MSI RX 480 GAMING X 8G Video Card Review

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Today we finally get to look at AMD’s latest entry to the competitive, mainstream market in the Polaris 10 based, RX 480 video card. Based on the new 14nm FinFET process, the RX 480 is aimed at improving the power to performance ratio as well as performance in general over previous generations. More specifically, we’ll be looking at a non-reference, MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G. Like in previous Gaming edition cards, it sports a more robust power delivery area, custom PCB, superior cooling by way of the new TwinFrozrVI cooler and higher clock speeds out of the box. Get comfortable as we put the card through our test suite!

Specifications

As noted above, AMD moved to the 14nm FinFET process. If you remember the Hawaii-based GPUs, these were on 28nm and out for nearly three years with nary an update. It is nice to see AMD putting out something new instead of just re-brands (outside of the Fury line of course) on the market. Lord knows we would like some head-to-head competition! Below is a slide from the AMD press deck showing us a high-level layout of the RX 480 architecture.

Slide from AMD Press Deck

Slide from AMD Press Deck

Below are the specifications from the card as listed (and a bit more) on the MSI website for the RX 480 Gaming X 8G. The RX 480 is comprised of 2,304 Stream Processors in 36 Control Units. There are a total of 144 Texture units, and 32 ROPs. The astute may notice these are less than the Hawaii-based cards and you would be correct. With generational changes come efficiency improvements and architectural differences. One such item is a larger L2 cache (2MB) which is double the amount per ROP as most of the previous generation. This implementation helps reduce power use and improve performance as more of the information is still held within the GPU.

As far as VRAM goes, the RX 480 uses a 256-bit bus with GDDR5 at the end of it. Depending on the variant, either 4GB or 8GB, tells you how much bandwidth you will receive as the memory speeds are different between the two with the 8GB coming in at 8000 MHz while the 4GB comes in at 7000 MHz. But speaking of reference only, the 8GB card will have 256GB/s bandwidth, while the 4GB will push 224GB/s. The card is primarily aimed at 1080p gaming, so the 4GB is enough for now, while 8GB is plenty and will allow for higher resolution gaming (thinking 2560×1440) further into the future. Having two variants also allows AMD to hit a lower price point.

The clocks on the MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G come in at 1303 MHz (Gaming Mode – default on retail cards and is the speed this sample shipped with) on the core and 8000 MHz for the VRAM. Using MSI’s Gaming App software, you can bump it up a bit to 1316 MHz and 8100 MHz respectively in OC Mode.

The card supports a maximum of four displays and resolution of 7680×4320 (8K UHD). Outputs are the typical fare of Displayport (2x v1.4 ready), HDMI (2x v2.0b), and a single DL-DVI-D. The card supports Crossfire as well, up to two cards can be used.

Last but not least is power consumption. AMD shows the card to have a 150W TDP which for how this card performs, is really a significant improvement. This particular RX 480 requires 8-pin power for a total of 225W available to the card (in spec).

See the table below or the link above for more details:

MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G Specifications
Graphics Processing Unit AMD RX 480
Interface PCI Express x16 3.0
Memory Type GDDR5
Memory Size (MB) 8192 (or 4096 – there is a 4GB version)
Memory Interface 256-bit
Stream Processors, Texture Units, ROPs 2,304 (36 CUs), 144 Texture Units, and 32 ROPs
Boost / Base Core Clock 1316 MHz (OC Mode)
1303 MHz (Gaming Mode)*
1266 MHz (Silent Mode)
Memory Clock (MHz) 8100 MHz (OC Mode)
8000 MHz (Gaming Mode)*
8000 MHz (Silent Mode)

Maximum Displays

Outputs (DP/HDMI/DVI)

 

4 Max displays

DisplayPort x 2 (Version 1.4 ready) / HDMI x2 (Version 2.0b) / DL-DVI-D

Max Resolution: 7680 x 4320 (8K UHD)

Multi-GPU Technology Crossfire, 2-Way
Power consumption (W) / Power Connectors 150W / 6-pin x 1, 8-pin x 1
HDCP / HDMI / DL-DVI Support Yes (all three)
DirectX / OpenGL Version Support DX12_1 / Open GL 4.5
Card Dimensions (mm) 276 x 140 x 42 mm (10.9″ x 5.5″ x 1.6″)
Weight 978g (2.15 lbs)

Features

As we know from the GTX 1070 Gaming X review and the GTX 1080 Gaming Z review, MSI updated the TwinFrozr to the TwinFrozr VI cooler. This includes the TORX 2.0 fan which is said to add 22% more air pressure to help get air through the heatsink and off the card. The two fans now are of the double ball bearing variety to help keep noise down and provide longer life. Another feature helping fan life is the Zero Frozr mode; the fans stay OFF until temperatures reach 60 °C. This means for browsing the web, multimedia, and even light gaming the card will not make a sound!

MSI has engineered the heatsink to move more air to/through where the heatpipes are located to help with improved efficiency. The base plate on the heatsink is made of nickel-plated copper to move the heat to the smoothed and flattened heatpipes, up to 8 mm in size, which will maximize heat transfer from the base plate. They use a premium thermal paste as well. These features should keep the Military Class 4 components running plenty cool! One cannot forget the addition of the LEDs placed on the TwinFrozr VI cooler. They are RGB and can be controlled through the MSI Gaming App.

See these features and more at the MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G website:

ico-dispfanbld TORX 2.0 FAN
TEAMWORK FOR GREATER STRENGTH
Just like in games, the exclusive MSI TORX 2.0 Fan technology uses the power of teamwork to allow the TWIN FROZR VI to achieve new levels of cool.TORX 2.0 Fan design generates 22% more air pressure for supremely silent performance in the heat of battle.
ico-ballbrgfan DOUBLE BALL BEARINGS
Double Ball Bearings give the unique MSI TORX 2.0 Fans a strong and lasting core for years of smooth gaming. They also remain virtually silent while spinning under load, keeping your graphics card cool during intense and lengthy gaming sessions.
ico-zerofn ZERO FROZR-STAY UNDETECTED
First introduced in 2008 by MSI, ZeroFrozr technology has made its mark and is now the industry standard among graphics cards. It eliminates fan noise by stopping the fans in low-load situations. This means you can focus on gaming without the noise of spinning fans.Under 60C, fans stop, completely silent (mulitmedia or light gaming). Above 60C the fan starts.
ico-led CATCH THE VIBE WITH COOL LED EFFECTS
Each LED can be controlled individually by choosing any of the animation effects available in the MSI Gaming App, ranging from responding to your game sounds or music to steady light, breathing and flashing. Of course, you can also turn them off.
ico-hsairflw HEATSINK
Lurking under the cover of the GAMING graphics card is an engineering masterpiece designed to keep the graphics card cool. Every tiny detail of the intricate heatsink plays an essential part in providing a cool & quiet gaming experience.AIRFLOW CONTROL TECHNOLOGY
Using advanced aerodynamics, Airflow Control Technology directs more air directly onto the TWIN FROZR VI heat pipes. The special deflectors on the heat sink enlarge the surface area, which means lower temperatures and better gaming.
ico-basplttim SMOOTH HEAT PIPES
Up to 8mm thick copper heat pipes with a smooth squared shape at the bottom maximize heat transfer from the surface of the copper base plate.SOLID BASEPLATE
To temper the heat generated by a powerful GPU, MSI GAMING series graphics cards use a solid nickel-plated copper base plate. The base plate catches the heat from the GPU and transfers it to the heat pipes for dissipation so you can keep cool.PREMIUM THERMAL COMPOUND
Every detail counts when it comes to creating the ultimate thermal design, which is why TWIN FROZR VI uses a premium thermal compound to make sure it outlives the competition.

 

GPU-Z

Below is a screenshot from the latest version (1.9.0) of GPU-Z. As expected, this confirms what was mentioned earlier specification-wise. One item to note… at the time of this writing, GPU-Z was the only software I checked which would read out the voltage and temperatures for the card (in the sensors tab). MSI Afterburner does not appear to have been updated yet to be fully compatible with the card.

GPU-z v1.9

GPU-z v1.9

Retail Packaging and Accessories

Below we see the now extremely familiar MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G retail packaging. In the mostly red box you see a picture of the card and its Twin Frozr VI cooler along with the name of the card, some of its features (14nm FinFET, Freesync, HDR ready, etc.) as well as being “BR Ready” prominently showing. The back of the box shows even more features and has some specifications as well.

It still has the box in box setup with the accessory stack on top, while the card sits below it in the ESD bag and resting snug in form fitting foam.

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Meet the MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G

Our first pictures of the card in hand show the MSI Gaming Red theme on the Twin Frozr VI cooler. You see the two large, what looks like 90mm fans (doesn’t seem to be listed) Torx 2.0 fans along with the Gaming dragon on the hub. The right side of the card sports LEDs in the red design lines above and below the fan. Flipping the card around we see a nicely designed black backplate again showing the MSI Gaming Dragon along with some vents in cut into it as well. The top of the card shows the MSI name and dragon again (LEDs inside!) and some of the TFVI coolers heatpipes sticking out. Since the red color on the plastic is static, it won’t fit in with every build theme, but if you want some red in it, you are covered here. MSI does offer other lines, like the Armor, which are a bit more theme neutral being black and white. There is also the Lightning series too… I can’t wait to see those on the AMD side as well!

MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G

MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G

Back

Back

Top

Top

Bottom

Bottom

Side

Side

A Closer Look

Looking where the outputs are on the card, we can see MSI cut some designed vent holes in the plate so at least some of the warmed exhaust air goes through there. The outputs themselves are a bit different here in there are two HDMI ports (typically one), two Displayport connectors (typically three), and a DL-DVI-D. In order to support the monster 8K res, you will need to use two DisplayPort connections.

The next photo shows MSI using an 8-pin PCIe power connector is required. This is a step up from the reference which uses a 6-pin. This allows the card to receive a total of 225W through the PCIe connector and the motherboard.

If you read anything about these cards, you probably came across an issue of it, at least in reference form, pulling more than 75W (PCIe SIG specification) through the PCIe slot. Chances are this would not have been an issue really, but AMD corrected it with a driver release which gives users a “compatibility mode” to route more power through the PCIe connector. There was a very minor performance hit with this enabled, (~3% typically, 1FPS or less according to Anandtech.com) This was implemented in Crimson 16.7.1 (current is 16.7.3).

DL DVI D, 2x HDMI, 2x Displayport

DL DVI D, 2x HDMI, 2x Displayport

8-Pin Required!

8-Pin Required

As always, we took apart the card to show the goodies hidden beneath the Twin Frozr VI heatsink. You see a heatplate which covers the VRMs and the memory… mostly. I say mostly because some of the memory ICs are not fully covered. While this isn’t a major issue, memory doesn’t run that hot, it would be nice to see full coverage. The power bits are fully covered which is the most important.

The base of the heatsink is nice and flat with its smooth heatpipes snaking their way through. You can see the offset imprint of the Polaris 10 core on the base of the heatsink. The VRM/memory heatsink made good contact where it was completely touching the IC.

Main Heatsink Removed, VRM/Memory Heatplate On

Main Heatsink Removed, VRM/Memory Heatplate On

Full Frontal

Full Frontal

Twin Frozr VI Heatsink Base

Twin Frozr VI Heatsink Base

Memory/VRM Heatplate Contact (Good!)

Memory/VRM Heatplate Contact (Good!)

MSI uses its Military Class IV components (Super-Ferrite Chokes, Solid Caps, Hi-C Caps) across an 8-Phase power section. By comparison the reference model only has 6-Phase power. That coupled with the 8-Pin power connector helps deliver clean and steady power to the card for better overclocking capabilities than reference.

VRMs (Appears to be 6+2)

VRMs (Appears to be 6+2)

Monitoring/Overclocking Software – MSI Afterburner, MSI Gaming App

Below is a screenshot of MSI’s monitoring and overclocking software, MSI Afterburner (with its legacy skin). As we likely all know, this is used to monitor temperatures, voltages, and clockspeeds (among many other things) and also change fan speeds, voltages, and clockspeeds for overclocking.

The latest publicly available beta, 4.3.0 beta 4, is pictured below. At this time, the current version of MSI AB doesn’t seem to fully support the card as it will not overclock when you move the slider, there is no fan control, and it doesn’t read temperatures. I had to use GPU-Z to get temperature information. I was unable to locate the overclocking option in the Crimson drivers. MSI states it is supported through there, however.

After talking with MSI, they will be adding support shortly. With some luck, by the time these are on the shelves for you soon. We have seen good things with an RX 480 if it is kept cool enough, so here is to hoping for a correction ASAP so we can let the gaming dragon loose.

MSI Afterburner 4.3.0 Beta 4

MSI Afterburner 4.3.0 Beta 4

Below is a screenshot of the MSI Gaming App. This simple application allows you to have a bit of “one touch” control over the speed of your card in that it has three modes, OC, Gaming, and Silence. When you want a bit of a boost, hit OC Mode. This will slightly raise the clocks of the core and memory giving a small performance gain over the other modes. By default yours will come with Gaming Mode enabled. If you have an MSI motherboard, this can work with it too!

msi gaming app

Test System

GPU Test System
CPU Intel 6700K @ Stock (for the motherboard – 4.2 GHz)
Motherboard ASUS Maximus VIII Extreme
RAM 2×4 GB DDR4 GSkill Ripjaws4 @ 3000 MHz 15-15-15-35 2T 1.35 V
Graphics Card MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G
Stock (Gaming Mode): Core: 1303 MHz, / 8000 MHz Memory
Overclocked: 1316 MHz / 8100 MHz (OC Mode)
Solid State Drive OCZ RD400 (512GB)
Power Supply SeaSonic SS-1000XP (80+ Platinum)
Operating System Windows 10 x64 (Fully Updated)
Graphics Drivers Crimson 16.7.3
Other Equipment
Digital Multimeter, Kill-A-Watt

Other cards used for comparison are as follows (links are to their reviews):

Benchmarking Method/Settings

Note all testing below uses 1920×1080 screen resolution (settings also carry over to 2560 x 1440 and Surround/Eyefinity testing if applicable).

All Synthetic benchmarks were at their default settings, with game benchmarks at noted settings:

  • 3DMark Fire Strike – Extreme, default setting.
  • 3DMark Time Spy – Default
  • Unigine Valley Benchmark v1.0 – 1080p, DX11, Ultra Quality, 8x AA, Full Screen
  • Unigine Heaven (HWbot) – Extreme setting
  • Crysis 3 – Very High settings with 8xMSAA/16xAF (2nd level when you procure and use the Crossbow to get across the level and kill the Helicopter)
  • Metro:LL – DX11, Very High, 16xAF, Motion Blur – Normal, SSAA Enabled, DX11 Tessellation – Very High, Advanced PhysX – Disabled, Scene D6
  • Dirt: Rally – 1080p, 8x MSAA, everything on Ultra that can be, enable Advanced Blending
  • Grand Theft Auto V – 1080p, high settings (see article below for details).
  • Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor – 1080p, everything Ultra that can be (Lighting quality High), FXAA and Camera + Object Blur, DOF/OIT/Tessellation enabled.
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider – 1080p, SSAA 4X, VSync Off, DirectX 12 On, Very High Preset
  • The Division – 1080p, Ultra Preset, VSync Off
  • Far Cry: Primal – 1080p, Ultra Preset, VSync Off
  • Ashes of the Singularity – 1080p, DX12, Crazy Preset

More details found in our article: Overclockers.com GPU Testing Procedures

Synthetic Benchmarks

In this set of synthetic performance testing, we have officially moved on from 3DMark 11 and replaced it with the latest from Futuremark in 3DMark Time Spy. 3DMTS is a DX12 level test and really kicks GPUs in the rear.

The MSI RX 480 Gaming X scored 5,614 in 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme while its direct competitor, the slightly pricier GTX 1060, is around 9% faster here. It also falls behind a heavily overclocked GTX 980 by over 10%. In 3DMark Time Spy, the card scores 4,309 while being less than 1% behind the GTX 1060, a good showing here in the DX12 benchmark. We do not have the data for the 980 and 970 for this benchmark.

Since we could only overclock the card to the “OC Mode” settings, which raised the clocks 13 MHz on the core and 25 MHz on the memory, we saw minimal gains of around 1%. Radeon Wattman in the Crimson drivers (Overdrive replacement for Polaris) wouldn’t even work/doesn’t show up in the Crimson drivers for this card.

3DMark Fire Strike and 3DMark Time Spy

3DMark Fire Strike and 3DMark Time Spy

Moving on the Unigine Valley, the MSI RX 480 Gaming X 8G scored 2,264 while falling way behind the 1060 (26%) here and still around 13% slower than a 970 in this testing. Unigine Heaven shows a slightly different story with it falling behind the 1060 by 16% and being faster than the 970 in this benchmark.

Remember though, these are synthetic results, let’s move on to the games and see if those results change anything!

Unigine Valley and Heaven (HWbot version)

Unigine Valley and Heaven (HWbot version)

Gaming Benchmarks

One item to note here is we dropped BF4 and added, more formally, the new games so we have refreshed our suite. Please also take note that in the process we do not have data for the older cards in the newer games. As we get more of team Red and team Green’s cards, things will start filling in once again.

In looking at these benchmarks, overall you can see every game was playable and average over that magic 30 FPS threshold… some closer than others. We are seeing the 1060 manage to hold a lead across the board by a couple to several FPS depending on the title. But again, the point here is even with the settings cranked like we have in most titles, the card can easily manage 1080p gaming at those settings… and does so while using a lot less power than the 390 (and performs better as well). It also costs less than a comparable GTX 1060 so we expect it to be slower on that front. About the only IQ concessions one will need to make is in Crysis 3, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Ashes of the Singularity.

Crysis 3, Dirt: Rally, and Metro: Last Light

Crysis 3, Dirt: Rally, and Metro: Last Light

 

Far Cry: Primal, ME: Shadow or Mordor, and GTA V

Far Cry: Primal, ME: Shadow or Mordor, and GTA V

 

Rise of the Tomb Raider, The Division, and Ashes of the Singularity

Rise of the Tomb Raider, The Division, and Ashes of the Singularity

2560×1440 Results

I also put the card through its paces at a higher resolution of 2560×1440. In some titles, at the high settings we run things at, you can see this card just doesn’t have enough horsepower to drive it without lowering some in-game settings (Crysis 3, ROTR, and Metro:LL). In other titles, you are seeing 30+ FPS averages. This may not be enough for some FPS snobs, and that is OK, its not really meant to play here at those levels. It still puts up a decent showing here regardless with most titles having plenty of FPS to keep most people happy.

I did not test at 5760×1080 as FPS would be not playable in most titles on the list. Grab two of these if you are looking at three 1080p monitors.

2560x1440 Resultss

2560×1440 Results

Pushing the Limits

This section is going to have to get a big “Not Applicable”. Until we can get more control over the card, there isn’t a point in this section now. Please keep an eye out in the comments/forum thread as I will update when it changes.

Temperatures and Power Consumption

As far as temperatures go, in our testing we really didn’t see this thing shoot up a lot at all posting a maximum temperature of 64 °C in the testing. I’m sure if we let this run for an hour or more than a few loops, they would go up a bit. The fan speeds stayed nearly inaudible throughout the testing and my time gaming with the card.

Temperatures

Temperatures

The Radeon RX 480 was a huge leap in performance per watt for AMD with the card coming in at 150W and performing a bit slower than an R9 390 at 250W+. So kudos to AMD and their 14nm FinFET process bringing power use back in line with the competition.

We see below we hit a peak of 276W in 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme while in Valley, the system topped out at 251W. A quality 500W PSU will easily power this test system, even overclocked.

Power Consumption

Power Consumption

Conclusion

AMD really brought out a very good card with solid performance, low power use, and a great price to boot. The Polaris 10 architecture was never meant to compete with NVIDIA on the high-end front (saving that for Vega), and does a more than adequate job playing games on 1080p at their highest settings. Some titles will need some adjustments for those who require more than the magical 30 FPS, but for its price, it’s going to be tough to beat.

As far as negative, I do not have a lot to speak of really. The biggest beef I had was not being able to overclock the card for the review as neither MSI Afterburner nor the Crimson Radeon Settings software had that functionality. We were limited to using the OC Mode profile within the MSI Gaming App which gives a slight performance bump. As mentioned earlier they will be adding support soon.

MSI’s MSRP will be between $249-$259 for the RX 480 Gaming X 8G. This puts it in direct competition with the 1060 which does perform better and comes in between $250-$290. You are able to find the reference model/4GB variant RX 480’s for $199 (reference MSRP) with its blower cooler. The least expensive 8GB reference model is $239. Among its peers, the price is towards the lower end of non-reference cards with other models hitting up to $279. The 1060 Gaming X is $289 so a difference of $30 there for comparable cards from the same brand/line.

There is some stiff competition here in the lower mid-range with NVIDIA’s release of the GTX 1060 and its performance. What more can we ask for? Some decisions need to be made as a consumer as far as which card to go with. On one hand, in the not soon’ish future, DX12 and Vulkan will be more of a force on the scene and in a title or so, using that API yields some very good gains putting the 1060 in behind it.

AMD really worked hard on increasing the performance per watt and brought to market a card that performs very well at 1080p. MSI’s spin on the card with the more robust power setup, higher quality parts than reference, and Twin Frozr VI cooling, are begging for more along with the price being right among its peers. With that, this card is Overclockers.com approved!

Overclockers_clear_approved

– Joe Shields (Earthdog)

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