Sidenote: The Radeon RX 6800 XT and RX 6800 Review Roundup Part 1: The Current State of Play

AMD made a big promise at their October 28th Radeon RX 6000 series unveiling – roughly equal performance to the Nvidia Geforce RTX 3000 lineup at better price per performance and with more VRAM than the RTX 3000 competition (save for the 3090).

Did they deliver?

Well…yes. For the most part.

After reviewing around 8 different reviews of the new Radeon RX 6800 and XT cards, the bottom line is this – in rasterization performance, the Radeon RX 6800 series cards are right about where AMD said they were – mostly on par with the RTX 3080/3070 depending on if you have the XT/non-XT, with the scaling being a bit different. Generally, the higher resolutions do better with Nvidia, where the lower resolutions scale better on AMD, with 4k being where Nvidia maintains a bit of a foothold. In raytracing performance, on the other hand, Nvidia maintains a performance lead, with the RX 6800XT generally landing closer to the last-generation RTX 2080 Ti in RT performance.

The exciting thing for me as a tech enthusiast is that there aren’t really any blowouts on either side – although, if you look at the results for the Radeon RX 6800, sometimes it even tags the RTX 3080, while the RX 6800 XT can encroach on the RTX 3090, and that’s before next month’s launch of the intended AMD 3090 competitor, the Radeon RX 6900 XT. For a company that was struggling for the last few generations to meet the 2017-launched Geforce GTX 1080 Ti, that is damn good performance.

Where the new AMD cards mostly shine is that they offer additional features that increase performance further than what many reviewers have accounted for in their day 1 reviews. Where it has been tested, AMD’s Smart Access Memory (an implementation of Resizable BAR which Nvidia is also committing to supporting in the future on RTX 3000 cards) improves performance by a decent amount, usually around 3-5%, sometimes more, and in one or two anomalous cases, lowers performance by around 1%. Rage Mode, meanwhile, offers a smoother experience and around 1-2% extra performance simply by increasing the board power target to a known safe level and ramping the fan curve to account for the extra heat this would cause. With these features, small margins for Nvidia turn to ties, ties turn to AMD wins, and AMD wins turn to running up the score.

More impressively, so far at least, no reviewers are reporting major driver issues or problems. There are the few titles with performance regressions under SAM, and JayzTwoCents on YouTube showed a bizarre clock speed lock at around 500MHz when playing Control which would sometimes back off under sustained gameplay, but other than these issues and a small documented list on AMD’s driver release, the black screen soft locks of last year’s RX 5700 XT are nowhere to be seen as of yet, and that is genuinely good news.

AMD delivers, currently at least, slightly better performance per dollar spent than Nvidia at the RX 6800 XT level, delivers more VRAM, and has what is an actually good reference cooler on a good reference board design that has strong features, mostly stable drivers barring a few teething issues, and sets the stage for a slight uplift on December 8th when the RX 6900 XT launches.

So then it is all good, right? Well, no.

Firstly, Nvidia’s competition remains fierce in the supported feature set on their cards. AMD’s DLSS competitor is still in the works, and while a small number of titles even have DLSS support, it does make a substantial difference to performance where it is on offer, especially when coupled with ray-tracing. Nvidia Broadcast has no competition from AMD whatsoever, and AMD’s video encoder block remains awful, meaning streamers will need to rely on software encoding on their CPUs to ensure high quality, watchable output. AMD has made improvements to their Adrenalin suite and to their drivers, but with the extra features on offer, Nvidia has sprinted ahead here even while AMD has done admirably to catch up.

Secondly, again on software and productivity, Nvidia’s cards are more heavily compute-focused this generation, and Nvidia’s decade-long work on pushing CUDA support for professional applications coupled with AMD actually decoupling compute-focus from the Radeon line with RDNA means that Nvidia has some bigger wins in professional workloads. This doesn’t mean much for most readers here, but for me, Blender generally does better on Nvidia, not to mention that Nvidia’s OptiX API enables strong and fast ray tracing rendering for Blender, which AMD does not yet support. Where AMD cards can work to accelerate output, the output is somewhat inconsistent and error-prone, which Linus Tech Tips showed in their video review of the new cards.

Lastly, availability is the albatross around the neck of AMD this month all around, as Ryzen 5000 CPUs continue to sell out at every restock in seconds, and this morning’s Radeon RX 6800 series launch was sold out in seconds as well. Retailers in the US like Microcenter reported only receiving around 12 cards each, the majority of which were RX 6800 cards, meaning that the 6800 XT is a rare unicorn. Rumors swirl that the November 25th launch of partner cards and non-reference designs will be much better stocked (Kyle Bennett of HardOCP says 5-7x the volume of Nvidia’s launches!), but it basically went how Nvidia’s launches would have gone if only the Founder’s Editions were on sale – that is to say, very poorly. Until next week’s partner launch comes, I don’t think I’m holding out the benefit of the doubt on availability – today was a disgracefully small allocation and there are more review samples in the wild than most large stores received – not to shade reviewers, because I know they have to return cards usually at some point and I value their work.

So while I spent most of this post praising the work AMD has done here, because they did do something that almost no one expected they would with this launch, at the same time, it sucks to see them potentially losing out on a real opportunity to take marketshare and mindshare from Nvidia with their genuinely-improved product. I hesitate to say better, because both the RX 6800/XT and RTX 3080/3070 cards have markets and I think it is good that they both have strengths and weaknesses. In my next post today, we’ll talk more about what the future state looks like – with rumors of the Geforce RTX 3060 Ti, potential lineup futures from AMD, and how all of that will stack up with the console launches especially as adoption and driver improvements come up.

But for today, we have great news and awful news.

AMD is back, baby – and they have highly competitive, worthwhile cards that deserve your attention. However, good fucking luck even finding one.

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