AMD RDNA 2 is the next-generation graphics architecture from the Radeon team, and it’s set to arrive in desktop graphics cards fit for our gaming PCs later this year. It’s also going to power the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, alongside AMD Ryzen CPU cores. That’s one pervasive GPU architecture—only the Nintendo Switch is safe.
So what can you expect from the second generation AMD Navi graphics cards? AMD Navi launched back in July 2019 with the Radeon RX 5700 XT and RX 5700. Since then we’ve had a smattering of more affordable GPUs from the red corner, some of which we’re big fans of, particularly in terms of value for money. There are some quality GPUs in the current line up, with the 5700 and Radeon RX 5600 XT both making an appearance in our guide to the best graphics cards.
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There’s little doubt that AMD is competitive at the more affordable end of the spectrum then, but it still doesn’t have anything that can really challenge Nvidia at the top. The top-end 5700 XT may be neck and neck with the RTX 2060 Super, and even trade the odd blow against the RTX 2070 in some games, but AMD has nothing that represents a real challenge to the likes of the RTX 2070 Super let alone the RTX 2080 Ti.
The general belief (or hope) is that AMD has had something up its sleeve for a while now, and that something has become known as ‘Big Navi’. A high-end GPU that can take the fight to the very top of the Nvidia Ampere line-up and force the green team to take a knife to its eye watering price structure. We’ve had the RDNA-powered Navi for nearly a year now though, and there’s still no sign of ‘Big Navi’, so what’s happening?
For starters it’s worth pointing out that ‘Big Navi’ is not a name you’ll hear AMD use, instead it has mentioned high-end Navi, or Navi 2x, although generally in fairly oblique ways. Either way, as time has passed, it’s looking more and more likely that ‘Big Navi’ or Navi 2x will use AMD’s second generation RDNA (Radeon DNA) architecture.
The other thing we do know about RDNA 2 is that it’s going to be making an appearance in the next generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft. We even have some of the details about RDNA 2 from the Xbox Series X and Sony Playstation 5 that can shed light on what we might be getting in terms of PC GPUs.
As ever the devil is in the detail, and here is everything we know right now about RDNA 2 as it relates to AMD’s next-gen graphics cards.
At a glance…
AMD RDNA 2 release date
AMD has stated on more than one occasion that it is on track to release RDNA 2 GPUs before the end of 2020. It’s worth bearing in mind that the coronavirus is affecting supply chains though, and the cancellation of Computex this September may mean AMD looks in-house to unveil its next-gen GPUs.
AMD RDNA 2 GPU specs
RDNA 2 is being used in the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X, and a number of things can be gleaned from that, including that it offers support for real-time ray-tracing, Variable Rate Shading, Mesh Shaders, and be able to game at 4K.
AMD RDNA 2 performance
The Xbox Series X has promised double the performance of the Xbox One X at 12TFLOPs, making the GPU inside the forthcoming console comparable with the RTX 2080 Super. There’s no reason we shouldn’t see a PC graphics card with at least that level of performance.
AMD RDNA 2 pricing
Nothing is officially confirmed, and it all depends on how the performance matches up to Nvidia’s offerings at the time of release, but expect any Navi 2X cards to be more expensive than the original Navi. Anything from $699 to $999 would be our educated guess.
There have been rumours of ‘Big Navi’ since the original Navi GPUs were released, back in July 2019, and yet here we are nearly a year later still waiting. In the meantime we’ve had a few more GPUs from AMD, but you’ve probably noticed they’ve all hit the more affordable end of the spectrum as opposed to the enthusiast performance side.
More recent rumours had ‘Big Navi’ pinned for Computex 2020 launch, which was originally down to happen in June. Computex was eventually pushed back, and then canned altogether, which leaves AMD to plan something for itself, and sooner rather than later—especially so if it wants to catch the lucrative holiday market.
One response we have seen from having so many events cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak is virtual events popping up to replace them. This could mean AMD announces Navi 2x at a virtual event. That should mean it still has enough of a lead to release consumer graphics cards this year.
At its Financial Analyst Day in March, AMD announced it was still planning on releasing RDNA 2 GPUs in late 2020. At the very worst that would lead to a paper launch just before the holiday break, with the hardware following at the start of next year. This would be disappointing for anyone looking for some serious competition for Nvidia’s big guns in 2020, and gives Nvidia even more time to upset AMD’s plans. Earlier would be better all round.
The most recent update on this was in the Q1 2020 AMD Earning call at the end of April, where Lisa Su, AMD’s CEO, reconfirmed that it’s still on track to deliver RDNA 2 in late 2020: “Development of our RDNA 2 GPUs continues to progress well. We are on track to launch our next-generation gaming GPUs later this year, with a 50% performance per watt increase compared to our current offerings.”
It looks like AMD is absolutely committed to getting RDNA 2 GPUs out before the year closes then. We expect the hype train to start rolling soon then, with the possibility of architecture announcement in the summer to early autumn time frame if all is still going well.
One thing we still don’t know though is whether a RDNA 2 GPU will launch before or after the next-gen consoles. Previous generations have seen the consoles lead over the PC components, but there is an expectation that the consoles will be delayed due to supply problems caused by the virus, so we could potentially see RDNA 2 graphics cards before the consoles land.
The headline grabbing features of RDNA 2 are that it will support ray tracing and be capable of gaming at 4K. It will also support variable rate shading and mesh shaders.
In order to understand what AMD has planned for RDNA 2, you have to go back to the RDNA architecture, because that represented a significant fundamental shift from the old-school GCN architecture that came before it. The architecture inside the 5700 XT et al. forms the foundation of how RDNA 2 will work, and while we expect some refinements and additions, given the naming scheme alone, we don’t expect it to change too much.
The biggest change RDNA made over GCN was in terms of wavefronts, which essentially defines how the GPU work is actually executed. GCN’s solution was 64 threads wide with four SIMD16 (Single Instruction, Multiple Data) execution units, RDNA meanwhile is 32 threads wide with a single SIMD32 execution unit. This may not seem like much of a difference, but this alignment of wavefront DOWLOAND FREE to SIMD DOWLOAND FREE was responsible for much of the efficiency improvements of the new architecture.
While a lot of what makes up RDNA 2 is an extension of RDNA, we also know that it will get some love when it comes to ray tracing hardware. AMD’s CEO, Lisa Su, confirmed back at CES that “I’ve said in the past that ray tracing is important, and I still believe that, but if you look at where we are today it is still very early. You should expect that our discrete graphics as we go through 2020 will also have ray tracing.”
Microsoft and Sony have since backed this up, with both of them stating that their next-generation consoles will support ray tracing. Just as Nvidia has paired ray-tracing hardware with a deep learning engine, the expectation is that there will have to be something similar in RDNA 2, as ray tracing needs some form of denoising AI in order to keep those frame rates smooth.
We’ve had a few more hints at what an RDNA 2 PC graphics card may look like thanks to those upcoming consoles, with Microsoft announcing that the GPU in the Xbox Series X has 52 compute units (CUs), while the Playstation 5 has 36 CUs.
Both machines use custom silicon that also houses Zen 2 cores, and they both have tight thermals to contend with. That means we should potentially see more CUs on desktop cards, maybe up to twice that of the 5700 XT, which has 40 CUs.
With a full 80 compute units, if RDNA 2 follows the core configuration of RDNA 1, then we should be looking at a monster GPU with 5,120 RDNA cores at its heart.
AMD will also have to allow for extra ray tracing silicon, which if Nvidia’s RTX is anything to go by could take up a significant chunk of silicon, meaning 80 CUs in Navi 2x may be a bit hopeful, unless the die DOWLOAND FREE increases significantly.
AMD has been promising big things for RDNA 2 for a while now, specifically a 50% improvement in performance per watt over first gen RDNA. This is an amazing promise, especially when you consider that RDNA represented a 50% improvement per watt over GCN (which was the previous architecture). Part of the reason for RDNA’s improvement was down to the drop to a 7nm process, but RDNA 2 is using the same manufacturing node, so it can’t pull that effeciency trick again here.
We know that RDNA 2 is going to be used in the next-generation consoles. And while a high-end RDNA 2 graphics card is going to be a different beast to what we see in the Xbox Series X and Playstation 5, there’s still a fair amount of information we can garner from those machines. We know for instance that both Microsoft and Sony are promising 4K gaming, and they’ve both gone on record promising hardware real-time ray tracing support as well. So such features feel like a given for any high-end Navi 2x graphics card.
Microsoft has also made a big thing about the raw performance of the graphics subsystem inside the Xbox Series X, quoting that the RDNA 2-powered GPU offers up 12TFLOPs of performance, which potentially has it outperforming Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2080 Super, and not far behind the RTX 2080 Ti.
A potentially more relevant reading of this figure is if you compare it to the performance of the 5700 XT, which boasted 9.75TFLOPs. This makes the XBox Series X just over 20% faster than AMD’s current fastest RDNA card for PCs. It’s worth reiterating that both Microsoft and Sony are using custom silicon in their respective consoles, so you can’t assume we’ll see a RDNA 2 graphics card will line up in quite the same way, but it’d be weird if it didn’t benefit from all the work it has already put in.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that raw TFLOPs performance isn’t necessarily a great indicator of relative gaming performance. After all, the ill-fated RX Vega 64 was capable of almost 13TFLOPs and definitely isn’t going to outperform an RTX 2080 Ti in any game.
We don’t know much for certain on the pricing front at this stage, other than it’s highly likely that Big Navi will be considerably more expensive than the 5700 XT. It’s important to realize here that this isn’t a generational replacement of the first generation of RDNA GPUs, which generally means that the pricing has to fall in line with what has gone before. This is a GPU that covers a section of the market that AMD doesn’t currently address.
AMD has remained competitive with Nvidia with its more mainstream offerings, so it isn’t outrageous to expect a similar trend at the high end. Even if AMD tries to undercut Nvidia’s highest performance GPUs, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the chips will be exactly affordable. Remember that the RTX 2080 Ti costs $1,200, while the likes of the 2080 Super will set you back $800. Depending on where AMD sees itself in relation to those graphics cards, it could mean that the high-end RDNA2 costs anything from $700 to $1,000.
There’s also the possibility that AMD has some secret sauce when it comes to ray tracing, which could mean that it thinks it has the lead over Nvidia, then we could see it price Big Navi north of that eye-watering $1,200 RTX 2080 Ti. Admittedly this is unlikely, but it could happen. Of course then the onus would be on Nvidia to retaliate, but that all depends on timing and where Nvidia is with its own plans with it’s next-gen Ampere GPUs.
The impact that Nvidia’s Ampere GPUs could have on Big Navi should not be underestimated. Competition is everything in the graphics card market, and if Nvidia beats AMD to launch it will be able to set the pricing for the next generation of graphics cards in much the same way that it did this time around.