The Radeon Vega Frontier Edition 16GB Air Cooled Review
Answering Questions Before you Ask
I know there are going to be (and were, during our live stream) questions about this card and our testing methods and process. During the live stream, I saw many of these questions posed to us with a critical eye. I felt rather than just awaiting for them in our comments on the story today, I would try to answer some these directly FIRST, and then dive into the review itself.
This isn’t a gaming card.
The Radeon Vega Frontier Edition is billed a card for creators that game, and gamers that create. Or rather, the Radeon Pro Duo was. But the audience segment matches up with the language AMD has been using for FE. There is a fine line between the high end of the gaming market and the professional market made up of Quadro and Radeon Pro (previously FirePro). NVIDIA has skirted that with the Titan product family for some time, but the Frontier Edition of Vega is the first time we are seeing that from AMD.
Calling this “not a gaming card” is a fair statement, as long as you also agree then the GTX Titan, Titan X, Titan Xp are also “not gaming cards.” But they are, despite NVIDIA segmenting it off as well. Plenty of professionals will buy this hardware, but discerning gamers that want the best of the best will also be purchasing Titans and FEs well into the future. “Professional graphics cards” have certified drivers and specific code paths in place for applications like 3ds Max, Maya, etc. Neither Titan nor Vega FE have that and instead will depend on the driver stacks we are used to seeing in GeForce and Radeon systems.
Even if it weren’t a gaming card, we have every right to test it with gaming applications! Is a professional developer, gamer or not, going to buy a $4000 Quadro and THEN a GTX 1080 Ti to game on? Nope, they are going to get double duty of that card.
Once the Radeon RX Vega graphics card hits the market, then the Vega Frontier Edition can exist in its vacuum where it only addresses the professional market. Until then, the Vega FE will be the pseudo-representative of how the rest of us are expecting the consumer gaming card variants to perform.
The drivers are old.
There were concerns over the last couple of days that the driver for Vega FE on the site was from January of this year. As it turns out, reading version numbers of the Radeon driver package is difficult, and the driver we used in our testing, and the ONLY driver that supports Vega FE today, is not old. To be clear though, the driver IS from a different branch than the currently available Radeon RX 500-series driver, but the exact time of that branch, and how it affects performance on games or other workloads, isn’t information AMD is interested in sharing at this time.
The driver isn’t optimized for gaming.
I saw this pop up a lot during our stream yesterday, that the driver isn’t meant for gaming so it hasn’t been optimized for gaming. Instead, it’s only targeting “professional” level applications. First, that’s not the case and AMD has confirmed that. The driver has all the gaming optimizations that the other Radeon drivers would include up until at least the driver branching mentioned above. After that time, optimizations may or may not have made it in, as AMD tells it.
The games we are using for this review were not released in the last 30 days or anything like that. GTA V, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Witcher 3; these are all games that have been out for some time, were around for AMD to address in both Radeon RX 500 and Vega-series drivers for many, many months.
The one caveat to this is that the Vega architecture itself is still unoptimized in the driver. But this would affect gaming and non-gaming workloads most of the time. So if the driver isn’t ready for ANYTHING, then that’s a valid concern, but it applies to ALL workloads and not just games.
You didn’t test it overclocked.
We ran all of the games and professional software testing with the out-of-box settings and performance characteristics. I did some light overclocking as well, but not for the benchmarking as a whole. This is standard practice for us at PC Perspective and I think it’s the right decision for ANY product launch. Despite what those of us willing to watch a live stream of a graphics card may think, the vast majority of users are not tweaking cards and overclocking hardware. They just want it to work.
It didn’t hit the 1600 MHz it should have.
The rated clock speed of the Radeon Vega Frontier Edition is 1600 MHz, but in our testing the GPU never really got to that, settling in the 1440 MHz range the majority of the time. Again, that is part of the “out of box” experience that we want to test and know about. If the cooler or fan curves on this card weren’t tuned to get the full clock speed out of the hardware on day one, then that’s the experience someone shelling out $1000 of their own money would get.
You didn’t turn up the fan speed.
Not for basic testing, I did not. But when we saw some thermal throttling we did jump that fan speed up to 100% (holy noise levels Batman!) as a test to see how the behavior changed. Based on that testing I do believe that AMD should be willing to sacrifice some noise increasing for a higher fan speed, cooler GPU and less thermal throttling on the power draw.
You probably didn’t have it in game mode!
Actually, I did. And, to make matters worse for that point of view, AMD has confirmed that switching between Game Mode and Professional Mode will have no performance impact, only visual and UI elements (of the ReLive driver settings GUI *only* - not your games) will change.
The RX Vega is going to be clocked higher.
Perhaps it will, and if so, we’ll do more testing on that hardware to see how the changes affect gaming performance. As I mentioned above, the Vega FE will only “represent” the expectations for the Vega gaming hardware until the gaming hardware hits the scene. Then it has the ability to surprise us (or not) with added performance and capabilities we did not see today with the Frontier Edition.
The RX Vega is going to use a better cooler.
Again, perhaps it will. And if my Vega FE with the integrated water cooler arrives in the near term future, we’ll know how much thermal throttling can be avoided, how that added 75 watts power draw improves performance, and more. For now, we are working with the hardware we have available to us.