AMD RX 480 – Virtual Reality for the Masses
By Murtaza Sariya

The AMD RX 480 isn’t just any newly launched graphics card; it is the one which most PC (personal computing) users have been waiting for. The PC market has experienced negligible growth in the last couple of years, with PC users not upgrading their hardware because performance of their existing systems has been more than adequate to handle all current computing needs. With the resurrection of VR (Virtual Reality), component manufacturers anticipated increase in sales based on the enthusiastic interest of PC users. Unfortunately, the graphics card required to generate images on the super-resolution displays of the head-mounted devices were either weak or exorbitantly expensive.

In June 2016, AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) launched the RX 480, their first Polaris based graphics card. Polaris is their newest graphics card architecture, based on the 4th Generation of their highly successful and efficient Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture, which is in turn based on the latest 14nm (nanometer) fabrication process. The nanometer fabrication process refers to the distance between the two transistors. After almost 4 years of the 28nm process, the progression to the 14nm (nanometer) fabrication node has by itself increased the performance of the card twofold; this has been achieved by increasing its transistor density. Not only is the card aimed at the wider mainstream market, but it is also the most affordable VR ready graphics card that satisfies the minimum requirements of the Oculus Rift VR HMD (head-mounted device).

Oculus VR, one of the pioneers of modern VR technologies, had very high requirements to make their technology function as intended. After the acquisition of Oculus VR by Facebook for 2 billion USD, the company has grown in size, allowing it to dictate VR standards. It is for this reason that it has become very important to conform to their standards. Unfortunately, the hardware required to power their product was high-end and hence very expensive.

With the launch of the RX 480, everything has changed. The RX 480 features 36 compute units (CUs), with 8 gigabytes of GDDR5 memory on a 256-bit memory bus offering a bandwidth of 256GB/s. Its output includes DisplayPort supporting versions 1.3 and 1.4 and HDMI 2.0b, the requirement for the Oculus VR.

AMD has been making major strides in the VR field, with serious investments and the development of Liquid VR. This is a solution that optimizes the development of software for various VR headsets while also improving performance on computers using graphic cards based on their GCN architecture. With a launch price of 200 USD for the basic model, the graphics card passes the heavy requirements of the Oculus Rift VR HMD, making it the cheapest graphics card on the market to offer such performance. Before the launch of the RX 480, AMD pitched it as the cheapest ‘VR capable’ card, and it easily accomplishes what it sets out to do.

AMD expects the launch of the RX 480 to vastly increase the addressable market for PC and VR as well as decrease the price of the VR HMDs in tandem.

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