selected it as the representative for next-generation graphics performance in this piece. For the record, Hitman will lock out certain graphics settings if a card doesn’t have enough memory. We threw caution to the wind and disabled Hitman‘s safeguards, since they prevented us from testing the game with our chosen settings on the GTX 1060 3GB. If that card has weird performance issues with these settings, well, that’s why.
Hitman is a marquee title for AMD graphics cards’ performance under DX12, so it’s no shock that the RX 580 and friends match or beat the GeForce competition by small to decent margins. Even so, the GTX 1060 3GB suffers especially hard from our decision to override Hitman‘s memory safeguards. The RX 570 and its 4GB of RAM aren’t bothered in the least by our test settings. Meanwhile, the RX 580 cruises to an overall victory in both our average-FPS and 99th-percentile frame-time metrics.
Our time-spent-beyond-X graphs put a nice exclamation point on the performance of both the RX 570 and the RX 580. The RX 570 spends nearly three-and-a-half fewer seconds of our one-minute test run on tough frames that take more than 16.7 ms to render compared to the RX 470. The RX 580 shaves almost two seconds off the already-impressive performance of the GTX 1060 6GB and the RX 480 at this threshold, as well.
To get a sense of how much each of the cards we tested contributed to system power draw, we stood still in a visually-complex area of Hitman‘s Paris mission and checked readings on our trusty Watts Up power meter. Our monitor and any other test hardware were connected to the wall using a separate power strip.
Well, that’s something. Nvidia’s Pascal cards continue to be the efficiency champs, and it appears AMD’s increased board power for the RX 570 and RX 580 is a factor in reaching higher clocks. The RX 570 doesn’t need much more power to hit its boosted clock speeds versus the RX 470, but Sapphire’s RX 580 needs even more than its official 30W board-power bump to hit its impressive boost clocks.
To get a sense of how noisy each graphics card on our bench today gets under load, we used the iPhone app SoundMeter by Faber Acoustical. Each measurement was taken 18″ from the fans of the graphics card while it was running our Hitman load.
Our XFX Radeon RX 470 and RX 480 aside, most of the cards here are quite tolerable given our test environment’s 29.8 dBA noise floor. Despite its hefty power draw, Sapphire’s Radeon RX 580 remains quite pleasant and neutral-sounding under load, save a tiny bit of coil whine. Even if your power bill is suffering with this card in your system, your ears can rest easy.
MSI’s RX 570 is also quite nice-sounding despite its relatively high reading on our iPhone dB meter. The company’s Twin Frozr VI cooler might be a bit too effective in some circumstances, though. I noticed the fans on this card would sometimes stop and restart during our tests, as if the cutoff point for the card’s semi-passive mode was set too high. This on-off-on cycle could prove more annoying to some builders than a constant gentle noise, and I hope MSI can fix it in a future driver or firmware update.
Before we ruminate on the data we’ve collected, let’s summarize that information using our famous value scatter plots. To make our higher-is-better graphs work, we’ve converted the geometric mean of the 99th-percentile frame times for our tests into FPS. On both the 99th-percentile-FPS-per-dollar chart and the average-FPS-per-dollar chart, the best values will congregate toward the upper left of the chart, where the price is lowest and performance is highest.
Going by our all-important 99th-percentile-FPS-per-dollar metric, both the RX 570 and RX 580 offer nice improvements in delivered smoothness over their first-generation Polaris brethren. The RX 570 pulls on par with the GTX 1060 3GB in our 99th-percentile-FPS-per-dollar measure, while the RX 580 actually surpasses the GTX 1060 6GB for smooth gaming despite that card’s higher performance potential (as measured by our average-FPS-per-dollar chart).
We’d have expected nothing less, too, given the fact that the Sapphire RX 580 8GB card we used in our tests made our test system draw 93W more power under load on the way to achieving victory over the EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB. No, that figure is not a typo. For its highest-end RX 500-series card, AMD seems to have abandoned any pretense of competing with Pascal on a performance-per-watt basis. Getting the last few untapped percentage points of performance out of a GPU can require major increases in voltage, and AMD seems to be OK with that extra power draw in exchange for the smoothness crown at the $250 price point.
In turn, builders will need to spec cases with more cooling power and higher-end power supplies to take advantage of the RX 580’s high-quality frame delivery. If waste heat and power consumption are prime concerns, the GTX 1060 6GB is unquestionably the better pick.
If the RX 580 demonstrates what happens past the hairy shoulder of the voltage-and-frequency-scaling curve, the RX 570 seems better able to enjoy the fruits of GlobalFoundries’ improved 14-nm process tech. Despite drawing just a few more watts than our XFX RX 470 card under load, the MSI RX 570 Gaming 4G we tested achieves much higher boost clocks than its first-generation Polaris forebear, and it has no trouble maintaining those speeds under load, either. Not a bad deal at all for the more wallet-friendly Polaris 20 card. Given the difficulties the GTX 1060 3GB can cause gamers thanks to its meager complement of memory, we’d pick the RX 570 (or any RX 580 4GB card) over the Nvidia competition here any day.
A fuller set of tests might swing the pendulum more decisively in favor of AMD or Nvidia at this price point, but we think we’ve gathered enough data to say that the RX 500 series successfully closes the small gaps that existed between RX 400-series cards and the Nvidia competition. Depending on how prices work out at e-tail for this highly competitive segment, we think the conclusion is simple: buy an RX 570 or RX 580 if you were planning to buy an RX 470 or RX 480. If heat or power consumption are a concern for you, get the GTX 1060 6GB instead. You really can’t go wrong either way.