AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB review: a modest GPU refresh breeding more pricey OC cards

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB review

You just need to get over it, you ungrateful git. Wipe that look of disappointment off your face right now; Auntie and Uncle AMD are going to be here any moment and you need to say thank you for the nice new Radeon RX 580 they’ve just brought you. Yes, I know it’s essentially the same thing they got you last year, but see, it’s got a new badge and costs more.

Times, they are a-changing, with new GPUs are popping up all the time. But if you want the best graphics cards right now these are they.

Look, I know you were hoping they would be bringing you one of them new-fangled Vega GPUs, but Uncle Raja is still working on that so you won’t get to play with one for another few months. At least not until Auntie Lisa says so anyways.

We’re all disappointed. We would have preferred the RX 500 series of cards to arrive with a bang and a powerful new Radeon GPU straight off the bat too. Instead we've got a range of essentially rebadged RX 400 series cards, but these $230 (£220) Radeon RX 580 8GB cards are still very good. And actually most of them are more expensive than that too.

They’ve also got a slight clockspeed bump and retain all the impressive Vulkan and DirectX 12 performance the first Polaris GPUs offered too. C’mon be grateful, some internet cafes in China are still running on R7 370s, so just bloody cheer up, okay?

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AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB specs

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB specs

Polaris Enhanced. That’s what AMD are calling their new range of graphics cards, but they’re most definitely not looking at this RX 500 series to be encouraging anyone who spent their cash on a last-gen Polaris card to upgrade. Despite calling the GPUs at the heart of both the new RX 580 and RX 570 Polaris 20 it is still really the same 14nm Polaris 10 chip they used to great effect in the RX 480 and RX 470 cards.

The ‘enhanced’ bit comes from the fact that 12 months on from the initial Polaris release both the 14nm FinFET technology and the 4th Gen GCN architecture used in the latest AMD Radeon cards have had a full year to mature. That means the production process and yields ought to have improved and the resulting GPUs should be more robust.

That’s the main reason AMD are able to release the new RX 580 cards with a higher base clockspeed than the reference RX 480 cards saw at launch. The base/boost clocks of the original RX 480 are 1,120MHz and 1,266MHz respectively, while the reference spec of the RX 580’s Polaris 20 chip is set at 1,257MHz and 1,340MHz. With the general tightening up of the GPU’s manufacturing process they can now ship out cards using pretty much the previous chip’s peak performance as a starting point to work up from.

Though if you were hoping for the same 40 compute unit, 2,560 core, Polaris GPU Microsoft are shipping with the upcoming, AMD-powered, Project Scorpio console you’re going to be disappointed. Outside of the reference clockspeed bump the RX 580 is the same GPU beast as the RX 480. The core configuration is identical - the 14nm Polaris 20 in the new card is still sporting 36 compute units (CUs) with 2,304 stream processors spread out across them. Alongside that are the same 144 texture units and 32 ROPs. 

The memory system is the same too, with 8GB of GDDR5 delivering a full 256GB/s of memory bandwidth. And, like the 400 series cards, there will be both 4GB and 8GB versions of the RX 580 as well as the RX 570. The base price for the 4GB RX 580 will be $199 (£185) if you’re willing to take a hit on the frame buffer side.

All that seems to have really changed then, clockspeed hike aside, is the new RX 580 cards have a higher TDP to allow for the enhanced clockspeeds the new designs are shipping with. Those clockspeeds above are just the suggested reference design specs, but the fact AMD haven’t actually created any reference samples for the new cards signifies their refresh/rebadge status and also that most RX 580 cards will probably be expensive factory overclocked ones.

We’ve been sent a relatively standard RX 580 from XFX and a significantly overclocked version from Asus with the impressive STRIX cooling array. Unfortunately they both seem to be retailing for a lot more than the suggested price AMD have given for the 8GB RX 580. The Asus STRIX can be found for $300 (£300) and the more modest XFX card is shipping at $260.

The XFX card runs at 1,366MHz, while the Asus STRIX card hits a heady 1,411MHz out of the box. The original STRIX edition of the RX 480, on the other hand, runs at a default 1,330MHz. That itself was a pretty hefty boost in factory-overclock terms, but the new variant from Asus is almost 100MHz ahead of that.

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB benchmarks

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB benchmarks

 

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB performance

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB performance

The gaming performance is all pretty much as you would expect. The new 8GB Radeon RX 580 performs a little better than the 8GB Radeon RX 480, thanks to those bumped up clockspeeds. There’s no magic in play here, the enhanced Polaris GPUs are more robust and happier to run at higher frequencies, so the 1,411MHz of the Asus RX 580 STRIX card is rock solid running whatever you throw its way.

There are a few inconsistencies though, likely thanks to changing pre-release drivers and software updates. On our otherwise unchanged test rig the Vulkan performance seems to have dropped off a little with the pre-release driver since we pitched the STRIX versions of Asus’ RX 480 and GTX 1060 against each other.

For the most part though we’re essentially talking about a similar performance delta to that you’d get between a reference clocked card and an overclocked variant. Between the Asus RX 480 and RX 580 cards, with the same cooler, the difference is around 10% for the most part. Though in that specific instance we’re putting two overclocked versions against one another. The more conservatively clocked XFX RX 580 though is still, in general, able to deliver higher frame rates than even the heavily overclocked RX 480.

The fact that, despite the clockspeed and TDP hike, Asus are still able to deliver the same impressive cooling and acoustic performance from their STRIX cards shows how capable both the Polaris enhancements and their own chip-chillers are. The 0dB performance of the Asus card, where the lazy fans don’t get out of bed for anything less than 60°C, is fantastic, making for a superbly quiet gaming experience. The cooler on the XFX RX 580 though is demonstrably weaker on that front than the Asus STRIX edition. 

That said, the overall maximum platform power has jumped quite considerably with the newer Polaris design, especially on the STRIX card, to the point where this overclocked Asus is some 20% more thirsty for power than the original reference Radeon RX 480.

The elephant in the room though is the performance of the competing Nvidia cards. The GTX 1060 in 6GB trim still retains a gaming lead in all but the Deus Ex and Hitman DirectX 12 tests, though I expect Doom’s Vulkan scores are likely to change with the release drivers. Even the 3GB GTX 1060 has still got some impressive gaming chops down at the lower end of the resolution spectrum. Though in real terms it’s difficult to recommend a 3GB card as a smart purchase right now, especially when the 4GB RX 580 and RX 570 cards are priced so competitively. 

For proper implementations of the more modern APIs the Radeon silicon has the edge, but in legacy games you can see the Nvidia cards still holding sway.

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB verdict

AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB verdict

A friend at AMD tried to second-guess the conclusion of my RX 580 review, and I hate to disappoint... While the clockspeed bump is certainly welcome, since you can find 8GB RX 480s out in the channel for a cheaper price than these almost identical, but more expensive RX 580s, we’d recommend trying to pick one of the last-gen cards up instead if you’re in the market for a new GPU.

AMD knew this would be the reaction and, to be honest, they’re just as happy for you to go out and clear the existing stock of RX 400 series cards as they would be for you to pick up a brand new RX 580. It’s not about offering a tangible upgrade for anyone running an equivalent 400 series GPU; the new range is more about giving their graphics stack a bit of a spruce up before the Vega GPUs arrive in a few months, shaking things up at the top end of the graphics card market.

This rebadging and refreshing is something both AMD and Nvidia have done in generations past, but I still hoped there might be a little more to at least the top-end RX 500 cards than just a frequency bump. Especially considering we know there’s a Polaris chip floating around Redmond with a full 40 CUs and 2,560 4th Gen GCN cores inside it. That would make a tasty RX 590 if they wanted to get one in ahead of the Vega graphics cards.

The real struggle for me with this AMD refresh though is they’ve only just squeezed into top spot as our pick of the best graphics cards. They managed to find a way into our hearts because the prices of the 8GB RX 480 ended up dropping to the point where we could forgive the remaining performance delta between it and the 6GB GTX 1060. But with the RX 580s now appearing, mostly in overclocked trim, for a lot more than the last-gen launch price things might well switch around again. Especially as it looks like Nvidia might be dropping their prices to make things even more awkward for AMD.

There’s no argument that the RX 580 is superior to the RX 480, and the Asus STRIX design still makes for an outstanding graphics card, but not by enough to make the latest Polaris variant an automatic pick over an equivalent 1st Gen Polaris. And because AMD have essentially given their partners free rein to clock their cards super-high you're going to see a lot of these overclocked cards. At around $300 (£300) the RX 580 really doesn't make any sense - it then starts to bump into GeForce cards with much greater performance.

Once the stock of the 400 series cards has vanished, and RX 580 prices drop to similar levels as their progenitors, it will likely become our go-to GPU, but definitely not yet and not costing this much.

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