The new Radeon R9 300-series

It’s finally time to take a look at our first retail R9 300-series card, the Sapphire Nitro R9 390 8GB!

The new AMD Radeon R9 and R7 300-series of graphics cards are coming into the world with a rocky start. We have seen rumors and speculation about what GPUs are going to be included, what changes would be made and what prices these would be shipping at for what seems like months, and in truth it has been months. AMD's Radeon R9 290 and R9 290X based on the new Hawaii GPU launched nearly 2 years ago, while the rest of the 200-series lineup was mostly a transition of existing products in the HD 7000-family. The lone exception was the Radeon R9 285, a card based on a mysterious new GPU called Tonga that showed up late to the game to fill a gap in the performance and pricing window for AMD.

AMD's R9 300-series, and the R7 300-series in particular, follows a very similar path. The R9 390 and R9 390X are still based on the Hawaii architecture. Tahiti is finally retired and put to pasture, though Tonga lives on as the Radeon R9 380. Below that you have the Radeon R7 370 and 360, the former based on the aging GCN 1.0 Curacao GPU and the latter based on Bonaire. On the surface its easy to refer to these cards with the dreaded "R-word"…rebrands. And though that seems to be the case there are some interesting performance changes, at least at the high end of this stack, that warrant discussion.

And of course, AMD partners like Sapphire are using this opportunity of familiarity with the GPU and its properties to release newer product stacks. In this case Sapphire is launching the new Nitro brand for a series of cards that it is aimed at what it considers the most common type of gamer: one that is cost conscious and craves performance over everything else.

The result is a stack of GPUs with prices ranging from about $110 up to ~$400 that target the "gamer" group of GPU buyers without the added price tag that some other lines include. Obviously it seems a little crazy to be talking about a line of graphics cards that is built for gamers (aren't they all??) but the emphasis is to build a fast card that is cool and quiet without the additional cost of overly glamorous coolers, LEDs or dip switches.

Today I am taking a look at the new Sapphire Nitro R9 390 8GB card, but before we dive head first into that card and its performance, let's first go over the changes to the R9-level of AMD's product stack.

The New Radeon R9 300-Series Lineup

Many of you are going to be interested in the specifications and numbers first, so let's start off with a handy little table that details the Radeon R9 300-series against the relevant Radeon R9 200-series products.

  R9 390X R9 390 R9 380 R9 290X R9 290 R9 285
GPU Code name Grenada (Hawaii) Grenada (Hawaii) Antigua (Tonga) Hawaii Hawaii Tonga
GPU Cores 2816 2560 1792 2816 2560 1792
Rated Clock 1050 MHz 1000 MHz 970 MHz 1000 MHz 947 MHz 918 MHz
Texture Units 176 160 112 176 160 112
ROP Units 64 64 32 64 64 32
Memory 8GB 8GB 4GB 4GB 4GB 2GB
Memory Clock 6000 MHz 6000 MHz 5700 MHz 5000 MHz 5000 MHz 5500 MHz
Memory Interface 512-bit 512-bit 256-bit 512-bit 512-bit 256-bit
Memory Bandwidth 384 GB/s 384 GB/s 182.4 GB/s 320 GB/s 320 GB/s 176 GB/s
TDP 275 watts 275 watts 190 watts 290 watts 275 watts 190 watts
Peak Compute 5.9 TFLOPS 5.1 TFLOPS 3.48 TFLOPS 5.6 TFLOPS 4.84 TFLOPS 3.29 TFLOPS
MSRP (current) $429 $329 $199 $329 $269 $229

There are quite a few changes that need to be noted, starting with the new GPU code names given to the R9 300-series. Both the R9 390 and 390X are using a new spin of the Hawaii GPU, now called Grenada, while the updated Tonga GPU is being dubbed Antigua. Though not in the table above, the R7 370 uses Trinidad (updated Curacao, which is an updated Pitcairn) while the R7 360 uses the Tobago GPU (an updated Bonaire). Confused yet? I am; and it's going to take some time for me to really get those new names in my head. To be fair, AMD is out there trumpeting the new code names as gospel and they would probably be fine with them not being a part of the discussion, but technical users want technical answers.

So what changes were made in these new spins of GPUs?  AMD was quick to comment on the term "rebrand" that will no doubt be associated by many with the Radeon R9 300-series. They insist that engineers have been working on these GPU  re-spins for over year and simply calling them "rebrands" takes away from the work the teams did. These GPUs (the 390 and 390X at least) have a "ground up" redesign of the software microcontroller that handles the clocks and gating to improve GPU power efficiency. As you would expect for a GPU built on the same 28nm process technology that has been around for many years, AMD has tweaked the design somewhat to better take advantage of evolutions in TSMC's 28nm process. And, thanks to higher clocks on both the GPU and the memory, performance increases will be seen over the existing R9 200-series as well. Being able to run around 50 MHz higher on the GPU and 250 MHz (1.0 GHz effective) on the memory inside the same power envelope shows that AMD has done SOMETHING, though how much that means for consumers is up in the air.

Obviously we need to judge all of that for ourselves.

The second and most obvious change in these cards is the move from 4GB of memory by default to 8GB of memory on both the 390 and the 390X. Obviously that is a huge jump in memory capacity and is surely a welcome change, but the benefit of that added memory, even at single display 4K resolutions, is questionable. NVIDIA's flagship GTX 980 Ti has 6GB of memory and thus far we haven't been able to max that out. Putting 8GB on both the R9 390 and 390X gives AMD a bullet point at the very least and the potential for better performance in future games that may require it. It's an interesting contrast though, knowing that the AMD Radeon R9 Fury X will peak at 4GB of memory while two cards that are lower in the stack than it feature double that.

With the increase in memory capacity comes a sizable increase in memory speed - moving from 5000 MHz on the reference design of the R9 290X/290 to 6000 MHz on the R9 390X/390. This boosts the memory bandwidth from 320 GB/s to 384 GB/s, an increase of 20%! In areas where memory was the bottleneck the new GPUs should see noticeable performance advantages.

XFX R9 290 DD, ASUS R9 290X DC2, Sapphire Nitro R9 390

In terms of raw compute of the GPU though, AMD rates the new Radeon R9 390X at 5.9 TFLOPS, up from 5.6 TFLOPS of the R9 290X (+5.3%) and  the R9 390 at 5.1 TFLOPS up from 4.84 TFLOPS on the R9 290 (+5.3%). Those are pretty modest gains and its obvious that any retail cards that overclock the R9 290X/290 today are going to get pretty close to matching or beating those compute rates.

Finally, let's look at pricing. AMD is setting the MSRP of the R9 390X at a surprisingly high $429. The R9 390 follows at $329 and the R9 380 drops all the way down to $199. Compare that to the R9 290X (currently selling for $329), the R9 290 (selling for $269) and the R9 285 (selling for $229) and you have confusion running rampant. Is an R9 390X really going to be worth $100 more than a Radeon R9 290X? How can the R9 390, with fewer stream processors and nearly identical GPU clocks, cost the same as the R9 290X at current prices? At first glance it's easy to get irate about those prices; they look like increases for a new brands rather than drops. But let's see how the performance card plays out first.

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