I’m a big fan of PC gaming. You offer me a choice of platforms to play something on and I’ll do so on PC every time. This means, of course, that I tend to throw silly amounts of money at expensive components, and that in turn means that I had to get my hands on a top-of-the-line graphics card.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been able to try out two of these: AMD’s flagship the Fury X, in particular the model from manufacturer Sapphire, and MSi’s version of the Nvidia GTX 980Ti. Why have I used both? Well…let’s discuss the Fury X and I think you’ll see.
There’s 4096 stream processors, 256 texture mapping units and 4GB of high bandwidth memory (HBM) at 500mhz sitting in this thing; the spec sheet reads like something out of a dream. It goes without saying that the Sapphire AMD R9 Fury X 4G D5 Graphic Card is a pretty powerful piece of tech. When it works, when both software and hardware are cooperating, you’re looking at 60fps easily on anything at 1080p and pretty much anything at 1440p. It can even do 4K admirably well, though mostly limited to 30fps or so for fancy UltraHD resolutions. Throw in a Freesync-capable monitor and you’re golden; everything becomes gloriously smooth, so much so that it can be a little disconcerting at first.
The issue with the Fury X, in my experience, is that it’s rare that you’ll see that cooperation. Working with the Fury X on a daily basis is an endless litany of minor annoyances, particularly coming from a GTX 980, an Nvidia card where the worst thing that would happen is the odd TDR-related display driver crash every now and again. Frankly, TDRs are positively tame when you consider the many, many things that can and will go wrong with the Fury X.
Let’s start with installation. It’s common knowledge that the Fury X runs on a closed-loop watercooling system by default. For the unfamiliar, this amounts to an enormous, separately-mounted radiator connected to the card by several tubes. Your mission, should you purchase a Fury X, is to find somewhere to mount that radiator on your case; it needs to be somewhere above the PCI-E 16X slot housing the card itself, with the tubes leading out from the bottom of the radiator. This is probably going to be a chore if you’re coming from a more standard air-cooled card; I ended up having to remove a case fan and fit the radiator in there.
To be fair, this means the card does run at nice, frosty temperatures basically all of the time. Despite the installation woes, the water cooling system is actually very effective. I didn’t see the Fury X break 70c once during my time with it; what’s more, it’s near-silent, though manually cranking up the fans or setting a user-defined fan curve will make the radiator audible.
In theory, this should make overclocking the card a piece of cake, right? Ramp up the voltage a little and go to town. Sadly, this is not the case, and it ties in with one of the card’s biggest issues: it’s barely stable out of the box, ensuring overclocking is out of the picture if you want to have a usable experience. Fans of crashing will love the Fury X as it collapses into a heap time and time again. Why? Who knows? Judging by AMD’s support forums, AMD themselves certainly don’t seem to.
The most telling sign of this is the continually-growing thread on AMD’s support forums discussing a display corruption problem I encountered multiple times while using the Fury X. At seemingly random moments, my screen’s display would convulse into a warped mess and would remain that way until I unplugged and replugged the DisplayPort or HDMI cable coming from the Fury X. It was a little horrifying to see at first and would happen several times a day. In that thread and elsewhere, AMD refers to this as a “known issue,” but it’s apparently been a problem since September of last year at least. This issue by itself is enough to deter me from recommending the Fury X, especially since there appears to be no solution. Even exchanging the card seems to result in the same issue, suggesting that it’s endemic to the product rather than specific cards.
Let’s pretend for a second, though, that you manage to dodge this particular bullet. Time for some gaming! It’s common knowledge and a point of irritation among the AMD enthusiast community that many games will run better or worse on different GPU brands. In practice, this typically means that your AMD card is going to run into problems with certain games.
Let’s start with Bethesda’s Fallout 4…not exactly a bleeding-edge title but a good reference point. Sadly, it runs like crap on this card compared to an Nvidia equivalent with comparatively low specs. Dialing options down doesn’t seem to help, either; it seems like performance is going to suck on this card no matter what you do. How about Warner’s maligned port of Batman: Arkham Knight? This is a pretty beefy piece of kit, perfect for the Dark Knight, so let’s turn on all the options and…no, wait, the Nvidia-specific options make it run like crap, for obvious reasons, so you might as well just play it on console instead. How about Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate? Nope! Crash after crash, even when the Nvidia-specific options like HBAO+ are disabled. Even that mighty HBM is, in the end, treated as 4GB of video memory despite being newer and more impressive technology, so no matter how it’s stacked you’ve got 4GB of VRAM compared to a 980Ti’s 6GB.
In theory, this is a very powerful card, and this isn’t a problem with every game; many worked just fine or experienced only slight performance drops coming from an Nvidia GTX 980. The point is that it does happen, particularly because many games are straight up optimized to run better on an Nvidia card. This might be underhanded and shady, but I’m not here to debate business practices; neither AMD or Nvidia is pushing any cash my way, after all. Instead, I’m here to tell you my opinion about the best value for your money. In this case, I can say with complete confidence that you’ll get a better experience overall out of an Nvidia GPU, even if it’s slightly less powerful than the Fury X.
The other software-related issue I ran into involved AMD’s latest driver set, known as Crimson. You’ll need these to make optimal use of the Fury X; in my experience the previous drivers, Catalyst, result in degraded performance throughout most games. Crimson, of course, doesn’t really want to run on your or anyone else’s system. Even if you actually manage to get it installed, the associated settings application is highly unstable and dies a horrible death at the slightest provocation.
That’s not the real issue with Crimson, though. See, Crimson introduces a really nasty downclocking issue into the equation. Yes, downclocking. Essentially, the Fury X decides to take a nice siesta in the middle of gameplay. Your FPS will bomb, assuming your system doesn’t just die on the spot and require a hard reboot. The solution at the moment? Why, install ClockBlocker, a hilariously-named bit of third-party software that forces the GPU to run at full clock speed at all times. The overall sentiment at the moment seems to be that this is practically required to use the Crimson drivers, and I found that if I didn’t have it running, my Fury X would crash even more than it already did.
Bottom line: you need third-party software to ensure your $600 graphics card runs at spec. The creator of that software, by the way, says that he considered selling his Fury X…but he’d feel guilty about putting someone else through the experience of owning one. Think about that for a minute.
Let’s bring this home. You know what hasn’t given me any of these problems? The Nvidia GTX 980Ti I exchanged my Fury X for. Installation was simple: I plugged it in and it works. It runs everything I’ve thrown at it at 1440p with flying colors. Every single game I’ve tried has worked at the level of performance I’d expect from a cutting-edge GPU. The drivers installed the first time I tried and are straightforward, easy to use and have yet to crash. It’s very quiet. It uses less power. It doesn’t corrupt my display into a hideous line-spewing mess. To add insult to injury, I’m personally not big on random benchmarks (too many variables), but every indication is that the 980Ti is simply faster than the Fury X even in ideal conditions.
I appreciate the existence of AMD and the necessity of competition in the GPU market. The problem is that at the moment there isn’t really any competition, and I don’t believe in selling people expensive hardware based on principles; people should buy the tech that best suits their purposes for the money they’re paying. The Sapphire AMD R9 Fury X 4G D5 Graphic Card is a very nice GPU when it works. There’s just two problems: it rarely works and even when it does the 980Ti is much more nice. If you’re going to throw gobs of money at a high-end graphics card right now, there’s really only one answer…and it’s green. Sorry, AMD.