Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ review: The new 1080p gaming champion

Heavy metal, refined
  • Brad Chacos (PC World (US online))
  • 28 November, 2018 22:09

AMD’s Radeon RX 590 is the best 1080p graphics card you can buy, and at $280, it won’t break the bank. But the Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ we’re reviewing today proves it’s even better than we originally thought. 

The card draws an immense amount of power, and the XFX Radeon RX 590 Fatboy that AMD sent U.S. reviewers ran hot despite coming equipped with a massive triple-slot cooler. Pushing AMD’s Polaris architecture so far—this is the same GPU’s third incarnation, after the Radeon RX 480 and 580—requires heavy metal, we concluded at the time. While that’s still true, Sapphire’s graphics card shows that the Radeon RX 590 doesn’t have to be gargantuan.

The bright blue Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ ($280 on Newegg) comes loaded with features. Even more impressively, it manages to hit higher frame rates and lower temperatures than the XFX Fatboy despite fitting in a standard two-slot design. This is the best Radeon RX 590 we’ve tested.

Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ specs, features, and price

The Radeon RX 590 is almost identical to the Radeon RX 580 under the hood, utilizing the same underlying configuration, but on an improved 12nm manufacturing process. That process shrink lets AMD’s new GPU hit much faster speeds than the Radeon RX 580 and RX 570, which will continue to be sold as well.

Here’s how all three of AMD’s mainstream graphics options compare spec-wise:

radeon rx 590 vs polaris specs AMD

The Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ pushes performance even further. It ships with a 400Mbps effective memory overclock, and the GPU clock speeds hit 1,560MHz, a slight boost over the 1,545MHz reference spec. That’s also slightly slower than the 1,580MHz XFX Fatboy on paper. But as you’ll see in our benchmarks later, Sapphire’s card manages to meet or even slightly exceed the Fatboy’s performance in games, thanks to its memory overclock and potent custom cooling system.

sapphire nitro cooler explosion Sapphire

Sapphire relies on its flagship Nitro+ custom cooler to tame the RX 590. Starting at the core, Sapphire switched to a new thermal paste that it claims improves thermal conductivity between the GPU and heatstink by 30 percent. The 54-fin heatsink is augmented by a pair of 6mm and a pair of 8mm heatpipes. The fins are aligned with the length of the card to help dump hot air out of the back of your system.

A pair of large, dual ball-bearing fans infused with blue LEDs are centered in the card’s attractive blue shroud. Those fans remain idle when the Nitro+ is under light loads—even in the menu of games—and use Sapphire’s Quick Connect technology for easy replacement if needed. You can use Sapphire’s Trixx software to check on the status of your fans.

sapphire nitro dual bios info Sapphire

The card comes with dual BIOSes, which you may toggle via a switch on the Nitro+’s edge. The default Nitro Boost profile hits the advertised 1,560MHz clock speeds by ramping up the fans. Shifting the BIOS switch to the left enables a Silent setting—called “optimized for compute” on the packaging, oddly enough—that greatly reduces fan noise but drops down to the reference speeds for the memory and GPU clock. We only conducted full testing on the default high-performance profile, but even that didn’t get overly loud. The Silent setting lives up to its name.

Sapphire designed the Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ with overclocking in mind. The PCB has two extra layers for more power and lower temperatures, and the card’s equipped with Sapphire’s signature black diamond choke and a 200,000-hour polymer capacitor. The 6-phase board was designed to handle up to 300 watts via its 6-pin and 8-pin connectors, and if something somehow goes wrong, Sapphire equipped the Nitro+ with an extra PCI-e fuse for protection.

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The card’s topped off with a sturdy gray-and-blue metal backplate, completing the Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+’s sleek futuristic look. Aesthetics are subjective, but to my eye, this graphics card is gorgeous, especially if your PC packs blue, silver, or white components. A pair of DisplayPorts, two HDMI connections, and a DVI-D port give you plenty of audio/visual options.

GeForce-beating performance isn’t the only reason to consider buying this card. AMD is keen to tout the wide array of affordable FreeSync monitors available for buttery-smooth gaming, and rightfully so. Nvidia’s rival G-Sync monitors are targeted only toward premium crowds rather than the masses. AMD will also toss in three free games—The Division 2, Devil May Cry 5, and Resident Evil 2—when you buy a Radeon RX 590 at participating retailers, making this card an outstanding value if you’d planned on picking up any of those titles. They won’t be available to play until early next year, though.

Enough chit-chat! Let’s take this to the bench.

Next page: Our test system, benchmarks begin

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Our test system

We packed our dedicated graphics card test system with some of the fastest complementary components available to put any potential performance bottlenecks squarely on the GPU. Most of the hardware was provided by the manufacturers, but we purchased the cooler and storage ourselves.

  • Intel Core i7-8700K processor ($360 on Amazon)
  • EVGA CLC 240 closed-loop liquid cooler ($120 on Amazon)
  • Asus Maximus X Hero motherboard ($260 on Amazon)
  • 64GB HyperX Predator RGB DDR4/2933 ($416 for 32GB on Amazon)
  • EVGA 1200W SuperNova P2 power supply ($180 on Amazon)
  • Corsair Crystal 570X RGB case, with front and top panels removed and an extra rear fan installed for improved airflow ($170 on Amazon)
  • 2x 500GB Samsung 860 EVO SSDs ($100 on Amazon)

We’re comparing the $280 Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ against the $280 XFX Radeon RX 590 Fatboy, of course. We’re also pitting it against the Asus Strix RX 580 Gaming Top OC, which cost $300 when it launched, as well as EVGA’s 6GB GeForce GTX 1060 SSC ($280 at Best Buy)—two other customized, overclocked graphics cards. To show how these $200 to $300 cards compare against step-up options, we also tested the $400 reference Radeon RX Vega 56 and $380 GeForce GTX 1070 Founders Edition.

Each game is tested using its in-game benchmark at the highest possible graphics presets, with VSync, frame rate caps, and all GPU vendor-specific technologies—like AMD TressFX, Nvidia GameWorks options, and FreeSync/G-Sync—disabled, and temporal anti-aliasing (TAA) enabled to push these high-end cards to their limits. If anything differs from that, we’ll mention it. We focused our testing on 1440p and 1080p, as those are the natural resolutions for these graphics cards.

Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ benchmarks

Strange Brigade

Let’s kick things off with Strange Brigade ($50 on Humble), a cooperative third-person shooter where a team of adventurers blasts through hordes of mythological enemies. It’s a technological showcase, built around the next-gen Vulkan and DirectX 12 technologies and infused with features like HDR support and the ability to toggle asynchronous compute on and off. It uses Rebellion’s custom Azure engine. We test with async compute off.

strange bridage Brad Chacos/IDG

Sapphire’s Radeon RX 590 is equal to or just the barest of a smidge faster than XFX’s, despite the latter’s 20MHz clock speed advantage. The pattern repeated throughout our testing. Because we extensively compared the RX 590 against rival GPUs like the RX 580 and GTX 1060 in our XFX Fatboy review, we’ll let the benchmarks speak for themselves for the rest of the games testing.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Shadow of the Tomb Raider ($60 on Humble) concludes the reboot trilogy, and it’s utterly gorgeous—even the state-of-the-art GeForce RTX 2080 Ti barely manages to average 60 fps with all the bells and whistles turned on at 4K resolution. Square Enix optimized this game for DX12, and recommends DX11 only if you’re using older hardware or Windows 7, so we test with that. Shadow of the Tomb Raider uses an enhanced version of the Foundation engine that also powered Rise of the Tomb Raider.

shadow of the tomb raider Brad Chacos/IDG

Far Cry 5

Finally, a DirectX 11 game! Far Cry 5 ($60 on Humble) is powered by Ubisoft’s long-established Dunia engine. It’s just as gorgeous as its predecessors, and even more fun.

fc5 Brad Chacos/IDG

Next page: Gaming benchmarks continue

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Ghost Recon Wildlands

Move over, Crysis. If you crank all the graphics options up to 11, like we do for these tests, Ghost Recon Wildlands ($50 on Humble) and its AnvilNext 2.0 engine absolutely melt GPUs. 

grw Brad Chacos/IDG

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle-earth: Shadow of War ($50 on Humble) adds a strategic layer to the series’ sublime core gameplay loop, adapting the Nemesis system to let you create an army of personalized Orc commanders. It plays like a champ on PC, too, thanks to Monolith’s custom LithTech Firebird engine. We use the Ultra graphics preset but drop the Shadow and Texture Quality settings to High to avoid exceeding 8GB of VRAM usage.

shadow of war Brad Chacos/IDG

F1 2018

The latest in a long line of successful games, F1 2018 ($60 on Humble) is a benchmarking gem, supplying a wide array of both graphical and benchmarking options—making it a much more reliable option that the Forza series. It’s built on the fourth version of Codemasters’ buttery-smooth Ego game engine. We test two laps on the Australia course, with clear skies.

f1 2018 Brad Chacos/IDG

Next page: Gaming benchmarks continue

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Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation

Ashes of the Singularity ($40 on Humble) was one of the very first DX12 games, and it remains a flagbearer for the technology to this day thanks to the extreme scalability of Oxide Games’ next-gen Nitrous engine. With hundreds of units onscreen simultaneously and some serious graphics effects in play, the Crazy preset can make graphics cards sweat. Ashes runs in both DX11 and DX12, but we only test in DX12, as it delivers the best results for both Nvidia and AMD GPUs.

ashes Brad Chacos/IDG


We’re going to wrap things up with a couple of older games that aren’t really visual barnburners, but still top the Steam charts day-in and day-out. These are games that a lot of people play. First up: Grand Theft Auto V ($30 on Humble) with all options turned to Very High, all Advanced Graphics options except extended shadows enabled, and FXAA. GTA V runs on the RAGE engine and has received substantial updates since its initial launch.

gtav Brad Chacos/IDG

Rainbow Six Siege

Finally, let’s take a peek at Rainbow Six Siege ($40 on Humble), a game whose audience just keeps on growing, and one that still feels like the only truly next-gen shooter after all these years. Like Ghost Recon Wildlands, this game runs on Ubisoft’s AnvilNext 2.0 engine, but Rainbow Six Siege responds especially well to games that lean on async compute features.

rb6 Brad Chacos/IDG

Next page: Power, thermals, synthetics, and noise

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Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ power draw, thermals, and noise

We also tested the Sapphire Radeon RX 590+ using 3DMark’s highly respected Fire Strike synthetic benchmark. Fire Strike runs at 1080p, Fire Strike Extreme runs at 1440p, and Fire Strike Ultra runs at 4K resolution. All render the same scene, but with more intense graphical effects as you move up the scale, so that Extreme and Ultra flavors stress GPUs even more. We record the graphics score to eliminate variance from the CPU.

fire strike Brad Chacos/IDG

Yep, everything falls about where you’d expect after observing the gaming benchmarks, which is always the case with Fire Strike. The Sapphire card scores slightly higher than the XFX Fatboy despite its slightly lower clock speeds, which matches the performance difference we saw in actual games. Kudos to Sapphire’s memory overclock and badass cooler.

power Brad Chacos/IDG

We test power draw by looping the F1 2018 benchmark after we’ve benchmarked everything else with a card, and noting the highest reading on our Watts Up Pro meter. The initial part of the race, where all competing cars are onscreen simultaneously, tends to be the most demanding portion.

Even a move to the 12nm process and a highly effective cooler can’t help here. The Radeon RX 580 already drew much more energy than the GTX 1060, and to consistently triumph over Nvidia’s mainstream champion, AMD cranked the Radeon RX 590’s power consumption to 11. The Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ draws 100W more than the overclocked EVGA GTX 1060 SSC, and sucks down more juice than even the much more potent Vega 56 and GTX 1070.

temp Brad Chacos/IDG

We test thermals by leaving HWInfo’s sensor monitoring tool open during the F1 2018 5-lap power draw test, noting the highest maximum temperature at the end.

And here’s where the Sapphire RX 590 Nitro+ gets more impressive. While the XFX Fatboy runs hot even with a much thicker triple-slot cooler, Sapphire’s standard-sized dual-slot card never exceeds 75 degrees Celsius—a very respectable temperature for a mainstream graphics card. Sapphire’s card makes slightly less noise than XFX’s using the standard Performance BIOS, too, and its Silent BIOS is downright quiet. This graphics card doesn’t make its presence known in any obnoxious ways.

Next page: Should you buy the Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+?

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Should you buy the Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+?

Definitely, if you’re in the market for a Radeon RX 590. The Sapphire Radeon RX 590 Nitro+ ($280 on Newegg) is better than the XFX RX 590 Fatboy in every way, from performance to size to heat dissipation.

11289 01 rx590 nitro plus special edition 8gbgddr5 2dp 2hdmi dvi c03 Sapphire

The question is whether you need a Radeon RX 590. It’s the best mainstream (sub-$300) graphics card available for 1080p gaming. It puts in a damned fine showing at 1440p resolution, too, especially if you don’t mind bumping some visual settings from Ultra to High or have a FreeSync monitor to smooth out any slight frame rate hiccups. The Radeon RX 590 pounds on the GTX 1060 in every game but GTA V at roughly the same street price as Nvidia’s cards, and AMD tosses in three free triple-A games from popular series, too. There’s no reason to buy a GTX 1060 right now unless you need a mini-ITX GPU for a tiny PC, or have limited power supply capability. The Radeon RX 590 blows it out of the water.

But AMD’s other mainstream cards deliver outstanding value themselves. A huge number of gamers rock 1080p, 60Hz monitors. The Radeon RX 570 excels at high-fidelity gaming at those settings, and it can often be found for under $160 on sale. The Radeon RX 580 is a lot faster than the RX 570, but the custom Asus Strix model we tested is only 7 or 8 percent behind the Sapphire RX 590 Nitro+’s performance. You can usually find some 8GB Radeon RX 580s selling for around $200 on sale these days, and you get your choice of two of the three free games that come bundled with the RX 590 with the lesser-powered cards. That’s an absolutely stunning value that tarnishes the RX 590’s allure, especially with performance being so close.

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Highly overclocked RX 580 models with beefy custom coolers (a.k.a. something similar in quality to the Sapphire RX 590 Nitro+) still tend to cost $250 or more, though. If you’re looking for something swanky, or simply want as much future-proofing as possible under $300, opting for the Radeon RX 590’s extra oomph makes a lot of sense. Sapphire’s Nitro+ is easily the best Radeon RX 590 we’ve tested. The card delivers impressive all-around performance while staying quiet under load, and Sapphire loaded the card with luxurious features like fans that idle under light loads and a dual BIOS. It looks and feels luxurious, too.

Highly recommended. Just make sure it makes sense for you to snag a Radeon RX 590 rather than a discounted Radeon RX 580 before you pull the trigger.