AMD Radeon R9 Nano: Australian Review

For years, top-of-the-line graphics cards have become more and more powerful, but that has been accompanied by a shift towards more heat and more bulk — larger, hotter graphics cards like the R9 295X2 and the GeForce GTX Titan. That’s changed, though; AMD’s new R9 Nano graphics card is small and cool but still powerful, and it’s a compromise that we think is a great one.

The $US649, $1099 AMD Radeon R9 Nano is a nearly-top-of-the-line graphics card using AMD’s new Fiji architecture, like its larger Fury X sibling. Unlike the 8-inch Fury X (itself a small card thanks to hybrid watercooling), though, the R9 Nano is only 6 inches in length, making it a perfect companion for a compact miniITX motherboard.

That cut-down attitude also applies to the R9 Nano’s power consumption. It’s rated at 175 Watts maximum power consumption, which is a far cry from the Fury X‘s 275 Watts or the 250 Watts of Nvidia’s competing GeForce GTX 980 Ti. That makes it a far better fit for a compact gaming system than any other high end card; its real Watt-for-Watt competition in this space comes from the circa-$459 GeForce GTX 970 Mini, the smaller and less powerful variant of the GTX 980, itself a lesser version of the GTX 980 Ti with which the Nano competes in a performance sense.

The R9 Nano has a single 8-pin PCI-E power connector on its end, facing forwards — a pleasant change from the 6+6 pin of similarly powerful previous-gen cards, since it only requires one cable. Around the back, it has three full-size DisplayPort 1.2 connectors and a single HDMI 1.4a. That single fan and heatsink is halfway between an open-air and a blower design, since it dumps half the R9 Nano’s heat output into the case you’re using and half vents out the rear.

This is the kind of card you’d buy to drive a high-end monitor like the Asus MG279Q, for clean 2560x1440p gaming at ridiculous frame rates — and consistently clear frames, too, courtesy of the monitor and AMD’s combined support for the FreeSync variable refresh rate standard. It’d also make sense for a 1080p gaming PC serving double duty as a home theatre PC, inside a miniITX case hiding in a home entertainment unit or tallboy.

What’s It Good At?

The R9 Nano is small. Really small. Half the length of its legit competitors small. When you’re comparing a 6-inch long graphics card with a 11- or 12-inch long one, with a lot more cooling potential and a lot more room for larger quantities of more overclockable RAM, and it keeps up, that’s great. AMD has done some special things with the Fiji chips it’s binned for the R9 Nano, and it shows in how it performs.

It’s limited by its thermal headroom — AMD promises the GPU will never top 75 degrees Celsius, although the card has a 85 degree theoretical max — and that means that in almost any game, the R9 Nano is actually restricting its performance. That sounds bad, but it’s not. Because the Nano is never using its chip’s maximum potential, it’s never drawing full power, and it’s that final 10 per cent that costs exponentially more Wattage.

In our testing, AMD’s Radeon R9 Nano got roughly within 10 to 12 per cent of the performance of a GeForce GTX 980 Ti and AMD’s own flagship Fury X — exactly what we had been told to expect. What is most impressive is that it does it while drawing a hundred Watts or more less from your PSU, and that means you can save money there. It’s more than powerful enough for 1080p and 1440p, and handles 4K perfectly well in everything but the most demanding titles. As usual, all testing was run on an Intel i7-4970K system, with 16GB of DDR3 and a Samsung 850 Evo SSD.

AMD Radeon R9 Nano: Average Frame Rates

Far Cry 4 (Ultra): 1080P: 92FPS 1440P: 71FPS 2160P: 40FPS
Battlefield 4 (Ultra): 1080P: 101FPS 1440P: 51FPS 2160P: 51FPS
Crysis 3 (Very High): 1080P: 101FPS 1440P: 49FPS 2160P: 40FPS
Metro: Last Light (Very High): 1080P: 65FPS 1440P: 45FPS 2160P: 40FPS
Tomb Raider (Ultimate): 1080P: 189FPS 1440P: 107FPS 2160P: 90FPS

I’m not ready to give a reasoned judgement on AMD versus Nvidia in DirectX 12 — it’s very early days, and only Ashes of the Singularity seems to give reliable benchmarks. What I have seen, though, is the R9 Nano performing incredibly well, definitely an improvement over its already impressive DX11 numbers. Watch this space for more testing.

The way that AMD has approached the R9 Nano’s performance is smart, very smart. It’s never as fast in raw Hertz as a Fury X, and that means it doesn’t need anywhere near as much power (it uses a single 8-pin PCI-E connector rather than two, for example) nor produce as much heat. Aggressive clock speed adjustment means it’s very discerning with how it uses its power — it’s like driving a Tesla with its efficient, instantly-on-and-off electric motor rather than a Mustang with a big stonking dinosaur-burning V8.

Also, it’s the most insignificant point in its favour, but the R9 Nano has finally ditched the boring legacy of the DVI connector — on its back panel, you’ll find three full-size DisplayPort ports and a single HDMI for quadruple monitor support. I guess there’s a tradeoff, though, in the fact that the R9 Nano’s HDMI port is only 1.4a compatible and can’t drive a 4k60p TV or monitor to their fullest potential.

What’s It Not Good At?

It may have just been my review sample, which has probably been shipped around half a dozen different places before it landed on my desk, but under full load the R9 Nano that I was benchmarking exhibited some whining from its capacitors — it’s sometimes called “coil noise” — that was significantly louder than even the noise of its fan and any other system cooling. It’s almost certainly an isolated case, to be fair.

AMD’s stock cooler for the R9 Nano is effective at keeping card temperatures down, especially when it’s combined with the chip’s aggressive clock speed throttling, but if you’re pushing the card — like, really pushing it — it will ramp up fan speed significantly to dump that heat both into your case and out the rear panel. It also isn’t a truly silent card at idle, because its single fan spins (slowly) all the time. That’s worth considering if you want a fully silent (gaming) HTPC for your living room.

It’s also really expensive in Australia. Pegged at $US649 to $US669, it’s a reasonably expensive graphics card, and that means it faces stiff competition from Nvidia’s excellent and equally priced GTX 980 Ti — probably the better choice anyway if you’re not limited by case size. But in Australia, you won’t be able to find it for less than $1100, which is pretty ridiculous considering shipping it from the US would be at least a couple of hundred dollars cheaper.

There are also no non-reference versions of the R9 Nano out at the moment; this is a purely AMD-designed launch. The stock cooler does a good job of keeping temperatures down even in an otherwise warm case, but it would have been nice to see what MSI and Asus and Gigabyte could have done with their Twin Frozr, Strix and Windforce fan-and-heatsink designs.

Should You Buy It?

AMD Radeon R9

Price: from $1099

  • Up there with AMD’s and Nvidia’s best.
  • Super-small, energy efficient design.
  • Fine with 1080p and 1440p, can handle 4K.
Don’t Like
  • Expensive for its performance levels.
  • Can get loud under full load and fan power.
  • Competition from cheaper cards, GTX 980 Ti.

AMD’s $1099 Radeon R9 Nano is undoubtedly the most interesting graphics card release of the last couple of years. I really applaud what the chipmaker has done in binning its best GPU silicon for a mid-level card, prioritising energy efficiency massively over outright power usage. That approach has really paid off — for two thirds of the power usage, the R9 Nano gets benchmark and real-world frame rates within 10 per cent of the much hotter and larger R9 Fury X.

Unless you’re really prioritising the size of your PC build, though — something that hardcore gamers may be remiss to do — then it’s hard to reconcile the R9 Nano’s unreasonably high price (at least in Australia) against its not-exactly-flagship levels of performance. You have to really want a small card to justify the R9 Nano. If you do, that’s easy, because it’s far and away the best miniITX-size graphics card around.

It’s a little bit of a dark horse — you can’t really overclock it, for example, thanks to that tight thermal headroom and the relative newness of AMD’s HBM memory implementation. From what we’ve seen, it’ll absolutely monster the competition when it comes to DirectX 12. In the current day of DX10 and DX11, it’s less of a clear-cut victory. What it absolutely is is every bit as good as Nvidia’s equally priced and equally positioned cards, and that’s something that AMD should be congratulated for.

Considered in abstract, the Radeon R9 Nano is a great piece of graphics technology — the best that AMD has ever made. It’s got more than enough power for 1080p or 1440p gaming, and can even handle the odd bit of 4K as long as you’re not playing Crysis 3. It’s super-small, and that means you can fit it in any case. It’s incredibly energy efficient, too, and that’s its crowning glory.

It’s not the fastest, nor the cheapest GPU you can buy — but for the amount of Watts you’re spending, the R9 Nano is just about the best there is at turning them into beautiful graphics. (Just wait for prices to settle a bit.)

We tested this device and wrote this review on Gizmodo’s 2016 gaming PC: a machine built with the help of ASUS, Intel and Corsair. The PC runs on an Asus Maximus VIII Gene motherboard, an Intel Core i7-6700K CPU, Corsair Ballistix DDR4 memory and a Samsung 950 Pro solid-state drive.

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