More than 18 months after the launch of its 7000 series, AMD has finally unveiled its successor graphics card. As it turns out, it's, well, the 7000 series with knobs on. Just to give us the sense that everything is completely new, though, AMD has picked this as the moment to completely change its naming system. Gone is the 'HD' moniker, and the chips will now be split into two categories: R9 (for the higher level enthusiasts' market) and R7 (aimed at more mainstream users). Within each category will be a bunch of individual models, each with its own product number. (See all components reviews.)
The R7 category, for instance, will contain cards like the 250 and 260. The R9 category will stretch to 270, 280 and 290 chips. Some of these will have an 'X' at the end to signify high performance. Got all that? Well, first up will be the R9 280X, a card that aims for the serious gamer, but that won't shatter the bank account - an upcoming R9 290X is expected to perform that role.
The 280X is really a lightly clocked 7970. The architecture has remained largely the same, so it's still built around GCN (Graphics Core Next) technology. Support for Mantle is one potentially significant change (more details of this are below), but otherwise, little is truly new. We are promised something rather more spectacular for the 290, but 280X customers should be aware that they're really looking at tried and tested rather than state of the art. Having said that, a card that emulates the 7970 for slightly less isn't to be sniffed at. It's priced somewhere inbetween the GTX 770 and 760 cards from nVidia. Indeed, it's a good £60 or so cheaper than the 770, while the 760 is itself only around £30 lower, despite having lower RAM that is likely to throttle its performance in the future. See Group test: what's the best graphics card?
280X R9 graphics card: raw power
In terms of raw figures, the 280X struggles slightly against the best versions of its predecessor. That core clock of 850MHz is a significant way behind the standard 7970's 925MHz, and the best renditions of the 7970 can push this up to 1GHz. However, take into account the sizeable Boost figure of 1GHz (even the best 7970s can only offer a boost up to 1050MHz, while the standard 7970 doesn't have a boost at all), and the actual difference (if it exists) becomes fairly small. Both the new and old chips come with 128 texture units, so the 280X's resulting texture fill rate of 128GTps is only 6.4GTps behind the very best 7970s. As for the nVidia competition, the cheaper GTX 760 remains a considerable distance behind, on 102.9GTps, although the 770 is marginally better than either the 280X or 7970, notching up a fill rate of 138.9GTps. Nonetheless, we can expect overclocked versions of the 280X to narrow the gap further still.
The 280X's memory clock is a little higher than most of the 7970s, and the quadrupling capabilities of GDDR5 RAM bring its 1,5GHz clock rate up to 6GHz - most of the 7970s are on 5.5 to 5.8GHz, although the odd version does slip above the 6GHz mark. The memory interface is a very healthy 384bit version, and this gives a strong memory bandwidth figure of 288GBps. A 5.5GHz 7970, on the other hand, would only produce a figure of 264GBps. Both cards, though, use their superior memory interfaces well here, comfortably beating the GTX 770 and 760 on 224GBps and 192.3GBps respectively. The amount of memory is a significant factor as well. The 280X comes with 3GB, not as much as the very best 4GB GTX 770 cards - although many 770s come with just 2GB on board - and superior to the 760's meagre 2GB complement. A minimum of 3GB will become important as games get more complex, so the 280X strikes a very nice balance here. It also fares well on stream processors, matching the 7970's figure of 2048, and eclipsing even the GTX 770's 1536.
When we said that little was new about the latest AMD cards, we were delaying talk on a couple of features. Some of the cards will use TrueAudio, a superior form of three-dimensional sound. This won't, sadly, be supported on the 280X - although the upcoming 290s should have it, as will, bizarrely, the more mainstream 260X. Talk of TrueAudio, then, will have to wait for another review. Far more relevant (although only in the future) is the introduction of Mantle, a ruse designed to extract more mileage from the GCN architecture - and perhaps an attempt to sideline fierce rival nVidia in the process. Mantle is an API (Application Programming Interface) tailored to get more specifically from GCN and AMD's hardware than competing APIs, such as OpenGL or Direct3D. Mantle will only work if games developers support it. On the face of it, there's a good chance of this happening, as AMD should be able to play on Mantle's strong crossover capabilities with the Xbox One games console. If successful, though, Mantle could fragment the graphics card market in a way not seen in years, with the nVidia cards, for instance, not supported by some games. Only time will tell how things will turn out. However, the success of Mantle wouldn't necessarily be a victory for gamers, some of who might have to genuinely pick sides in the nVidia-AMD battle.
We should, perhaps, mention the size of this card too. Measuring 295mm across, it's something of a giant for a single-GPU card. The HIS design is nice, if not too colourful, and the twin fans and IceQ X2 system make for a surprisingly quiet and cool card. So discreet was the card in running, that it knocked a further 2db off the 770, making it astonishingly quiet for a board of this high level. This is despite some significant power requirements, and the 280X needs two 8pin power connectors from the PSU. Most PCs will offer two of these, but it's still worth checking your machine before you buy. The 250 watt TDP is quite high - the 770 only has a TDP of 230 watts, in comparison. However, HIS has done a very good job of bringing the 280X's power consumption down, and in real-world testing, it undercut the 770 by almost double-figures.
280X R9 graphics card: performance
In terms of performance, the R9 280X is a short distance behind the 770, and a considerable length ahead of the 760. The R9 280X does particularly well at a resolution of 2560x1440, using its 3GB of memory well to close the gap. In Crysis 3, for instance, it scores 39.8 and 22.1fps at resolutions of 1920x1080 and 2560x1440 respectively, while the 770 picks up 42.5 and 23.9fps. At the higher resolution, that 2.7fps gap has closed to just 1.8fps. The 760 is a long way behind on 33.8 and 18.7fps. In Bioshock, the R9 280X is again a short distance behind the 770, notching up 70.8/44.5fps against the 73.3/45.2fps of the 770. At the top resolution, the gap is just 0.7fps. The 760, again, trails on 59.9/34.7fps. On the less detailed Stalker, the gap to the 770 is at its biggest, the 280X tallying 94.7/70.3fps to the 102.0/74.3fps of the 770. Notably, though, the 7.3fps gap closes to just 4fps at the highest resolution. The 760 is left a long way behind, on 77.8/55.6fps. The 7970 is only slightly better than the 760 in all of these tests. See all PC Components and Upgrades reviews.
Benchmarks - R9 280X
- Crysis 3 (1,920x1,080 / 2,560x1,440) 39.8 / 22.1
- Bioshock Infinite Rage (1,920x1,080 / 2,560x1,440) 70.8 / 44.5
- Stalker Pripyat (1,920x1,200 / 2,560x1,600) 94.7 / 70.3