AMD Radeon R9 290X 4GB Review

Author: SKYMTL
Date: October 23, 2013
Product Name: R9 290X
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Conclusion; A Titan Slayer Is Born

AMD may have taken a while to get to this point but with the R9 290X, they finally have a viable competitor against NVIDIA’s GTX 780 and TITAN. More importantly, this new card is being introduced at a price that seriously undercuts the competition and ushers in a new day for the cost of high end GPUs. Is the R9 290X the stake to NVIDIA’s heart that so many AMD fans have been desperately hoping for? Only time will tell but expect it to cause a serious shakeup within the GeForce lineup in the near future.

AMD’s engineers have borrowed a page out of NVIDIA’s book by maximizing the Hawaii core’s area and transistor count in an effort to squeeze as much performance out of the 28nm manufacturing process as possible. They’ve gone about this in a logical way by optimizing the space allocated to the memory controllers but some major sacrifices were still made when creating the R9 290X. Double Precision performance operates at 1/8th speed while both heat production and power consumption are astronomical. It significantly outpaces the TITAN with a constant 95°C operating temperature and power draw that’s more than 50W higher.

AMD states that such high continual temperatures won’t affect ASIC longevity but numbers like that nonetheless point to a core being pushed to its limits. Our constrained overclocking results seem to back this hypothesis up as well.

The R9 290X’s temperature situation has been both mitigated and optimized through an updated version of PowerTune along with some additional on-die hardware elements. These work in tandem to balance out the core’s power needs and thermal output while also optimizing performance. In theory this approach pays off by insuring clock speeds remain at their highest possible levels. We did however see some odd but completely understandable results that caused us to completely rethink our benchmarking process.

As the R9 290X progresses through a gameplay scenario, its performance tends to drop by up to 7% as the PowerTune algorithms come to grips with stratospheric operating temperatures and the resulting increase in core power draw. This means the first two to five minutes of gameplay will see higher performance while frequencies tend to level out thereafter. NVIDIA’s similar GeForce Boost feature never encountered this kind of situation but a 10 minute “warm up” period was still necessary for all cards before every benchmark to replicate real-world gaming conditions.

PowerTune’s new functionality leads to a lot more personalization as well. This approach is personified by the R9 290X’s Uber and Silent modes which are selectable through a BIOS switch. Uber enhances performance by offering up acoustics as a sacrificial lamb while Silent balances out fan speeds and frequencies. Both can be further modified with clock speed tolerances via AMD’s slightly confusing but oh-so-useful Overdrive chart so there are plenty of options at your fingertips to make the R9 290X behave the way you want.

Even though the Radeon R9 290X is hugely powerful regardless of its preset, there are two different performance metrics we need to look at: those attained through Silent and Uber modes. With Silent Mode selected, it trades blows with NVIDIA’s TITAN and outpaces the GTX 780. There were some massive increases over the GTX 780 in games like Max Payne 3 and Hitman, both of which can make good use of the extra 1GB of memory on AMD’s card when played at extremely high settings.

The aptly named Uber Mode really moves performance to the next level. Through the application of increased fan speeds (55% versus Silent Mode’s 40%), the core is able to reach consistently higher frequencies. So, rather than fluctuating between 850MHz and 890MHz it steadies out around 980MHz. The results of this enhancement speak for themselves: on average, 6% better performance than Silent Mode places the R9 290X in truly elite company. At the very least, this gives AMD some serious bragging rights and it should also give NVIDIA some nightmares about what the upcoming R9 290 will bring to the table.

If the performance metrics of AMD’s R9 290X seem impressive, its price of $549 is quite simply a game changer. Not only does it make NVIDIA’s $649 GTX 780 look highly overpriced but the $999 TITAN has now been completely marginalized for anyone but entry level CUDA developers. The R9 280X’s launch at $299 should have put the writing on the wall but NVIDIA has been dreadfully slow to react to AMD’s new pricing structure. Sure, the bundling of free triple-A games with their GPUs does add some value. However, we can’t help but be highly critical of a strategy that ends up costing gamers so much more initially despite some great included titles. While reducing the cost of some lower end GeForce SKUs fired a shot across AMD’s bow, in one fell swoop AMD has just torpedoed NVIDA’s entire high end lineup.

The R9 290X can be as loud or quiet as you want but in its reference form, in order to achieve the performance numbers in this review, it is just massively louder than NVIDIA’s GTX 780 and TITAN. That’s a major problem for any gamers, particularly considering there won’t be any custom cooled versions available at launch from the likes of ASUS, MSI, Sapphire and XFX. Is the sacrifice worth it? Throw on some headphones and you’ll be none the wiser or wait for upgraded heatsinks / water blocks since the R9 290X really can fly when running at lower temperatures.

Some intangibles have been added into this mix too. TrueAudio and Mantle both sound like excellent concepts but they’re just too new for us to determine their true “value” as part of the R9 290X’s feature set. Then there’s NVIDIA’s GTX 780 Ti which, we would assume, will be (hopefully!) launched amid additional price drops for the now-overpriced GTX 770, GTX 780 and TITAN. Judging from NVIDIA’s direction for the GTX 700-series it may prove to be an excellent competitor while also being quieter and more efficient.

With the R9 290X, AMD has achieved something phenomenal. They have made extreme performance all that much more accessible to gamers by releasing a card that not only bucks current industry pricing trends but also looks towards the future with promising technologies Mantle and TrueAudio. Despite the fact that acoustics and power consumption may drag down the reference version in some respects, the R9 290X is a compelling enthusiast graphics card that has every right to brag about its supremacy.


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