AMD Navi: Everything you need to know

Is AMD's Navi back on track for 2019? Here's everything you need to know

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. The 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 consumers 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.

Pricing and availability

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

Rumors suggested that Navi could be announced at CES 2019, but the spotlight was instead shone on the company’s new higher-end Radeon VII graphics card.

Red Gaming Tech reported in January that we could see the new Navi cards show up as soon as July of this year. That pegs it for E3, which could line up with an announcement from Sony on the PlayStation 5. Rumors in February backed up these suggestions, claiming that in much the same way that the 7nm Radeon VII was released on February 7, AMD was planning for a July 7 release of Navi, alongside its Ryzen 3000 CPUs and x570 chipset motherboards.

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. Others have suggested that Navi won’t be released until October.

AMD will likely introduce Navi in two variants, but the model numbers have largely been disputed. Initial reports suggest that Navi 10 and Navi 11 GPUs would be the first to launch, but now it’s believed that Navi 12 and Navi 10 will be first in the series.

While gamers may have to wait until 2020 to see a high-end Navi 20 graphics card, the first cards are rumored to be priced between $130 and $250. At that price, Navi will 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 in line with Navi’s position as a Polaris successor. AMD’s Radeon RX 500 series cards typically range between $115 and $290.

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.

Architecture and performance

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 were able to deliver a 30-percent improvement in performance over Polaris, as we saw with the 7nm drop from Vega 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.

We initially heard that the best release card would deliver Vega 56-level performance at around $250, although the last we heard 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. However, more recent reports indicate that Navi will debut with a new microarchitecture, which will help it overcome some of the limitations of the GCN framework. This means that we could see faster clock speeds, more shaders, and better efficiency. 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.

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, discusses 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?

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

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 vice president of engineering at the Radeon Technologies Group told 4Gamer in an interview.

This news has led to speculation that Sony’s upcoming Playstation 5 won’t support ray tracing, given that the console is expected to be powered by Navi graphics, and AMD’s hesitation on implementing this tech could be based on cost. 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.

At CES 2019, however, 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. Whether or not either of these advanced AI features will be included on Navi is still unknown.

To keep Navi’s pricing competitive, it’s unlikely that the GPU architecture will come with dedicated ray tracing cores, and adding support for the feature could result in a performance hit. For gamers looking at ray tracing, AMD’s recent comments led many to believe that the capability won’t be implemented until Navi 20 or even on AMD’s next-gen graphics architecture, which was previously codenamed Kuma and is now rumored to be known as Arcturus.

Updated on March 1, 2019: Added section on variable rate shading.

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