Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480 review: Polaris rethought and refined

The wait was worth it for custom Radeon RX 480 cards.

Where are the custom cards?

The question’s been reverberating throughout Internet forums and various subreddits since the launch of AMD’s revolutionary US$200 Radeon RX 480 graphics card. The chorus grew after weeks of radio silence on AMD’s part; amplified when Asus revealed its Strix RX 480 wouldn’t be available until mid-August; and downright exploded into a cacophony when Nvidia’s US$250 GeForce GTX 1060 launched with a full complement of custom designs. Where are the custom cards?

Well, here’s a custom RX 480 card that AMD aficionados have been drooling for: Sapphire’s Nitro+ RX 480. It’s hitting online stores next week on an unspecified date at US$219 for a 4GB model (which we tested) and US$269 for an 8GB version.

And yes—the wait was worth it. Sapphire definitely put its own spin on AMD’s Polaris.

Meet the Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480

All custom graphics cards build upon the foundation set by their underlying graphics processor. The Nitro+ RX 480 is no different—though its tweaks are major, extensive, and occasionally much-needed—so before we dive into the Sapphire card’s specifics, here’s a quick look at the key specifications of the RX 480, the first graphics card built around AMD’s cutting-edge 14nm Polaris GPU.

radeon rx 480 specs

Got it? Good. Now let’s talk about Sapphire’s alterations.

The Nitro+ RX 480 ships in two configurations: A 4GB (which we’ll be reviewing) and an 8GB model, both with a 256-bit memory bus. The differences between the two extend beyond mere memory capacity, however. The VRAM inside the 8GB model comes clocked at 2,000MHz, while the 4GB model runs at 1,750MHz.

The core clock speeds for the two models also differ. Both ship with a dual BIOS featuring both “Quiet” and “Boost” modes. The optional Quiet mode actually sticks to the same 1,266MHz boost clock as the reference RX 480. The default Boost mode comes enabled out of the box, hitting a modest 1,306MHz on the 4GB Nitro+ RX 480 and 1,342MHz on the 8GB version.

sapphire nitro 480 5 Brad Chacos

Some Internet commenters were hoping for 1,400MHz clock speeds from custom RX 480 variants, which clearly didn’t happen here (or on any of the other custom RX 480s announced thus far). That said, the 1,342MHz boost clock on the 8GB Nitro+ RX 480 is higher than the overclocks squeaked out of many early RX 480 reference models. Reference cards capable of hitting 1,330MHz—a mere 5-percent boost—appear to be a slim minority. And Sapphire spent time tweaking the Nitro+ RX 480’s settings so that the card stays right near that maximum clock speed damned near 100 percent of the time that you’re playing games.

Flipping on Boost mode also increases the power limit for the card, which is necessary as Polaris’ performance ties heavily into the amount of power it’s being fed. Don’t fret about whether potential power consumption issues will fry your motherboard, though. First off, AMD's already released a driver that fixed the reference RX 480’s excessive PCI-E power draw while simultaneously boosting performance.

Second, Sapphire redesigned the power system on the Nitro+ RX 480, swapping out the reference model’s 6-pin power connector for a beefier 8-pin and altering the power phase design so that no more than roughly 60 watts courses in via your motherboard’s PCI-E slot. The Nitro+ also features a new version of Sapphire’s black diamond chokes, which help to filter and clean up the card’s electrical signals. Sapphire says the new chokes reduce coil temperatures by an additional 15 percent compared to the ones found in previous Nitro cards.

sapphire nitro 480 3 Brad Chacos

The Nitro+ RX 480 features Sapphire’s superb Dual-X cooling solution, with easily removable fans.

Sapphire’s supremely powerful, yet whisper-quiet custom coolers never fail to impress when I lay my hands on a Nitro card, and the Nitro+ RX 480 is no exception. The card features Sapphire’s Dual-X cooling solution, a pair of fans over a beefy, high-density heat sink riddled with copper heat pipes of various sizes. The Nitro+ RX 480’s fans have been upgraded to 95mm, dual ball-bearing models. Sapphire claims the redesign results in a 10-percent noise reduction compared to the previous generation of Dual-X coolers. The fans actually won’t spin at all until the GPU temperature hits 52 degrees Celsius, making the card completely silent when you aren’t gaming or rendering videos.

It’s easier to service and replace the Nitro+ RX 480’s fans, too. They’re held on by a single screw, and you don’t need to rip apart the whole shroud to yank them all. What’s more, a new Fan Check function in Sapphire’s Trixx 3.0 software monitors your fan for issues and waves when problems come up. And if problems do come up, Trixx will connect you with Sapphire’s customer service, which will send you a fan replacement rather than requiring you to send your entire card back for repair. Yay to eliminating life’s little hassles!

sapphire nitro 480 4 Brad Chacos

Trixx 3.0 also powers Nitro Glow, Sapphire’s branding for the multicolored RGB lights embedded throughout the Nitro+ RX 480. By default, the card glows Sapphire blue, but Trixx 3.0—which will be “available soon,” so I didn’t have a chance to test it—allows you to set custom colors, tie the hue to various use states, or even shut it off completely.

Alternatively, pressing the LED button on the top of the card cycles through the options below, no additional software required.

sapphire nitro glow

Speaking of the aesthetics, the Nitro+ RX 480’s pockmarked dark shroud looks absolutely sleek and gorgeous despite being hard plastic. It’s a refreshing change from the aggressive, angular, overly large (and borderline garish) designs deployed by many graphics cards these days. A sexy metal backplate on the rear of the card—which you don’t often see on mainstream graphics cards—makes it even more attractive.

sapphire nitro 480 7 Brad Chacos

The Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480’s backplate.

Sapphire also tweaked the RX 480’s connectivity. While the reference board packs a single HDMI 2.0b and a trio of DisplayPort 1.4 connections, the Nitro+ RX 480 cuts the DisplayPorts back to two in order to squeeze in a second HDMI port as well as a DVI port. The latter will come in handy on lower-end monitors, while the extra HDMI port allows the Nitro+ RX 480 to output to both a monitor and a VR headset. Sapphire’s decision to swap out an extra DisplayPort in favor of those two connectors seems smart indeed considering the RX 480’s budget-friendly price and its position as the cheapest VR-ready graphics card around.

sapphire nitro 480 6 Brad Chacos

All those new connection technologies allow Sapphire’s card (and all RX 480 models) to drive 4K displays at 60Hz over HDMI. The DisplayPorts, meanwhile, can drive 1920x1080- and 2560x1440-resolution monitors at 240Hz, 4K displays at 120Hz, and even 5K displays at up to 60Hz—though the card only offers compelling gameplay at 1080p and 1440p resolutions.

The Nitro+ RX 480 also enjoys the rest of the Polaris GPU’s technological benefits, such as the superb in-driver Radeon WattMan overclocking tool, dedicated asynchronous shader hardware for improved performance in DirectX 12 and Vulkan games, advanced video encoding/decoding for up to 4K/60 frames per second streams, and support for high-dynamic range video.

Basically, Sapphire left no part of the reference RX 480 untouched. But what do all those tweaks mean when it comes to actually playing games? Let’s dig in.

Next page: System details and Division performance results

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Brad Chacos

Brad Chacos

PC World (US online)
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