I’ve been reviewing a lot of Nvidia cards lately, so it’s high time I mixed it up a bit. The 4xx series of cards from AMD were released in June 2016, and featured AMD’s new Polaris 14nm architecture. The flagship card, the RX 480, was available in a 4 GB and 8 GB version. The Polaris architecture, which in the RX 480 features 2034 stream processors at a base clock rate of 1120 MHz (1266 boost) and a TDP of 150 watts, was designed to be more efficiency than the aging Fiji architecture used in the R5/R7/R9 300 series.
Now that these cards can be obtained relatively inexpensively on eBay. I picked up a second hand 8 GB card from XFX for $90. Let’s see how it folds compared to some similar graphics cards from Nvidia from that time period. Namely the 1050 and 1060.
Folding@Home testing was done with in Windows 10 on my AMD FX-based test system. The folding@home client was version 7.5.1. The GPU slot options were configured as usual for maximum points per day (PPD) jobs:
Name: client-type Value: advanced
Name: max-packet-size Value: big
The video driver used was Crimson ReLive 17.7, which includes an essential option for running compute jobs like Folding@Home. This is the ‘compute’ mode for GPU Workload. As previously reported by other folders, this setting can offer significant performance improvement vs. the default gaming setting. I tested it both ways.
Monitoring of the card while folding was done with MSI Afterburner. My particular version of the card by XFX got up to about 76 degrees C when folding, which is pretty warm but not dangerous. The fan settings were on auto, and it was spinning nice and quietly at a touch over 50% speed. The GPU workload % was nicely maxed out at 100 percent, which is something not typically seen on Nvidia cards in Windows. As expected, Folding@Home doesn’t use the full 150 watt TDP. The power usage, as reported at the card, bounced around but was centered at about 110 watts. Although it is expected that the actual power usage would be less than the TDP, this is a lot less, especially considering the 100% GPU usage. I suspect something might be fishy, considering my total system power consumption was pretty high (more on that later).
Initially, I tested out the driver setting to see if there was a difference between ‘graphics’ and ‘compute’ mode. Although I didn’t see much of a power consumption change (hard to tell since it bounces around), the PPD as reported from the client did change. Note for this testing, I just flipped the switch and observed the time-averaged PPD results as reported from the client. The key here is the project (14152) was the same in both cases, so the result is directly comparable.
In Graphics Mode:
PPD (Estimated) = 290592, TPF (Estimated) = 3 minutes 12 seconds
In Compute Mode:
PPD (Estimated) = 304055, TPF (Estimated) = 2 minutes 59 seconds
That is a pretty significant increase in performance by just flipping a switch. In short, on AMD cards running Folding@Home, always use compute mode.
Here are the screen shots from the client to back this up:
If you’ve been following along, you know I don’t like to rely on the client’s estimated values for overall PPD numbers. The reason is that it is just an estimate, and it varies a lot between work units. However, for this quick test of graphics vs. compute mode on the same work unit, the results are consistent with those found by other testers.
Overall Performance and Efficiency
I like to run cards for a few days on a variety of work units in order to get some statistics, which I can average to provide more certain results. In this case, I ran folding@home on my RX 480 for over three days. Here are the stats from Stanford’s server, as reported by the kind folks over at Extreme Overclocking.
As you can see, the average PPD of about 245K PPD wasn’t that impressive, although to be fair the other cards on this plot are all in higher performance price points, except possibly the 1060. I also think this card has potential to churn out over 300k PPD as estimated by the client. This thread seems to suggest this is possible, although the card in that test was overclocked to 1328 MHz vs the 1288 MHz I was running (I didn’t have time to do any overclock testing on mine).
Power consumption measured at the wall varied a bit with the different work units. Spot-checking the numbers with my P3 watt meter resulted in an approximate average total system power consumption of 243 watts. This is much higher than my EVGA GTX 1060 (185 watts at the wall). Just going by the TDP of both cards, I would have guessed the wall power consumption to be somewhere around 215 watts (since the TDP of the RX 480 is 30 watts higher than the 1060).
I ended up selling this card on Ebay a lot faster than I had planned, so I wasn’t able to do detailed testing. However, I suspect the actual power consumption at the card was much higher than what was being reported in MSI Afterburner. After doing some research, it turns out the RX 480 is known to overdraw from both the PCI Express Slot and the supplemental PCI-E power cable. For a card designed to be more efficient, this one is a failure.
The AMD RX 480 produces about 245K PPD while using a surprisingly high 243 watts of system power (measured at the wall). The efficiency is thus about 1000 PPD/Watt. Although better than AMD’s older cards such as a Radeon 7970, these numbers aren’t very competitive, especially when compared to Nvidia’s GTX 1060 (a similarly-priced card from 2016). As of Feb. 2019, the RX 480 can be obtained used for about $100, and the GTX 1060 for $120. If you’re considering buying one of these older cards to do some charitable science with Folding@Home, I recommend spending the extra $20 on the Nvidia 1060, especially because with a mild overclock and a few driver tweaks (use the 372.90 drivers), the Nvidia 1060 can crank out over 350K PPD.
TL;DR: The AMD RX 480 isn’t a very efficient graphics card for running Folding@Home. However, the XFX Version has Pretty Lights…