The “Navi” line, as AMD’s next-gen video cards have long been termed, took a while to arrive, but early returns say that AMD is clawing its way back into contention. The $399 Radeon RX 5700 XT is the upper of two new graphics cards, based on a 7-nanometer (7nm) production process, that aim to muffle the thunder Nvidia has been enjoying in the midrange market for so long. And after running it through our benchmarks, this card does so with gusto. It runs a bit hotter than its Nvidia counterparts (the RTX 2060 and RTX 2070 Supers), and its early overclocking results leave something to be desired. But aside from that, the RX 5700 XT is an encouraging card that, thanks in part to a sudden prerelease price drop, gets AMD to a better place than it’s been for years. Midrange graphics card shoppers hungry to see some competition will be pleased.
RDNA Architecture: A New Beginning
Lower power requirements. Better performance per watt. Less cooling needed to maintain healthy GPU temperatures. These are the promises of AMD’s new 7nm Radeon DNA (RDNA) architecture, a long-overdue overhaul to the Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture that had been powering AMD cards, in different forms, since all the way back to 2012. The Navi cards’ launch on July 7 (7/7), alongside the company’s first 7nm Ryzen CPUs (among them the Editors’ Choice winning Ryzen 9 3900X), was engineered to commemorate the new process technology and architecture.
First, that power bit. AMD cards have long tended to be the hotter, louder, and power-hungrier cards at any given level made by the two major GPU manufacturers, but the Navi cards show gains here. As a direct comparison, the AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT needs only 225 watts of power at peak operation, versus the 295 watts that its predecessor card, the 2017-era Radeon RX Vega 64, requires to keep trucking.
Overall, AMD has promised that its new RDNA-based cards offer 1.5 times the performance per watt over any cards built on top of the GCN architecture. Another impressive AMD claim: It offers 2.3 times the “performance per area,” with the 14nm Vega 10 chips taking up 495mm2 of space on a die, while this first round of Navi cards, based off the new 7nm manufacturing process and built around RDNA, need only 251mm2 of space.
Also on the menu, albeit a side item: PCI Express 4.0. PCI Express 3.0 has been a staple on PC motherboards for so long that the advent of a new PCI Express spec is something of a watershed moment, even if 4.0 won’t matter for video cards for some time to come. Cards released on RDNA will be fully PCI Express 4.0-compatible, and the spec delivers tantalizing potential throughput improvements (a peak possible throughput of 22Gbps, versus 13Gbps with PCI Express 3.0), on a theoretical level.How much does this matter to GPUs, specifically? For games, not much. Cards weren’t bottlenecked under PCI Express 3.0, and there isn’t a AAA title on the market (even a killer-harsh one like Metro: Exodus) that would know what to do with all that 4.0 bandwidth. The early scuttlebutt is that creative workloads and their associated software suites (such as DaVinci or Maya) might see the greatest gains from PCI Express 4.0 in the coming years. It’s not a factor for gamers, for now, and 4.0 is only a feature at the moment on new AMD X570-based motherboards. It’s nice to know the new Radeons are ready for the future, but they’ll work fine on existing PCI Express 3.0 motherboards.
Other notable improvements with RDNA include an all-new multi-level cache hierarchy, which, in a nutshell, reduces the latency at each level of the instruction process. That, according to AMD, leads to an improvement of 1.25 times performance per clock cycle.
Overall, RDNA offers just the kind of refinements and improvements you would expect from an architecture refresh seven years in the making, and it looks poised to give AMD a fighting shot at taking on Nvidia’s competing cards on the key metric of price-to-performance ratio.
Do these first cards succeed? Let’s dig in into the first “Navi” performance numbers, right after we talk pricing, and I take you on a tour of the first RX 5700 XT card to stop into PC Labs. (Chip architecture isn’t the only thing seeing improvements around AMD’s workshops, either. Check out our our review of the Radeon RX 5700 to see what the company has been up to on the software side of things. I didn’t want to repeat all of that here, as both reviews run rather long, and you should check both of them out if you’re seriously considering either card.)
First, a Word on Pricing: What Happened?
Those of you who have been keeping a close eye on the run-up to the release of these cards might be asking yourselves: “Wait, wasn’t the RX 5700 XT supposed to be more than $400?”
Yup, it was. Then last week happened.
On July 2, Nvidia launched its rumored GeForce RTX Super line in a classic surprise attack, dropping a neutron bomb in the middle of AMD’s video-card launch plans. AMD had already announced pricing at E3 on its first two Radeon RX Navi cards: $449 for the Radeon RX 5700 XT, and $379 for the Radeon RX 5700, as well as $499 for a special, limited RX 5700 XT Anniversary Edition (basically, a dialed-up version of the vanilla RX 5700 XT).
Nvidia’s Super pricing mandated some quick counter-shuffling. The GeForce RTX 2060 Super (starting at $399) and the RTX 2070 Super (starting at $499) launched, and a few days later, AMD decided it was done playing to Nvidia’s hand. It dropped the price on all three of its new cards only two days before they were due to hit the street: The RX 5700 XT Anniversary Edition fell from $499 to $449, the non-Anniversary Radeon RX 5700 XT (the card I’m looking at here) went from $449 to $399, and the Radeon RX 5700 dropped from $379 to $349.
Did AMD plan this late price drop all along? (It probably had it in its back pocket.) Was it a result of Nvidia’s Super launch? (Who can say for sure? AMD’s CEO, Dr. Lisa Su, for sure.) Either way, in the case of the Radeon RX 5700 XT, the price drop directly pits the card against the new $399 Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Super, a fight that AMD originally planned against the non-Super RTX 2070.
That was a lot of drama for one week, before anyone even got a chance to assess the cards! Okay, let’s take a closer look at the card.
Hey, Who Dropped My Video Card?
You can see it, we can see it: Yeah, that’s a big dent.
Right in the middle of the Radeon RX 5700 XT reference card we have on hand, a large dent breaks up an otherwise perfect rectangular block. Of course, it’s intentional. But I’m undecided whether it’s a cool modern-art touch, or if it just suggests that someone at the factory whacked the card on something hard before boxing it up. (The vibe is a bit of both, really.) Whatever you think of it, it’s unlike any card design to date.
Now, bear in mind that this card I have on hand is a reference board from AMD. What that means: The initial Radeon RX 5700 XT cards that most consumers can buy will be made in the same image (and spec loadout) as this card, by AMD’s third-party card partners.
So far, all of the RX 5700 XT card chassis I have seen have adhered to the dented reference cooler and body: Asrock, Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, Sapphire, XFX, and others. It will be interesting to see if and when AMD’s board partners retain the dent in future partner-card versions of the RX 5700 XT that may not adhere to the reference specs, or go all-out with their own cooling designs. We suspect the latter approach. Custom versions of the RX 5700 cards are expected in mid-August.
Anyone who has seen the inside of a gaming laptop knows that, sometimes, angled copper channels are laid down to more effectively move and radiate the heat they carry in a specific direction. Though I won’t be ripping the shroud off our review sample of the Radeon RX 5700 XT to theorize whether that kind of thing is in play here, AMD’s marketing around the card points to the dent with a description titled “vapor chamber cooling.” It wouldn’t be unthinkable to suggest that this design element is in some way related to keeping the card within workable temperatures.
Either way, aside from the dent, much of what we can see about the design of the RX 5700 XT is visible on its shell. In this reference design, the company has returned to the blower design that remained so contentious in the AMD fanbase for so many years. On the one hand, the benefit of the blower design is its exceptional thermal exhaust routing, which ensures the hot air coming off your GPU’s heatsink gets pushed out the back of the PC, rather than swirling into the case like dual- and tri-fan designs would. A non-blower design requires more care on the PC upgrader’s part that airflow in the chassis is up to snuff.
The compromise (until now, evidently) was noise. The blower fans would always be significantly louder than a standard fan design done right, the former sometimes pumping out upward of 20 more decibels than the latter, depending on the manufacturer. This became a sticking point for some buyers, but AMD claims its new blower design has addressed this issue.
In testing, I found that in an environment that read a baseline of 43.1dB, the Radeon RX 5700 XT would top out at 61.2dB with the meter two feet away from the closed case. That’s not a quiet fan by any stretch, but it is a quieter one than what came before it on AMD cards like the Radeon RX Vega 64.
Powering the card and its blower is a two-piece power connector. You’ll need one six-pin and one eight-pin lead from your power supply, while the back of the double-slot Radeon RX 5700 XT features three DisplayPort 1.4b outputs and one HDMI 2.0 out.
All the reference cards I saw from third parties on launch day had the same port loadout. Notably not present is a USB Type-C/VirtualLink port (intended for future VR headsets) like we’ve seen on some late-model GeForce RTX cards, such as the GeForce RTX 2070 Super.
Specs Compared: AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT vs. AMD Radeon RX Vega 64
To start, we’re going to be comparing the specs of the AMD Radeon RX 5700 to the card that AMD most likely intends for it to replace in its own line: the Radeon RX Vega 64. (There’s no official word yet on whether production of the Vega 64 will cease as AMD moves into the RDNA era, but I know where I’d place my bet.)
Here, the most obvious difference is in the fabrication process and the architecture, both of which have been vastly changed from the Vega 64 into the Radeon RX 5700 XT. This includes lower power requirements, a cheaper introductory price, and the move from 8GB of HBM2 memory to 8GB of GDDR6. (HBM supplies were often prone to scarcity; I suspect moving to GDDR6, which is what Nvidia also uses on its latest-gen cards, gives AMD some breathing room on sourcing it.)
Specs Compared: AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT vs. Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070
In all the materials I saw touting the performance of the Radeon RX 5700 XT before its launch, AMD pitted the card against Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2070 as a point of comparison. Note that that’s the vanilla, reference RTX 2070, not the GeForce RTX 2070 Super that went on sale July 9, or the GeForce RTX 2070 Founders Edition (which, contrary to first impressions, is actually an overclocked card sold by Nvidia, not a reference board).
Before the various July launches, reference RTX 2070 cards started at $499; the Radeon RX 5700 XT was then slated to come in at $449. Now, RTX 2070 Super cards start at $499, and we’ll see what the market does with the non-Super RTX 2070 cards still available. (According to Nvidia, the RTX 2070 Super replaces the vanilla RTX 2070s.)
Many of the specs between these two cards are fairly close, and they share a lot of similarities on the surface. But we’ll see how well that closeness translates once we get into PC Labs’ benchmarks.
Specs Compared: AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT vs. AMD Radeon RX 5700
Finally, it’s time to see what a little extra cash gets you. With the pricing adjustments announced on July 5 discussed above, the AMD Radeon RX 5700 hits shelves for a suggested price of $349 for reference designs, while big-bro RX 5700 XT is $399.
Almost everything about these two cards is the same, save for the clock speeds, the processing core count, and the power requirements (though they both have the same six-pin/eight-pin PSU-connector configuration). So, what does that extra $50 get you in the real world? Let’s dig in and see…
Let’s Get Testing: RDNA Stretches New Legs
PC Labs ran the Radeon RX 5700 XT through a series of DirectX 11- and 12-based synthetic and real-world benchmarks. Our PC Labs test rig is Intel-based and employs a PCI Express 3.0, not 4.0, motherboard. It’s equipped, as ever, with an Intel Core i7-8700K processor, 16GB of G.Skill DDR4 memory, a solid-state boot drive, and an Aorus Z370 Gaming 7 motherboard.
For our testing, I focused some of the effort on the esports aspect of the AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT with games like CS:GO and Apex Legends, and I also ran the card through the rest of our standard benchmark regimen, which tests a card’s abilities to handle AAA games at the highest possible quality settings.
3DMark Fire Strike Ultra
Synthetic benchmarks can be good predictors of real-world gaming performance. Futuremark’s circa-2013 Fire Strike Ultra is still a go-to as an approximation of the load levied by 4K gaming. We’re looking only at the test’s Graphics Subscore, not the Overall Score, to isolate the card performance.
Straightaway, the slugfest between AMD and Nvidia heats up fast. Fire Strike Ultra tests a GPU’s ability to handle DX11 games at higher resolutions, and here the Radeon RX 5700 XT surprised us by edging out the RTX 2070 Super by a scootch. Reminder: That’s a card $100 more expensive.
So far so good for the RX 5700 XT. How will this translate to real-world gaming results, though? Hang tight.
3DMark Time Spy and Time Spy Extreme
This is Futuremark’s benchmark for predicting the performance of DirectX 12-enabled games. It uses major features of the API, including asynchronous compute, explicit multi-adapter, and multi-threading.
Things come back down to earth in this test, as the RX 5700 XT barely edges out the RTX 2060 Super (its price equal) in standard Time Spy, and trades back a narrow loss against that same card in Time Spy Extreme.
Our last synthetic benchmark is Unigine’s 2017 release, Superposition. This benchmark does incorporate ray tracing, but it’s done in software, not hardware, and thus doesn’t engage RT cores (in the case of Nvidia’s RTX cards).
On this test, the Radeon RX 5700 XT does not compete with the RTX 2070 Super, but it manages a slight overall win versus the RTX 2060 Super, which is all the card needs to do to remain competitive.
The following benchmarks are games that you can play. The charts themselves outline the settings we used (typically the highest in-game presets and, if available, DirectX 12). As mentioned, we’ve got a mix of AAA titles in here, as well as a few more optimized, multiplayer-focused ones.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Square Enix’s recent title is the first real-world test. This game is well-optimized for the PC platform but very demanding at its higher visual quality settings.
AMD was heavy on marketing the Radeon RX 5700 XT as a 1440p gamer’s dream, and on Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it matches frames dead-on with the GeForce RTX 2070 Super, 77fps, at 1440p. And it outpaces the RTX 2060 Super by a few frames. A very good start.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
The 2015 predecessor to Shadow of the Tomb Raider is still a great benchmark.
Here, the Radeon RX 5700 XT beats the Radeon Vega 64 (as you’d expect) and the RTX 2060 Super by a couple of frames, but the RTX 2070 Super reasserts its dominance at the two higher resolutions.
Far Cry 5 and Far Cry Primal
The fourth and fifth installments in the Far Cry series are based on DirectX 11, but they are still demanding games in their own right.
On both of these tests, the Radeon RX 5700 XT misses the bar set by the RTX 2070 Super by millimeters. Those two cards are pretty much in lockstep here, and when you look at the price difference between them, it’s hard not to call this a nice pair of wins for the Radeon RX 5700 XT.
Final Fantasy XV
Let’s take a respite from fps-based benchmarks for Final Fantasy XV. A side note: By this point, it’s accepted that the Final Fantasy XV benchmark is well-tuned for Nvidia cards, due in part to the GPU maker’s tight involvement in helping Square Enix port the game from console to PC.
As we have seen in other card tests, Nvidia indeed dominates in this specific trial.
World of Tanks Encore
This is another non-frame-rate-based benchmark that’s available as a free download. It’s not super-demanding, but it is still a telling test.
On this one, it’s more or less a wash against the RTX 2060 Super, and the RX 5700 XT trails the RTX 2070 Super by roughly 10 percent across the board.
…and How About Some Legacy Games?
We also ran some quick tests on some oldies-but-goodies that still offer the AAA gaming experience. These legacy tests include runs of Hitman: Absolution, Tomb Raider (2013), and Bioshock: Infinite, the last being a game that has no business still being as well optimized as it is here in 2019.
Results were a bit back and forth here, with more losses than gains for the RX 5700 XT in the face of Nvidia’s Super lineup. I’d call this particular cluster inconclusive versus the RTX 2060 Super.
Though most of PC Labs’ game tests are maxed out in graphical fidelity to push the cards to their limit, multiplayer gaming is all about maintaining the best balance between graphical fidelity and frame rate. With that in mind, we’ve kept Apex Legends, CS:GO, and Rainbow Six: Siege tuned to the best combination of necessary improvements in settings (higher anti-aliasing and lower shadows, for example), while still trying to keep frame rates for 1080p games above 144fps.
Why 144fps? That’s a coveted target for highly competitive esports gamers who have high-refresh-rate 120Hz or 144Hz monitors. For more casual players with ordinary 60Hz monitors, a solid 80fps or 90fps at your target resolution, with some overhead to account for dips under 60, is fine.
Apex Legends is the newest, most exciting battle royale on the block. If you’re upgrading your rig to get in on it, you should have a good idea of what kind of performance to expect on that first boot, right?
The Radeon RX 5700 XT just misses the golden 144fps mark here at 1440p, but that could be remedied easily enough by tuning the detail settings just a bit lower than the Medium preset PC Labs tests at.
Counter Strike: Global Offensive
One of the oldest, yet still most popular, games around the globe, CS:GO has changed almost nothing about its core gameplay since 1999…and gamers wouldn’t have it any other way. The engine is considered one of the best optimized in all of PC gaming, which makes it easy to see major gaps in any one card’s abilities versus another’s.
I mean…is there any midrange card that can’t run this game at 100fps-plus? Every resolution on the test cards here delivers faster than 144fps for 144Hz panels, and you 1080p/240Hz-monitor gamers out there don’t have much to worry about, either. Play on this game at 4K was not a strength on the Radeon RX 5700 XT, but it was a strong contender at the more reasonable 1440p and 1080p resolutions.
A Peek at Overclocking and Thermals
Late-model AMD cards have had a reputation for blowing hot, but the company has made some pretty substantial gains in RDNA over GCN when it comes to both power consumption and heat output.
We ran a 10-minute stress test in 3DMark on the Radeon RX 5700 XT, and the reference card peaked at a temperature of 84 degrees C. This number only continued to climb after we turned on AMD’s WattMan for some automated overclocking, up to a max of 86 degrees C off a gain of 125MHz (roughly) to the card’s boost clock.
We tried to overclock the card manually in WattMan, AMD’s overclocking tool contained in its driver software, but either the card wouldn’t return results as strong as the automated overclocking (a 4 percent increase in frame rates, on average, so take “strong” with a dash of salt), or it would crash outright. The card also crashed multiple times even with the “auto” setting turned on in games, though it remained stable on the modest auto-overclock when running through 3DMark benchmarks.
This was with the most recent driver available to us, on a clean Windows 10 install. We imagine these hiccups may be solved in future updates to the driver (which, if you haven’t used an AMD card of late, you should know is now called Radeon Software Adrenalin 2019 Edition). Or, it’s possible that the RX 5700 XT sample on hand was already pretty maxed out; after all, if the RX 5700 XT is a “binned” version of the same GPU in the RX 5700, rated for better performance, it may already be close to the peak of its abilities right out of the box. At the moment, stock performance looks like all you can count on.
The TLDR: AMD Is Back in the GPU Game
We all remember what AMD represented in the video-card race for years on end: on the whole, the cheaper alternative to mainstream and lower-end Nvidia cards. AMD cards had arguably less attractive software, but they did their jobs, say, 90 percent as well for 75 percent of the cost.
Recent years have seen some hurdles and extraordinary circumstances around AMD’s graphics operation. The cryptocurrency boom spurred some temporary manic demand for the last GCN cards, leading to shortages and price distortion for some time, when Nvidia’s Pascal was at its peak. It was hard to buy reasonably priced mainstream Radeon cards, for a time. More recently, Intel has raided AMD’s graphics personnel on a head-hunting spree for the ages. Whatever’s been happening at AMD HQ for the last few years, on the graphics side of things, something bigger was always happening down the virtual street at Nvidia: the highly successful “Pascal” GeForce GTX GPU family that dominated the desktop and mobile graphics field from 2016 on; the launch of GeForce RTX.
AMD still held strong positions in the budget space with its Radeon RX 570 and Radeon RX 580, but with so many years of reliance on iterations of GCN, the company was long overdue for a reboot and a win. With the release of the Radeon RX 5700 XT and its little-brother RX 5700, AMD proves it’s back in the GPU brawl. And, with the prospect of further RDNA cards down the line, it has no intention of tapping out anytime soon.
In the case of the Radeon RX 5700 XT, its 11th-hour price shift to $399 was key and a brilliant judo move. Why? The RX 5700 XT outpaces, albeit by modest margins in many cases, the new, same-price $399 GeForce RTX 2060 Super in almost every benchmark test we ran, and it competes at times with the $499 GeForce RTX 2070 Super, by percentage margins smaller than the price difference between the two. For 1440p play with ordinary monitors, it indeed delivers all that you could ask for at its $399 price point.
Folks looking forward to leveraging in-game hardware ray tracing (still rare in games) and doing aggressive overclocking might still want to consider one of those Nvidia cards as an option, or hunt for a discounted non-Super RTX 2070. (It remains to be seen if any aggressive price-shifting indeed comes to pass as the RTX 2070s fade out.) But what the Radeon RX 5700 XT proves: For the first time in ages, AMD has pushed its traditional value-for-money game out of the budget-card space and further upmarket. Well done, Team Red.