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AMD Radeon VII Review - More Compelling Than Ray Tracing?

By Joseph Bradford on February 07, 2019 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

AMD Radeon VII Review - More Compelling Than Ray Tracing?

It’s no secret that over the last two years AMD hasn’t been able to truly compete in the enthusiast graphics space. While they are taking market share away from Intel in the CPU world thanks to their incredible Ryzen CPUs (love my Ryzen 7 1700, by the way), the company’s flagship consumer card, the Vega 64, failed to capture the high-end market as many consumers were hoping for.

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While the Vega 64 is not a bad card, it is actually really good in many respects, it just couldn’t compete at the level of the then recently released GTX 1080 Ti. The Vega 64 was a solid 1440p card with some 4K uses, while the competition released a truly useable 4K consumer GPU.

Couple this with a few months ago when Nvidia released their new RTX 20-series cards, capable of in-game real time ray tracing, as well as out-stripping even their (own top end card with the 2080 Ti, and AMD fell woefully behind.

Thankfully, at CES 2019, AMD’s CEO, Dr. Lisa Su, unveiled a new GPU: Radeon VII. Improving upon the Vega architecture, the Radeon VII places its sights squarely at the competition’s RTX 2080 in terms of performance and value. But, does the Radeon VII do enough to make it a compelling purchase over the competition? Are we finally seeing an AMD graphics card rise to high-end dominance again?

A quick note before the specs chart:

Due to the nature of MMORPG’s hardware coverage, I do not have a full roster of GPUs to test against the Radeon VII. This means I will not have direct numbers against an RTX 2080. However, I will be referencing our hardware editor, Chris Coke, and his fantastic RTX 2080 review to give some comparative numbers, but take these with a grain of salt. While our testing systems are similar in these two reviews, the metrics comparison should not be seen as an official benchmark due to the inconsistent nature of the tests and the differences in graphics drivers. However, I do think it’s worth the look since this is the nearest competitor AMD has aligned with the Radeon VII. I do, however, own an RTX 2070 and will be testing it against Radeon VII in this review, including Ray Tracing and DLSS numbers.

Specifications

  • Architecture: Vega 20
  • Manufacturing Process: 7nm
  • Transistor Count: 13.2 billion
  • Die Size: 331mm squared
  • Next Gen Compute Units: 60
  • Stream Processors: 3840
  • Base GPU CLock: 1400 MHz
  • Boost GPU Clock: 1750MHz
  • Peak Engine Clock: 1800MHz
  • Peak SP Performance: Up to 14.2 TFLOPs
  • Peak Half Precision Performance: Up to 28.1 TFLOPs
  • Peak Texture Fill-Rate: 432.24GT/s
  • ROPs: 64
  • Peak Pixel Fill-Rate: 115.26GP/s
  • High Bandwidth Cache (HBM2): 16GB
  • Memory Bandwidth: 1TB/s
  • Memory Interface: 4096 bit
  • Board Power: 300W
  • MSRP: $699 USD

Arguably the most important change in the Radeon VII versus the Vega 64 is the shift from a 14nm to 7nm manufacturing process. As a result, this shrunk the GPU die from 495mm squared on the Vega 64 to 331mm squared on the Radeon VII. This allowed AMD to utilize the extra space and double the HBM2 memory from 8 GB in the Vega 64 to 16 GB in the Radeon VII, as well as increase the bandwidth by 2.1x over its predecessor to 1 TB/s.

The debate between GDDR memory and HBM2 still rages on, especially because of Nvidia’s use of GDDR6 in their new RTX cards. However, HBM2 provides a smaller physical footprint on the PCB, hence the inclusion of two additional stacks of memory. Additionally, HBM2 provides higher bandwidth and power efficiency, which is why AMD has opted to use HBM since its Fiji days.

The extra memory, however, wouldn’t matter if the bandwidth (the memory “highway”) wasn’t wide enough. Radeon VII’s HBM2 configuration allows for one terabyte per second of bandwidth, allowing it to tackle some incredibly demanding workloads. This is more than double the bandwidth of the Vega 56/64 (438.8GB/s and 410GB/s respectively), as well as the RTX 2080’s 448GB/s. However, what ultimately matters is how this increased bandwidth is leveraged, while gaming applications have increased in memory requirements - The Division 2 alone recommends 11GB of VRAM for 4K 60fps gaming - it has also dramatically with content creation thanks to the inclusion of 4K and 8K assets now being the norm.

The Radeon VII packs all this power into a the more efficient 7nm process. The concern I had going into this review was the power draw and thermals. Recalling the incredibly hot Vega 64 in addition to my own past experiences with AMD cards, I was definitely concerned that the Radeon VII would follow suit. Thankfully, AMD have ditched the blower fan and opted for a triple-fan design. They have made a tremendous difference.

Additionally, AMD have changed how they handle thermals internally. The new Vega 20 architecture contains over twice the thermal sensors found in the Vega 64. AMD is also tracking both GPU temperature and the Junction temperature, allowing for better telemetry and control of the GPU. As a result, the report result is increased performance due to each GPU being allowed to maximize its potential, as well as better thermal throttling and fan control to reliably operate the card.

AMD’s Adrenalin app includes a Global Wattman feature to easily track this temperature while gaming. It’s even built into the in-game overlay for real-time analysis. As a result, you can better keep an eye on thermals. This provides power users more information to tweak the performance of their graphics cards.

But, how does it perform? I’m pleased to say in my testing, the Radeon VII handled incredibly well under load using stock settings.

In every test, I ran the game for 20 minutes, putting the GPU under normal gaming load. And in every test the Radeon VII came out on top the card didn’t even hit 65 C in some tests. That is insanely impressive. The RTX 2070 I’m using as part of these benchmarks is the MSI ARMOR OC RTX 2070 card which uses MSI’s TORX FROZR twin fans, and while the temperature numbers are perfectly acceptable, it’s hard not to be impressed by the triple fan set up on the RVII. The only game where they were really close is EA’s Battlefield V, which is entirely understandable given the intense load it puts on the GPU.

Benchmarks

Finally, the meat of the review: How does the Radeon VII rank against the Vega 64 and the RTX 2070? For many MMO fans, bleeding edge graphics aren’t the most important aspect of their gameplay. Though many new MMOs leverage more and more photorealistic graphics, performance matters more in those heavy raid situations. A notable absence from these benchmarks is Black Desert Online Remastered. I did benchmark the game at 1440p across all three cards and received the same consistent result: a locked 60 FPS. The same cannot be said for the 4K result.

For some reason, Black Desert Online Remastered capped my framerate at 30fps in 4K. I tried everything: options menus, Rivatuner Statistics Server, and finally, AMD’s global and game specific settings. I could not find a way to unlock the framerate during gameplay. I did reach out to the developers, Pearl Abyss, through PR to see if this was a hard-coded lock or if something was wrong on my end. But they have not responded as of this writing. I’ll be sure to update this review accordingly if and when they respond.

Here are the test bench specs used in our tests:

  • CPU: Intel i7-8700K @ 4.3 GHz
  • Motherboard: Gigabyte Aorus Z390 Gaming Pro
  • RAM: Corsair Vengeance PRO RGB @ 3000 MHz
  • Storage: Intel 760p 2TB m.2 SSD
  • Cooling: Corsair H60 Liquid Cooling
  • PSU: Thermaltake Toughpower Grand Series RGB 750W
  • GPUs tested: AMD Rx Vega 64 Reference; MSI ARMOR OC RTX 2070 8GB; AMD Radeon VII Reference
  • Drivers: AMD - Press Driver supplied by AMD; Nvidia - 417.71 (418.81 released after testing was completed)

Note, we did not benchmark 1080p results. Suffice to say if you’re spending $699 on a GPU, you likely aren’t playing at 1080p. As a result, we stuck to 1440p and 4K using the ultra-presets on every game, though MSAA was disabled as it provides an inflated performance hit, especially at 4K. Our methodology included running each card through the same benchmark test. If the game has a built-in benchmark, we used that for consistency.

Each game was tested three times, with an average of three runs used in our results. When an in-game benchmark wasn’t available, we ran the same gameplay scenario three times on each card while attempting to replicate each scenario as close as possible, and calculated the averages for a final result.

For ESO this meant fighting Dark Anchors to replicate and capture intense load on the GPU. On Battlefield V, we ran the opening Norway/Tobruk portions of the first War Story three times in order to get somewhat scripted consistent results.

Additionally, every test utilized DX11, with the exception of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Civilization VI and Battlefield V. These games utilized DX12.

Synthetic Benchmarks

Synthetic tests are meant to push your GPU to the limits and really test your card’s strengths and weaknesses. We ran both Time Spy Extreme as a great 4K DirectX 12 benchmark, as well as Firestrike and Firestrike Ultra (the latter of which ran only on the  Radeon VII for comparison with RTX 2080 numbers already out there  - 6589 vs 6389 combined score). The results are definitely interesting.

While only looking at the GPU score in Time Spy Extreme, the Radeon VII surges ahead of the Vega 64 and tops the RTX 2070 by a good margin. In our 2080 review, Chris was able to achieve a Time Spy score of 4951 on the graphics side, but take that number with a grain of salt due to the different testing environments. Dropping the resolution to 1440p in Time Spy saw more than double the improvement on GPU score for the Radeon VII, still sitting comfortably ahead of the other two cards.

It seems Firestrike is where the Radeon VII comes into its own, topping the two cards tested here, as well as 2080 results seen online ahead of release. It’s interesting to see the DX12 test run so much closer to the Radeon VII than the DX11 test, especially with the performance advantage AMD has experienced with many DX12 applications.

Gaming Benchmarks

The Radeon VII is the clear leader at 1440p, though Civilization VI does reach 100fps average on both the Radeon VII, and Vega 64 and RTX 2070 well within the race. The most noticeable leap is Battlefield V, with the Vega 64 leading over even the RTX 2070 by a single frame. But here, the Radeon VII surges ahead by over 31fps. While this isn’t surprising overall - Frostbite loves AMD rigs, even with the team at DICE moving to Nvidia for ray-tracing (more on that in a bit) - it does outstrip the 2070 by a whopping 35%.

While Rise of the Tomb Raider is an older title, it does have a pretty demanding graphical feature suite. At1440p, the Radeon VII comes out 17% faster than the 2070, and 24% faster than the Vega 64.

Elder Scrolls Online was a tricky one to benchmark. With any MMO, so much of the performance is dependent on the server. My first 4K test with the Radeon VII had a ping over 400 ms, so I opted to come back later and try again. Once I was able to get a stable ping, the results remained pretty close to the other cards, providing only a marginal benefit over the RTX 2070 and Vega 64. Grand Theft Auto V is similar, though 1440p provided some stellar results overall.

Final Fantasy XV was the one game I was really interested in seeing. As an incredibly beautiful and detailed game, I was hoping to see some improvement on the RTX 2070 - and while I did see improvement, it was marginal at best. Final Fantasy XV is a Nvidia GameWorks title, so it makes sense it would be close race. Yet the Radeon VII does come out marginally ahead. Comparing this with Chris’ RTX 2080 review shows the Nvidia card eking out 78fps at 1440p, so these results feel within the normal bounds.

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