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AMD Radeon RX 460 review

Digital Foundry analyses AMD's debut Polaris 11 product.

AMD has scored two solid hits with its initial brace of Polaris 10-based graphics cards, with both RX 470 and RX 480 offering good performance at well-judged price points. These two products essentially allow for console-beating visual quality at 1080p60. The new RX 460 is different - based on the smaller Polaris 11 processor, the idea here is to bring console-level visual power to the entry-level enthusiast market - and indeed gaming notebooks - where the new chip's power efficiency comes to the fore.

However, in assessing the RX 460, we're looking at two high-end iterations of the card - Asus's Strix model, and Sapphire's Nitro edition. Both are exceptionally quiet, and crucially, both of them are equipped with 4GB of GDDR5, meaning that users shouldn't need to skimp on texture quality - and should still be capable of matching PS4's visual quality settings at similar frame-rates. The thing is, both of them cost £30/$30 more than the base £109/$109 price-point, so they really need to be special.

It's still the same Polaris 11 processor inside, of course. This offers 14 fourth generation GCN compute units (there are 16 on the chip, two are disabled) while the reference boost clock is set to 1200MHz. There's a factory overclock in effect on both of these models though, taking them up to 1250MHz. The base RX 460 is powered entirely through the motherboard's PCI Express slot; however, this brace of overclocked editions feature an additional six-pin power input, opening up extra OC potential. It may also explain how both of these cards have a rock solid lock on their boost frequencies no matter what load you subject them to - something we didn't see on the reference RX 480.

Physically, both of these cards are very imposing compared to the reference board we've seen from AMD, with twin-fan cooling assemblies - which may well be overkill for what is supposed to be a low-power processor. Video outputs are basic but to the point - dual-link DVI, DisplayPort and HDMI 2.0. The base level RX 460 at $109/£109 is the cheapest HDMI 2.0 card on the market - something worth bearing in mind for those interested in putting together an entry-level media PC.

A video review of the RX 460, offering a detailed overview and performance test of AMD's debut Polaris 11 product.Watch on YouTube

Bearing in mind that we have 4GB overclocked versions of the RX 460, we slotted the card directly into our standard testing set-up, allowing us to more easily leverage our existing GPU data. In truth, the RX 460 is not set up for the ultra-level visuals tested here - it's better suited to console-equivalent settings for consistently playable frame-rates, but we feel fairly confident in saying that the RX 460 should deliver frame-rates north of 30fps on high settings at 1080p in most titles.

Benchmarks should never be considered as a guide to the kind of experience you'll get in the titles covered here. Instead we should consider them as identical game engine workloads tested on each piece of hardware, the idea being to establish the differentials between them.

We've split the tests into two here. In the first set of benchmarks, we stack up the RX 460 with its nearest Nvidia equivalent - the GTX 950 - along with its Polaris 10 neighbour, the RX 470. In between we have GTX 960 and its R9 380 rival. These may seem like unfair tests bearing in mind the RX 460's £109/$109 price-point - but perhaps not bearing in mind the two cards we were supplied with have a £30/$30 price-premium. In the second test, we stack up Polaris 11 against a host of older AMD cards. Our testing here is limited to DirectX 11 as AMD still hasn't properly fixed v-sync support for older Radeons based on Bonaire, Pitcairn and Tahiti designs, meaning that our preferred testing method - FCAT - won't produce accurate results. This is a little disappointing - it means users of older cards don't have full DX12 v-sync support, and it also means we are limited in the data we can provide.

A look at how RX 460 stacks up against GTX 950, RX 470 and R9 380. The latter strikes a mid-point between RX 460 and RX 470 that the Polaris line-up currently lacks.Watch on YouTube
1920x1080 (1080p) RX 460 4GB Asus RX 460 4GB Sapphire GTX 950 LP 2GB GTX 960 2GB R9 380 4GB RX 470 4GB
Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA 27.0 27.0 24.5 29.8 35.2 48.8
Ashes of the Singularity, Extreme, 0x MSAA, DX12 23.8 23.2 21.6 27.2 33.3 45.2
Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA T2x 35.0 34.9 36.7 46.4 50.2 68.0
The Division, Ultra, SMAA 27.2 27.4 25.6 33.8 37.0 37.3
Far Cry Primal, Ultra, SMAA 29.3 29.2 30.5 37.8 41.3 54.7
Hitman, Ultra, SMAA, DX12 36.5 36.5 25.3 31.7 53.0 68.6
Rise of the Tomb Raider, Very High, High Textures, SMAA, DX12 33.4 33.6 35.3 45.0 42.8 64.1
The Witcher 3, Ultra, Post AA, No HairWorks 32.1 32.0 31.2 38.9 42.6 57.9

First of all, there are few surprises in stacking up the two top-tier RX 460s we have available - both of them offer totally identical performance and like-for-like acoustics and thermals. Until you move into the overclocking area, the products are very, very quiet.

The data offers up few surprises - the RX 470 with an additional 18 compute units offers almost twice the level of performance, leaving something of a gaping hole in AMD's product line-up between the RX 460 and RX 470 - a gap that a product along the lines of the R9 380 fills quite nicely. Hitman aside, the RX 460 can't match the old GTX 960, but it's very much in the game up against the similarly priced GTX 950, where its dominance in Hitman in particular is suitably commanding. However, there is no knockout blow here. GTX 950 is faster in Crysis 3, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Far Cry Primal and within spitting distance with a few other titles.

And one more thing to point out - the GTX 950 we tested is the low-power 75W version from Asus that does not require any additional PCI Express inputs. The MSI model we have with a factory overclock adds 2-3fps over the low power version, and this may actually have been a fairer test bearing in mind that we are testing OCed versions of the RX 460 with the same additional six-pin power input.

Data is limited to DirectX 11 here, but it gives an outlook of how RX 460 slots into the existing low to mid-tier Radeon products. It effectively sits between the two Pitcairns of old - Radeon HD 7850/R7 265/R7 370 and Radeon HD 7870/R9 270/R9 270X.Watch on YouTube
1920x1080 (1080p) RX 460 4GB R7 260X 2GB R7 370 2GB R9 270X 2GB R9 280 3GB R9 280X 3GB
Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA 27.0 20.3 25.5 25.6 33.7 40.4
Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA T2x 35.0 26.0 34.0 38.8 45.0 52.2
The Division, Ultra, SMAA 27.2 19.3 25.3 30.2 33.1 37.8
Far Cry Primal, Ultra, SMAA 29.3 25.5 33.9 36.7 41.1 48.9
The Witcher 3, Ultra, Post AA, No HairWorks 32.1 24.4 26.5 29.0 30.6 34.1

If there's a sense of disappointment from the RX 460, a look at this AMD-only comparison is more positive. In the US, the RX 460 is only $10 more expensive than the old Bonaire-powered R7 260X and R7 360, which both offer essentially identical performance clock-for-clock, despite the 14 vs 12 compute unit count. The benches above show that the RX 460 is much, much faster, moving more into line as a mid-point between the R7 370 (a more highly clocked Radeon R7 265 or HD 7850) and the R9 270X (aka Radeon HD 7870).

At its entry-level price-point - in the US at least - the performance on offer here is very good indeed and as a replacement for both R7 360 and R7 370, it's a good deal. The old power-hungry Tahiti cards, R9 280/280X (aka HD 7950/7970) are considerably ahead, but the more efficient GCN architecture performs miracles with The Witcher 3, where it's actually faster than the R9 280. This may well be down to driver optimisations when we consider that the 280 actually has twice as many compute units as the RX 460.

At its base price point, the RX 460 looks highly appealing but as the custom models and extra VRAM ramp up the prices, the RX 460 loses much of its appeal. With the RX 460 hitting up to $140/£140, the remarkable reality is that just $40/£40 more buys you over 80 per cent more performance. The pricing on the premium RX 460 models just doesn't make sense in a world where the RX 470 even in its base configuration has everything you need for 1080p60 gameplay for not much more money.

This scene from Crysis 3 is easily repeatable and incurs a heavy, sustained load on the GPU - good for testing overclocks and heavy power draw.
RX 460 Asus RX 460 OC GTX 950 LP GTX 950 RX 470 MSI RX 480
Peak System Power Draw 190W 202W 169W 200W 283W 271W

The premium RX 460 models can be overclocked - RAM goes up to 8gbps on the Sapphire model (we topped out at around 7.7gbps on the Asus - not that it made any worthwhile difference to the benches), but the core can only see a 5.5 per cent boost, taking us up to around 1320MHz. This isn't so bad bearing in mind that the cards we had for testing are already factory overclocked, but the end result is a mere seven per cent of additional performance overall.

Power efficiency was a bit of a disappointment. We wanted to see AMD hand in Nvidia-beating efficiencies with its new 14nm FinFET process, but the reality is that the RX 460 doesn't stack up so favourably against either the low power or factory overclocked GTX 950s we have on tap. The RX 460 is only 10W more efficient than a similarly factory overclocked GTX 950, which is operating on a 28nm process. Meanwhile, the low power GTX 950 we have here moves ahead considerably - it's 31W down on its factory OC sibling and 21W more efficient than the RX 460. We use Crysis 3 as the stress test here where the low power GTX 950 is actually handing in higher performance too.

The missing data here is how the standard RX 460 2GB compares - without the factory overclock, and without the additional PCI Express power delivery. We suspect that we may claw back a fair amount of efficiency on the base SKU, but the bottom line is that even at 28nm, Nvidia's class-leading performance here is still remarkable, and we can fully expect a 16nm FinFET replacement for GTX 950 in the fullness of time, of course.

AMD Radeon RX 460 - the Digital Foundry verdict

There's the sense that we've reviewed the wrong RX 460s here. We're seeing the product at its absolute best here in terms of thermals, clocks and memory and yet the price-point for these top-tier cards simply doesn't offer value when the much more appealing RX 470 doesn't cost that much more, and where existing R9 380 inventories offer much better performance for lower price. Where the RX 460 scores more highly is with its base model, which acts as a direct replacement for the R7 260X and R7 360. The performance uplift here is excellent, plus there's HDMI 2.0 and next-gen media codec support lacking in the older AMD cards.

Unfortunately, in the UK, the RX 460's pricing isn't quite so appealing, where the RX 460 essentially comes across more as an R7 370 replacement - albeit with improved performance in many (but not all) titles. It also puts it on a collision course with the GTX 950 - in benchmarking scenarios, the AMD card pulls ahead, but the Nvidia product has better overclockability, equivalent power efficiency, and superior driver-level performance meaning fewer CPU bottlenecks on the kind of budget PCs the card is likely to be installed in. On top of that, there's still no AMD equivalent to the half-rate adaptive v-sync mode offered on Nvidia cards, effectively offering properly frame-paced 30fps.

All the signs point to the base-level RX 460 offering the best value and fulfilling what we believe must be the original decision brief, and there's the sense that the premium-priced RX 460s have been manufactured in order to fill in a gaping hole in the new Radeon line-up - there's clearly a midway point between the RX 460 and RX 470 where a product with R9 380-level performance with a 4GB framebuffer could do pretty well. The Asus and Sapphire cards are well put together and the VRAM is nice to have, but fundamentally, they are way more over-engineered than they need to be, and the price-points just don't reflect the performance level.