One of the PC’s greatest glories is its open ecosystem. While Apple’s Macs lock you into specific designs with limited (if any!) hardware options, there’s a wealth of options available for every single component that slots into your PCs.
That gives PC gamers tremendous flexibility. Want to splurge on an overclocked EVGA GTX 1080 FTW ($680 on Newegg) and crank all the graphics settings to 11 at high resolutions? You got it! Looking for a more modestly priced card that chews through 1080p games with aplomb? The Radeon RX 480 ($200 on Newegg) has you covered. But not everybody needs a $600 graphics card, or heck, even a $200 graphics card. That’s where AMD’s affordable Radeon RX 460 comes in.
The Radeon RX 460 was built as a step-up from integrated graphics, rife with cutting-edge features and enough oomph to play insanely popular e-sports games in excess of 100 frames per second with high graphics settings. It can even play traditional games at console-esque settings, passing 30 fps at 1080p on High settings in most games, or nearing the hallowed 60 fps if you bump details down to Medium. There’s a reason the Radeon RX 460 is PCWorld’s pick for the best budget graphics card.
But you already know all that, because we’ve already reviewed XFX’s 4GB Radeon RX 460 ($150 on Newegg). The PC’s boundless flexibility gets even more granular, though—AMD’s partners can all release versions of the Radeon RX 460 based on their own custom designs. Sapphire just sent over a tricked-out Nitro RX 460 OC ($140 on Newegg) to challenge XFX’s own customized version.
Can Sapphire’s unique spin on the RX 460 rival XFX’s despite its lower price? Let’s see.
Further reading: Every Radeon RX 460 you can buy
Meet the Sapphire Nitro RX 460
Before we dive into Sapphire’s tweaks, here’s a quick refresher on the modest reference specifications for the Radeon RX 460.
Both 2GB and 4GB version of the Radeon RX 460 are available. The Sapphire Nitro RX 460 OC packs the roomier 4GB capacity, just like the XFX model we previously reviewed. Sapphire also offers a lower-cost 2GB version of the Radeon RX 460 ($120 on Newegg), but it doesn’t include the company’s Nitro cooling system.
Nor does it pack the same level of overclocking. The Sapphire Nitro RX 460 pushes its core clock up to 1,250MHz out of the box, a 50MHz improvement that—in conjunction with the higher memory capacity—required Sapphire to add a 6-pin power connector to the card. Unlike some RX 460 models, you won’t be able to power this through your motherboard alone. The memory speed sticks to reference specs.
The card’s design is anything but stock, however. Sapphire’s 4GB RX 460 utilizes a modified version of the new-look Nitro cooler and design that first appeared in the stellar Sapphire Nitro+ RX 480. The front of the card is identical, with a pock-marked grey shroud that manages to look sophisticated despite being plastic. Its dual fans can shut off completely when you’re not gaming or performing another graphics-intensive task.
The edge of the card also appears identical at first glance, but the Sapphire logo on the RX 460 doesn’t light up.
Instead, Sapphire added a Nitro logo to the back of the RX 460, which looks yellow when your PC is off, but thanks to a blue backlight, pulses green while your system’s running. It’s a nifty touch, and one you don’t see often in budget graphics cards. You’ll find single DVD-D, HDMI 2.0b, and DisplayPort 1.4 connections on the card’s bracket.
Sapphire’s pulled the same nifty trick with the Nitro RX 460 as it did with the Nitro+ RX 480: The company engineered the cooling solution to allow the card to maintain its 1,250MHz overclock all the time while you’re gaming, rather than scaling clock speeds up and down on the fly like most graphics cards do. That lets the Sapphire Nitro RX 460 squeeze out as much performance as possible at all times.
Check out the rock-solid orange clock speed line in the histogram above, which was recorded using AMD’s Radeon WattMan tool during a Far Cry Primal run. That’s impressive.
As a Polaris-based graphics card, the Sapphire Nitro RX 460 also delivers features like Frame Rate Target Control, H.265 encoding and decoding, the in-driver Radeon WattMan overclocking tool, FreeSync monitor support, high-dynamic range video support, and dedicated asynchronous shader hardware that can improve performance in next-gen, “close to the metal” DirectX 12 and Vulkan gaming APIs. The Nitro RX 460 also supports H.264 video encoding at up to 120 fps at 1080p resolution, which should appeal to folks who stream their e-sports adventures on Twitch.
Next page: System configuration and performance tests
Our test system
We tested the Sapphire Nitro RX 460 OC with PCWorld’s dedicated graphics card benchmark system. It’s not the sort of system a card like this would normally slot into, but we test all graphics cards in the same system to keep variables to a minimum. Our testbed’s loaded with high-end components to avoid potential bottlenecks in other parts of the machine and show unfettered graphics performance. Key highlights:
- Intel’s Core i7-5960X ($1,016 on Amazon) with a Corsair Hydro Series H100i closed-loop water cooler ($102 on Amazon).
- An Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard ($380 on Amazon).
- Corsair’s Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory ($65 on Newegg), Obsidian 750D full-tower case ($150 on Amazon), and 1,200-watt AX1200i power supply ($310 on Amazon).
- A 480GB Intel 730 series SSD ($248 on Amazon).
- Windows 10 Pro ($190 on Amazon).
We’re pitting Sapphire’s $140 Nitro RX 460 4GB against the EVGA GTX 750 Ti ($110 on Newegg), which is still so popular that it wasn’t retired when Nvidia rolled out the GeForce GTX 950. We’ll also be testing that newer card, in the form of the EVGA GTX 950 SSC ($150 on Newegg). Finally, there’s the aforementioned XFX Radeon RX 460 4GB ($150 on Newegg), which packs a slightly more modest 1,220MHz overclock than the Nitro’s 1,250MHz.
Because we already know how the Radeon RX 460 compares against the two Nvidia cards (it’s far ahead of the GTX 750 Ti in performance, and decently behind the GTX 950 in most games), we’ll spend most of this review focusing on the differences between the XFX and Sapphire models.
We benchmark every game using the default graphics settings unless otherwise noted, with all vendor-specific special features—such as Nvidia’s GameWorks effects, AMD’s TressFX, and FreeSync/G-Sync—disabled. For this entry-level card, we used our standard 1080p resolution benchmarks, but also tested each game with medium graphics settings enabled to see how they run with graphics dialed back. It’s a more realistic representation of how these cards would be used in the real world.
Test 1: E-sports
We originally tested the XFX Radeon RX 460 with a wide variety of e-sports games, including League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Overwatch. All ran buttery-smooth, cruising past 90 frames per second (and sometimes far more, depending on the game) at 1080p resolution at High graphics settings, even when several characters were unleashing hell onscreen simultaneously.
The Sapphire Nitro RX 460 4GB delivers even higher butt-kicking frame rates than the XFX model in e-sports games at those settings. Chalk it up to the Nitro’s higher overclock and unyielding speeds.
To put that in perspective, here’s a chart from our look at e-sports performance on an APU-powered budget system that AMD designed in conjunction with the Fnatic professional gaming team. The chart below shows how each game runs at 1080p resolution, and then lists a second entry that shows what settings we needed to nerf in order to coax the games into hitting 60 fps. Sometimes it required dropping the overall resolution; other times we needed to reduce in-game graphics settings; on several occasions we had to do both.
In other words, the entire Radeon RX 460 family, including the Sapphire Nitro, provides a massive step up over the integrated graphics in AMD APUs for competitive gaming.
Onto the regular benchmark suite!
Next page: The Division
Test 2: The Division
The Division, a third-person shooter/RPG that mixes elements of Destiny and Gears of War, kicks things off with Ubisoft’s new Snowdrop engine.
Unlike with the e-sports games, you’ll find that traditional games require dropping the graphics settings down to medium to come close to 60 fps rates. But that’s okay! We’re just trying to see how far you can push this card if you decide to expand beyond e-sports. If you’re fine with a console-esque 30 fps, you can even crank the detail settings to High in most modern games. No matter which route you choose, a FreeSync monitor can provide a drastic boost in smoothness onscreen.
Here, you can start to see the benefits provided by the Sapphire Nitro’s higher overclock and focus on delivering rock-solid maximum speeds. The cheaper card actually delivers a couple more frames per second than XFX’s pricier version, though it still falls decently behind the GTX 950, especially as you ramp up the graphics detail settings.
In practice, you won’t really see the difference in frame rates between the XFX and Nitro models of the Radeon RX 460 in modern games. (E-sports are another story.) For that reason, we’ll be leaving commentary to a minimum alongside most of these tests, unless something special pops up.
Next page: Hitman
Test 3: Hitman
Hitman’s Glacier engine heavily favors AMD hardware. It’s no surprise; Hitman’s a flagship AMD Gaming Evolved title, complete with a DirectX 12 mode that was patched in after the game’s launch.
Important note: Hitman automatically caps the game’s Texture Quality, Shadow Maps, and Shadow Resolution at medium on cards with 2GB of onboard memory, meaning the EVGA GTX 950 and 750 Ti can’t be tested at High or Ultra settings. As such, we tested the game only at Medium settings for this comparison. Also, while the 4GB Radeon 460 models tested here could run the higher-detail options, the 2GB reference version would be similarly restricted.
Here’s the one scenario where the Sapphire Nitro opens a larger lead over the XFX Radeon RX 460. Both card deliver similar results in DirectX 11, but enabling DirectX 12 gives the Nitro a 5-fps boost over its competition.
Next page: Rise of the Tomb Raider
Test 4: Rise of the Tomb Raider
Whereas Hitman adores Radeon GPUs, Rise of the Tomb Raider performs much better on GeForce cards. It’s also the single most drop-dead gorgeous PC game I’ve ever laid my eyes on. We only tested the game’s DirectX 11 mode.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a memory-intensive game, which resulted in some sporadic stuttering on the 2GB GTX 750 Ti and GTX 950 at the Very High graphics preset. The 4GB Radeon RX 460 cards didn’t suffer from the same issue. Below that extreme preset, all cards ran buttery-smooth—with the EVGA GTX 950 SSC opening a wide lead over the overclocked Radeons.
Next page: Far Cry Primal
Test 5: Far Cry Primal
Far Cry Primal is yet another Ubisoft game, but it’s powered by a different engine thanThe Division—the latest version of the long-running and well-respected Dunia engine.
The two Radeon RX 460s are neck-and-neck yet again. At Medium graphics setting, the EVGA GTX 950’s performance lead diminishes to a hair over the Sapphire Nitro RX 460.
Next page: Ashes of the Singularity
Test 6: Ashes of the Singularity
Ashes of the Singularity, running on Oxide’s custom Nitrous engine, was an early standard-bearer for DirectX 12. Many months later it’s still the premier game for seeing what next-gen graphics technologies have to offer. (It’s a fun real-time strategy game, too!) The performance gains it offers with DX12 over DX11 are eye-opening—especially when running on Radeon cards.
Unfortunately, those stunning performance gains aren’t seen with any of these cards. While the Sapphire Nitro RX 460 (and its XFX rival) gains roughly a 10 percent boost in theory, that yields only a few extra frames in reality.
Next page: 3DMark
Test 7: Synthetic benchmarks
We also tested the RX 470 and its rivals using 3DMark’s highly respected DX11 Fire Strike synthetic benchmark, which runs at 1080p, as well as its brand-new Time Spy benchmark, which tests DirectX 12 performance at 2560x1440 resolution.
The Sapphire Nitro RX 460’s persistent clock speed pays off here, giving the card a decent lead over the XFX Radeon RX 460. Then again, you saw what that amounts to in the real world—mostly just a frame or two in real games.
Next page: Power and heat
Test 8: Power
We test power under load by plugging the entire system into a Watts Up meter, running the intensive Division benchmark at 4K resolution, and noting the peak power draw. Idle power is measured after sitting on the Windows desktop for three minutes with no extra programs or processes running.
AMD’s Polaris GPU grants Radeon graphics cards a huge step forward in power efficiency, but it still isn’t as lean as Nvidia’s chips. Comparing the Sapphire Nitro and XFX Radeon RX 460 cards head-to-head, Sapphire’s card consumes slightly more power at peak (while still coming in solidly under 200W). Running at full speed at all times will do that.
Test 9: Heat
We test heat during the same intensive Division benchmark, by running SpeedFan in the background and noting the maximum GPU temperature once the run is over. All three of our test samples use custom coolers; there’s not a single reference design in the mix.
Sapphire’s Nitro runs the “hottest.” Again, opting to design around clock speeds running at maximum at all times has knock-on effects. That said, all of these cards run cool compared to higher-priced graphics cards.
They also all run quietly. You can hear the fans on both the XFX and Sapphire models, but neither is obnoxious when they’re in a closed case under your desk, and those sounds disappear completely if you toss on a gaming headset while you play.
Next page: Bottom line
When it comes to 4GB models of the Radeon RX 460, Sapphire has a clear winner on its hands here.
The Nitro RX 460 OC ($140 on Newegg) costs $10 less than XFX’s version, has one of the heftier overclocks available on custom RX 460 models, and its carefully calibrated cooling solution keeps those overclocks running at full speed at all times. It rocks for e-sports, and even does a fine job in traditional games if you’re realistic about balancing frame rates and graphics settings. And that 4GB definitely comes in handy if you’re expanding beyond CS:GO and League of Legends.
If you do plan on playing traditional games with the Sapphire Nitro RX 460, we’d definitely recommend picking up a FreeSync monitor to help smooth out the visuals if you’re able to. You can pick up a 22-inch 1080p FreeSync monitor for as little as $110 on Amazon, or a speedy 144Hz 1080p FreeSync display for $209 on Amazon. And if you’ve only got a 60Hz monitor, using AMD’s Frame Rate Target Control to limit e-sports games to 60 fps would result in even lower temperatures and power usage.
That said, we have the same qualms recommending the Sapphire Nitro RX 460 as we do with its XFX counterpart, and it has nothing to do with the superb custom designs from either vendor—both of which are outstanding for this price class. The 4GB Radeon RX 460s simply cost too much in today’s market.
Further reading: The best graphics cards for PC gaming, at every price
The 2GB Radeon RX 460s have carved a nice niche out for themselves. The reference design doesn’t require extra power connectors, which makes it a compelling solution for transforming a “big box” prebuilt PC from HP or Lenovo into a game-ready machine. The cutting-edge media support also makes the RX 460 a compelling option for home theater PCs. The price is right on the lower models, and the 2GB memory capacity is more than enough for the e-sports games the card is designed for.
You’d only want a 4GB model if you’re planning on playing traditional games as well. But all the 4GB Radeon RX 460s out there demand the use of an extra power connector, and cost in the neighborhood of $150. If you’re already making those sacrifices to play “normal” games, you’ll get more bang for your buck buying a GeForce GTX 950, many of which are selling for $150 these days, or even less after rebates. Most also use a six-pin power connector, and Nvidia’s card offers much better performance in most games.
The equation changes if you’re planning to pick up a variable refresh rate monitor to complement your card. G-Sync monitors cost much, much more than 1080p FreeSync monitors. On a tight budget, a 4GB Radeon RX 460 and a FreeSync monitor would be more cost-effective overall, and the thoughtfully designed Sapphire Nitro is the best 4GB Radeon RX 460 we’ve tested. Barring the FreeSync need, however, a GTX 950 is a better deal.