MSI Radeon R9 285 GAMING OC Video Card Review

AMD has launched the $249 AMD Radeon R9 285 video card. We dive into this somewhat confusing GPU. We compare it to the GeForce GTX 760 as well as an AMD Radeon R9 280. We'll discuss GCN differences in this new video card that may give it the edge with some feedback from AMD.

Introduction

The second half of 2014 is shaping up to be an exciting time in the GPU world. There is a lot to look forward to this fall that will keep us all busy. To begin this fall frenzy AMD is starting off with a new GPU launch and expansion to its Never Settle Gaming bundles.

AMD has been in the news this month with its live webcast on August 23nd "Celebrating 30 Years of Graphics and Gaming at AMD." This live stream highlighted some of AMD's achievements, introduced the very GPU we are evaluating today, and even touched on some CPU happenings, a lot of topics were discussed. In fact, you can find our very own Kyle Bennett at the event, sharing his take on the current state of gaming on AMD GPUs.

In the webcast AMD already announced the AMD Radeon R9 285 in an odd move and uniquely different strategy than we are accustomed to. Specifications and pricing were revealed to the public at the same time as press. This is quite a different strategy than is normally taken. We did not receive actual hardware to evaluate until after the announcement this time. Now that the embargo has lifted on performance we can finally reveal to you our evaluation of the AMD Radeon R9 295. The AMD Radeon R9 285 is priced at MSRP of $249.


Breaking down GCN

Before we go into specifics we need to break down the GCN (Graphics Core Next) architecture a bit. Did you know there are three iterations of the GCN architecture since the introduction of GCN on the AMD Radeon HD 7970 in 2011? That's right, since the Radeon HD 7970 there have now been three different "updates" to the GCN architecture which has improved GCN over time.

The first update, or iteration was released on the AMD Radeon 7790 (Bonaire GPU ASIC) video card. Many websites, including us, fell into to referring to this GPU update as GCN 1.1. However, AMD tells us that there really isn't any specific naming scheme associated with the GCN updates that have occurred with new GPU ASICs since the first iteration. AMD has stated that GCN was always meant to evolve, it was designed at its heart to be extensible, upgradable via new GPU ASICs.

From now on, to make the distinction between GCN iterations we are going to use the word "Iteration" which makes the most sense. There was the first GCN iteration which was found in the GPU ASICs Tahiti and Pitcairn. Then the second iteration of GCN was released with the GPU ASIC Bonaire and followed up with the Hawaii GPU ASIC. Now the third iteration of GCN is released with the Tonga GPU ASIC powering the AMD Radeon R9 285. The best way to break this down is to look at the table below we have created. Note there are feature improvements and architecture improvements over iterations.

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As you can see, the first iteration of GCN was the release of the GPU ASICs Tahiti and Pitcairn. This would be the AMD Radeon HD 7970/7950 and 7870/7850. This first iteration does support AMD Mantle, but it does not support TrueAudio, FreeSync, or Bridgeless CrossFire.

The second iteration of GCN was introduced with the Bonaire GPU ASIC and followed up with the Hawaii GPU ASIC. Bonaire consists of the AMD Radeon R7 260/260X. Hawaii GPU consists of AMD Radeon R9 290/290X. These GPUs added the support of TrueAudio using the on-die audio processor addition. FreeSync is supported as well as the new bridgeless CrossFire technology. There were also architecture improvements including an improved instruction set, improved work queues, and improved PowerTune function.

The third iteration of GCN is being evaluated today with Tonga. Tonga is AMD Radeon R9 285 and carries over all the features from the second GCN iteration plus additional architecture improvements. In addition to the second GCN iteration, iteration 3 includes improved tessellation, lossless delta color compression, an even newer updated instruction set, high quality scalar and a new multimedia engine. This is what sets Tonga apart from Bonaire and Hawaii.

If you thought you were getting FreeSync on Tahiti or Pitcairn, you were wrong. Only Bonaire, Hawaii, and Tonga GPUs will support FreeSync. All of these GPUs also share TrueAudio support and bridgeless CrossFire.

The question to ask, knowing this information above, is will the improved architecture on Tonga (Radeon R9 285) provide a performance improvement over the past iterations, such as Tahiti (Radeon R9 280?wink We will find out.


Breaking down the Radeon R9 285

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AMD is introducing the new AMD Radeon R9 285 (Tonga) which is to deliver exceptional performance per dollar. AMD is propositioning this video card for "beyond 1080p gaming." In fact the direct quote from AMD is thus: "The AMD Radeon R9 285 is designed to provide the best gaming experience at 1080p and beyond, with maximum detail settings. This is something we will most definitely test in our evaluation. We have to find out if it is true.

This video card is also meant to compete directly with NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 760 which is priced at $249 as well, same price as the Radeon R9 285.

Positioning

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AMD is positioning the AMD Radeon R9 285 between the R9 270X and R9 280X, which sounds odd initially. Naturally one would think "285" is a higher number than "280X" and would thus mean higher performance. This is not the case, therefore you cannot attach logic thinking to the model numbers, which is a shame.

You will also find that mysteriously the AMD Radeon R9 280 is not shown on this product positioning chart. Apparently there is no love for the AMD Radeon R9 280. The AMD Radeon R9 280 MSRPs for $279, and based on the specs and price would fall right in-between the R9 285 and R9 280X. We will have some pointed questions with AMD answered about this in the conclusion.

Multimedia Engine

Before we dive into the specifications there is another additional component upgrade the Radeon R9 285 has which is noteworthy for 4K display users. There is a new multimedia engine included in this third GCN iteration which improves 4K display video decode in H.264. Quoting from the AMD reviewers guide:

The Radeon R9 285 is AMD’s first discrete GPU with a redesigned fixed-function decoder (UVD آ– Unified Video Decoder) that supports full hardware decode of 4K H.264 videos. This next generation UVD supports H.264 base, main and high profile, up to level 5.2. The primary benefit of having a fixed-function decoder, especially for high bit-rate 4K content, is the significantly reduced CPU utilization. This results in a more responsive system, lower battery life ( for mobile products ) and more importantly, the system will not exhibit any skipped frames during playback.

The AMD Radeon R9 285 also features a redesigned fixed-function encoder ( VCE - Video Coding Engine ) that supports full hardware encoding to H.264 format. This version of VCE supports encoding to H.264 baseline and main profiles. The main use case for VCE is transcoding, which is very useful when the user wants to save on storage space as well as allow older, lower power devices (such as handhelds, laptops, etc.) to decode and playback their content at lower resolutions and/or lower bit-rate. The VCE works in concert with the powerful UVD in the Radeon R9 285 to accelerate the transcoding pipeline.

Specifications are on the next page.