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The AMD R9 Nano Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Small Size, Giant Impact. That’s how all of AMD’s R9 Nano presentations begin and with good reason; this card is impressively compact but is supposed to offer up titanic performance numbers, particularly at 4K. While this may sound impossible, AMD has been able to achieve their goals by combining an efficient core design, HBM technology and no small amount of selective core binning.

AMD’s R9 Fury X and subsequent R9 Fury showed gamers what High Bandwidth Memory could accomplish, even when paired up with a slightly antiquated core architecture. Indeed, those Fiji-based cards ran neck and neck with their GeForce competitors and were actually able to pull slightly ahead at UHD resolutions. Now the R9 Nano is being introduced in an effort to once again leverage the strengths of HBM and a unified GPU design approach.

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While we have already previewed the R9 Nano, a number of its key elements need to be highlighted once again since some of them simply defy belief. Instead of utilizing a cut-down version of the Fiji XT core like the vanilla R9 Fury, the Nano actually comes to the table packing a full 4096 Stream Processors, 64 ROPS and 256 Texture Units. There’s nothing particularly special here until you get to the TDP numbers AMD is claiming; 175W is a full 100W lower than the Fury X.

So how was AMD able to achieve this? By judiciously modulating the core’s voltage and frequency while also choosing cores with exceedingly low temperature / heat outputs. Core clocks should reach around 900MHz under normal operating conditions while there may be some instances where users will see speeds of up to 1GHz. Meanwhile, the HBM’s speed of 500MHz hasn’t been touched.

To make matters even more interesting AMD also claims this is one of the coolest, quietest running GPUs around. That almost sounds too good to be true since taming a 175W card with a relatively small cooing solution has proven to be quite challenging in the past.

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In many ways the R9 Nano can be considered the flagship of AMD’s current lineup since it personifies the tantalizing possibilities offered by the use of HBM. That HBM which has contributed to cost overruns and production shortfalls but we are now seeing the first tantalizing possibilities of what it can bring to the table.

With that being said, AMD will likely face an uphill battle when trying to actually sell this card. It is small and seems to pack an almighty framerate wallop but you’ll need to pay a hefty price of $650 (nearly $1000CAD) for the luxury of owning the fastest compact graphics card on the market. However, the actual market for it may be a bit limited since most of today’s SFF chassis are designed in such a way that they easily accept longer, less expensive options. In addition, the Nano lacks features like HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 support, both of which would make it infinitely more appealing for the HTPC market. Naturally, the stringent binning process will likely lead to the Nano becoming something of a rarity on retailers’ shelves but for people who want high end ITX performance it may be a perfect fit.

Now the Nano’s initial previews weren’t without their fair share of controversy either. AMD claimed some exceedingly impressive performance numbers that showed the Nano beating NVIDIA’s GTX 970 by a solid 30%. When taken at face value that’s reason to be hopeful but it turns out those figures were achieved with a unique set of settings (disabling anisotropic filtering and anti-aliasing for example) which played to AMD’s architectural strengths while sacrificing image quality. Will AMD's internal numbers hold up in this review? I certainly hope so since the Nano really does have a great deal of intrinsic appeal.

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Upon seeing the R9 Nano for the first time, my initial reaction was a straightforward “Awwww…..isn’t it CUTE!?”. Yes, it really is cute, and simple and wonderfully compact. At just 6” long the R9 Nano is deceptively sized given the performance it is meant to deliver.

The top shroud is an understated affair which is capped by a standard 80mm fan set up in a typical downdraft-style setup. Unfortunately, this design means that a good portion of the core’s heat will be dumped back into the chassis. According to AMD, much of the Nano’s relative strengths lie within its heatsink design. While the main fin array looks like many other cards we have reviewed in the past, there’s some substantial technological feats going on below the surface.

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When placed next to a standard full length graphics card, the R9 Nano looks downright diminutive. This really puts into perspective how HBM has moved GPU design forward by leaps and bounds.

The next few sections have been taken from our initial preview article since nothing has changed with the Nano’s component layout and design.

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Alongside the high static pressure but low RPM 80mm fan, the Nano incorporates a pure copper core contact plate which interfaces directly with a dual vapor chamber. This vapor chamber makes direct contact with the aforementioned aluminum fin array to insure quick transfer of heat and efficient cooling.

While we have seen this approach in the past, AMD’s temperature claims are impressive to say the least. Supposedly, this card will have a nominal operating temperature of just 75°C while still operating at just 42 dbA. That may seem like an impossibility but there’s nothing I can see to invalidate this claim.

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Past the advanced heatsink design, AMD is also addressing the cooling for their VRM components since there really isn’t all that space to optimize airflow. In this case they have added a secondary copper heatpipe and heatsink which are supposed to remove any worry about components overheating.

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Under the heatsink is a relatively anemic setup with a 4-phase GPU PWM along with a single phase for secondary functions. Additional phases really aren’t needed since overclocking isn’t one of this card’s focuses and the core itself is quite efficient.

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Power input is handled by a single 8-pin input which makes installing this into certain ITX chassis a bit challenging. Some of the more compact cases on the market require SFF PSUs which are rare to begin with. The ones that have enough current to supply a 175W graphics card and incorporate a dual six-pin / single 8-pin PCI-E connector setup tend to be quite expensive and even rarer.

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The Nano’s side holds a simple Radeon logo along with a small switch that can be used to change between BIOSes. According to AMD, this doesn’t engage an Uber Mode like on the previous generation cards but simply houses two identical BIOS files. Tweakers will likely use the secondary slot for modified profiles.

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The card’s backside doesn’t house anything particularly interesting but AMD did add a few of their PWM components here in an effort to save space on the PCB’s topside. Unfortunately, these are left open to the elements and may heat up without adequate cooling.

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The I/O plate is pretty much par for the course with a trio of DisplayPort outputs along with a single HDMI 1.4 connector. The lack of HDMI 2.0 certainly hurts this card’s possible use in HTPC scenarios since lower spec HDMI cables don’t have sufficient bandwidth for 4K60 transmission and most newer UHD TVs don’t include DisplayPort inputs. Supposedly there will be DP to HDMI 2.0 adapters available from some of AMD’s board partners but they will have to be purchased separately and won’t pass on a HDCP 2.2 signal so playing protected content will be impossible.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Performance Consistency & Temperatures Over Time

Performance Consistency & Temperatures Over Time


The R9 Nano’s on-paper specifications are certainly impressive and some have actually called them impossible. There has been a lot of debate surrounding how AMD dealt with the heat generated by a fully enabled Fiji XT core given the fact that this card only comes equipped with a single fan versus the huge water cooler on the Fury X. Is the fan running at maximum RPMs? Is throttling occurring? Will the Nano overheat? We’re about to find out. Note that these tests were conducted in two scenarios: a closed ITX case and an open test bench. Both resulted in identical results.

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First impressions are a resounding WOW. The R9 Nano actually achieves the same core temperatures as the custom-cooled R9 Fury and that card used three 80mm fans and boasted a laughably huge cooler. It seems like AMD’s claims are becoming a reality.

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Interestingly enough, we can see some extremely fine-grain clock speed gating going on here. There aren’t any notable fluctuations and core frequencies remained around the 880MHz mark (some spikes made it above 900MHz) throughout testing. This is a far cry from what many were expecting and proves that the Nano can deliver predictable and stable clock speeds.

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With consistent clock speeds comes consistent performance. What more is there to say?
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Thermal Imaging / Acoustics / Power Consumption

Thermal Imaging


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Face-on, there really isn’t much to see but flipping the Nano over reveals some slightly worrying trends. Those VRM components on the PCB’s underside don’t receive all that much direct cooling on our open test bench and start to push past the 92°C mark after 20 minutes of testing in a room with an ambient temperature of 22°C. In the confined spaces of an ITX case we would likely see even higher temperatures if there wasn’t sufficient cooling.


Acoustical Testing


What you see below are the baseline idle dB(A) results attained for a relatively quiet open-case system (specs are in the Methodology section) sans GPU along with the attained results for each individual card in idle and load scenarios. The meter we use has been calibrated and is placed at seated ear-level exactly 12” away from the GPU’s fan. For the load scenarios, Hitman Absolution is used in order to generate a constant load on the GPU(s) over the course of 15 minutes.

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These results require a bit of an explanation. Let’s start with the good part: the R9 Nano’s fan is one of the quietest I have come across in a long time, even after the card had been gaming for over an hour. What isn’t acceptable is that once again AMD has problems in the acoustics department but this time it is fully due to coil whine.

Typically our decibel meter doesn't pick up higher pitched inductor wailing since it measures "loudness" rather than pitch but, within Hitman, the lower frequency sound clearly stood out. It actually drowned out the system fans.

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The amount of noise this pint-sized card’s PWM puts out is nothing short of astronomical. It wails, squeals, chugs and emits all sorts of other electrical blather. Granted, some gamers will be more susceptible to hearing it than others and there are certain cases on the market that will reduce the amount of perceptible noise but this is still unacceptable on any $650 card released in 2015. AMD is aware of this but they don’t count it as a problem. We will have to see how widespread it is once the Nano gets into the hands of end users. It is important to note that we're not sure how widespread this is or whether or not we received one of the "louder" samples. We just report it as we see it.


System Power Consumption


For this test we hooked up our power supply to a UPM power meter that will log the power consumption of the whole system twice every second. In order to stress the GPU as much as possible we used 15 minutes of Unigine Valley running on a loop while letting the card sit at a stable Windows desktop for 15 minutes to determine the peak idle power consumption.

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After experiencing the full “fury” of the Nano’s coil whine, the power consumption numbers were like a breath of fresh air. This is one efficient card and it could become the performance per watt leader.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup



Processor: Intel i7 4930K @ 4.7GHz
Memory: G.Skill Trident 16GB @ 2133MHz 10-10-12-29-1T
Motherboard: ASUS P9X79-E WS
Cooling: NH-U14S
SSD: 2x Kingston HyperX 3K 480GB
Power Supply: Corsair AX1200
Monitor: Dell U2713HM (1440P) / ASUS PQ321Q (4K)
OS: Windows 8.1 Professional


Drivers:
AMD 15.201.1102 (R9 Nano)
AMD 15.7.1
NVIDIA 352.90


*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 2 benchmark runs

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game and all GPU control panels were set to use application settings


The Methodology of Frame Testing, Distilled


How do you benchmark an onscreen experience? That question has plagued graphics card evaluations for years. While framerates give an accurate measurement of raw performance , there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes which a basic frames per second measurement by FRAPS or a similar application just can’t show. A good example of this is how “stuttering” can occur but may not be picked up by typical min/max/average benchmarking.

Before we go on, a basic explanation of FRAPS’ frames per second benchmarking method is important. FRAPS determines FPS rates by simply logging and averaging out how many frames are rendered within a single second. The average framerate measurement is taken by dividing the total number of rendered frames by the length of the benchmark being run. For example, if a 60 second sequence is used and the GPU renders 4,000 frames over the course of that time, the average result will be 66.67FPS. The minimum and maximum values meanwhile are simply two data points representing single second intervals which took the longest and shortest amount of time to render. Combining these values together gives an accurate, albeit very narrow snapshot of graphics subsystem performance and it isn’t quite representative of what you’ll actually see on the screen.

FCAT on the other hand has the capability to log onscreen average framerates for each second of a benchmark sequence, resulting in the “FPS over time” graphs. It does this by simply logging the reported framerate result once per second. However, in real world applications, a single second is actually a long period of time, meaning the human eye can pick up on onscreen deviations much quicker than this method can actually report them. So what can actually happens within each second of time? A whole lot since each second of gameplay time can consist of dozens or even hundreds (if your graphics card is fast enough) of frames. This brings us to frame time testing and where the Frame Time Analysis Tool gets factored into this equation.

Frame times simply represent the length of time (in milliseconds) it takes the graphics card to render and display each individual frame. Measuring the interval between frames allows for a detailed millisecond by millisecond evaluation of frame times rather than averaging things out over a full second. The larger the amount of time, the longer each frame takes to render. This detailed reporting just isn’t possible with standard benchmark methods.

We are now using FCAT for ALL benchmark results, other than 4K.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: AC:Unity / Battlefield 4

Assassin’s Creed: Unity


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While it may not be the newest game around and it had its fair share of embarrassing hiccups at launch, Assassin's Creed: Unity is still one heck of a good looking DX11 title. In this benchmark we run through a typical gameplay sequence outside in Paris.

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Battlefield 4


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In this sequence, we use the Singapore level which combines three of the game’s major elements: a decayed urban environment, a water-inundated city and finally a forested area. We chose not to include multiplayer results simply due to their randomness injecting results that make apples to apples comparisons impossible.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Dragon Age: Inquisition / Dying Light

Dragon Age: Inquisition


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Dragon Age: Inquisition is one of the most popular games around due to its engaging gameplay and open-world style. In our benchmark sequence we run through two typical areas: a busy town and through an outdoor environment.

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Dying Light


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Dying Light is a relatively late addition to our benchmarking process but with good reason: it required multiple patches to optimize performance. While one of the patches handicapped viewing distance, this is still one of the most demanding games available.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Far Cry 4 / Grand Theft Auto V

Far Cry 4


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The latest game in Ubisoft’s Far Cry series takes up where the others left off by boasting some of the most impressive visuals we’ve seen. In order to emulate typical gameplay we run through the game’s main village, head out through an open area and then transition to the lower areas via a zipline.

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Grand Theft Auto V


In GTA V we take a simple approach to benchmarking: the in-game benchmark tool is used. However, due to the randomness within the game itself, only the last sequence is actually used since it best represents gameplay mechanics.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Hitman Absolution / Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Hitman Absolution


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Hitman is arguably one of the most popular FPS (first person “sneaking”) franchises around and this time around Agent 47 goes rogue so mayhem soon follows. Our benchmark sequence is taken from the beginning of the Terminus level which is one of the most graphically-intensive areas of the entire game. It features an environment virtually bathed in rain and puddles making for numerous reflections and complicated lighting effects.

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Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor


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With its high resolution textures and several other visual tweaks, Shadow of Mordor’s open world is also one of the most detailed around. This means it puts massive load on graphics cards and should help point towards which GPUs will excel at next generation titles.

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Thief / Tomb Raider

Thief


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When it was released, Thief was arguably one of the most anticipated games around. From a graphics standpoint, it is something of a tour de force. Not only does it look great but the engine combines several advanced lighting and shading techniques that are among the best we’ve seen. One of the most demanding sections is actually within the first level where you must scale rooftops amidst a thunder storm. The rain and lightning flashes add to the graphics load, though the lightning flashes occur randomly so you will likely see interspersed dips in the charts below due to this.

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Tomb Raider


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Tomb Raider is one of the most iconic brands in PC gaming and this iteration brings Lara Croft back in DX11 glory. This happens to not only be one of the most popular games around but it is also one of the best looking by using the entire bag of DX11 tricks to properly deliver an atmospheric gaming experience.

In this run-through we use a section of the Shanty Town level. While it may not represent the caves, tunnels and tombs of many other levels, it is one of the most demanding sequences in Tomb Raider.


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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
1440P: Total War: Attila / Witcher 3

Total War: Attila


Total War: Attila is the only strategy title in our benchmarking suite simply because it is one of the most resource-hungry. It gobbles resources with good reason too: this game happens to be one the best looking of the series thus far. Our benchmark sequence uses the in-game tool since, after hours of gameplay, it seems to show a perfect blend of in-game elements.

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Witcher 3


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Other than being one of 2015’s most highly regarded games, The Witcher 3 also happens to be one of the most visually stunning as well. This benchmark sequence has us riding through a town and running through the woods; two elements that will likely take up the vast majority of in-game time.

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