Review: AMD Radeon R9 290X, The Two-Speed Graphics Card

Goal number one: to beat the competition

Our score: 5/5
Reviewed: November 13, 2013 11:07 AM
52 want this Me too!
Published: November 13, 2013 11:07 AM
By Régis Jehl
Translated by: Hugh Ehreth
It's here, the real thing. AMD's brand new ultra-high-end video card, the Radeon R9 290X, has one clear objective: to reclaim leadership over Nvidia and its GeForce GTX 780 and GTX Titan. To get there, AMD decided to give the R9 290X two fan speeds, "Quiet" for when you want low fan noise and "Uber" for when you need high performance.
 

The Specs

AMD gave the Radeon R9 290X one of its Hawaii GPUs, which are based on a slightly different version of the GCN architecture that debuted on the Radeon HD 7970 in 2011 (Tahiti). The improvements primarily affect the unit's parallel computing and give it full support for DirectX 11.2 (feature level 11_1, Tiled Resources Tier-2).
Amd r9 290x pcb s
The Hawaii GPU contains no fewer than 2,816 stream processors, which makes for a 38% increase over the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition and twice the number of ROPs, up here to 64. There are now 176 texture units and a 512-bit memory bus (compared to 128 texture units and a 384-bit memory bus on the 7970 GHz Edition). The graphics memory has been upped to 4 GB, however the GDDR5 has dropped from 1,500 MHz on the 7970 GHz to 1,250 MHz here.
 

Two Preset Speeds

The clock rate is a bit more difficult to evaluate, as AMD says it runs at "up to 1 GHz". In other words, the clock isn't fixed. Instead, it fluctuates every time you hit a power consumption ceiling (AMD doesn't say exactly where that lies) or when the GPU's temperature reaches 95°C. At that temperature, PowerTune kicks in to increase the fan's speed up to a fixed point. If that still doesn't do it, then the clock rate and power use drop by varying degrees—we measured it at a minimum of around 700 MHz.
 
Amd r9 290x dual bios s
Left: Quiet mode - the clock rate fluctuates greatly and never reached 1 GHz on our test
Right: Uber mode - the clock rate fluctuated less and often reached 1 GHz during the same test

A switch allows you to flip between the two fan speeds. The first speed, Quiet mode, sets the maximum fan speed at 40%. In this mode the GPU's clock fluctuates much more and never reaches 1 GHz in the first minutes of testing. The second speed, Uber mode, sets the maximum fan speed at 55%, which in our tests allowed it to run at 1 GHz much more often, with a few drops to around 915 MHz.

But the system isn't set in stone, either. You can change the limits using the Catalyst Control Center driver. When you set the maximum fan speed to 100% of its capacity, the card stays put at 1 GHz but makes much more noise (see below). Or you can change how much power is allocated to the card, what the maximum clock rates are and how high the temperature can go (95°C maximum).
 
Amd r9 290x ccc s
You can customise several settings to optimise the card

Size & Noise3/5


The Radeon R9 290X has a 26.6 cm PCB and a rather large cooling system with aluminium fins and a vapour chamber that distributes the heat generated by the GPU to the entire dissipation surface. "Cool" air is pushed between the fins by a turbine similar to the ones AMD has been using for several generations now, and then most of the hot air is expelled outside the shell. The cooler sticks out a bit from the rest of the card, making the total length 27.5 cm.
 
Amd r9 290x rad s
The cooling system

We're only so impressed with the R9 290X's cooling system. In order to keep the chip at 95°C—which, by the way, is pretty high when the average temperature these days is around 85°C—and maintain a relatively high clock rate, you have to switch into Uber mode. And when running at 55% of its highest reachable speed, the fan already makes a lot of noise (almost as much noise as the 7970 GHz). Quiet mode reduces the fan noise and puts the already noisy R9 290X on equal footing with the GTX 780, but it's still much louder than the GTX Titan.
 
Amd r9 290x noises

Radeon R9 290X (left) and the quieter GeForce GTX 780 (right)

When at rest, both modes give the same results. The fan stays quiet relative to when it's running full force, but it still isn't as quiet as competing video cards. At rest, it's similar to the 7970 GHz.

Power Use3/5


With so many more stream processors, it comes as no surprise that the R9 290X consumes a good deal more power than AMD's previous models. In both Quiet and Uber mode, ours consumed around 330 W, depending on the game. In the same conditions, the 7970 GHz Edition consumed 300 W at most and the GTX 780 consumed 275 W.

At rest, we measured 59 W to 61 W on our entire computer. That's a bit higher than AMD's last high-end model (56 W), as well as the GTX 780 (50 W). When your monitor goes to sleep, ZeroCore Power kicks in and cuts the fan and most of the other components in order to skim some 20 W off the total use.

Performance in Games5/5


It takes a while to test a graphics card like this one. Not only do both modes need testing, but we also had to let the card's temperature rise before taking any measurements. This allows it to reach its cruising speed before we start noting anything down (we've done the same procedure for Nvidia's cards ever since GPU Boost entered the picture).
 
Amd r9 290x perfs
Score calculated based on 7 games tested in 1920 x 1080 pixels with the highest quality settings.
Click on the image to see every graphics card we've reviewed.

Based on our seven reference games, the Radeon R9 290X outperformed the Nvidia GTX 780 by a nose in Quiet mode. On average, that puts AMD in the lead over Nvidia by 2.8%. In Uber mode the R9 290X outperforms the GTX Titan by, again, only 3.3%. So, AMD comes out ahead, but just barely.

In Conclusion

AMD has finally managed to rival Nvidia's graphics performance, but that's not without its own limitations. After all, the Radeon R9 290X uses more power than competing cards, which in turn means more noise. To make up for it, AMD's partners will have to learn how to tame Hawaii and come out with quieter cards.

AMD launched the R9 290X at €489, which is an aggressive price compared to the GTX 780 (€593) and GTX Titan (€893). However, to get a full idea of how the prices compare, you need to take into account the various bundles that come with each card, as well as subsequent price readjustments.
 
Amd mantle nvidia gsync

It has become fairly clear that you can no longer choose a graphics card based solely on its GPU performance. There's also the ecosystem surrounding each brand that you have to consider. AMD, for instance, has its Mantle API to help optimise games much more effectively than most, coming close to console performance. Nvidia, on the other hand, has its G-Sync display control system to get around the limitations of vertical synching and provide better perceived fluidity even with low frame rates.
 
5/5 AMD Radeon R9 290X DigitalVersus 2013-11-13 12:07:00

Pros

  • Performance
  • ZeroCore Power
  • Option to juggle between performance and fan noise

Cons

  • Loud fan

Conclusion

AMD reached its goal with the high-powered Radeon R9 290X: to rival the other high-end graphics cards. Just remember, the GPU requires a good deal of power and needs to be cooled down in order to perform at its best, which in turn produces a lot of noise.

OUR SCORE 5/5
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