Final Thoughts

Throughout our entire review we’ve been calling the Radeon R9 285 a lateral for AMD, and as we’ve seen in our results this is for a good reason. Despite all of the architectural and feature changes between the R9 285 and its R9 280 predecessor – everything from the GCN 1.2 feature set to color compression to the smaller VRAM pool – the R9 285 truly is a lateral for AMD. At the end of the day it brings a very minor 3-5% performance increase over the R9 280 with virtually no change in price or power consumption. Functionally speaking it’s just an R9 280 with more features.

To that end laterals like the R9 285 are currently an oddity in the video card landscape, but it’s something that we should expect to see more of in the future. As GPU architectures mature and the rate of progress on new manufacturing nodes continues to slow, we no longer have the same yearly or even biennial shakeup in the GPU landscape. Tahiti at this point is nearly three years old and is still going strong, and the 28nm process it’s built on is going to be with us for a while yet. Which means newer generations of video cards are going to be farther apart, and a new opening is created for smaller refreshes such as Tonga and GCN 1.2.

From a feature standpoint then, Tonga and the underlying GCN 1.2 architecture is a small but nonetheless impressive iteration on what AMD has already done with GCN 1.1. I think it’s going to take some time to really see the impact of the newer ISA, but the improvements to geometry performance and color compression are very immediate and very potent. The fact that AMD has been able to offset a roughly 30% bandwidth reduction just through the use of color compression is certainly a feather in AMD’s cap, and this is only going to get more important over time as we have hit a wall on GDDR5 clockspeeds and memory bus widths, especially on the high-end. Meanwhile AMD’s upgrades to their video decode and encode capabilities should not go unnoticed; AMD has finally caught up to NVIDIA on video decoding – especially in 4K H.264 compatibility – and the ability to encode 4K H.264 in hardware may yet prove advantageous.

As for R9 285’s customer base and its competition, AMD’s product positioning continues to be straightforward. AMD has continued to undercut NVIDIA on a price/performance basis across the entire Radeon 200 family, and R9 285 upholds this tradition. If we’re just looking for the card with the best performance for the price, the R9 285 solidly outperforms NVIDIA’s GTX 760 by 12-15%, and it’s by no mistake that GTX 760 prices have slid in the last week in response.

The ramification of this is that AMD no longer holds a real price/performance advantage – the price gap just about matches the performance gap at this point – but this does mean that the R9 285 is in its own little performance niche as a more powerful but more expensive video card compared to the GTX 760. The end result is that we have a tossup: you could buy either and be satisfied for the price.

AMD’s lineup on the other hand is a bit more volatile and will remain so until R9 280 stocks run out. With AMD’s partners selling off their remaining R9 280 cards at clearance sale prices, the R9 280 is a very strong value proposition at $210-$220, offering virtually identical performance to the R9 285 for $40 less. However like all GPU discontinuation clearance sales this situation will be fleeting, and at some point R9 280 will go away and $250 R9 285 will be the status quo. In the meantime however one is also left with the harder choice of picking price or features; the R9 285 has a few features that in the long run are going to make a difference, such as full support for DisplayPort Adaptive-Vsync (Freesync) and a 4K capable video decoder, but whether that’s worth a $40 premium is going to be very situational if not outright difficult to justify.

All things considered then the R9 285 is a solid card, however I remain unconvinced that AMD has equipped it with the right amount of memory. From a GPU performance perspective I feel that AMD is overshooting in promoting the R9 285 as a 2560x1440 card, as the raw performance to run at that resolution with high quality settings just isn’t there, but even as a 1080p card 2GB for $250 is tough to swallow and is made all the worse by the 3GB R9 280. 2GB for 1080p is enough for now, but whether that will still be true in 2-3 years seems unlikely. A 4GB R9 285 would be a much safer bet as a result, however it doesn’t necessarily follow that it would be worth a price premium at this time.

Switching gears for a moment, second-tier cards like the R9 285 are often not the strongest showing for a new GPU like Tonga. Given all the similarities between Tonga and Tahiti, it seems like it’s only a matter of time until R9 280X gets the Tonga treatment. And even though it would be the second Tonga card, I think it could prove to be just as interesting as the R9 285 (if not more so), as it will give us a chance to see just what an unrestricted Tonga product can do. To that end, I hope AMD doesn’t leave us waiting too long to release a fully enabled Tonga SKU.

Power, Temperature, & Noise
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  • CrazyElf - Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - link

    All in all, this doesn't really change the market all that much.

    I still very firmly feel that the R9 290 right now (Q3 2014) remains the best price:performance of the mid to high end cards. That and the 4GB VRAM which may make it more future proof.

    What really is interesting at this point is what AMD has to respond on Nvidia's Maxwell.
  • MrSpadge - Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - link

    I Agree - Tonga is not bad, but on the other hand it does not change anything substantially compared to Tahiti. This would have been a nice result 1 - 1.5 years after the introduction of Tahiti. But that's almost been 3 years ago! The last time a GPU company showed no real progress after 3 years they went out of business shortly afterwards...

    And seing how AMD brags to beat GTX760 almost makes cry. That's the double cut-down version of a 2.5 years old chip which is significantly smaller than Tonga! This is only a comparison because nVidia kept this card at a far too high price because there was no competitive pressure from AMD.

    If this is all they have their next generation will get stomped by Maxwell.
  • iLovefloss - Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - link

    So all you got from this review is that Tonga is a cut down version of Tahiti? After reading this review, this is the impression you were left with?
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    Nope. But in the end the result performs just the same at even almost the same power consumption. Sure, there are some new features.. but so far and I expect for the foreseeable future they don't matter.
  • Demiurge - Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - link

    This is the first mid-range card to have all the value add features of the high-end cards. I wish AMD would leverage TrueAudio better, but the other features and the nice TDP drop.

    The color compression enhancement is a very interesting feature. I think that in itself deserves a little applause because of its significance in the design and comparing to the 280's. I think this is more significant, not as a performance feature, but similar to what Maxwell represented for NV in terms of efficiency. Both are respectable design improvements, in different areas. It's a shame they don't cross-license... seems like such as waste.
  • MrSpadge - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    Well, the TDP-drop is real, but mostly saves virtual power. By this I mean that 280 / 7950 never come close to using 250 W, and hence the savings from Tonga are far less than the TDP difference makes it seem. The average between different articles seems to be ~20 W saving at the wall and establishes about a power-efficiency parity with cards like GTX670.

    The color compression could be Tongas best feature. But I still wonder: if Pitcairn on 270X comes so close to 285 and 280 performance with 256 bit memory bus and without color compression.. how much does it really matter (for 285)? To me it seems that Tahiti most often didn't need that large bus rather than color compression working wonders for Tonga. Besides, GTX770 and GTX680 also hold up fine at that performance level with a 256 bit bus.
  • Demiurge - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    The TDP drop is something I did not think about being a paper launch value. You make a good point about the color compression too. It will be interesting how both fair. That may be an interesting topic to follow up during the driver refresh.

    As an owner of GTX 260 with a 448-bit bus, I can tell you that with anti-aliasing, it matters quite a bit as that becomes the limiter. The shader count is definitely not the limiter usually in the low-end and mid-range displays that these cards will typically be paired with. My GTX 260 and 1280x1024 monitor kind of illustrate that with 216 Shaders/896MB. :-)

    It isn't pretty, but I don't see anything that forces me to upgrade yet. Think I've got two more generations or so to wait on before performance is significant enough, or a groundbreaking feature would do it. I'm actually considering upgrading out of boredom and interest in gimmicky features more than anything else at this point.
  • TiGr1982 - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    GTX 260 is like 6 years old now. It's lacking DX11, having less than 1 GB of (relatively slow) GDDR3 VRAM, and overall should be 3-4 times slower than R9 285 or R9 290, I guess.

    I really didn't think anybody still uses these old gen cards (e.g. I have HD 7950 Boost Dual-X which is essentially identical to R9 280).
  • P39Airacobra - Friday, January 9, 2015 - link

    Because they would loose money! LOL. And they are both about the same anyway, Except AMD goes for brute force to get performance,(like using aV8) And Nvidia uses efficency with power. (Like a turbo charged 4cyl or 6cyl)
  • bwat47 - Thursday, September 11, 2014 - link

    "And seing how AMD brags to beat GTX760 almost makes cry. That's the double cut-down version of a 2.5 years old chip which is significantly smaller than Tonga! This is only a comparison because nVidia kept this card at a far too high price because there was no competitive pressure from AMD."

    You are being pretty silly here. Both AMD and Nvidia were rebranding a lot of cards these last few gens. You can'y go after AMD for rebranding a 2-3 year old chip, and then say its fine if nvidia does it and blame AMD's 'lack of competitive pressure'. If lack of competitive pressure was the reason for rebranding, then there was lack of competitive pressure on both sides.

    And I highly doubt the 285 is 'all amd has'. this was just a small update to their product line, to bring some missing features (freesync, true audio etc...), and reduced power consumption to the 28x series. I'm sure there is a 3xx series coming down the road (or whatever they will call it). Both AMD and nvidia have been working been squeezing all they can out of older architecture for the past few years, you can't really put the blame on one of the other without being hypocritical.

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