Almost 7 years ago to this day, AMD formally announced their “small die strategy.” Embarked upon in the aftermath of the company’s struggles with the Radeon HD 2900 XT, AMD opted against continuing to try beat NVIDIA at their own game. Rather than chase NVIDIA to absurd die sizes and the risks that come with it, the company would focus on smaller GPUs for the larger sub-$300 market. Meanwhile to compete in the high-end markets, AMD would instead turn to multi-GPU technology – CrossFire – to offer even better performance at a total cost competitive with NVIDIA’s flagship cards.

AMD’s early efforts were highly successful; though they couldn’t take the crown from NVIDIA, products like the Radeon HD 4870 and Radeon HD 5870 were massive spoilers, offering a great deal of NVIDIA’s flagship performance with smaller GPUs, manufactured at a lower cost, and drawing less power. Officially the small die strategy was put to rest earlier this decade, however even informally this strategy has continued to guide AMD GPU designs for quite some time. At 438mm2, Hawaii was AMD’s largest die as of 2013, still more than 100mm2 smaller than NVIDIA’s flagship GK110.



AMD's 2013 Flagship: Radeon R9 290X, Powered By Hawaii

Catching up to the present, this month marks an important occasion for AMD with the launch of their new flagship GPU, Fiji, and the flagship video card based on it, the Radeon R9 Fury X. For AMD the launch of Fiji is not just another high-end GPU launch (their 3rd on the 28nm process), but it marks a significant shift for the company. Fiji is first and foremost a performance play, but it’s also new memory technology, new power optimization technologies, and more. In short it may be the last of the 28nm GPUs, but boy if it isn’t among the most important.

With the recent launch of the Fiji GPU I bring up the small die strategy not just because Fiji is anything but small – AMD has gone right to the reticle limit – but because it highlights how the GPU market has changed in the last seven years and how AMD has needed to respond. Since 2008 NVIDIA has continued to push big dies, but they’ve gotten smarter about it as well, producing increasingly efficient GPUs that have made it harder for a scrappy AMD to undercut NVIDIA. At the same time alternate frame rendering, the cornerstone of CrossFire and SLI, has become increasingly problematic as rendering techniques get less and less AFR-friendly, making dual GPU cards less viable than they once were. And finally, on the business side of matters, AMD’s market share of discrete GPUs is lower than it has been in over a decade, with AMD’s GPU plus APU sales now being estimated as being below just NVIDIA’s GPU sales.


AMD's Fiji GPU

Which is not to say I’m looking to paint a poor picture of the company – AMD Is nothing if not the perennial underdog who constantly manages to surprise us with what they can do with less – but this context is important in understanding why AMD is where they stand today, and why Fiji is in many ways such a monumental GPU for the company. The small die strategy is truly dead, and now AMD is gunning for NVIDIA’s flagship with the biggest, gamiest GPU they could possibly make. The goal? To recapture the performance crown that has been in NVIDIA’s hands for far too long, and to offer a flagship card of their own that doesn’t play second-fiddle to NVIDIA’s.

To get there AMD needs to face down several challenges. There is no getting around the fact that NVIDIA’s Maxwell 2 GPUs are very well done, very performant, and very efficient, and that between GM204 and GM200 AMD has their work cut out for them. Performance, power consumption, form factors; these all matter, and these are all issues that AMD is facing head-on with Fiji and the R9 Fury X.

At the same time however the playing field has never been more equal. We’re now in the 4th year of TSMC’s 28nm process and have a good chunk of another year left to go. AMD and NVIDIA have had an unprecedented amount of time to tweak their wares around what is now a very mature process, and that means that any kind of advantages for being a first-mover or being more aggressive are gone. As the end of the 28nm process’s reign at the top, NVIDIA and AMD now have to rely on their engineers and their architectures to see who can build the best GPU against the very limits of the 28nm process.

Overall, with GPU manufacturing technology having stagnated on the 28nm node, it’s very hard to talk about the GPU situation without talking about the manufacturing situation. For as much as the market situation has forced an evolution in AMD’s business practices, there is no escaping the fact that the current situation on the manufacturing process side has had an incredible, unprecedented effect on the evolution of discrete GPUs from a technology and architectural standpoint. So for AMD Fiji not only represents a shift towards large GPUs that can compete with NVIDIA’s best, but it represents the extensive efforts AMD has gone through to continue improving performance in the face of manufacturing limitations.

And with that we dive in to today’s review of the Radeon R9 Fury X. Launching this month is AMD’s new flagship card, backed by the full force of the Fiji GPU.

AMD GPU Specification Comparison
  AMD Radeon R9 Fury X AMD Radeon R9 Fury AMD Radeon R9 290X AMD Radeon R9 290
Stream Processors 4096 (Fewer) 2816 2560
Texture Units 256 (How much) 176 160
ROPs 64 (Depends) 64 64
Boost Clock 1050MHz (On Yields) 1000MHz 947MHz
Memory Clock 1Gbps HBM (Memory Too) 5Gbps GDDR5 5Gbps GDDR5
Memory Bus Width 4096-bit 4096-bit 512-bit 512-bit
VRAM 4GB 4GB 4GB 4GB
FP64 1/16 1/16 1/8 1/8
TrueAudio Y Y Y Y
Transistor Count 8.9B 8.9B 6.2B 6.2B
Typical Board Power 275W (High) 250W 250W
Manufacturing Process TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm TSMC 28nm
Architecture GCN 1.2 GCN 1.2 GCN 1.1 GCN 1.1
GPU Fiji Fiji Hawaii Hawaii
Launch Date 06/24/15 07/14/15 10/24/13 11/05/13
Launch Price $649 $549 $549 $399

With 4096 SPs and coupled with the first implementation of High Bandwidth Memory, the R9 Fury X aims for the top. Over the coming pages we’ll get in to a deeper discussion on the architectural and other features found in the card, but the important point to take away right now it that it packs a lot of shaders, even more memory bandwidth, and is meant to offer AMD’s best performance yet. R9 Fury X will eventually be joined by 3 other Fiji-based parts in the coming months, but this month it’s all about AMD’s flagship card.

The R9 Fury X is launching at $649, which happens to be the same price as the card’s primary competition, the GeForce GTX 980 Ti. Launched at the end of May, the GTX 980 Ti is essentially a preemptive attack on the R9 Fury X from NVIDIA, offering performance close enough to NVIDIA’s GTX Titan X flagship that the difference is arguably immaterial. For AMD this means that while beating GTX Titan X would be nice, they really only need a win against the GTX 980 Ti, and as we’ll see the Fury X will make a good run at it, making this the closest AMD has come to an NVIDIA flagship card in quite some time.

Finally, from a market perspective, AMD will be going after a few different categories with the R9 Fury X. As competition for the GTX 980 Ti, AMD is focusing on 4K resolution gaming, based on a combination of the fact that 4K monitors are becoming increasingly affordable, 4K Freesync monitors are finally available, and relative to NVIDIA’s wares, AMD fares the best at 4K. Expect to see AMD also significantly play up the VR possibilities of the R9 Fury X, though the major VR headset, the Oculus Rift, won’t ship until Q1 of 2016. Finally, it has now been over three years since the launch of the original Radeon HD 7970, so for buyers looking for an update AMD’s first 28nm card, Fury X is in a good position to offer the kind of generational performance improvements that typically justify an upgrade.

Fiji’s Architecture: The Grandest of GCN 1.2
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  • Samus - Saturday, July 4, 2015 - link

    Being an NVidia use for 3 generations, I'm finding it hard to ignore this cards value, especially since I've invested $100 each on my last two NVidia cards (including my SLI setup) adding liquid cooling. The brackets alone are $30.

    Even if this card is less efficient per watt than NVidia's, the difference is negligible when considering kw/$. It's like comparing different brand of LED bulbs, some use 10-20% less energy but the overall value isn't as good because the more efficient ones cost more, don't dim, have a light buzz noise, etc.

    After reading this review I find the Fury X more impressive than I otherwise would have.
    Reply
  • Alexvrb - Sunday, July 5, 2015 - link

    Yeah a lot of reviews painted doom and gloom but the watercooler has to be factored into that price. Noise and system heat removal of the closed loop cooler are really nice. I still think they should launch the vanilla Fury at $499 - if it gets close to the performance of the Fury X they'll have a decent card on their hands. To me though the one I'll be keeping an eye out for is Nano. If they can get something like 80% of the performance at roughly half the power, that would make a lot of sense for more moderately spec'd systems. Regardless of what flavor, I'll be interested to see if third parties will soon launch tools to bump the voltage up and tinker with HBM clocks. Reply
  • chizow - Monday, July 6, 2015 - link

    Water cooling if anything has proven to be a negative so far for Fury X with all the concerns of pump whine and in the end where is the actual benefit of water cooling when it still ends up slower than 980Ti with virtually no overclocking headroom?

    Based on Ryan's review Fury Air we'll most likely see the downsides of leakage on TDP and its also expected to be 7/8th SP/TMU. Fury Nano also appears to be poised as a niche part that will cost as much if not more than Fury X, which is amazing because at 80-85% of Fury X it won't be any faster than the GTX 980 at 1440p and below and right in that same TDP range too. It will have the benefit of form factor but will that be enough to justify a massive premium?
    Reply
  • Alexvrb - Monday, July 6, 2015 - link

    You can get a bad batch of pumps in any CLC. Cooler Master screwed up (and not for the first time!) but the fixed units seem to be fine and for the units out there with a whine just RMA them. I'm certainly not going to buy one, but I know people that love water cooled components and like the simplicity and warranty of a CL system.

    Nobody knows the price of the Nano, nor final performance. I think they'd be crazy to price it over $550 even factoring in the form factor - unless someone releases a low-profile model, then they can charge whatever they want for it. We also don't know final performance of Fury compared to Fury X, though I already said they should price it more aggressively. I don't think leakage will be that big of an issue as they'll probably cap thermals. Clocks will vary depending on load but they do on Maxwell too - it's the new norm for stock aircooled graphics cards.

    As for overclocking, yeah that was really terrible. Until people are able to tinker with voltage controls and the memory, there's little point. Even then, set some good fan profiles.
    Reply
  • Refuge - Thursday, July 23, 2015 - link

    To be honest, the wine I've seen on these isn't anything more than any other CLC I've ever seen in the wild.

    I feel like this was blown a bit out of proportion. Maybe I'm going deaf, maybe I didn't see a real example. I'm not sure.
    Reply
  • tritiumosu3 - Thursday, July 2, 2015 - link

    "AMD Is nothing if not the perineal underdog"
    ...
    perineal =/= perennial! You should probably fix that...
    Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, July 2, 2015 - link

    Thanks. Fixed. It was right, and then the spell-checker undid things on me... Reply
  • ddriver - Thursday, July 2, 2015 - link

    I'd say after the Hecktor RuiNz fiasco, "perpetual underdog" might be more appropriate. Reply
  • testbug00 - Sunday, July 5, 2015 - link

    Er, what fiasco did Hector Ruiz create for AMD? Reply
  • Samus - Monday, July 6, 2015 - link

    I'm wondering the same thing. When Hector Ruiz left Motorola, they fell apart, and when he joined AMD, they out-engineered and out-manufactured Intel with quality control parity. I guess the fiasco would be when Hector Ruiz left AMD, because then they fell apart. Reply

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