Update

Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480 review: Polaris rethought and refined

The wait was worth it for custom Radeon RX 480 cards.

Brad Chacos
At a Glance
  • Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480 (4GB)

Where are the custom cards?

The question’s been reverberating throughout Internet forums and various subreddits since the launch of AMD’s revolutionary $200 Radeon RX 480 graphics card. The chorus grew after weeks of radio silence on AMD’s part; amplified when Asus revealed its Strix RX 480 wouldn’t be available until mid-August; and downright exploded into a cacophony when Nvidia’s $250 GeForce GTX 1060 launched with a full complement of custom designs. Where are the custom cards?

Well, here’s a custom RX 480 card that AMD aficionados have been drooling for: Sapphire’s Nitro+ RX 480. It’s hitting online stores at $219 for a 4GB model (which we tested) and $269 for an 8GB version.

And yes—the wait was worth it. Sapphire definitely put its own spin on AMD’s Polaris.

Meet the Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480

All custom graphics cards build upon the foundation set by their underlying graphics processor. The Nitro+ RX 480 is no different—though its tweaks are major, extensive, and occasionally much-needed—so before we dive into the Sapphire card’s specifics, here’s a quick look at the key specifications of the RX 480, the first graphics card built around AMD’s cutting-edge 14nm Polaris GPU.

Got it? Good. Now let’s talk about Sapphire’s alterations.

The Nitro+ RX 480 ships in two configurations: A 4GB (which we’ll be reviewing) and an 8GB model, both with a 256-bit memory bus. The differences between the two extend beyond mere memory capacity, however. The VRAM inside the 8GB model comes clocked at 2,000MHz, while the 4GB model runs at 1,750MHz.

The core clock speeds for the two models also differ. Both ship with a dual BIOS featuring both “Quiet” and “Boost” modes. The optional Quiet mode actually sticks to the same 1,266MHz boost clock as the reference RX 480. The default Boost mode comes enabled out of the box, hitting a modest 1,306MHz on the 4GB Nitro+ RX 480 and 1,342MHz on the 8GB version.

Brad Chacos

Some Internet commenters were hoping for 1,400MHz clock speeds from custom RX 480 variants, which clearly didn’t happen here (or on any of the other custom RX 480s announced thus far). That said, the 1,342MHz boost clock on the 8GB Nitro+ RX 480 is higher than the overclocks squeaked out of many early RX 480 reference models. Reference cards capable of hitting 1,330MHz—a mere 5-percent boost—appear to be a slim minority. And Sapphire spent time tweaking the Nitro+ RX 480’s settings so that the card stays right near that maximum clock speed damned near 100 percent of the time that you’re playing games.

Flipping on Boost mode also increases the power limit for the card, which is necessary as Polaris’ performance ties heavily into the amount of power it’s being fed. Don’t fret about whether potential power consumption issues will fry your motherboard, though. First off, AMD’s already released a driver that fixed the reference RX 480’s excessive PCI-E power draw while simultaneously boosting performance.

Second, Sapphire redesigned the power system on the Nitro+ RX 480, swapping out the reference model’s 6-pin power connector for a beefier 8-pin and altering the power phase design so that no more than roughly 60 watts courses in via your motherboard’s PCI-E slot. The Nitro+ also features a new version of Sapphire’s black diamond chokes, which help to filter and clean up the card’s electrical signals. Sapphire says the new chokes reduce coil temperatures by an additional 15 percent compared to the ones found in previous Nitro cards.

Brad Chacos

The Nitro+ RX 480 features Sapphire’s superb Dual-X cooling solution, with easily removable fans.

Sapphire’s supremely powerful, yet whisper-quiet custom coolers never fail to impress when I lay my hands on a Nitro card, and the Nitro+ RX 480 is no exception. The card features Sapphire’s Dual-X cooling solution, a pair of fans over a beefy, high-density heat sink riddled with copper heat pipes of various sizes. The Nitro+ RX 480’s fans have been upgraded to 95mm, dual ball-bearing models. Sapphire claims the redesign results in a 10-percent noise reduction compared to the previous generation of Dual-X coolers. The fans actually won’t spin at all until the GPU temperature hits 52 degrees Celsius, making the card completely silent when you aren’t gaming or rendering videos.

It’s easier to service and replace the Nitro+ RX 480’s fans, too. They’re held on by a single screw, and you don’t need to rip apart the whole shroud to yank them all. What’s more, a new Fan Check function in Sapphire’s Trixx 3.0 software monitors your fan for issues and waves when problems come up. And if problems do come up, Trixx will connect you with Sapphire’s customer service, which will send you a fan replacement rather than requiring you to send your entire card back for repair. Yay to eliminating life’s little hassles!

Brad Chacos

Trixx 3.0 also powers Nitro Glow, Sapphire’s branding for the multicolored RGB lights embedded throughout the Nitro+ RX 480. By default, the card glows Sapphire blue, but Trixx 3.0—which will be “available soon,” so I didn’t have a chance to test it—allows you to set custom colors, tie the hue to various use states, or even shut it off completely.

Alternatively, pressing the LED button on the top of the card cycles through the options below, no additional software required.

Speaking of the aesthetics, the Nitro+ RX 480’s pockmarked dark shroud looks absolutely sleek and gorgeous despite being hard plastic. It’s a refreshing change from the aggressive, angular, overly large (and borderline garish) designs deployed by many graphics cards these days. A sexy metal backplate on the rear of the card—which you don’t often see on mainstream graphics cards—makes it even more attractive.

Brad Chacos

The Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480’s backplate.

Sapphire also tweaked the RX 480’s connectivity. While the reference board packs a single HDMI 2.0b and a trio of DisplayPort 1.4 connections, the Nitro+ RX 480 cuts the DisplayPorts back to two in order to squeeze in a second HDMI port as well as a DVI port. The latter will come in handy on lower-end monitors, while the extra HDMI port allows the Nitro+ RX 480 to output to both a monitor and a VR headset. Sapphire’s decision to swap out an extra DisplayPort in favor of those two connectors seems smart indeed considering the RX 480’s budget-friendly price and its position as the cheapest VR-ready graphics card around.

Brad Chacos

All those new connection technologies allow Sapphire’s card (and all RX 480 models) to drive 4K displays at 60Hz over HDMI. The DisplayPorts, meanwhile, can drive 1920x1080- and 2560x1440-resolution monitors at 240Hz, 4K displays at 120Hz, and even 5K displays at up to 60Hz—though the card only offers compelling gameplay at 1080p and 1440p resolutions.

The Nitro+ RX 480 also enjoys the rest of the Polaris GPU’s technological benefits, such as the superb in-driver Radeon WattMan overclocking tool, dedicated asynchronous shader hardware for improved performance in DirectX 12 and Vulkan games, advanced video encoding/decoding for up to 4K/60 frames per second streams, and support for high-dynamic range video.

Basically, Sapphire left no part of the reference RX 480 untouched. But what do all those tweaks mean when it comes to actually playing games? Let’s dig in.

Next page: System details and Division performance results

Our test system

As always, we tested the Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480 on PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card benchmark system, which is loaded with high-end components to avoid potential bottlenecks in other parts of the machine and show unfettered graphics performance. Key highlights of the build:

  • Intel’s Core i7-5960X ($1,016 on Amazon) with a Corsair Hydro Series H100i closed-loop water cooler ($97 on Amazon).
  • An Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard ($360 on Amazon).
  • Corsair’s Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory ($65 on Newegg), Obsidian 750D full-tower case ($155 on Amazon), and 1,200-watt AX1200i power supply ($308 on Amazon).
  • A 480GB Intel 730 series SSD ($248 on Amazon)
  • Windows 10 Pro ($199 on Amazon)

We’re comparing the $220 Nitro+ RX 480 (4GB) against AMD’s reference $240 RX 480 (8GB), Nvidia’s $300 GeForce GTX 1060 Founders Edition (which essentially performs on par with a $250 GTX 1060 reference card), and the same rivals we used in our reviews of those two cards. EVGA’s GTX 960 SSC, VisionTek’s Radeon R9 380, and Sapphire’s Radeon R9 380X represent the last-gen crop of $200-ish graphics cards. They don’t hold a candle to the new generation. You’ll also find results for more potent options that the GTX 1060 more directly compares to: the Sapphire Nitro R9 390, EVGA GTX 970 FTW, MSI Radeon 390X Gaming 8GB, and the reference Nvidia GTX 980.

We benchmark every game using the default graphics settings unless otherwise noted, with all vendor-specific special features—such as Nvidia’s GameWorks effects, AMD’s TressFX, and FreeSync/G-Sync—disabled. These cards can’t really deliver a compelling 4K gaming experience, so we limited our testing to 1080p and 1440p resolutions.

Sapphire sent us a review sample very shortly before launch, so all tests were performed using the default 1306MHz “Boost” BIOS. I’m hoping to test the card in quiet mode as well as push the overclock further later today. I’ll update the article to include the results as soon as I do. UPDATE: Overclocking results have been added towards the end of the article.

But enough jibber-jabber! Let’s see what an overclocked, custom-cooled RX 480 is capable of.

The Division

The Division, a third-person shooter/RPG that mixes elements of Destiny and Gears of War, kicks things off with Ubisoft’s new Snowdrop engine.

Here, we see the start of a trend we’ll witness throughout the Nitro+ RX 480’s review. The card’s mild overclock doesn’t push it much higher than the frame rates pumped out by the reference RX 480, but it does enough to bring the AMD-powered card into parity with Nvidia’s more costly GTX 1060 Founders Edition.

Next page: Hitman

Hitman

Hitman’s Glacier engine heavily favors AMD hardware. It’s no surprise; Hitman’s a flagship AMD Gaming Evolved title, complete with a DirectX 12 mode that was patched in after the game’s launch.

Important note: Hitman automatically caps the game’s Texture Quality, Shadow Maps, and Shadow Resolution at medium on cards with 2GB of onboard memory, meaning the EVGA GTX 970 FTW and VisionTek R9 380 were tested at lower graphical settings. I’ve still included them in the graphs below for two reasons: 1) because they’re the $200 cards the GTX 1060 and RX 480 are directly replacing, and 2) so you can see the comparative DX11 vs. DX12 performance on those cards.

Nvidia’s new Pascal GPU performs far better in Hitman than the older Maxwell-based graphics cards, but again, this game is built for Radeon. The Nitro+ RX 480’s slight overclock only helps to widen the advantage between it and Nvidia’s GTX 1060.

Next page: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Now for something completely different! Whereas Hitman adores Radeon GPUs, Rise of the Tomb Raider performs much better on GeForce cards. It’s also the single most drop-dead gorgeous PC game I’ve ever laid my eyes on.

We only tested the games DirectX 11 mode, as we haven’t had a chance to reevaluate the game’s DirectX 12 enhancements now that several patches have been released to fix its once-wonky implementation.

The Nitro+ RX 480’s overclock doesn’t provide much of a boost here. The GTX 1060 still reigning supreme in this Nvidia-favoring game. That said, the Nitro+ RX 480 still delivers frame rates far in excess of the 60 fps gold standard with everything cranked at 1080p resolution, and comes damn close to it at 1440p, too.

Next page: Far Cry Primal

Far Cry Primal

Yes, Far Cry Primal is yet another Ubisoft game, but it’s powered by a different engine than The Division—the latest version of the long-running and well-respected Dunia engine. We test the game with the free 4K HD Texture Pack installed.

Up until this point we’ve compared the Nitro+ RX 480 against the reference editions of the next-gen GPUs, and the narrative remains the same: The Nitro+ RX 480 is a little bit better than the reference RX 480 in Far Cry Primal, and closes the gap with Nvidia’s GTX 1060. It seems like a good time to point how just how much more performance this new generation offers compared to the $200 last-gen cards. The difference is night and day. You’ve never been able to play the most demanding new games at 1440p resolution on a $200 graphics card—until now.

Next page: Ashes of the Singularity

Ashes of the Singularity

Ashes of the Singularity, running on Oxide’s custom Nitrous engine, was an early standard-bearer for DirectX 12, and it’s still the premier game for seeing what next-gen graphics technologies have to offer. (It’s a fun real-time strategy game, too!) The performance gains it offers with DX12 over DX11 are eye-opening—at least when running on Radeon cards.

The most interesting tidbit here is the disparity in DirectX 11 vs. DirectX 12 performance. Nvidia’s GTX 1060 absolutely blows away the RX 480 in DX11 in Ashes —but that difference is negated when you activate DX12 mode with Radeon cards, which provides a massive performance increase. All in all, the DX12 boost brings the RX 480 into performance parity with Nvidia’s new card, and the Nitro+ RX 480’s slight overclock gives it just enough extra juice to technically slip past the GTX 1060. In reality, though, these cards are neck-and-neck in what you’ll actually see on the screen.

Next page: SteamVR performance and synthetic benchmarks

SteamVR and 3DMark

Time for some synthetic benchmarks! First up: The SteamVR performance test, which serves as the only major virtual reality standard until more benchmarking tools hit the streets. The SteamVR performance test is better thought of as a gauge for your graphics card’s relative virtual reality performance—and as a pass/fail test for determining whether your rig can handle VR whatsoever—than it is for making head-to-head GPU comparisons.

The Nitro+ RX 480 clocks in with a higher average fidelity rating than the reference RX 480 and is definitely VR-ready, although it doesn’t score quite as high as the pricier GTX 1060. That’s not a big surprise, though, as Nvidia’s cards score consistently higher across the board in the SteamVR performance test than AMD hardware does.

3DMark Fire Strike and Time Spy

We also tested the GTX 1060 and its rivals using 3DMark’s highly respected DX11 Fire Strike synthetic benchmark, which runs at 1080p, as well as its brand-new Time Spy benchmark, which tests DirectX 12 performance at 2560x1440 resolution.

Sapphire’s Nitro+ RX 480 gets a healthy boost thanks to its mild overclock, bringing the card within spitting range of the GTX 1060 in Fire Strike and far surpassing both the GTX 1060 and the stock RX 480 in Time Spy.

Next page: Power and heat

Power and heat

We test power under load by plugging the entire system into a Watts Up meter, running the intensive Division benchmark at 4K resolution, and noting the peak power draw. Idle power is measured after sitting on the Windows desktop for three minutes with no extra programs or processes running.

No surprise here: The overclocked, fan-laden Nitro+ RX 480 sucks down slightly more power than the reference RX 480 under load. But that Dual-X cooler helps out when you’re not playing games, as the Nitro+ RX 480 consumes a bit less power than its reference cousin at idle.

While the new Polaris GPUs give AMD a huge step up in power efficiency compared to last-gen Radeon cards—our system gobbled down an insane 400-plus watts with Radeon R9 390/390X cards comparable in performance to the RX 480 installed—Nvidia’s GTX 1060 is a power-sipping maestro. It draws less power under load than any other GPU we’ve ever tested.

Heat

We test heat during the same intensive Division benchmark, by running SpeedFan in the background and noting the maximum GPU temperature once the run is over.

Many of the tested cards sport custom coolers, making this somewhat of an apple-to-oranges affair. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see how Sapphire’s Dual-X cooling solution compares to the reference RX 480 and GTX 1060.

The Nitro+ RX 480 stayed nice and frosty even in extreme gameplay scenarios, never once going over 76 degrees Celsius. That’s a significant improvement over the stock RX 480’s blower-style cooler, and a few degrees chillier than even the supremely power-efficient GTX 1060.

Even better: Sapphire’s Dual-X cooler is again damned quiet in addition to pleasantly effective. It’s not quite silent, but anecdotally, I never once heard its fans over the test system’s closed-loop liquid cooler for the CPU, which is itself pretty quiet most of the time. Sapphire’s custom coolers continue to knock my socks off.

Okay, I lied. Once, and only once, the fans sped up to audible levels while running the Rise of the Tomb Raider benchmark, though exiting and restarting the run fixed the issue. I asked Sapphire representatives about it, and they said the problem stems from AMD’s latest Radeon Crimson driver, which released just a few days back. Sapphire and AMD are working together to eliminate the issue shortly, Sapphire promised, and it shouldn’t sprout up often. I wouldn’t worry about it.

Next page: Overclocking

Overclocking

We didn’t expect to be able to push the Nitro+ RX 480 much further, considering its meager out-of-the-box overclock—but we wound up pleasantly surprised. Using the WattMan overclocking tools inside AMD’s Radeon Crimson control panel, we were able to boost the card’s power limit by 15 percent, its memory clock by an additional 100MHz, and its core clock all the way up to 1405MHz, which represents a 7.5 percent frequency increase over the Nitro+’s default 1306MHz max clock speed.

Doing so required cranking the fan speeds pretty high to avoid throttling. We set the max at 3,000 RPMs, which is definitely noticeable and definitely loud. Under load, they routinely spun at 2,800 RPMs or more, which helped keep the card running cool despite all the extra power coursing through its innards.

Now for the bad news: That epic (for Polaris) bump in clock speed still didn’t result in massive performance increases, though there were slight improvements in the games and benchmarks we tested. (Note, however, that we’re coming the 4GB Nitro+ against an 8GB reference RX 480, which not only has more memory, but faster memory, too.) Seeing that, Sapphire’s decision to keep the clock speeds lower (and thus, also keep the card cooler, quieter, and drawing less power) seems rational.

See for yourself!

Temperatures

Power use

3DMark

The Division

Far Cry Primal

Ashes of the Singularity

Next page: Bottom line

Bottom line

Simply put, the 4GB Nitro+ RX 480 is a stellar take on a revolutionary graphics card. Every aspect of Sapphire’s card seems meticulously thought-out. It’s astonishing just how premium this card feels for its comparatively low price, especially considering it only costs $20 more than reference RX 480s.

The programmable LEDs, attractive design, and metal backplate on the card helps Sapphire’s card ooze quality and class. The returning Dual-X cooling system isn’t quite as chilly as the insanely potent Tri-X system on pricier Sapphire models, but it keeps the Nitro+ RX 480 running cool while staying whisper-quiet the entire time. Even the altered port arrangement screams intelligent planning, replacing superfluous DisplayPorts with connections that buyers of a budget-friendly, VR-ready graphics card are more likely to actually need.

The only minor hiccup lies in performance. The modest out-of-the-box overclock in the 4GB Nitro+ RX 480 simply doesn’t move the needle much—though that limited overclockability seems to be more of a Polaris “problem” than a Sapphire one. It’s also worth noting that we’re comparing a 4GB Nitro+ model against the 8GB reference RX 480 in these tests, which sports not just more memory, but faster memory. I’d have like to compare models with similar memory capacities and speeds, but alas, that’s just not how the review samples shook out.

That said, the minor speed increase provided by the Nitro+ RX 480’s paltry 40MHz speed boost is enough to bring the card more in line with the GTX 1060’s performance in our suite of games. Unless you need Nvidia’s extreme power efficiency, there’s little reason to buy a reference-edition $250 GTX 1060 when Sapphire’s superbly built Nitro+ RX 480 is available for $30 less.

Brad Chacos

All Radeon RX 480s are a stellar option for anyone looking for a low-cost entry into VR, uncompromising 1080p/60fps gaming, or damned fine high-quality 1440p gaming. The Nitro+ RX 480 falls right in line with that general recommendation.

We’d recommend picking up a FreeSync monitor to go with the card if you’re able, especially if you plan on 1440p gaming (in which case you might also want to consider the $270 8GB Nitro+ RX 480 for both its larger memory buffer and its faster clock speeds). Variable refresh rate monitors are magical: They make games feel buttery-smooth, drastically increasing your experience, and unlike Nvidia G-Sync monitors, FreeSync monitors don’t carry much of a price premium. You can pick up a 22-inch 1080p FreeSync monitor for as little as $130 on Amazon, or a blistering-fast 144Hz 1080p FreeSync display for $209 on Amazon.

Final verdict

Again: Sapphire’s $220 Nitro+ RX 480 only costs $20 more than the reference model, and at that price it’s a hell of a steal. Taking in the gameplay boost, amazing build quality, and superb cooling solution, you’d be mad to opt for a reference edition of either the RX 480 or the GTX 1060 over this card. That might not necessarily hold true for the untested $270 8GB version, which provides a heartier overclock but also falls firmly into custom GTX 1060 territory. But the 4GB model that we’re reviewing today earns our unequivocal buying recommendation, especially if you’re gaming on a 1080p monitor.

The 4GB Nitro+ RX 480 is a damned fine and damned affordable version of an absolutely amazing graphics card. Sapphire’s setting the bar high for custom RX 480 models with this card’s quality and price—especially if achieving sky-high overclocks continues to be a pipe dream with Polaris, thus limiting it to higher-end custom cards.

At a Glance
  • The 4GB Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480 delivers tremendous build quality, great performance, and thoughtful touches for a price that won't break the bank.

    Pros

    • Quiet, efficient cooler
    • Astonishing build quality for the price
    • Great 1080p and 1440p gaming performance
    • Tremendous price to performance ratio

    Cons

    • Not overclocked much over reference RX 480