Review: Updated: AMD Radeon R9 Nano

Introduction and features

AMD’s latest graphics card represents a bit of a departure for the big red Texan GPU manufacturer – the R9 Nano is a luxury GPU packing impressive gaming performance into a tiny package.

Which is both fascinating from an engineering standpoint and rather puzzling by pretty much every other metric.

The new Radeon R9 Nano is the little brother to the existing AMD Radeon R9 Fury cards – in water-cooled ‘X’ and air-cooled standard models – and deserves that distinction in more ways than one. This diminutive graphics card takes the beefy AMD Fiji GPU and squeezes it into the smallest graphics card footprint we’ve seen in a long time.

The R9 Nano is aiming to be the ultimate small form factor graphics card, which is able to run in the most microscopic of mini-ITX chassis without overheating to the point where it leaks out the fan grates as so much molten silicon.

AMD Radeon R9 Nano rear

The R9 Fury and R9 Fury X cards are bona fide, top-end graphics cards with hefty cooling solutions on them to keep the high-speed Fiji GPU in check, and they’re AMD’s answer to Nvidia’s range of ultra-enthusiast Maxwell GPU cards.

Where Nvidia re-engineered its graphics architecture to ensure the Maxwell GPUs could provide huge amounts of graphics performance at a highly efficient, low thermal design point (TDP) – to counter the industry’s failed attempts at getting a transistor shrink into this generation of GPUs – AMD has effectively just thrown more and more of its existing Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture into the mix.

This has given the Fiji GPU an impressive amount of raw graphics horsepower, but has also meant it’s been rather power-hungry too.

So how the hell has AMD managed to get such a huge, demanding graphics processor into a half-pint-sized graphics card?

AMD Radeon R9 Nano top

Engineering feat

The seriously impressive thing about the AMD Radeon R9 Nano is the fact that it’s running the exact same Fiji GPU as AMD’s top graphics card, the Fury X. That means it’s got the same 4,096 Radeon GCN cores humming away at its heart, the same 256 texture units and sixty-four render output units (ROPs).

For the record that chip’s packing in nearly nine billion transistors. If you can dredge it from the depths of your memory, you really ought to read that last sentence back with the soothing tones of Carl Sagan, really over-emphasising that ‘billion’…

Even Nvidia’s GTX Titan X has ‘only’ eight billion transistors in its GM 200 GPU. Though that does show the green team’s dominance when it comes to efficient graphics architectures as that card – and the GTX 980 Ti it shares a chip family with – are both able to outperform AMD’s best.

AMD Radeon R9 Nano breakdown

But it hardly makes any sense. How can the same GPU, which demands water-cooling in the Fury X, be able to run with only a tiny air-cooler in the Nano?

Well, AMD has been rather smart with the GPU clocks on the Fiji XT chip it’s packed into the Nano. Where the Fury X regularly hits a GPU clock speed of 1,050MHz the Nano sample we’ve been testing sat around 890MHz for much of its daily grind.

The wetware on the Fury X allows the GPU to effectively clock as high as the silicon will allow, while the Nano has been strictly throttled to stop the GPU from pushing hard and keep the temperature at 75ºC or below.

You might not think that 160MHz clock speed difference could possibly be enough to count for the ability to add a tiny air-cooling solution onto the card, or allow it to shave a full 100W from the TDP of AMD’s latest card, but it shows how much energy it takes to push a GPU to its limits. The Nano has a TDP of just 175W while the Fury X’s is 275W. It’s the last 100MHz of clock speed which demands a huge amount of extra power and extra heat dissipation.

By limiting the Nano’s clock speed AMD is saving the card from dealing with the extra heat and power demands of the Fury X, but is only losing around 12-14% of the gaming performance.

AMD Radeon R9 Nano black background

Extra dimensions

Another reason AMD has been able to create such a small card despite the massive GPU at its heart is down to the memory being used.

The AMD Fiji GPU powering its top cards is the first graphics chip to be rocking the latest high bandwidth memory (HBM). That’s important because as well as delivering a huge amount of extra bandwidth – 512GB/s compared to the Titan X’s 336GB/s – its design means it can be included in the GPU package itself rather than being arrayed around the processor on the wider circuit board.

It’s not quite 3D – more 2.5D as it’s not stacked directly atop the GPU itself – but the four 1GB HBM stacks sit right around the processor on an interposing layer which allows direct communication with the graphics silicon. Hence the high bandwidth.

As well as requiring less space on the printed circuit board (PCB) the HBM modules require less direct power too, helping keep things more efficient than with traditional GPU/GDDR5 combos.

Performance and benchmarks

So, how does it perform? For such a small graphics card it performs very well indeed. There is simply no other card available in this form factor that’s able to hold a candle to its gaming performance.

Its nearest rival is the mini-ITX edition of the old GTX 970 Asus created for the small form factor crew. And in GPU terms it’s no rival at all – the AMD Radeon R9 Nano is, conservatively, around 20% faster.

In fact its nearest competitor in performance terms is Nvidia’s GTX 980, a graphics card that has never been shrunk down to the diminutive scale the Nano is sitting at.

AMD Radeon R9 Nano installed

But, because Nvidia saw the writing on the wall early in terms of the industry’s struggle to get GPUs down to the 20nm transistor level in an affordable, efficient way, it’s been working on performance per Watt far harder. The GTX 980 then is already sporting an impressive 165W TDP and higher gaming performance.

And because of its lower clock speed, the R9 Nano is sitting obviously behind the cheaper, similarly air-cooled R9 Fury.

While there are really no proper cards around that you could say absolutely nail 4K gaming, the higher capacity 6GB and 12GB Nvidia cards have much better performance than the resolutely 4GB HBM cards can offer. At 4K resolutions Shadow of Mordor demands around 5.6GB of video memory, for example.

AMD Radeon R9 Nano angle

Okay, let’s move on to the benchmarks themselves…

Synthetic gaming performance

Heaven 4.0 (2560 x 1440) – (Min) Avg framerate

  • AMD R9 Nano: (17.7) 43.5
  • AMD R9 Fury X: (19.4) 49.9
  • AMD R9 Fury: (19.8) 46.9
  • Nvidia GTX 980: (18.2) 48.6
  • Nvidia GTX 970: (15.4) 38.4

1440p gaming performance

Battlefield 4 – (Min) Avg framerate

  • AMD R9 Nano: (33) 65
  • AMD R9 Fury X: (36) 73
  • AMD R9 Fury: (40) 69
  • Nvidia GTX 980: (42) 73
  • Nvidia GTX 970: (34) 55

Total War: Attila – (Min) Avg framerate

  • AMD R9 Nano: (14) 22
  • AMD R9 Fury X: (18) 27
  • AMD R9 Fury: (18) 25
  • Nvidia GTX 980: (13) 23
  • Nvidia GTX 970: (13) 18

Grand Theft Auto V – (Min) Avg framerate

  • AMD R9 Nano: (5) 56
  • AMD R9 Fury X: (10) 62
  • AMD R9 Fury: (16) 60
  • Nvidia GTX 980: (16) 57
  • Nvidia GTX 970: (19) 47

Shadow of Mordor – (Min) Avg framerate

  • AMD R9 Nano: (31) 61
  • AMD R9 Fury X: (35) 71
  • AMD R9 Fury: (32) 67
  • Nvidia GTX 980: (36) 61
  • Nvidia GTX 970: (38) 51

4K gaming performance

Battlefield 4 – (Min) Avg framerate

  • AMD R9 Nano: (20) 35
  • AMD R9 Fury X: (21) 40
  • AMD R9 Fury: (23) 38
  • Nvidia GTX 980: (23) 38
  • Nvidia GTX 970: (17) 27

Total War: Attila – (Min) Avg framerate

  • AMD R9 Nano: (5) 10
  • AMD R9 Fury X: (3) 12
  • AMD R9 Fury: (7) 12
  • Nvidia GTX 980: (6) 11
  • Nvidia GTX 970: (4) 8

Grand Theft Auto V – (Min) Avg framerate

  • AMD R9 Nano: (1) 30
  • AMD R9 Fury X: (3) 35
  • AMD R9 Fury: (1) 33
  • Nvidia GTX 980: (6) 23
  • Nvidia GTX 970: (5) 20

Shadow of Mordor – (Min) Avg framerate

  • AMD R9 Nano: (15) 32
  • AMD R9 Fury X: (18) 38
  • AMD R9 Fury: (14) 36
  • Nvidia GTX 980: (26) 33
  • Nvidia GTX 970: (19) 25

Note: Our test rig is an Intel Core i7-5960X, sat in an Asus X99 Deluxe, with 16GB DDR4 memory running Windows 8.1 64-bit, in order to give the best possible potential performance for our cards. All the game tests were run at their stated resolution, with 4x AA and the highest settings possible.

Verdict

While AMD is pegging the Radeon R9 Nano as a luxury card, a component that isn’t meant to be about value for money, rather it’s all about getting the maximum performance for a small form factor PC, we still have to give some thought to its price tag.

In the UK we’re looking at a card that’s at least £514 and in the US it’s about $650 (around AU$920) at best.

That’s around a tenner cheaper than the far quicker GTX 980 Ti with its 6GB of – admittedly less advanced – graphics memory, and hugely more expensive than the GTX 980 which it regularly trades benchmark blows with.

When you’re building a new PC some semblance of value has to be brought into the equation.

We also have to tackle the elephant in the room. And that’s quite an apt euphemism given we’re talking about sentiments of scale…

AMD is talking about the Nano being the best mini-ITX card around, except we haven’t really needed specifically designed mini-ITX cards for at least a year. Probably longer.

The chassis manufacturers have long been designing diminutive mini-ITX cases to house the latest, advanced miniature gaming motherboards that are still capable of giving enough space and cooling over to a full-size graphics card.

Admittedly we’ve sometimes had problems getting the chunky AMD cards to fit, but not so much on the green side of the graphics divide.

So, when we can already fit a cheaper, faster, lower-powered GTX 980 into an awesome mini-ITX chassis, like the EVGA Hadron Air or Corsair’s gorgeous Carbide Air 240, what need do we have for the R9 Nano?

We liked

The engineering feat required to get such a massive graphics processor to fit – and run at decent speeds – into this 6-inch long slab of PCB is hugely impressive. We’ve got to give props to AMD for managing to squeeze the scalable Fiji GPU into this form factor.

And we’ve got quite a soft spot for the relatively new high-bandwidth memory getting fitted into the R9 Nano too. Though we do have some reservations about it…

The gaming performance, especially if we’re talking about the more sensible 1440p resolutions, whether at 16:9 or 21:9, is fantastic. For all but the most demanding of game engines (jeez Attila, what are you trying to do to GPUs?!) you’re looking to top 60 fps on average.

We disliked

Dislike is maybe too strong, as this is more a matter of confusion: who is the PC gamer that is so determined to pick a tiny, non-gaming centric mini-ITX chassis, which demands a 6-inch long card, that they would be happy to pay this much for the Nano?

The price is so high it seems AMD thinks that it’s not a concern for the Nano’s core demographic. But such luxury cards really need a far more compelling USP for them to be able to rock that ‘money-no-object’ aesthetic.

If you’re looking to build a great mini-ITX rig you’ll use one of the existing quality chassis on the market which can house a proper full-size GPU – like most can. At that point then you’re going to be looking to see how much performance you can get out of it, and you’ll either go for an Nvidia card because they’re faster, or if you’re a hardcore AMD fan you’ll go for the water-cooled Fury X.

And with the first generation of HBM limited to just 4GB of video memory it can’t be seen as an effective 4K gaming card as it simply runs dry of VRAM rather quickly.

We also can’t ignore the significant coil whine we experienced with our sample. The Fury X reference cards had the same issue so maybe AMD’s partners will sort that out, but it’s still a concern. We’re not sure if it’s a symptom of the redesigned power componentry working hard to feed the Fiji XT GPU, but it can be quite insistent.

It’s not constant, and seems more of an issue at 1080p settings, but it’s definitely noticeable even when the card’s embedded inside a chassis.

Final verdict

The AMD Radeon R9 Nano is definitely an impressive achievement and we love that AMD is at least trying to create something different. The scale is tiny and the performance great, but the price seems utterly prohibitive seeing as it’s not really delivering something you can’t get elsewhere, unless you’re specifically talking in actual dimensions.

The Nano’s physical size isn’t enough given that GPU size is not really an issue in a small form factor gaming chassis unless you’re talking triple-slot behemoths or super-long old AMD cards.

In the end then you will absolutely have to be dead set on a specific mini-ITX chassis which can only use 6-inch cards to think the R9 Nano is worth the outlay.

So the Radeon R9 Nano is a luxury card, and an impressively engineered one to boot, but we’re still struggling to see exactly where it fits into an already crowded GPU marketplace that has cheaper, faster, lower-powered cards which fit mini-ITX clothing.

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