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Biggest Navi: AMD Launches the Radeon RX 6900 XT, at $999

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AMD technically launched its Radeon RX 6900 XT today, though stocks of the GPU show every indication of being severely limited. Priced at $999, the new Radeon card is intended to be the crown jewel of the Navi stack, and to put AMD on a more competitive footing against Nvidia.

This is a major moment for AMD in several regards. It’s the first time the company has fielded a high-end GPU intended to compete at the top of the market since the launch of the Fury X back in 2015. 2017’s Vega 64 competed roughly against the GTX 1080 at a time when Nvidia already had the 1080 Ti in-market, while the RX 6900 XT is supposed to land in-between the RTX 3080 and the RTX 3090.

Specs on the 6900 XT compared to previous AMD launches. Image by Hot Hardware.

AMD definitely hits its price point — the $1,000 RX 6900 XT is $500 less expensive than the RTX 3090 — but it offers a relatively small number of features to customers who step up to the card. Because the 6900 XT is a fully-enabled 6800 XT, customers get the benefit of an additional 8 compute units, or a total of 512 compute cores (5120, versus 4608). It also has 1.1x additional ray accelerators and TMUs, but the same base and boost clocks, the same VRAM, and the same TDP. The price gap between the RTX 3090 and the RTX 3080 is much larger than between the 6900 XT and the 6800 XT, but the RTX 3090 adds features like a wider memory bus, a larger jump in the total number of shader cores, and more than double the VRAM. Of course, Nvidia also wants $1,500 for the GPU, so they rather obviously needed to give people a reason to pick it.

AMD versus Nvidia at 4K. Data by THG.

According to Tom’s Hardware, the 6900 XT falls behind the RTX 3090 in 4K, with an average of 85fps in 13 games compared with the 3090 at 93.6fps. That makes the RTX 3090 just 1.1x faster than the 6900 XT, for 1.5x more money.

Of course, this chart also shows that the 6900 XT is only 1.06x faster than the RX 6800 XT, while costing 1.53x more money (based on MSRPs, lol). Altogether, the RTX 3090 is 1.18x faster than the 6800 XT, but costs 2.2x more. That’s the kind of price/performance ratio you’re buying into, if you choose to buy at the tip-top of the market.

THG writes that the RX 6900 XT “is slightly faster than the RTX 3080, and it can beat the 3090 in a few cases.” Ray tracing performance between AMD and Nvidia is currently very difficult to analyze. The games already on-market (with extensive Nvidia GPU optimizations and limited AMD optimization, if any) favor Nvidia, a lot. The couple of tests AMD distributed before launch of the 6900 XT favor AMD. With so few tests and such a lopsided optimization situation, it’s difficult to tell how things shake out.

The expectation that I’ve seen, which still seems true, is that Big Navi’s ray tracing performance is better than Turing, but not as good as Ampere. AMD’s newest GPUs seem to hit ~2080 Ti ray tracing levels and they offer the performance at <2080 Ti pricing, but they’re strongest against Nvidia in rasterized workloads so far. This could change with future optimizations and patches.

Hot Hardware and THG reach somewhat different conclusions regarding the overall performance of the card. THG notes: “Overall, however, the RX 6900 XT fails to impress relative to the RX 6800 XT. It’s such an incremental bump in performance that it hardly seems worth the trouble.” While it’s fast, it lags in ray tracing workloads and the $1500 RTX 3090 is viewed as offering more features.

Hot Hardware, in contrast, writes: “The AMD Radeon RX 6900 XT rocks. Is it the fastest card across the board? No. But it is an immensely powerful and capable GPU, with a beefy 16GB of memory, a leading-edge feature set, and obvious synergy with current-gen game console architectures, which should bode well for game development and optimizations moving forward.”

My own take (I’ve reviewed the 6800 XT but not the 69000 XT) is that the 6900 XT is AMD’s way of signaling it intends to compete in the high-end of the graphics market once more, but that the company is still playing catch-up in some regards. This is not automatically a bad thing. If we look back to 2015, we see AMD nearly-match the GTX 980 Ti, only to fall short of the mark with the Vega 64 in 2017. From 2016 – 2019, AMD’s most-competitive positioning was between $100 – $300. In mid-2019, Navi debuted at higher prices with the 5700 and 500 XT, and demonstrated that AMD was still capable of competing with Turing. With Big Navi in 2020, AMD has demonstrated that it can compete with Nvidia in the upper market once again — but Biggest Navi is still a bit of a reach.

Part of the reason for this, it should be said, is because AMD chose to emphasize high VRAM loadouts and relatively high clocks for its lower-end cards. AMD chose to weaken the RX 6900 XT’s positioning by improving the RX 6800 and RX 6800 XT, and while that makes their top-end solution a little bit of an underwhelming step up, it looks this way for the best possible reason.

Most Radeon gamers will, I suspect, be best-served by either the 6800 or the 6800 XT. Nevertheless, the 6900 XT sends a message to investors and enthusiasts that AMD intends to compete robustly in GPUs as well.

When you’ll actually be able to buy one of these cards is anyone’s guess. A recent PR from Swiss retailer Digitec revealed that the company had received just 35 cards for launch, implying that this GPU is going to be extremely difficult to find. In that sense, the entire discussion is academic, since you won’t really be able to buy a card until 2021 unless you want to pay 1.5x – 2.5x over list price. There are RTX 3090’s going on eBay for $2,000 to $2,500, and some that list for even more, so the chances you can buy a new RDNA2 GPU before Christmas are small, no matter what.

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