AMD’s R9 280X may not be a completely new product, nor is it any faster than some cards already within the Radeon lineup but it exceeded every one of our expectations on multiple levels. With it, AMD has proven that you don’t necessarily need a new architecture or class-leading performance metrics to make a product exciting and appealing.
Some may decry the repurposing of Tahiti XT cores to create the R9 280X 3GB but AMD’s strategy is no different from NVIDIA’s was when the GTX 700-series was introduced. They’ve effectively taken existing silicon, pushed its frequencies and added faster memory in an effort to maximize returns. Like NVIDIA, AMD will also be introducing a new larger, high end core that will power the R9 290 and R9 290X, two cards that are expected to go toe to toe against the GTX 780 and TITAN. The end result of this shrewd approach is a combination of performance and phenomenal value which makes high end gaming accessible to a wider market.
With a 1GHz core frequency, 6Gbps GDDR5 and a Tahiti XT core, the R9 280X’s performance was a foregone conclusion. It nearly hits HD 7970 GHz Edition levels and trades blows with NVIDIA’s GTX 770. It does loose handily to the GTX 780 but that was expected considering the price difference between the two cards. Plus, the R9 280X was never meant to compete against NVIDIA’s ultra enthusiast-level offerings; that’s the R9 290 and R9 290X’s job. Performance per watt is very nearly up to NVIDIA’s levels which is good news for AMD's 28nm parts.
Since this is an board partner focused card without a reference version, we’re sure to see some interesting designs with additional performance on tap through enhanced clock speeds and better cooling solutions. Take the XFX card we looked at in this review as an example: it may not be pre-overclocked but the heatsink provided excellent temperature results and whisper quiet acoustics. Unfortunately, this didn’t lead to overly impressive overclocking results but that’s due to our lack of a proper voltage-tuning utility and less time with the card than we would have liked.
Secondary features like DX11.1 support and Mantle are certainly interesting additions but we’re not in a position to predict how either will affect the R9 280X’s appeal. It’s just too early in the development cycle of both APIs to pass judgement. With that being said, we do feel that TrueAudio would have been a beneficial selling point for this card and its absence may cause buyers to look elsewhere if developers show widespread interest.
The R9 280X may not be able to provide any surprises on the performance front but the real story here is about its perceptual value when compared against other cards in this segment. When we look at the average frames per second available above that magical 30 FPS mark, a price of just $299 allows it to steamroll the competition. NVIDIA’s GTX 770 looks positively overpriced and even the GTX 760 is a particularly bad value since its core architecture just doesn’t provide the necessary bandwidth for completely playable framerates at 2560x1440 when details are maxed out.
NVIDIA’s poor positioning is completely of their own making. They reduced pricing on lower end cards but missed a golden opportunity preempt AMD’s publicly announced pricing structure before the R9 280X was even released. Instead, the GTX 770 and GTX 760 have been caught flat footed and just can’t be recommended at this point. There’s just no getting around the fact that you can buy two R9 280X cards for the price of a single GTX 780 and still have $50 left over.
This new card certainly has the performance per dollar metric sealed tight but there are currently some slightly better buys out there which also use the Tahiti XT core. You can easily find a HD 7970 3GB (the non GHz Edition of course) for just $280 after rebates and it comes with access to AMD’s Never Settle Gold bundle, which is something the R9 280X lacks. Just make sure to grab these deals now since they won’t last all that long as Tahiti allocation is shifted to the 280X and certain HD 7900-series SKUs move into EOL status.
For the time being, the R9 280X is the most appealing card in AMD’s refreshed lineup. Not only is it affordable but it provides performance metrics that were previously unheard of within the $299 price bracket, adding some much-needed value to a segment that will be in high demand as new games are released over the Christmas season.
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