Back to all articles

AMD R9 Nano: Small package, big bang


The story of computing electronics is one of ever smaller components. From early vacuum tube computers such as ENIAC that 1800 sq feet and ate an astounding 150 KW of electricity to the 5.96B transistor Haswell Xeon E5 that measures at 662mm≤ and sips on a mere 135W depending on the exact model and clock speed. That a huge improvement in a mere three quarters of a century and cements the rule that when it comes to electronic components bigger is not better.

When it comes to high-end graphics cards though, youíd think this wasnít the case. High-end cards have just been growing and growing in size. In the early days a card like the 3dFX Voodoo 2 would weigh in at about 8 inches, have no heatsink or active cooling and barely fill the width of a single slot. These days something like the Nvidia GTX 980 Ti weighs in at around 12 inches with some manufacturers using a huge triple-slot design.So if you want something thatís going to fit into those popular new little M-ITX cases youíll have to settle for a mid-range GPU. Itís size or power, pick one, right?

Well, AMD seems to have chucked that rulebook straight out of the window with the R9 Nano graphics card.

After stomping on it and setting fire to it first.

There are two key facts that youíll want to know. The first is that this card outperforms a Radeon R9 290X, the second is that itís 6 inches in length. AMD considers this a flagship card and the $650 asking price reflects this, but if you are looking at building a high-end mini-ITX computer for gaming or 4K media applications there is effectively no other choice on the market. Even the GTX 970 mITX is solidly spanked by this card, unsurprising since it trades blows with the GTX 980.

The Nano has the same number of stream processors as the new flagship Fury X card, based on the new Fiji GPU design. Although it doesnít clock quite as high, itís pretty close given the thermal constraints of the design. The Fury X hits 1050 MHz, but the Nano spends most of its time at 900MHz with a peak of 1GHz.

This new GPU is certainly an impressive piece of silicon, but the real star of the show is AMDís (frankly revolutionary) High Bandwidth Memory (HBM). Weíll be talking about HBM in detail in another post, but the gist of it is that this memory is stacked in 3D with a relatively slow clock, but a massively wide bus. Weíre talking 4096-bit buses here with 512GB/s of bandwidth. This is clearly in a league all its own and the Nano comes with 4GB of it.

Thanks to Fijiís doubling of performance-per-watt (AMDís claim) the Nano only uses a maximum of 175W, requiring a single 8-pin connector. The reference card also aims for a temperature of 75 degrees celsius and a noise level of 42 decibels which is about as loud as a library or bird calls.

As used to rapid advancement as we are, it still boggles the mind that this tiny, quiet card can stand toe-to-toe with a GTX 980 and more often than not clearly outperform it.

While the Nano is exciting in its own right, this bodes very well for the immediate future of consumer GPUs. Especially for mobile computing, where space is always at a premium. Itís also great to see AMD sucker punching Nvidia again, which can only be good news for consumers.

What do you think of this amazing little card? Let us know in the comments below.