A confusing market

We test the Vega 64, Vega 64 Liquid, and Vega 56.

I feel like I have been writing about AMD non-stop in 2017. Starting with the release of Ryzen 7 and following through last week’s review of the HEDT Threadripper processor, AMD has gone from a nearly-dormant state in 2015-2016 to a wildly active and successful organization with more than a dozen new product launches under its belt. Today we will reveal the company's first consumer products based on the new Vega GPU architecture, thrusting the Radeon brand back into the fight at the $400+ price segments.

At this point, with architecture teases, product unboxings, professional card reviews, and pricing and availability reveals, we almost know everything we need to know about the new Radeon RX Vega 64 and RX Vega 56 products. Almost. Today we can show you the performance.

I want to be honest with our readers: AMD gave me so little time with these cards that I am going to gloss over some of the more interesting technological and architectural changes that Vega brings to market. I will come back to them at a later time, but I feel it is most important for us to talk about the performance and power characteristics of these cards as consumers finally get the chance to spend their hard-earned money on them.

If you already know about the specifications and pricing peculiarities of Vega 64 and Vega 56 and instead want direct access to performance results, I encourage you to skip ahead. If you want a refresher those details, check out the summary below.

Interesting statistics from the creation of this review in a VERY short window:

  • 175 graphs 
  • 8 cards, 8 games, 2 resolutions, 3 runs = 384 test runs
  • >9.6 TB of raw captured video (average ~25 GB/min)

Radeon RX Vega 64 and Vega 56 Specifications

Much of the below is sourced from our Vega 64/56 announcement story last month.

Though the leaks have been frequent and getting closer to reality, as it turns out AMD was in fact holding back quite a bit of information about the positioning of RX Vega for today. Radeon will launch the Vega 64 and Vega 56 today, with three different versions of the Vega 64 on the docket. Vega 64 uses the full Vega 10 chip with 64 CUs and 4096 stream processors. Vega 56 will come with 56 CUs enabled (get it?) and 3584 stream processors.

Pictures of the various product designs have already made it out to the field including the Limited Edition with the brushed anodized aluminum shroud, the liquid cooled card with a similar industrial design, and the more standard black shroud version that looks very similar to the previous reference cards from AMD.

  RX Vega 64 Liquid RX Vega 64 Air RX Vega 56 Vega Frontier Edition GTX 1080 Ti GTX 1080 TITAN X GTX 980 R9 Fury X
GPU Vega 10 Vega 10 Vega 10 Vega 10 GP102 GP104 GM200 GM204 Fiji XT
GPU Cores 4096 4096 3584 4096 3584 2560 3072 2048 4096
Base Clock 1406 MHz 1247 MHz 1156 MHz 1382 MHz 1480 MHz 1607 MHz 1000 MHz 1126 MHz 1050 MHz
Boost Clock 1677 MHz 1546 MHz 1471 MHz 1600 MHz 1582 MHz 1733 MHz 1089 MHz 1216 MHz
Texture Units 256 256 224 256 224 160 192 128 256
ROP Units 64 64 64 64 88 64 96 64 64
Memory 8GB 8GB 8GB 16GB 11GB 8GB 12GB 4GB 4GB
Memory Clock 1890 MHz 1890 MHz 1600 MHz 1890 MHz 11000 MHz 10000 MHz 7000 MHz 7000 MHz 1000 MHz
Memory Interface 2048-bit HBM2 2048-bit HBM2 2048-bit HBM2 2048-bit HBM2 352-bit G5X 256-bit G5X 384-bit 256-bit 4096-bit (HBM)
Memory Bandwidth 484 GB/s 484 GB/s 410 GB/s 484 GB/s 484 GB/s 320 GB/s 336 GB/s 224 GB/s 512 GB/s
TDP 345 watts 295 watts 210 watts 300 watts 250 watts 180 watts 250 watts 165 watts 275 watts
Peak Compute 13.7 TFLOPS 12.6 TFLOPS 10.5 TFLOPS 13.1 TFLOPS 10.6 TFLOPS 8.2 TFLOPS 6.14 TFLOPS 4.61 TFLOPS 8.60 TFLOPS
Transistor Count 12.5B 12.5B 12.5B 12.5B 12.0B 7.2B 8.0B 5.2B 8.9B
Process Tech 14nm 14nm 14nm 14nm 16nm 16nm 28nm 28nm 28nm
MSRP (current) $699 $499 $399 $999 $699 $599 $999 $499 $649

If you are a frequent reader of PC Perspective, you have already seen our reviews of the Vega Frontier Edition air cooled and liquid cards, so some of this is going to look very familiar. Looking at the Vega 64 first, we need to define the biggest change to the performance ratings of RX and FE versions of the Vega architecture. When we listed the “boost clock” of the Vega FE cards, and really any Radeon cards previous to RX Vega, we were referring the maximum clock speed of the card in its out of box state. This was counter to the method that NVIDIA used for its “boost clock” rating that pointed towards a “typical” clock speed that the card would run at in a gaming workload. Essentially, the NVIDIA method was giving consumers a more realistic look at how fast the card would be running while AMD was marketing the theoretical peak with perfect thermals, perfect workloads. This, to be clear, never happened.

With the RX Vega cards and their specifications, the “boost clock” is now a typical clock rate. AMD has told me that this is what they estimate the average clock speed of the card will be during a typical gaming workload with a typical thermal and system design. This is great news! It means that gamers will have a more realistic indication of performance, both theoretical and expected, and the listings on the retailers and partner sites will be accurate. It also means that just looking at the spec table above will give you an impression that the performance gap between Vega FE and RX Vega is smaller than it will be in testing. (This is, of course, if AMD’s claims are true; I haven’t tested it myself yet.)

The air-cooled Vega 64, in both Limited Edition and standard versions, will have a base clock of 1247 MHz and a Boost clock of 1546 MHz. The base clock is more than 100 MHz lower than the Vega FE air cooled card, which is troubling perhaps, but the Boost clock looks like it is 54 MHz lower than the Frontier Edition. However, if AMD’s move to a typical/average clock rating for RX Vega is true, that will be HIGHER than the 1440 MHz average clock rate that we observed with the Vega FE card last month. That ~100 MHz could give the RX Vega a performance advantage of 7-8% over the Vega Frontier Edition.

The liquid cooled RX Vega, which will not be a limited edition according to AMD, has a base clock of 1406 MHz (much better than the air-cooled card, as expected) but a boost clock of 1677 MHz. If that lives up to the claims, it is significant, as it would mean it would be 16-17% higher than the performance of our first air-cooled Vega FE testing. That would give it enough of a performance boost to push up past the GeForce GTX 1080 in nearly all comparisons we performed.

Memory speed and bandwidth for the HBM2 implementation are the same at 1.89 GHz and 484 GB/s of total bandwidth. The RX Vega product family will have 8GB of memory implemented, half of the Vega Frontier Edition. NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 1080 has 8GB of memory though the 1080 Ti has 11GB. Clearly, the high cost of HBM2 memory went into this decision and though AMD will be touting the benefits of the HBCC and its capability to address other memory more easily, that feature will need work with developers to be properly implemented and to impact gaming performance.

The power draw of the Vega FE cards was telling for the results we see on RX Vega. The Vega 64 liquid cooled will hit 345 watts, the air-cooled version hits 295 watts, and the Vega 56 comes in at a cool 210 watts. These are power hungry cards and getting these clocks necessary to take on the GTX 1080 have pushed the Vega design outside its most efficient area.

The Vega 56 might be the most interesting product on this slide though – it was a surprise release and we don’t have any relatable experience from the likes of a professional card to lean on. With a ~15% drop in shader count and lower clock speed, this product will be at a noticeably lower performance level than the Vega 64. The HBM2 memory is running at 1.6 GHz rather than 1.89 GHz, bringing memory bandwidth down to 410 GB/s. With a price of $399, it will be taking on the incredibly popular GeForce GTX 1070.

The clock speeds and power rating of the RX Vega 56 indicate that it will be a massive overclocker. You should not be surprised if gamers can push the RX Vega up to the same clock speeds, or higher, as the RX Vega 64, getting a massive performance boost. Obviously, that will increase your power consumption up to near Vega 64 levels, but if the cooler can keep up with it, we should have no issues.

Pricing is going to be an interesting discussion. The base price of the RX Vega 64 is $499 and the Vega 56 is $399. That positions the Vega 64 against the GTX 1080 (in a world where prices are back to normal in the GPU market) and the Vega 56 against the GTX 1070. The Limited-Edition Vega 64 will be $599 and the liquid-cooled Vega 64 will be $699 but come with the option of Radeon Packs. What are those you ask?

A Pricing Pickle – Radeon Packs

One of the big things that AMD has been trying to address, much at the behest of the gaming community, is how to get graphics cards in the hands of gamers rather than miners that drive up prices. Though a sale is a sale to both AMD and NVIDIA, there is a danger to the long-term vitality of the PC gaming market if these trends continue. I wrote about these risks on MarketWatch back in June, and the risks still remain real. AMD would also like to get users more invested in the other hardware ecosystems that promoted the Radeon brand including FreeSync displays and even the Ryzen processor and motherboard platform. AMD built the Radeon Packs idea as a way to hit both angles.

The simplest way to understand the packs is that gamers that buy the RX Vega 64 in a Radeon Pack will receive two free games (that differ by region but are Wolfenstein II and Prey in the US), a $200 discount on a 3440×1440 100 Hz FreeSync display and a $100 discount on a Ryzen CPU + motherboard bundle. The purchase of the display and the CPU+MB are optional, and are not required to complete the sale, but the discounts are only offered at the time of purchase. The games will come with the card purchase, regardless.

The RX Vega 64 will have two packs available: Black and Aqua. The Aqua Pack is for the liquid-cooled version of the RX Vega 64 and prices the card itself at $699. The Black Pack is for the RX Vega 64 air-cooled card and comes with a $599 price tag and covers both the Limited-Edition card and the standard black shroud card. Finally, the Red Pack is for the RX Vega 56 air-cooled card and is $499.

You’re probably wondering about the supposed price increase on the RX Vega 56 and the RX Vega 64 standard card; they are both priced $100 higher than the stand-alone units. First, this is the only way to get the Limited-Edition RX Vega 64 card and it will not be sold at $499 individually. Once the limited-edition cards are sold out, the standard card will replace it in the Black Pack. The liquid-cooled card is also only going to be available for $699 and in the Radeon Aqua Pack.

For that added $100 you are getting two free games and $300 in potential discounts on other hardware. If you already have a platform you are happy with, or a monitor you like, and don’t want to upgrade them, you do not have to take advantage of those discounts. Instead, you will be paying $100 more for the fancier card and the two bundled PC titles.

AMD’s intent is two-fold. First, they want to get more users to upgrade to FreeSync displays (and Ryzen systems of course) as it helps them for the relative comparisons to NVIDIA hardware today and incentivizes gamers to stay in the Radeon ecosystem. AMD also hopes that this helps to deter the miners from buying these cards because of their higher price and bundle complications. I personally don’t feel that miners will be deterred by any price change that wouldn’t also scare away all PC gamers and leave AMD in a nearly impossible spot. The only thing that COULD have hindered the purchase of cards by cryptocurrency miners is if AMD required these packs to be purchased with the discounted hardware, but that would be unfair to the gamers that might have already invested in the AMD ecosystem.

Another side benefit that might be occurring with this bundle system is that it helps resellers like Newegg refocus on the gaming customer. Selling a graphics card is typically a low margin sale and resellers care very little if the card ends up in the hands of a dedicated PC gamer itching to play Prey or a miner putting it on a shelf to earn Ethereum 24 hours a day. But if you can tie other, higher margin products to the sale of the RX Vega, that raises ASPs (average selling prices) and could give Newegg/Amazon/etc. a reason to target and hold product back for these types of sales.

Some Sexy New Hardware

For our review today, we are going to be looking at all three of the new RX Vega derivatives: the RX Vega 64 air-cooled (which I will just call the Vega 64 going forward), the RX Vega 64 liquid-cooled card (which I will refer to as the Vega 64 Liquid), and the RX Vega 56.

The RX Vega 64 is a blower-style two-slot graphics card that shares a lot of design characteristics with previous Radeon graphics solution with a red/black shroud and red-blazoned Radeon logo. There is a limited edition of this card that will be available today as well, and though it looks much more stylish with the brushed aluminum design, it performs and functions identically to card we are looking at.

The reference card has the same PCB as the Vega Frontier Edition products we reviewed previously, as do all the Vega offerings that have seen thus far.

A back plate protects the rear of the PCB though it does not make any thermal contact with the unit to aid cooling as far as we can tell.

The Radeon logo along the top of the card illuminates when powered on.

Both the Vega 64 and the Vega 56 will require a pair of 8-pin power connections to work and based on our power testing you’ll find on the next page, these guys will utilize them both.

Behind the ATX power connections is the GPU Tach, a set of LEDs that light up as the GPU load increases, like a car tachometer. In my experience, this either sat with 1 light lit at idle or nearly all lights on during gaming sessions. I’m not sure what a “half way” GPU Tach workload would be, but it adds to the style nicely when the rest of the card will be facing down and away from most case windows. The dip switches on the card allow you to disable them or change been red and blue LEDs. (Odd, no green?)

Display outputs consist of three full-size DisplayPorts and a full-size HDMI, matching other recent graphics card releases.

Note that the Vega 64 and the Vega 56 share the exact same physical design so there is no need to show it to you individually.

The Radeon RX Vega 64 Liquid uses the same PCB and GPU design as the Vega 64, but replaces the blower style air cooler with the same liquid cooler used on the Vega Frontier Edition liquid cooled card. Instead of the gold+blue design of it, the RX Vega 64 Liquid uses a brushed silver shroud with red light accents. The design is incredibly high quality with fully extruded aluminum encasing.

Removing the shroud reveals the exact same cooler design that we found on the Vega Frontier Edition. This is a diaphragm-style pump with an expansion tank.

Along the back you’ll find the same dual 8-pin power connections as the air-cooled Vega 64 but the design adds the red ‘R’ voxel/pixel that lights up. It has no other function than looks, but I must admit to being smitten with it.

The Radeon logo along the top of the card also lights up red though the Vega ‘V’ logo does not.

AMD has included the same 120mm radiator and fan integration we saw on the Vega Frontier Edition. With extended use and just a bit overclocking, this radiator will warm to the touch.

The back plate on this card is also just for looks, but it does look damn good, with the same brushed aluminum style that wraps the rest of the card.

Again, the same GPU tech exists on the RX Vega 64 Liquid as does on the standard card, with the same capabilities.

Display outputs also remain the same: three DisplayPort and one HDMI.

Overall, the family of Radeon RX Vega cards is a combination of old and new. While I do wish that AMD had committed to higher quantities of the limited-edition air-cooled card with the same aluminum body, they will instead depend on partners to release custom cooled models in the September time frame to make up for it. 

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