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Radeon RX Vega is AMD’s return to high-end GPUs

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AMD’s Radeon RX Vega is the GPU AMD hopes will win back the high-end graphics market that Nvidia stole. AMD’s current lineup of RX 570 and 580 cards hit the budget and mid-range market positively, but with Vega, AMD has its sights firmly on Nvidia’s immeasurably powerful GTX 1070 and 1080 cards and, going from initial details, it may well have hit that mark for under $500 (around £380).

Reclaiming lost ground against both Intel and Nvidia has been AMD’s goal for a little while now. Since the successful release of its Ryzen CPUs and the positive response to Crimson ReLive and the RX 500-series, it seems to be working for them. The RX Vega is the next chapter in this battle back to the top.

Going head-to-head with Nvidia’s GTX 1080 may sound ambitious, but the Vega seems well-equipped to do so. The move to the latest HBM2 (high-bandwidth memory) technology across the family has reaped dramatic performance benefits over the previous generations. AMD hasn’t published detailed benchmark results, but it has cherry-picked one key statistic – the Vega family will offer a minimum of 53fps when running games on an ultra-wide 1440p monitor. That may not be the silky-smooth 60fps you’d like, but remember that it’s only the lowest framerate you’ll see, and notably, it’s higher than the 45fps Nvidia’s GTX 1080 is capable of on the same screen and selection of games.

Tellingly, AMD hasn’t mentioned 4K benchmarks. Don’t take that to be a bad sign though, if it can best Nvidia’s GTX1080 at 3,440 x 1440 resolutions, it should manage to cope at 4K. AMD claims that its Vega cards put out twice the throughput per clock cycle and twice the memory bandwidth per pin compared to earlier Radeon cards. I’m aware that benchmark isn’t particularly earth-shattering due to the lack of recent high-end Radeon cards since 2015’s R9 Fury X, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

The Radeon RX Vega comes in two base forms, the Vega 56 and the Vega 64. The major difference between the two is total power output with the 56 compute unit Vega 56 sitting on par with Nvidia’s GTX 1070, and the Vega 64 lining up nicely with the GTX 1080. Interestingly, you can buy the Vega 64 as either an Air Cooled card or a Liquid Cooled model. The difference in power is notable, thanks in part to the latter running cooler, but to get hold of one you’ll have to grapple with AMD’s somewhat bizarre Radeon Vega pricing system.

The Vega 56 starts at $399 (UK pricing isn’t available just yet), with the air-cooled Vega 64 setting you back $499. For comparison, the US price for the GTX 1070 is $399 and the GTX 1080 will set you back $549. If performance is up to snuff for the new cards, then AMD might just have Nvidia beat.

If you’d like to get the water-cooled Vega 64, however, you’ll have to stomach one of AMD’s peculiar bundle offers. The Vega 64 liquid cooled can only be bought as part of a Radeon Pack – a bundle that comes with two games (Prey and Wolfenstein: The New Order in the US) and a discount on an ultra-wide Samsung monitor or a Ryzen 7 and motherboard package. For those wanting a standard Vega card, it’s a tempting deal as it’s only $100 more, but it’ll set you back $699 if you fancy a the Vega 64 Liquid Cooled card.

AMD also announced that it was working on a miniature Vega card built specifically for Mini-ITX PC builds. Dubbed the Vega Nano, little else is known about AMD’s pocket-sized GPU. In fact, Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney is seemingly the first non-AMD employee to have one as AMD’s Chris Hook handed one over to him at the Vega unveiling event.

It’s great to see AMD coming back in at the top-end in the GPU market once again, but it’s worth remembering that the Vega range is going up against Nvidia hardware that’s approaching a year old. With some sites reporting that Nvidia is planning to respond to AMD’s new arrival by accelerating the release of its family of Volta GPUs for a launch in Q3 of 2017, Vega may have competition on its hands in a matter of months.