AMD Navi: Everything you need to know

AMD's latest Navi graphics cards are incoming. Here's what to expect

After releasing its high-end Radeon VII in February 2019, AMD is now turning its attention to the midrange market with its 7nm Navi graphics cards. Navi plays to AMD’s strength: Making high-end graphical power more affordable than ever.

Although Navi is expected to play a major part in Sony’s PlayStation 5 console, which may cause issues with the supply of the 7nm chips at the core of the new cards, the latest rumors suggest Navi could launch for PCs by the middle of summer 2019.

When these cards do arrive, they could be hotly competitive with Nvidia’s entry-level RTX and GTX 16-series graphics cards, forming the battle lines of the red vs. green graphical wars in 2019 and beyond.

Pricing and availability

AMD Ryzen 5 2400G & Ryzen 3 2200G Review fan
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

During an earnings call in early May, AMD announced that the first Navi graphics cards would debut in the third quarter of 2019. That could mean as soon as July, or as late as September, but it does give us a firm window for the new cards to make their appearance. This backs up earlier rumors from the likes of Red Gaming Tech, who first reported in January that we could see the new Navi cards show up in July. It also lines up nicely with July 7, or 7/7, a date that many believe AMD will try to hit with its Navi launch to celebrate its use of a 7nm architecture — much the same as it did with the 7nm Radeon VII which was released on February 7.

The source Red Gaming Tech quotes for its latest Navi rumors suggested that AMD’s desire to push Navi out the door to combat Nvidia’s 16-series could result in low stock at launch — a similar thing happened with the Radeon VII — and that delays were still a possibility.

As of late May 2019, days out from a potential Navi reveal at Computex 2019, rumored leaks from Sapphire paint two Navi cards as being set to debut in the mid-range of AMD’s product stack. The Navi XT will reportedly cost $500 and compete with the Nvidia RTX 2070, while a cut-down version known as the Navi Pro would sit ahead of the RTX 2060 and have a price tag of $400.

Earlier rumors suggested we might see cards priced between $130 and $250. At that price, Navi would take on Nvidia’s GTX 1660 Ti and its last-generation GTX 1060, undercutting the new RTX 2060 by more than $100. This pricing estimate is more in line with Navi’s position as a Polaris successor. AMD’s Radeon RX 500-series cards typically range between $115 and $250.

The rumor that speculated on the high performance and low pricing of the Navi generation also suggested AMD may opt for a psychological advantage with the generation’s naming convention. Much like it opted to call its Ryzen chipsets the 400-series (a single digit ahead of Intel’s 300-series), AMD may call its Navi cards the RX 3000-series, making it sound like it’s one better than Nvidia’s 2000-series.

We will likely have to wait until 2020 to see AMD release a Radeon VII successor with a high-end Navi card that can compete with the likes of the Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti.

Architecture and performance

amd-ces-2018-Dr.-Lisa-Su
AMD

AMD hasn’t given us any hard information on Navi’s potential performance. We’ve been told it’s good, but how good? If Navi is able to deliver a 30% improvement in performance over Polaris — as we saw with the 7nm drop from Vega 10 to Vega 20 with the Radeon VII — that would be a sizable boost itself. But with Navi as a new architecture, we may see further improvements that enhance performance. In a leaked response to internal testing, Fudzilla claimed that Navi’s performance in early benchmarks had exceeded AMD’s expectations, and the chip is expected to deliver top performance at midrange prices.

Rumors from an alleged leaker at GPU partner Sapphire claimed the first two Navi cards would have slightly better performance than an Nvidia RTX 2070 and slightly better than an RTX 2060, respectively. That would put these cards slightly ahead of AMD’s aging Vega graphics cards from 2017, but if the rumored prices are anything to go by, that wouldn’t be a major step forward.

The Sapphire source also reportedly claimed that there would be no enthusiast version of Navi planned for 2020 and we would instead see a brand new architecture launch next-year. Factory overclocked and watercooled versions of Navi cards were coming, though.

We initially heard that the best release card would deliver Vega 56-level performance at around $250. Considering the Vega 56 can be found for around $300 now, that wouldn’t be a major improvement, even if power requirements were noticeably lower. Later rumors suggested it might actually equal RTX 2070 performance for that same cost. The high-end solution, said to be called the 3080, would have 8GB of GDDR6 we’re told, offering around 15 percent more power than the Vega 64 at a TDP of just 150 watts. The 3070 would be closer to a Vega 56 at just 120 watts, while the 3060 is said to have RX 580-like performance for just 75 watts.

Those numbers seem exceedingly optimistic, especially since they would massively undercut the $700 Radeon VII while offering near-comparable performance, just a few months after its release.

Early reports suggested that Navi will be the last AMD GPU to be based on its graphics core next (GCN) architecture and a recent report from WCCFTech confirmed that. AMD also confirmed that Navi will be a scalable architecture that will support both HBM2 and GDDR6 memory. AMD said that it won’t use a multi-chip module approach for Navi, according to PC World.

In April, 2019, Sony’s lead PlayStation architect, Mark Cerny confirmed that the next-generation PlayStation console would use a custom Navi graphics core alongside an AMD Ryzen 3000 CPU based on its Zen 2 architecture. It’s not yet clear whether this will be a custom APU design, or if it will feature a dedicated Navi graphics card. The PS4 and PS4 Pro used an APU design, but considering AMD’s claims of Navi scalability, perhaps it will be separate to allow for future expansion with console iterations.

Variable rate shading

Monitor resolutions have increased dramatically in recent years, with 4K displays becoming far more commonplace and even a hint of 8K screens beyond that. That’s meant a much greater overhead for modern graphics cards, and for even the most powerful ones, running high-resolution and all the bells and whistles is too much to handle. This is where technologies like variable rate shading (VRS) could come in.

Similar to foveated rendering, VRS is the practice of rendering portions of a screen at a higher fidelity than others. In theory, you could base this on where the gamer is looking (leveraging eye tracking) or just focus on the center of the screen. This is a much more efficient way to render frames that doesn’t impact visual quality as far as the user can tell.

Although AMD hadn’t confirmed VRS support with Navi, a patent filed by AMD in August 2017 and published late February, 2019, discussed VRS implementation with graphics hardware. Considering the timing of the patents’ original filing and approval, integration with Navi would make a lot of sense.

With the Navi graphical architecture rumored to power the next generation of Microsoft and Sony consoles, it could be that VRS ends up helping those systems to improve the visuals of games beyond what consoles are typically capable of. It could also help maintain performance for years after the systems launch.

Ray tracing?

Ray tracing ultra — Screenshot 5
Ray tracing ultra

AMD originally stated that it wouldn’t be supporting ray tracing, which has been a hallmark of Nvidia’s RTX series, at least not until the technology can be implemented on all of its graphics cards. “Utilization of ray tracing games will not proceed unless we can offer ray tracing in all product ranges from low end to high end,” AMD’s senior VP of engineering at the Radeon Technologies Group told 4Gamer in an interview.

That statement was brought into question following the revelation that the next-generation PlayStation would run on a custom AMD Navi graphics chip and would support ray tracing. That suggests Navi has the graphical horsepower to support ray tracing in games, but the question remains of how it will be implemented.

The first Navi ray tracing rumors suggested that it would be an exclusive feature of the high-end Navi 20, which isn’t expected to release until 2020. A PS5 would be unlikely to use such a high-end and expensive graphics chip, so this could suggest that Navi 10 would support ray tracing too. That would back up AMD’s claims that it would want to make ray tracing widely available when it implemented it in Radeon graphics cards. AMD CEO Lisa Su had hinted about Navi’s competitive pricing in a prior interview with PCGamesN, where she discussed performance-per-watt and performance-per-dollar as motivations behind Navi’s design.

It could be that AMD implements ray tracing with its Navi 20 GPU on PCs and with the custom Navi chip in consoles, both in 2020. That would leave the 2019 release of Navi 10 as an introduction to the platform, but not one with ray tracing support.

The recent Sapphire leaker suggested that Navi will not support ray tracing, however, so there are a number of heavily conflicting reports on this.

At CES 2019, Su did state that AMD was “deep in development” on ray tracing technology. AMD even announced that the Radeon VII will support a DLSS-like up-scaling technology. It’s not clear yet whether Navi will be able to leverage something similar to alleviate some of the performance concerns surrounding ray tracing.

Updated on May 22, 2019: Updated with rumored Sapphire leaks on performance and pricing.

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