The AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT launch is a mess: here’s what you need to know

AMD announced the Radeon RX 5600 XT back at CES 2020, and the pitch is solid: provide the ultimate 1080p gaming experience at a price that makes it competitive with the GTX 1660 Ti. 

And that’s the way it would have played out, at least until Nvidia decided to drop the price on the GeForce RTX 2060 down to $299 (£274, AU$539) to put the pressure on AMD. That’s where the drama starts – but it only gets spicier from here.

Now, when we reviewed the AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT, it actually holds its own against the RTX 2060, even beating it in several tests. But, after we did our tests for the review, aftermarket graphics card manufacturers pushed out VBIOS (VGA Basic Input Output System) updates that enhanced performance even further. If that sounded like a whole bunch of nonsensical jargon, that’s because it was – which highlights a major problem with the launch of the AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT.

So, we thought it’d be a good idea to not only dive into the performance gains that we found when we updated the VBIOS of the Sapphire Pulse model of the Radeon RX 5600 XT we reviewed, but also dive into the often confusing world of aftermarket graphics cards. Our end goal is to help you make the right decision, so if you do buy a Radeon RX 5600 XT or any other graphics card, you can make sure you get one that doesn’t ultimately disappoint you. 

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What’s the deal with aftermarket graphics cards, anyway?

Imagine this: you’re in a Best Buy and you walk into the computing section. You’ve always been tempted to get into PC gaming, and you heard a whole bunch of people tell you that you have to buy your own. When you look at the graphics cards, not only do you see AMD and Nvidia graphics cards, but there are other brand names on the boxes like EVGA, Sapphire, XFX or MSI. 

For anyone that’s just getting into the PC components scene, this can definitely be a point of confusion. So, here’s the deal: 

Both AMD and Nvidia design GPUs, or graphics processing units, which is how they’ve both have built their reputation (AMD also makes CPUs). And, while both Team Red and Team Green will produce their own graphics cards, they only typically tend to do so for the higher end of their respective founders stacks. For Nvidia, these graphics cards are called “Founders Edition,” which right now are exclusively found with the GeForce RTX 2060 and above. AMD will also manufacture its own versions of its high-end GPUs, though right now it’s limited to the Radeon RX 5700 and RX 5700 XT. 

AMD and Nvidia both tackle these differently, though. Nvidia’s Founders Edition cards feature premium coolers and are overclocked over the base spec, whereas AMD’s cards are the basic spec. These are both the versions of the cards Nvidia and AMD will send us for review when a new GPU hits the market. For the most part, you can pick up these versions of the graphics cards, and you’re pretty much guaranteed a good experience.

But, what about the lower end of the market? 

Well, with more affordable graphics cards like the recently-released AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT, both graphics card manufacturers will simply design the GPU, along with a general design for the board with power requirements, VRAM capacity, and so on. Everything else beyond the GPU, like the cooler design, BIOS, any additional overclock or lighting – that’s all up to aftermarket graphics card manufacturers. Which is why you’ll see so many different versions of every GPU. 

Typically, when Nvidia or AMD announce a graphics card at, say, $300, that’s going to be the base-level price. You will be able to find graphics cards at this price point, but they’ll typically be very basic. You’ll get the bare minimum base clock speeds, along with a cooler that will get the job done but won’t leave a ton of room for overclocking. 

You’ll also find the same GPU in graphics cards that are much more expensive, too. These will typically have extremely beefy coolers with up to three fans and hefty overclocks that can see them perform much faster than the base-level spec, sometimes even seeing double-digit performance improvements.

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What’s the deal with the Radeon RX 5600 XT?

Seemingly in response to Nvidia dropping the price of the GeForce RTX 2060, AMD gave the green light to its aftermarket partners to release new VBIOS software, raising power consumption and performance to have a performance edge over Team Green’s card. 

So, there will be a small window of time where users may have to update the VBIOS of their own graphics cards. Because historically this has been a risky procedure, we reached out to Sapphire, the manufacturer behind the specific Radeon RX 5600 XT we reviewed and we were told “The good news is that cards on sale in NA have already been updated to the latest BIOS”. There is a chance, though, that a card slipped through the cracks and didn’t get the update. But, in those cases Sapphire is still recommending customers make the update.

For the specific model we reviewed, we were assured that “with the card having dual BIOS the chances of causing a non-repairable error is very limited.” We did specifically ask whether or not the cards would be covered by warranty if the BIOS flash went wrong, however, and we didn’t get a very assuring answer. Instead we were just told that if anyone has any concerns to just “contact regional support”. 

So, it seems like most of the Sapphire Pulse graphics cards that are out there either have the VBIOS already, or will be easy to update. And, of course, going forward, you won’t have to worry about the whole VBIOS mess at all. But, the Sapphire Pulse is one graphics card in a sea of Radeon RX 5600 XTs.

Obviously, if there’s a deluge of graphics cards out there, and only some of them are going to be updated with these new clock speeds and power targets, that would make it extremely confusing to consumers who are going to be jumping into the market for the first time. When we think of the people that would be going for a graphics card in this price range, there’s probably a sizable portion that are just going to buy it right off the shelf at Best Buy for their first PC build. 

This isn’t the same enthusiast audience that would go for an RTX 2080 Ti, who we expect would relentlessly scan through product pages to make sure it has the highest clock speeds and most robust cooling. 

To that end, we reached out to AMD for some clarity on this. Most importantly, we wanted to know if the entire Radeon RX 5600 XT lineup would be featuring this new VBIOS. AMD stopped short of confirming this is the case, instead telling us that “AMD has made the VBIOS update available to all its AIB partners. AIBs can choose to update select existing or upcoming RX 5600 XT models, depending on their respective product plans.”

This basically tells us nothing. Of course AMD made the update available to all of its AIB, or aftermarket, partners. From the sound of it, though, this VBIOS update wasn’t mandated for the 5600 XT lineup, which means that they won’t all be created equal. 

Over the next few months, then, we’re probably going to see a vast majority of Radeon RX 5600 XTs out there with the new VBIOS that are absolute beasts. However, particularly right around the lower end of the Radeon RX 5600 XT pricing scale, it’s possible that some of the graphics cards won’t be rocking this new software. 

Now, we have to be abundantly clear here. At TechRadar, we don’t typically review a wide range of aftermarket graphics cards. There are simply too many of them, and we on the computing team simply don’t have the bandwidth for that many graphics cards. As a general rule, if you want to be safe when buying a graphics card we’ve reviewed, you should go with the specific model we reviewed. We understand that there are a ton out there, and we definitely want to help if you have questions, so please reach out on Twitter or through email if you have any questions about any particular graphics card. 

There are plenty of outlets out there, however, that do review a wide swath of graphics card for every GPU, like our friends over at Tom’s Hardware. We urge you to make sure you read reviews of the specific graphics card you’re looking at to make sure it’s up to snuff.  

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Is the Radeon RX 5600 XT still worth getting?

Like we mentioned earlier, we tested the Radeon RX 5600 XT out of the box with the old VBIOS, so our star rating is entirely based on that basic VBIOS. Even if you get a basic Radeon RX 5600 XT, you can still expect a strong 1080p performer. 

After hearing about all of this commotion surrounding the Radeon RX 5600 XT, we went back, flashed the new VBIOS onto our review sample and ran through all of our testing again, and we included the new numbers down below. 

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As you can see, after the new VBIOS, the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT is now very comfortably ahead of the RTX 2060 in all tests except for Time Spy Ultra and Middle Earth: Shadow of War – and that’s due to the limited 6GB VRAM. And, it’s also important to keep in mind that the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600 XT is $289 (£269, about AU$420), rather than the $299 (£274, about AU$440) of the RTX 2060 Founders Edition. 

Especially here in a couple months when all of the cards on the market have the new VBIOS and customers are no longer at risk of bricking their cards by flashing the wrong VBIOS, this performance advantage puts AMD in the lead. Nvidia still has the RTX feature, though, something that AMD’s cards simply can’t do right now, no matter the VBIOS. 

So if ray tracing is a thing you’re into, and it is very freaking cool, our advice is the same as what we came to in our review: buy Nvidia 100% of the time. But, if you just want raw performance and you’re comfortable with potentially flashing the VBIOS, the AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT is potentially significantly faster and less expensive. 

Of course, that recommendation comes with a meaty caveat. You should absolutely do some research into the Radeon RX 5600 XT model you buy. At the end of the day, we’ve only tested one, so we can only speak to that specific unit. 

All the Radeon RX 5600 XT cards will be using the same GPU, however, so the variance isn’t going to be like night and day. At the bare minimum, you should still be able to expect a passable 1080p experience, you just might not get as much as someone with a more expensive version of the card. So be wary, and again, feel free to reach out to us on the TechRadar computing team if you have any questions at all, and we’ll be happy to give you some advice. 

At the end of the day, the way AMD handled this launch was not great, and it wasn’t very consumer-friendly. The fact that it is willing to launch out a VBIOS update last minute like this, potentially putting consumer’s purchases at risk is not a good look. But we still don’t think it’s a deal breaker, and the Radeon RX 5600 XT is still a beast of a graphics card – just make sure you do your research before jumping in. In fact, we think that’s good advice for any graphics card you buy, period.