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AMD Radeon RX 6900 XT review: the Digital Foundry verdict

Cleverly designed and competive cards, with some limitations.

The RX 6000 line of graphics cards in general and the RX 6900 XT in particular are difficult to assess during a time of transition in the gaming market. You pay more for the vanilla RX 6800 compared to RTX 3070 (assuming you can find either at recommended retail pricing), but the AMD card is undeniably faster in standard rasterisation gaming benchmarks. The higher-end RX 6800 XT and this RX 6900 XT trade blows with RTX 3080 and RTX 3090, but neither of AMD's offerings can conclusively best the Nvidia cards across a range of tests. This is offset by the fact that the Radeon cards are cheaper, dramatically so in the case of RX 6900 XT. The vast majority of our tests show that AMD is undoubtedly back in the game, with engineering innovations that throw down the gauntlet to Nvidia. However, there's no doubt that the new Radeon cards - RX 6900 XT included - are well behind in terms of next generation features and performance.

That starts with ray tracing. The utility of the feature has been hotly contested, but its arrival in the next generation consoles and its deployment in key titles up to and including the incredible Cyberpunk 2077 shows that the feature has legs, that it is an important component in a new age of visual fidelity. The feature works on RDNA 2 cards and as it's the same core technology in the consoles, we should expect to see better utilisation of the technology in the future. However, in the here and now, Nvidia has invested more silicon into the feature, accelerates more of the RT pipeline and the improvements in performance are plain and clear to see. Like-for-like, RTX cards are a generation ahead.

Another issue I've had during this review is in how to approach games like Control and Death Stranding, which feature support for DLSS 2.x technology - AI upscaling that has now reached the point where image reconstruction driven by machine learning features is now able to produce better image quality than native rendering. Without DLSS, Death Stranding runs faster on AMD, but with it, Nvidia is a lot faster - and better-looking. The standard modus operandi for a GPU review is to use like-for-like workloads, but this does not approximate how the cards will be used by gamers. Meanwhile, DLSS has proven essential in mitigating the huge computational requirement of ray tracing, as you'll see dramatically when we roll out our Cyberpunk 2077 coverage. AMD has its own Super Resolution feature in development but in a press briefing call, the firm would not share a timescale for the feature's arrival, and how it actually works is still a bit of a mystery. All we do know is that it is not using machine learning features. Again, it puts clear water between Nvidia and AMD offerings.

However, we are in a transitionary period and it's clear that opinion is still divided on the importance of next-gen features, so if you do disagree with us on how crucial these technologies are, it makes the choice to go with RX 6000 a much easier one - but the question of which of the Big Navi cards you might consider is hardly cut and dried. By and large, you're getting around 10 per cent of extra performance moving from 6800 XT to 6900 XT, but the price premium is eye-watering and you may well be better served by a third party factory overclocked RX 6800 XT. Meanwhile in terms of overall price vs performance, the RX 6800 is hard to overlook - especially as it retains the same 16GB of framebuffer memory as its bigger brothers.

Looking at the RX 6900 XT specifically, it seems to sit within a band of performance between RTX 3080 and RTX 3090 all told - and that's if we completely forget about ray tracing and DLSS for now. With that in mind, it doesn't quite deliver the range of features and the all-out performance a halo product truly needs to justify its mind-boggling price-point. A $500 haircut over RTX 3090 MSRP is the headline comparison point when really it's the value offered by the RX 6800 XT that is difficult to ignore. Halo pricing only really works if you are delivering the absolute best of the best, and while the RX 6900 XT gets close, it doesn't quite make it - especially when the competition is delivering features that are so compelling.

With all of this said, Big Navi in all of its iterations is still a hugely impressive leap in performance and features for AMD and crucially, for the first time since 2015's Radeon R9 Fury X, we do have a product that is highly competitive and sometimes capable of outscoring Nvidia's finest. The Green Team has been at least one step ahead for years now, but the gap has now closed in terms of rasterisation performance, at least. But perhaps just as important as this is how AMD has reached this point. If we look back at Fury X, it saw AMD operating with a similar die size, but using far higher specification memory, a colossal memory interface and a bolt-on liquid cooler, despite operating at lower clocks - a brute force approach in challenging the more svelte, efficient GTX 980 Ti. Fast forward five years and it's a very different story - this time it's AMD that's clocking faster yet running more efficiently generally, doubling performance over the RX 5700 XT while using the same 256-bit memory interface and just 14 per cent increase in bandwidth. If AMD can maintain that momentum, the future looks very bright indeed.

AMD Radeon RX 6900 XT Analysis