In a simpler world, AMD’s long-awaited Big Navi graphics cards — the Radeon RX 6800, 6800 XT and 6900 XT — would be heroes or villains. They would either completely dominate Nvidia’s offerings, outstripping the Ampere architecture in regular games while offering surprisingly comparable performance in ray tracing. Alternatively, they would be a repeat of a familiar dirge: cards better targeted at the entry and mid-level PC, lacking any real thrust in ray tracing and failing to provide the competition PC gamers have so desperately sought for.
But this is 2020 and there are no clear answers or solutions. The RX 6800, however, does pose some really interesting questions.
Ever since AMD’s full-frontal assault on the CPU market, there has been a longing in the GPU world for AMD to similarly disrupt Nvidia’s chokehold on the sector. The signs have been good over the years. Although AMD had no genuine competitor to the RTX 2080 Ti or the RTX 2080 top-line cards, their mid-range Radeon 5700 XT offered good performance at 1080p and 1440p.
It lacked some of Nvidia’s bells and whistles, but the performance was promising for a card just over $600. The Radeon RX 6800 series definitely isn’t playing in that price bracket. At $949, it marks the first time AMD has actually priced a card over the MSRP of its direct competitor, which in this case is the RTX 3070. (For full disclosure, I’ll have a follow up on the RTX 3070 next week. I’ve been meaning to get around to it, but a next-gen launch window has made things supremely difficult.)
Radeon RX 6800 Specs, Australian Price
- GPU: Radeon RX 6800
- Process Node: TSMC 7nm
- CUs: 72
- Ray accelerators: 72
- Base/”Game” clocks: 2015MHz/2250MHz
- Memory: 16GB GDDR6 @ 16Gbps
- TDP: 250W
- Price: $949, $NZ1049 (Reference model)
The one kicker with all of this is obviously the price. $949 puts it at an interesting spot compared to the RTX 3070. But you can’t buy that in Australia right now, unless you preordered more than a month ago.
A key thing to note here: the Radeon RX 6800 supports Smart Access Memory, but not AMD’s touted Rage Mode.
Unsurprisingly, third-party models aren’t available locally either. So if we end up seeing a similar scenario to the RTX 3000 series, where third-party models get gouged to the point where you’re practically choosing between it or an RTX 3080. Not to mention what happens to the RX 6800 XT prices.
Radeon RX 6800 Test Bench
Just the single test system, as before. It hasn’t been that long since doing the RTX 3080 review, so there aren’t a lot of changes. I have re-run the figures on the RTX 3080 for comparison, though, to factor in the difference of the Ryzen 5900X over the Ryzen 3900XT.
Because it’s been an incredibly packed few weeks, I didn’t have the time to include the RTX 2080 Ti, or the RTX 3070 in these figures. I’ll have something on the RTX 3070 next week, however.
- CPU: Ryzen 5900X
- CPU Cooler: Corsair H115i RGB Platinum
- RAM: 32GB DDR4 3200MHz GSkill Trident Z (14-14-14-34)
- GPUs: Radeon RX 6800, RTX 3080 Founders Edition
- Motherboard: ASUS ROG CROSSHAIR VIII HERO (WI-FI)
- PSU: Corsair CX750M 750W 80 Plus Bronze
- GPU Drivers: Nvidia 457.30, AMD pre-release drivers provided under review embargo
As a note, because Smart Access Memory is an option in this system, I’ve included it in all the tests. You’ll see it in the column that says Radeon RX 6800 (SAM).
Radeon RX 6800 Benchmarks: 3D Mark Fire Strike
3D Mark gives some legacy data that’s useful to look over. It’s never wholly comparable to real-world performance in games, but it does provide some useful comparisons.
The 5900X, for instance, is about 10 per cent faster in Fire Strike with the RTX 3080 than when the same tests were run on the 3900XT. There’s been a few new drivers since then on Nvidia’s part, but unlike a few years ago, those have often never made much difference in older programs like 3D Mark.
You’ll notice here that the RX 6800 — which is meant to rival the RTX 3070, not the RTX 3080 — is actually on par here with the RTX 3080. That’s not a mistake. What’s super interesting about this card, and we’ll see that repeated a few times in this story, where the RX 6800 is more competitive in traditional rasterised games than people might have expected.
As for SAM, you’ll also see that it’s very much a hit or miss scenario. When it works, it really works. Otherwise, SAM basically provides next to no improvement.
However, and even with the SAM benefits, there’s a big catch. But let’s lead with the highlights first before wading into murkier territory.
Radeon RX 6800 Benchmarks: Forza Horizon 4
I’ve included Forza Horizon 4 in the testing suite as a staple for a good reason: it is one of the few games that has, from the outset, favoured AMD hardware. When you’re benchmarking games — especially if you only have the time to pick a handful and you don’t have the capacity to test 10 or 15 or 20 — it’s necessary to get a range of games and engines that utilise, and favour, hardware differently.
So Forza has always been AMD’s home ground advantage, and it definitely shows here.
Forza Horizon 4 was heavily optimised for the Xbox console and, consequently, older AMD architecture. So it’s no surprise that it runs really, really well here. The gap between the RTX 3080 and RX 6800 is fairly standard when things are normal, but once Smart Access Memory is enabled it’s basically neck and neck — and at lower resolutions, the RX 6800 blows past the RTX 3080 entirely.
But that’s at lower resolutions. At 4K the gap naturally shrinks as the GPU becomes more of a bottleneck. Still, it’s an indicator of what I think is really interesting about these cards.
In the follow-up tests, you’ll notice a similar pattern: the RX 6800 does really well at lower resolutions, with that benefit vanishing once you get into 4K. And it gets even worse when ray tracing is involved, although Forza Horizon 4 doesn’t have any of that.
Radeon RX 6800 Benchmarks: Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Whereas Forza loves AMD hardware, Lara Croft’s heart has always been with Nvidia. Shadow of the Tomb Raider was also one of the first games to implement ray traced shadows, and while it’s not the most intense of ray traced applications, it does at least give us an indication of how well AMD fares in games that have limited uses of ray tracing.
The cards are actually fairly close at 1080p and 1440p, and SAM makes an appreciable — but not enormous — difference at those lower resolutions. But it can’t make up the difference at 4K, which is worth considering if you’re spending almost $1000 with the expectation of playing at 4K.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has ray traced shadows, as well as DLSS. The tests below for this one are with DLSS off — but you’ll see the impact when DLSS is enabled later on with Control testing.
I’ve limited this chart a little more for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a bit pointless testing ray tracing at 1080p — the hit you’re taking to image quality generally doesn’t make the performance benefit worthwhile. You might get nicer reflections, better global illumination or shadows, but the lower resolution makes the improvements harder to appreciate and, in some cases, very difficult to see.
So here you can see the obvious limitation of the RX 6800 card. This is AMD’s first proper crack at ray tracing, whereas Nvidia have had a few more years optimising their ray tracing cores and cards. And these are figures without the AI-powered DLSS, which often improves performance significantly. But you’ll see that further down.
Radeon RX 6800 Benchmarks: Total War Three Kingdoms
If Forza loves AMD cards, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider generally favours Nvidia, then you can consider Total War: Three Kingdoms as the game that hates everyone equally. Three Kingdom‘s ultra presets are utterly brutal on most systems, especially at higher resolutions.
Here’s an instance of where Smart Access Memory doesn’t really contribute anything meaningful. There’s a marginal improvement at 1080p, but beyond that the results are basically within the margin of error.
Nvidia’s RTX 3080 has a solid margin here, as you’d expect for the slightly higher priced card. This is the kind of distance I would have normally expected from the RTX 3080 and RX 6800, and it’d be interesting to see how much that gap is bridged with the 6800 XT.
Radeon RX 6800 Benchmarks: Control + Ray Tracing
Control is probably the best use case for ray tracing right now, because it’s a) an excellent game, b) its DLSS implementation is genuinely very good, so much so that users would never consider not using it and c) it’s one of the few games that use multiple forms of ray tracing.
A lot of games only use ray traced shadows, or maybe ray traced illumination at the moment, but Control has a suite of settings and offerings. For these tests, and because of the game’s DLSS implementation, SAM and DLSS are enabled for both sides.
The figures are recorded by re-running Control‘s Ashtray Maze, which you can access and replay again at any time thanks to the SHUM arcade machines in Control‘s second expansion, AWE. By recording the mission for about three minutes, I find the results are more consistent and reliable this way, and it also helps that it’s one of the best missions in a game in years.
Immediately, you can see the problem. The RTX 3080 with DLSS and ray tracing isn’t just an acceptable experience — it’s enough that you can push the resolution even further.
That was already shown to be the case in our RTX 3080 review, and in testing with the 5900X the 4K ray traced results were even better at 85 FPS and 69 FPS with ray tracing at medium and ultra respectively. The RX 6800 isn’t included here for a simple reason: it’s simply unplayable.
The RX 6800 in a lot of ways gets very, very close to the kind of card everyone wanted. Realistically, however, it does exactly what a lot of industry observers expected from Big Navi. AMD wasn’t going to push hard on ray tracing, and RDNA 2 doesn’t offer that yet. Maybe the next generation of AMD cards in 2021 or 2022 will have more advancements for ray tracing, but for now the RX 6800’s best gains lie in the lower resolutions.
Which opens up a whole lot of questions.
Firstly, if you’re stuck on the fence between AMD and Nvidia, you have some genuine questions to ask. If ray tracing is something that matters — particularly if you’re the kind of person who looked at a game like Cyberpunk 2077 and thought, I want to max everything out on that — then Nvidia still has a super strong compelling argument.
DLSS is no joke either, and AMD is working on their own alternative for a good reason — it makes a huge difference in games where available. Even the quality in games like Death Stranding is so significant, and the performance boosts in titles like Control and Final Fantasy XV (and more recently, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War) so enormous, that you’d have to seriously question why you wouldn’t use it.
And if it’s available, Team Green wins hands down every time.
More games are going to dabble in ray tracing over the next year or two as well, so the ray tracing benefits have to be seriously factored in. The next-gen consoles are out. Development studios are already starting to shift over. However many games that hit the PC this year with ray tracing, expect that to double by the time 2021 is finished.
This is going to be a factor going forward. But if you’d just prefer more frames without the reflections or shadows, or you play games where ray tracing simply doesn’t make enough of a difference, it’s hard to ignore the value you get from the RX 6800.
What really fascinates me is what happens down the stack. If the Radeon RX 6800 gets such good performance at 1080p, what’s going to happen when the RX 6700 comes out targeting 1080p gaming? Or the $400 or $500 card? Those cards are going to be absolute monsters in games like Valorant, Counter-Strike, League of Legends and other esports games. AMD’s got a serious advantage on that front, and as more games take advantage of Smart Access Memory, that price-to-performance benefit will only get bigger.
However, AMD is seriously behind in other areas.
In an embargoed briefing for reviewers, I asked whether AMD had worked with OBS or XSplit to improve the AMD encoder performance for streamers, and this was the response AMD gave:
With AMD RDNA™ 2 architecture we have improved the frequency of the VCN blocks. We also doubled the HEVC pipeline. These improvements will enhance the encode performance.
So if you enjoy using the NVENC encoder for streaming, recording or a combination of the two, you can pretty much forget about switching to AMD this time around. There’s a great visual comparison in Linus Tech Tips’ video that shows it off more clearly, but it’s obvious that AMD hasn’t done much outreach or work to make their GPUs more compelling for content creation or streaming. That was already a factor for anyone who needs CUDA cores, but if you’re into streaming or recording as well, Nvidia simply offers more.
And if that wasn’t already a dealbreaker for you, there’s Nvidia’s other features to consider — and features that have become genuinely very useful over the years. Nvidia Broadcast seemed a bit gimmicky when it was announced, but its key feature — noise removal for microphones — is one of the best free updates released for anything this year. Not having to hear people’s noisy keyboards, or having to worry about the sound of a fan in your room, is a huge quality of life improvement for you and the people you play games with.
Australia’s a bloody hot country! We’re about to go into the summer and you’re going to want to play games with some kind of cooling. So RTX Voice — or Nvidia Broadcast’s microphone enhancements — is something that I genuinely use every day. I miss it and notice it in others when it’s not enabled.
But it’s a measure of how competitive things are starting to get that advanced features even factor into the argument at all. It was only a year ago that this was just a cherry on top as far as GPUs were concerned. Nvidia cards could do ray tracing. They had the best performance. Highest premium, but the performance was unparalleled, so you didn’t have a lot of choice.
Now? There actually is some genuine choice. Maybe not quite as much at the top end. As Watch Dogs: Legion showed, and as Cyberpunk 2077 is highly likely to do (based off my playthrough earlier this year), ray tracing is a big deal when it’s used beyond just one set of shadows or reflections. Nvidia’s liable to play that fact up, and play it up hard, and AMD can’t really compete on that front yet.
But if you can live without it, or you just want a card that can nail 1440p performance, then the AMD Radeon RX 6800 might be worth considering. Cards aren’t available in Australia right now, but third party models so far haven’t seen the same kind of gouging that the RTX 3000 series has. The RX 6800 XT might even be worth considering too depending on how the real-world pricing shakes out, but it could take all of the first quarter of 2021 before that situation settles.
Even still, isn’t that a nice thing to write. AMD are genuinely competitive in the GPU market, and not just at the entry level but in a way that is worth considering in higher end PCs. Nvidia absolutely still has the advantage here with ray tracing, the NVENC encoder and advanced features, but holy hell AMD are not far away.