Putting AMD's Radeon Vega Frontier Edition in perspective

A great deal of digital ink has already been spilled on the topic of AMD’s new Vega Frontier Edition graphics card. Given Ryzen’s surprising price-to-performance ratio, especially for multithreaded tasks like content creation, streaming, etc., many were eagerly awaiting Team Red’s latest entry into the high-end GPU market.

Some were hoping for GTX 1080 Ti-level benchmarks, but the Vega clocked in with figures comparable to the GTX 1080/1070. The current Holy Grail for enthusiast gaming is 4K/60 FPS, consistent across modern games, and the Vega just does not deliver.

So clearly, the sky is falling, Team Green will be forever dominant, and AMD fans might as well pitch their towers into the nearest campfire, right?

Not exacty. As is often the case in this industry, the online reaction has been too dramatic, too fast. 

Know Your Purpose

First of all, we need to keep in mind that the Vega Frontier is not designed with gaming in mind. It’s a business-oriented card created for machine intelligence, deep learning, 3D rendering, and game development. It’s not made for folks trying to solve the 4K/60fps problem.

The Vega isn’t a V8 Ferrari engine. It’s a John Deere tractor engine. You can’t drag race with it, but that’s not what it’s made for.

Quadro P5000/6000 (NVIDIA’s enterprise GPUs) versus Vega FE is a more apt comparison than Titan XP versus Vega FE. And when you place these side by side, the Vega looks a lot better

Chart via Extreme Tech. Somewhat confusingly, the green Performance Delta figures are where Team Red wins, and the red Performance Delta figures are where Team Green wins.

The Vega FE truly shines in the value department. The Quadro P5000 comes in at $2047, while the Vega FE arrives at less than half the price at $999. Also, the Vega is a fresh release. AMD has more driver optimization to do, and software companies also need to adapt to the new Vega architecture. I can’t stress the relevance of these software updates enough. Rise of the Tomb Raider and Ashes of the Singularity released new Ryzen optimization patches since the launch, and the performance boosts were significant.

Plight of the Underdog

AMD’s CPUs  and GPUs haven’t been highly relevant to enthusiast gamers for years. Game devs want to build the fastest, most stable games for the largest number of gamers, so they have optimized their products with NVIDIA / Intel’s dominant architecture in mind. AMD has recently become competitive again and dev teams don’t turn on a dime, so performance will lag for a while. Day one benchmarks, while interesting to compare, won’t give you a complete understanding. Only time will do that. 

That being said, don’t expect miracles. Newer benchmarks on Tomb Raider may show a 9-18% FPS performance gain, but that still won’t turn a Vega into a 1080 Ti.

The Vega FE beats the 100% more expensive P5000 sans software optimization on several relevant applications. And since the P5000 has been out since late 2016, I’m going to assume that a lot of relevant software optimization has already been done for that card. There’s a clear value proposition here.

Sure, if you are independently wealthy, then by all means buy the devastatingly awesome Quadro P6000 for $5500. It crushes the Vega and beats the $1200 Titan XP on Hitman 2016 at 4K….By 10 FPS. That isn't many FPS per additional dollar, but it is technically better.   

Things get a little uglier for the Vega FE when you compare it to the Titan XP. Even on business-oriented tasks, there’s a significant performance gap here. Things get even worse when you put Vega PE and Titan XP side by side on games. Even worse, these cards are much closer in price ($1000 vs. $1200).

Advertising Creates Expectations

With all these caveats in place, the way that AMD promoted Vega didn’t help at all. There seems to be a disconnect between the R&D and marketing departments at AMD. If Vega’s teraflops are for helping AIs learn to be jerks, showing me Doom in 4K/60 FPS is sending the wrong message. I get that AMD is trying to generate excitement for the whole Vega line, but they created an expectation gap that their hardware simply can’t bridge. And for the record, the Titan XP achieves 4K/93 FPS with Doom, easily outclassing Vega FE’s 64 FPS.

I personally want AMD to do well. Not because I’m an AMD fanboy, but because more competition in the GPU field is good for all consumers, driving performance up and prices down. After the disappointing Kaby Lake launch and Ryzen’s release, we saw Intel dropping their prices and AMD dropping Ryzen prices soon after. NVIDIA could use someone nipping at their heels, because I don’t want to wait much longer to solve the 4K/60 FPS problem at a reasonable price.

Should you buy a Vega FE for your 4K/60 FPS gaming roblem? No, that's not really what it's for, and especially since AMD promises faster gaming-oriented Vega GPUs later in 2017. But if you’re trying to animate an adorable CGI puppy or destroy the world with Skynet, that's when you may want to give Vega FE a look.