Date: August 31, 2015
Author(s): Rob Williams
When NVIDIA released its ~$200 GeForce GTX 960 this past spring, it delivered a solution that allowed gamers to experience high framerates at 1080p and even enjoy some quality 1440p gaming. AMD’s Radeon R9 380 has similar prospects, and conveniently, costs about the same. With PowerColor’s PCS+ edition on the test bench, let’s see how it compares.
As AMD released its 300 series graphics cards back in June, it’s painful to realize that this PowerColor PCS+ card becomes our first respective review. Because I am in a certain type of mood as I write this, let’s tackle some of the ordeals.
When I first received PowerColor’s card, I couldn’t boot into Windows outside of Safe Mode. For a brand-new card, this was obviously bizarre. After receiving a second sample of the same card, I found myself dealing with the exact same issue. After much trial and error, it seemed that somehow, the DisplayPort cable I had been using for years suddenly disagreed with me – even though it was working for every other card I tested.
I thought that was the end of it. That was until I installed the latest driver off of AMD’s website, and it didn’t click. It just installed the Gaming Evolved client and some other piece of software – not the driver itself. Ditto for the second-last driver version. After even more trial and error, I stumbled on AMD’s Catalyst AutoDetect tool, and surprisingly enough, that did work – by downloading a version of the driver that didn’t bundle in .NET (I have been unable to figure out where this version can be downloaded outside of this tool.)
I’d love to get on with the review right now, but if you can believe it, even that wasn’t the end of my troubles. With the new driver installed, I saw that FreeSync wasn’t activated in the Catalyst Control Center, despite the fact that I was using a FreeSync monitor. It didn’t take me long to figure out that something else went wrong. I couldn’t run a game or benchmark without getting a DisplayPort error, even though I was using the cable that came out of that particular monitor’s box. Humorously, after hooking up an alternative monitor – a G-SYNC one – all was well with the world. I could finally benchmark the damn card.
Sorry, PowerColor, it’s not you; it’s AMD.
After all that mess, it’s a good thing that PowerColor’s PCS+ turns out to be a great card. As all of AMD’s 300 series cards are effective iterations on the 200 series ones, there’s nothing too surprising with this card. It even features the same “Double Blades” fans which I’ll show in a bit more detail lower on this page.
But first, let’s see where this card falls into AMD’s current lineup:
|Fury X||Fury||R9 390X||R9 390||R9 380||R7 370|
|Clock||1050 MHz||1000 MHz||1050 MHz||1000 MHz||970 MHz||975 MHz|
|Memory||4GB HBM||4GB HBM||8GB GDDR5||8GB GDDR5||4GB GDDR5||2GB GDDR5|
|Memory Clock||1 Gbps||1 Gbps||6 Gbps||6 Gbps||5.7 Gbps||5.6 Gbps|
|Performance||8.6 TFLOPs||7.2 TFLOPs||5.9 TFLOPs||5.1 TFLOPs||3.48 TFLOPs||2.0 TFLOPs|
At its price point of ~$200, the R9 380 competes against NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 960. As of the time of writing, this particular R9 380 card can be had at Newegg for $190 for the 2GB model, and it also happens to be the least-expensive of the bunch, while NVIDIA’s GTX 960 least-expensive offering is around $200 even, although select cards have mail-in rebates. As these things go, pricing and mail-in rebate availability can change without warning, but given these cards are in the same price range, those will be the two singled out in the performance reports.
PowerColor’s PCS+ edition R9 380 features four video connectors: 2x DVI, 1x HDMI, and 1x DisplayPort. While I for some reason didn’t have much success with hooking this card up to our FreeSync monitor, it does in fact support it.
As seen in the table above, the R9 380 is a 190W card, which warrants dual 6-pin PCI-e power connectors be used. In the fourth shot in the slider above, the “Double Blades” fan can be seen. At quick glance, they might not look much different from other fans, but look closer, and you will see that each blade consists of two separate blades. PowerColor says this improves airflow by about 20%. All I know is, it looks bad ass.
Overall, a sharp-looking card with a definite gamer feel. Earlier, I mentioned that the R9 380 goes head-to-head with NVIDIA’s GTX 960, so now it’s time to see which one comes out on top. But first, a quick overview of how I conduct testing.
At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous and time-consuming, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our test-bed specifications, but also a detailed look at how we conduct our testing.
The below table lists our testing machine’s hardware, which remains unchanged throughout all GPU testing, minus the GPU. Each card used for comparison is also listed here, along with the driver version used.
|Graphics Card Test System|
|Processors||Intel Core i7-4960X – Six-Core @ 4.50GHz|
|Motherboard||ASUS P9X79-E WS|
|Memory||Kingston HyperX Beast 32GB (4x8GB) – DDR3-2133 11-12-11|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon R9 280X 2GB – Catalyst 13.12|
AMD Radeon R9 285 2GB (MSI Twin Frozr IV) – Catalyst 14.30
AMD Radeon R9 290X 4GB – Catalyst 13.12
AMD Radeon R9 380 4GB (PowerColor PCS+) – Catalyst 15.7.1
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB – GeForce 334.89
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 770 2GB – GeForce 340.52
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 3GB – GeForce 331.93
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti 3GB – GeForce 331.93
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 950 2GB (ASUS STRIX) – GeForce 355.65
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960 2GB (EVGA SuperSC) – GeForce 350.12
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 4GB (ASUS STRIX) – GeForce 344.11
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 4GB – GeForce 344.07
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 240GB SSD|
|Power Supply||Cooler Master Silent Pro Hybrid 1300W|
|Chassis||Cooler Master Storm Trooper Full-Tower|
|Cooling||Thermaltake WATER3.0 Extreme Liquid Cooler|
|Displays||ASUS PB278Q 27″ 2560×1440|
Dell P2210H 22″ 1920×1080 x 3
|Et cetera||Windows 7 Professional 64-bit|
Important Note: EVGA’s GTX 960 SuperSC was tested using a different motherboard (ASUS X99-DELUXE) and processor (Intel Core i7-5960X, overclocked to 4GHz). We don’t ordinarily change test platforms without retesting everything, but this is a special case, and overall, performance is extremely similar between the two platforms (based on 3DMark results). Once Windows 10 is released, and with stable graphics drivers, we will be performing a GPU test suite overhaul and retest all cards.
Notes About Our High-end System
The goal of our performance content is to show you as accurately as possible how one product compares to another – after all, you’re coming to us for advice, so we want to make sure we’re giving you the best possible information. Typically, one major step we take in ensuring that our performance results are accurate is to make sure that our test systems are void of all possible bottlenecks, so for that, high-end components must be used.
In the case of our graphics card test system, the processor chosen has six-cores and is overclocked far beyond reference clocks. Most games nowadays are not heavily CPU-bound, but by using such a chip, we feel that we completely rule it out as a potential bottleneck. The same can be said for the use of an SSD (as opposed to latency-ridden mechanical storage), and even our memory, which is clocked at the comfortable speed of DDR3-2133.
Why this matters to you: Our test PC is high-end, and it’s very likely that you’d encounter a bottleneck quicker than us. Our goals are to rid all possible bottlenecks, whereas yours is to build the PC you need. In our case, we need to go overboard to attain as accurate a representation of a graphic card’s performance as possible.
If your PC has at least a modern (~2-years-old) quad-core or better processor, and at least 8GB of fast memory (DDR3-1866+), that chances of you running into a bottleneck with today’s hottest game is admittedly low. If you’re using lower-end gear, you can absolutely expect that the rest of your system could be a bottleneck. It should be noted, though, that if you’re seeking out a lower-end graphics card, the importance of a bottleneck would of course be lessened.
Unfortunately, we’re not able to test a single card on multiple PC configurations; each single card we test takes at least 3 hours to test, with another 2 hours added on for each additional resolution, and at least another 1~2 hours for our Best Playable results (for up to 11 hours of mostly hands-on testing for a high-end model).
Please bear all of this in mind. If you’re unsure if your PC could prove to be a bottleneck, our comments section exists for such questions.
When preparing our test-beds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:
To aid with the goal of keeping accurate and repeatable results, we alter certain services in Windows 7 from starting up at boot. This is due to the fact that these services have the tendency to start up in the background without notice, potentially causing inaccurate test results. For example, disabling “Windows Search” turns off the OS’ indexing which can at times utilize the hard drive and memory more than we’d like.
The services we disable are:
For further fine-tuning, we also use Windows’ “Classic” desktop theme, which gets rid of the transparency that can sometimes utilize a GPU in the background.
Sometimes, either AMD or NVIDIA will work with a game studio to help their development process along. As history has proven, this often results in a game that is tuned better for one vendor over the other, although sometimes the tides can change over time, resulting in the competing vendor offering the better experience.
One of our goals is to provide as neutral a benchmarking suite as possible, so while it’s impossible to avoid games sponsored by either of these companies, we can at least make an effort to achieve a blended list. As it stands, our current game list and their partners are:
(AMD) – Battlefield 4
(AMD) – Crysis 3
(AMD) – Sleeping Dogs
(NVIDIA) – Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
(NVIDIA) – Metro: Last Light
(NVIDIA) – Splinter Cell Blacklist
(Neutral) – GRID 2
(Neutral) – Total War: SHOGUN 2
With that, let’s move on to a quick look at the game settings we use in our testing:
Note: The “High” preset is used for multi-monitor configurations.
Note: The “Medium” preset is used for multi-monitor configurations.
Given the sheer number of titles in the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s a little hard to believe that the first game came out a mere seven years ago. You could definitely say that Ubisoft hit the ball out of the park with this one. To date, we’ve never considered an AC game for benchmarking, but given the number of graphical goodies featured in the PC version of Black Flag, that trend now ends.
Manual Run-through: The saved game starts us not far from the beginning of the game under a small church which can be climbed to synchronize with the environment. To kick things off, I scale this church and rotate the camera around once, making sure to take in the beautiful landscape; then, I climb back down and run all the way to the water (the top of this small church and the water can be seen in the above screenshot).
Note: For some reason, Ubisoft decided to cap the framerate to 60 FPS in Black Flag even if Vsync is turned off. For most games, this would ruin the chance of it appearing in our benchmarking, but because the game is graphically intensive, I’ve chosen to stick with it, as at higher resolutions, reaching 60 FPS is a perk that will belong only to high-end graphics cards.
If you have a $150+ graphics card, you’re going to get great performance out of Black Flag with max detail at 1080p. But, the R9 380 has a bit more to offer, allowing us to hit 52 FPS at 1440p using the same settings. That means that with select settings degraded slightly (namely AO and / or AA), 60 FPS at that resolution could be handled no problem. Not a bad start for a $200 graphics card.
Thanks to the fact that DICE cares more about PC gaming than a lot of developers, the Battlefield series tends to give us titles that are well-worth benchmarking. Battlefield 3 offered incredible graphics and became a de facto benchmark immediately, so it’s no surprise, then, that BF4 follows right in its footsteps.
Manual Run-through: The Singapore level is the target here, with the saved game starting us on an airboat that must be driven to shore, where a massive battle is set to take place. I stop recording the framerate once the tank makes its way to the end of this small patch of beach; in all, the run takes about 3 minutes.
Battlefield 4 proves a little more challenging than Black Flag, with our 1080p settings here giving us 54 FPS on PowerColor’s PCS+ – a value that plummets to 34 FPS at 1440p. At 1080p, disabling anti-aliasing is the no-brainer solution; at 1440p, that change will have to be made along with the dropping-down of some other settings. Where there’s a will, there is a way – if 1440p is your target.
When the original Crysis dropped in late 2007, it took no time at all for pundits to coin the phrase, “Can it run Crysis?“, almost to the point of self-parody. At the time, the game couldn’t have its graphics detail maxed-out on even top-of-the-line PCs, and in reality, that’s a great thing. I’d imagine few are opposed to knowing that a game could actually look better down the road as our PCs grow into them. As the series continued, Crytek knew it had a legend to live up to, and fortunately, Crysis 3 (our review) lives up to the original’s legacy.
Manual Run-through: There’s no particular level in Crysis 3 that I could establish was “better” for benchmarking than another, but I settled on “Red Star Rising” based on the fact that I could perform a run-through with no chance of dying (a great thing in a challenging game like this one). The level starts us in a derelict building, where I traverse a broken pipe to make it over to one rooftop and then another. I eventually hit the ground after taking advantage of a zipline, and make my way down to a river, where I scurry past a number of enemies to the end spot beneath a building.
Can PowerColor’s PCS+ run Crysis 3? It sure can – even at 1440p if select settings are dropped a bit. At 1080p, the game hit 63 FPS on average, and while the game’s top-end “Very High” settings were not used, the game at High is still gorgeous even two years later. Every time I benchmark this game I feel like going back through it to explore the awesome environments!
For those who appreciate racing games that are neither too realistic nor too arcade-like, there’s GRID. In GRID 2 (review), the ultimate goal is to build a racing empire, starting from square one. Unlike most racing titles that have some sort of career, the goal here isn’t to earn cash, but fans. Whether you’re racing around Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina or tearing through a gorgeous Cote d’Azur coastline, your goal is simple: To impress.
Manual Run-through: The track chosen for my benchmarking is Miami (Ocean Drive). It’s a simple track overall, which is one of the reasons I chose it, and also the reason I choose to do just a single lap (I crash, often, and that affects both the results and my patience). Unlike most games in the suite which I test twice over (save for an oddity in the results), I race this one lap three times over.
The PCS+ card couldn’t quite hit 60 FPS at 1440p, but I am not going to fault it for falling short a single frame. For the ultimate in fluidity in this game, ambient occlusion should be disabled. The differences are minute (only truly noticeable when you flick between it on and off), and the performance gains, usually worth it.
Crysis has become infamous for punishing even top-end systems, but let’s be fair: The Metro series matches, if not exceeds its requirement for graphical horsepower. That was proven by the fact that we used Metro 2033 in our testing for a staggering three years – only to be replaced by its sequel, Last Light. I’m not particularly a fan of this series, but I am in awe of its graphics even at modest settings.
Manual Run-through: Because this game is a real challenge to benchmark with for both the reasons of variability in the results and the raw challenge, I choose to use the built-in benchmark here but rely on Fraps to give me more accurate results.
Note: Metro Last Light‘s built-in benchmark is not representative of the entire game; some levels will punish a GPU much worse than this benchmark will (namely, “The Chase”, which has lots of smoke and explosions). What this means is that while these settings might suffice for much of the game, there might be instances where the performance degrades enough during a certain chapter or portion of a chapter to force a graphics setting tweak.
Up to this point, I haven’t highlighted where the R9 380 places alongside the GTX 960. So far, it’s clear that it’s the bigger performer, although there hasn’t quite been a landslide victory yet. Metro Last Light isn’t a good example of that either; at 1440p, the PCS+ card performs 2 FPS better.
Many have called Sleeping Dogs (our review) the “Asian Grand Theft Auto“, but the game does a lot of things differently that helps it stand out of the crowd. For example, in lieu of supplying the player with a gazillion guns, Sleeping Dogs focuses heavily on hand-to-hand combat. There are also many collectibles that can be found to help upgrade your character and unlock special fighting abilities – and if you happen to enjoy an Asian atmosphere, this game should fit the bill.
Manual Run-through: The run here takes place during the chapter “Amanda”, on a dark, dank night. The saved game begins us at the first apartment in the game (in North Point), though that’s not where I begin capturing the framerate. Instead, I first request our motorcycle from the garage. Once set, I begin recording the framerate and drive along a specific path all the way to Aberdeen, taking about two minutes.
As gorgeous as Sleeping Dogs is, it can run great on today’s modest graphics cards as long as its almost unnoticeable anti-aliasing setting is disabled. That’d help the PCS+ card hit 60 FPS at 1440p and probably closer to 100 FPS at 1080p.
Tom Clancy is responsible for a countless number of video games, but his Splinter Cell series has become something special, with each game released having been considered “great” overall. The latest in the series, Blacklist, is no exception, and thankfully for us, its graphics are fantastic, and not to mention intensive. For those who love a stealth element in their games, this is one that shouldn’t be skipped.
RIP, Tom Clancy.
Manual Run-through: From the start of the ‘Safehouse’ level in Benghazi, Libya, we progress through until we reach an apartment building that must be entered – this is where we end the FPS recording.
It’s almost hard to believe that Blacklist is actually a bit harder on a graphics card than some other titles I’ve tested with, but it can be. The big killer is ambient occlusion, so if you want to breach 60 FPS at 1440p, that’s the cull to make.
Strategy games are well-known for pushing the limits of any system, and few others do this as well as Total War: SHOGUN 2. It fully supports DX11, has huge battlefields to oversee with hundreds or thousands of units, and a ton of graphics options to adjust. It’s quite simply a beast of a game.
Manual Run-through: SHOGUN 2 is one of the few games in our suite where the built-in benchmark is opted for. Strategy games in particular are very difficult to benchmark, so this is where I become thankful to have the option of using a built-in benchmark.
Wrapping up our test results is a bit of surprise. Here, the GTX 960 actually comes ahead of the R9 380.
We don’t make it a point to seek out automated gaming benchmarks, but we do like to get a couple in that anyone reading this can run themselves. Of these, Futuremark’s name leads the pack, as its benchmarks have become synonymous with the activity. Plus, it does help that the company’s benchmarks stress PCs to their limit – and beyond.
While Futuremark’s latest GPU test suite is 3DMark, I’m also including results from 3DMark 11 as it’s still a common choice among benchmarkers.
3DMark backs up what we’ve seen throughout most of the other results – the R9 380 is a bit faster than the GTX 960. Or in Fire Strike’s case, about 11% faster.
Unigine might not have as established a name as Futuremark, but its products are nothing short of “awesome”. The company’s main focus is its game engine, but a by-product of that is its benchmarks, which are used to both give benchmarkers another great tool to take advantage of, and also to show-off what its engine is capable of. It’s a win-win all-around.
The biggest reason that the company’s “Heaven” benchmark is so relied-upon by benchmarkers is that both AMD and NVIDIA promote it for its heavy use of tessellation. Like 3DMark, the benchmark here is overkill by design, so results are not going to directly correlate with real gameplay. Rather, they showcase which card models can better handle both DX11 and its GPU-bogging features.
Once again, the R9 380 beats out the GTX 960, this time about 4 FPS.
To test graphics cards for both their power consumption and temperature at load, we utilize a couple of different tools. On the hardware side, we use a trusty Kill-a-Watt power monitor which our GPU test machine plugs into directly. For software, we use Futuremark’s 3DMark to stress-test the card, and AIDA64 to monitor and record the temperatures.
To test, the general area around the chassis is checked with a temperature gun, with the average temperature recorded. Once that’s established, the PC is turned on and left to site idle for ten minutes. At this point, we open AIDA64 along with 3DMark. We then kick-off a full suite run, and pay attention to the Kill-a-Watt when the test reaches its most intensive interval (GT 1) to get the load wattage.
Despite performing better than the GeForce GTX 960, PowerColor’s PCS+ R9 380 manages to retain the exact same temperatures – of around 77°C. On the power front, there’s no competing with NVIDIA though, which shaves 71W off of the peak load of the R9 380. Let’s hope that AMD’s next generation proves to be a lot more power-efficient.
As I rambled on about at the start of this review, the process of reviewing PowerColor’s PCS+ Radeon R9 380 was the furthest thing from ideal. I ran into one roadblock after another, and as I see it, none of those were the cause of this card in particular. The biggest issues seemed to be a bunk DisplayPort cable that otherwise seemed fine, and then hassles with AMD’s drivers (which isn’t exactly a revelation).
Admittedly, when the time came to actually benchmark this card, I was beyond flustered. I almost wanted to just ship the card back and say, “Sorry.” But, I’m glad I didn’t wimp out, because PowerColor has a great card with this PCS+ edition.
As of the time of writing, the 2GB model of this PCS+ card runs $10 less than the least-expensive GTX 960 (also 2GB). Yet, it performs a bit faster in almost every single test. 3DMark put it at about 11% faster, even. It also manages to keep just as cool, which is nice to see, and gives some credence to the claim of the Double Blades fans being more efficient. Unfortunately, due to their design, these fans are a bit louder than most at higher RPMs. Lastly, it’s impossible for AMD to compete right now on the power front, and while I consider a 71W delta to be enormous, the extra power at least didn’t become a detriment on the temperature front.
The 4GB model, as tested, costs about $220 as of the time of writing. Personally, I’d recommend sticking to the 2GB model if you are sticking with 1080p, and the 4GB model if you’re planning to go the 1440p route – and especially if you’re ever likely to buy a second card for CrossFire.
Looking at it a different way, when this PowerColor card is compared to the EVGA SSC edition which had its test results in our graphs, both cards cost just about the same, at around $220. But, the AMD card offers 2GB more, and is a bit faster. NVIDIA’s perk right now is the vastly improved power efficiency and a free copy of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Isn’t shopping for GPUs fun?
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