AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT

With AMD’s launch of its new Radeon RX 6000 Series GPUs, the company’s Radeon RX 6800 XT ($649) finds itself in the unenviable position of diving into shark-infested waters. With its sights set squarely on Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3080 Founders Edition, AMD has set the goal for itself of remaining competitive with all takers; Intel on the CPU side, and Nvidia on GPUs. While AMD’s CPU division has pummeled Intel over the past year and a half, its graphics card arm still finds itself on defense versus Nvidia. And that narrative doesn’t change much with the Radeon RX 6800 XT (dubbed during its development “Big Navi”). At times, it’s the fastest GPU we’ve tested to date in its price range. At others, it returns inconsistent results across some modern AAA titles, legacy AAA games, and synthetic benchmarks.

At $50 less than the GeForce RTX 3080 Founders Edition, the Radeon RX 6800 XT does present an enticing value proposition—and, unlike, the latest GeForce RTX “Ampere” cards, may prove to be made of something other than unobtainium. (Maybe you’ll be able to buy one in the hours after its launch, or maybe not?) But the early drivers and firmware behind it, in its launch state, make us withhold our seal of approval. With substantial overclocking headroom and plenty of new features to show off, the Radeon RX 6800 XT holds a lot of promise. But until its drivers can regularly deliver on that potential, early adopters might want to hold off.

AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT Design: Inspired by the Classics

The first thing I noticed about the AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT as I pulled it out of the box was just how big it was. Now, at 10.5 inches long, it’s actually the same length as its nemesis, Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3080 Founders Edition. But it’s thick, too. The 2.5-slot width and the sheer weight remind you that this is a top-end, big-iron GPU.

AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT FrontRadeon RX 5700 XT. The story of RDNA moving to RDNA 2 is one of refinement, innovation, and refinement again. AMD’s engineers have taken almost every element of RDNA and honed it down, chipping off the odd ends and focusing in on what works best.

AMD RDNA vs. RDNA 2Radeon RX 5700, which had “just” 10.3 billion transistors on a 251mm2 die.

The company is launching three cards altogether as a part of the Radeon RX 6000 Series debut: the top-of-the-line Radeon RX 6900 XT (due out December 8, for $999), the Radeon RX 6800 XT (launching today at $649), and the Radeon RX 6800 (today too, at $579).

AMD says to expect 1.3 times more throughput per compute unit at the same power in RDNA 2 compared with the original, as well as up to a 54% improvement in performance-per-watt over RDNA.

RDNA 2 vs. Ampere

Moving over to Big Green, compared one-to-one with the “Ampere”-based Nvidia RTX 3080 Founders Edition, the Radeon RX 6800 XT wins some categories on paper, while losing others. On power consumption, the RX 6800 XT is 20 watts under the 320-watt GeForce RTX 3070, while also sporting a faster maximum boost clock (2,250MHz) and costing $50 less at MSRP.

Image: AMDSony PS5 and Xbox Series X, Radeon RX 6000 Series cards will help with the task of getting data off your SSD and into the pipeline faster and more efficiently, thanks to compatibility with Microsoft’s DirectStorage API. Though we’ve only seen the tech in very limited game-design implementations thus far, in titles like Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, universally it will allow for games to load in a near-instant, depending on the number of elements it has to pull from the drive. (Puzzle games will load faster than Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, for example.) 

Microsoft DirectStorage APIto make its way to consoles or PC this year, with “sometime next year” the more likely target. Nvidia didn’t have DLSS working when it launched the GeForce RTX 20 Series, either, so I won’t ding AMD here, but only time (and benchmarks!) will tell whether or not Super Resolution will be able to hold a candle to DLSS once it’s pushed to its limits.

Radeon Image Sharpening with CAS

So…until Super Resolution is released, FidelityFX with Contrast Adaptive Sharpening (CAS) will have to do for Radeon users.

We’ve gone into detail about the different reasons why users might prefer using a sharpening software like AMD’s Radeon Image Sharpening (RIS) over Nvidia’s more selective DLSS in previous articles. But in short, its near-universal compatibility and hardware-level application make it a more viable option for 99% of titles on shelves today. And, when tuned just right, CAS can offer upward of 30% improvement on your favorite game without a visible loss of quality or sharpness.

AMD Radeon Image SharpeningIntel Core i9-10900K processor, 16GB of G.Skill DDR4 memory, a solid-state boot drive, and an Asus ROG Maximus XII Hero (Wi-Fi) motherboard. All cards below were retested on this rig with their latest drivers for an even playing field. Although the recent Ryzen 5000 CPUs complicate the equation, this rig is the best reasonable configuration of the moment in 2020 to cut the CPU out of the picture for frame rates. (Read more about how we test graphics cards.)

For our testing, we focused some of the effort on the esports aspect of the AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT with games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) and Rainbow Six: Siege. We also ran the card through the rest of our new standard benchmark regimen, which tests a card’s abilities to handle AAA games at the highest possible quality settings, as well as how it rides during synthetic benchmarks that stress the card in a variety of ways.

AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT End-Onour review of the RTX 3080 Founders Edition to see what kind of results those games produce when benched on a stable set of drivers using the same testbed as the RX 6800 XT.)

With all that said, if there’s one thing AMD is somewhat infamous for by this point, it’s the relative lack of early driver stability for its graphics-card launches. During the launch of the Radeon RX 5700 XT and RX 5700 last year, reviewers across the web (myself included) were getting new firmware updates just a few days before the cards were set to launch, and we here at PCMag needed to get a second Radeon RX 5700 XT card shipped out for testing, due to issues found in the hardware of the initial one we got.

Despite a year and a half having passed since that launch, the same story is repeating itself in RX 6000 Series cards. For now, I’m going to chalk this inconsistency up to AMD’s penchant for first-day driver jitters…but given our recent experiences, it doesn’t feel great to give AMD the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Just two months ago, during our efforts to update our benchmarking suite in preparation for the GeForce RTX 30 Series and this “Big Navi” launch, we found that both the RX 5700 XT and the RX 5700 were unable to complete the benchmark runs of Shadow of the Tomb Raider or Red Dead Redemption 2, crashing midway each time. This was in the same system in which we had just finished testing roughly 15 other cards (including the AMD Radeon VII and Radeon RX Vega 64), all of which ran the tests. However, neither of the RDNA-based cards was able to complete the task on the current driver set.

Testing Results: Multiplayer Games

Though most of PC Labs’ game tests are maxed out in graphical fidelity to push the cards to their limit, multiplayer gaming is all about maintaining the best balance between graphical fidelity and frame rate. With that in mind, we’ve kept CS:GO, Rainbow Six: Siege, and Final Fantasy XIV tuned to the best combination of necessary improvements in settings (higher anti-aliasing and lower shadows, for example), while still trying to keep frame rates for 1080p games above 144fps.

Why 144fps? That’s a coveted target for highly competitive esports gamers who have high-refresh-rate 144Hz or 165Hz gaming monitors. For more casual players with ordinary 60Hz monitors, a solid 80fps or 90fps at your target resolution, with some overhead to account for dips under 60fps, is fine.

In multiplayer testing, the card stabilized a bit and returned reliable results in all three runs we’ve included as a part of our benchmarking suite.

While running CS:GO at 4K resolution (there’s a phrase you don’t read too often), the card was able to keep pace with the RTX 3080 Founders Edition, and the same was true for its Rainbow Six results. The RX 6800 XT was generally just a hair behind the RTX 3080 in all three of our multiplayer games tests in all three resolutions, but that kind of stability was only a momentary respite from what was about to come.

Testing Results: Legacy AAA Titles

Next, let’s see how the Radeon RX 6800 XT does against some AAA games that have passed their prime as the most graphically demanding titles on shelves. We ran some quick tests on some oldies-but-goodies that still offer the AAA gaming experience. These legacy tests include runs of Hitman: Absolution, Sleeping Dogs, Tomb Raider (2013), and Bioshock: Infinite, the last being a game that has no business still being as well optimized as it is here in 2020.

This is where things really started to take a turn. In Sleeping Dogs, the AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT performed well under the expectations set by the results we saw in the current lineup of AAA titles, dropping as low as 58fps in 4K. This results in a maximum frame rate that’s 35% slower than the RTX 3080 Founders Edition, despite the RX 6800 XT costing just 7% less.

On the whole, 4K results for all the legacy AAA games we tested were substantially slower than the RTX 3080 Founders Edition, and both 1080p and 1440p results followed a similar trend. Despite multiple conversations and troubleshooting sessions with AMD’s engineers, I was never able to pin down why the RX 6800 XT was so poorly optimized for these legacy games in comparison to modern AAA titles. In a statement responding to these issues, the company has said its team is “…actively investigating these results, and will provide an update when available.”

Note, too: At AMD’s request, I ran both of the RX 6800 XT cards I received from the company on two separate testbeds. This included our traditional Z490-based system with an Intel Core i9-10900K, as well as an AMD X570-based bed with a Ryzen 9 5900X installed. In both tests, the cards scored identically in 4K results for Sleeping Dogs, which only bolsters the assumption that the poor results in this game are down to drivers, and not the hardware itself.

The (Unofficial) PUBG Test

For a momentary dose of reality, I decided to step slightly outside the bounds of our normal benchmarking suite to test how GPU-sensitive titles like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) would handle on the RX 6800 XT.

Personally, I know this game inside and out (650-plus hours logged since beta!), and as such, I have a firsthand understanding of just how finicky its performance has been over the years. The PUBG engine is notoriously unoptimized (“janky,” is a popular description), and even the most powerful setups aren’t able to achieve anything higher than 180fps consistently during an online match.

But, while the RX 6800 XT did retain a respectable frame rate throughout a match on the Sanhok map (about 130fps average, eyeballed), it’s what I didn’t see that concerned me the most:

PUBG Test RX 6800 XTFLIR One Pro thermal-imaging camera to evaluate how the AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT disperses waste heat during that same 10-minute run. At peak temperatures, the card heats up almost near evenly across the length of the backplate, with much of the airflow venting out the side of the card, and slight heat output detected at the rear exhaust port.

When it came time to overclock the card using the AMD Radeon Software utility, I was able to push the card much further than I expected, achieving a maximum stable boost clock of 2,800MHz(!). This 24.5% boost in clock speed translated to a 10 percent gain in performance in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, moving the needle from 69fps in 4K up to 76fps. That is a full 9fps faster than the stock RTX 3080 Founders Edition.

Overall, that clock remained stable throughout several different benchmarks and real-world play scenarios, an unexpected result, to say the least. Normally, when you push a card this far above stock, it crashes straight off hitting “Apply” on the profile, but the AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT stayed stable throughout the most intense scenes, even managing to survive a 10-minute 3DMark stress test on the Fire Strike Ultra benchmark.

Given the driver instability during normal benchmarking, I was taken aback at the amount of extra performance I was able to squeeze out out of the RX 6800 XT without it crashing on me. This leaves one to wonder, then: If the card was capable of being pushed this much further, why didn’t AMD do it out of the box to try and deliver a killing blow to the RTX 3080 flat out?

Verdict: Day One Drivers, Day One Performance

What we’ve got on our hands with the AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT is a card with great potential, which in this difficult case, tempted us to score it four out of five stars. But we opted for half a star less.

If the peak benchmark numbers we achieved are a representation of what we can expect with driver tuning as time goes on, the Radeon RX 6800 XT has the chance to become a top graphics card of the year. But as it stands on launch day, the card is too inconsistent, too often, to warrant our top recommendation. If you play any games we didn’t benchmark as a part of our suite (and you will), it’s a lottery as to whether or not the 6800 XT will perform how you expect it to.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 Founders Edition Box November 18, 2020

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