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AMD R9 290 Review (1600P, 4K and CF)

The AMD R9 290 is a very powerful graphics card capable of dealing with the latest Direct X 11 titles at both 1600p and Ultra HD 4K resolutions.

Both R9 290X and R9 290 have 4GB of GDDR5 memory connected via a broad 512 bit memory interface. The memory is clocked at the same 1,250mhz (5Gbps effective) speeds. The 290X has the higher STREAM processor count – 2,816 compared to 2,560 on the R9 290. Texture units have also been downgraded, from 176 to 160.

Both of these cards have been designed to handle Ultra HD 4K resolutions and they are often right at the top of the performance charts. If you want to game at 1080p then the AMD R9 280X seems a  more cost effective solution.

Right now the cost of a good 4K monitor is prohibitive and very few people will be able to afford one, although prices will surely drop in 2014. We have recently added the £3,000 ASUS PQ321QE 31.5 inch 4K monitor into our labs and there is no doubt that gaming at this resolution has to be seen in the flesh to be fully enjoyed.
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Not every game has been designed to scale well to Ultra HD 4K, but titles such as Battlefield 4 and Batman Arkham Origins really do help to showcase the ASUS monitor at the native 3,840 x 2,160 resolution. Playing either of these games at Ultra HD 4K on the R290x/290 or GTX Titan/GTX 780 is simply breathtaking.

Mixed 290x/290 Crossfire was also a surprisingly positive experience, and we could notice the frame rates smoothing out at Ultra HD 4k. It may seem like a lot of cash, but if you are forking out £3,000 for a monitor we would imagine that paying for two high end video cards wouldn’t be too much of a financial stretch.

Sadly, it isn’t all peaches and cream for AMD. The R9 290 is hampered with the same reference cooler that is fitted to the R9 290X. AMD have been keen to point out that holding a 95C temperature long term is perfectly fine, but I really can’t agree.

Not only does the PCB get boiling hot to the touch after gaming for any length of time, but both of these cards pump a lot of radiated hot air into a chassis. Good exhaust airflow and cable management is a prerequisite if you are building a system around one, or two of these reference cooled cards.

AMD’s Catalyst Control Center does allow for end user adjustments, but you need to be very careful on the settings. If you set the working temperature to a maximum of 85c for instance, but don’t increase the maximum fan speed, then the card will throttle substantially more under load – AMD have set it to 95c for a reason, not because they suddenly worked out that ‘hotter is fine’. The end user either has to accept a high running temperature or an increase in fan noise when playing games.

AMD are clearly battling this problem internally as the original launch date for the 290 was changed last minute, after we had most of our tests completed with the BETA 6 driver. We noticed that the BETA 8 driver had increased the fan profile from a maximum of 40% to 47% to try and squeeze every ounce of performance from the hardware. While the noise levels are higher, it was a good move as I had documented a lot of throttling under load at 40%.

For the gaming audience living in a particularly warm climate there is a good chance that the R9 290 and R9 290X will downclock the core clock fairly regularly unless you increase the fan speed from the default settings. I tested these cards in an air conditioned environment with temperatures held between 22c and 24c, but at 30c? Be prepared to increase the default fan profile if you want to get as much performance as possible from the hardware.

No matter how AMD attempt to spin this, we do feel they needed to create a better reference cooler. If this cooler was fitted to a lower performance card it would probably be perfectly fine, but the 290/290X are very hot running cards and would undoubtedly perform to a higher level fitted with a version of the Tri cooler featured on the superb R9 280X Toxic Edition which featured whopping 10mm heatpipes. Lowering the noise levels would also be very beneficial to the overall experience of the new hardware.

Just before publication AMD told us that the SEP of the Radeon R9 290 will start at 289€+VAT / $399 USD. After factoring in 20% VAT we would translate this into a £319.99 inc vat asking price in the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that the R9 290 will offer outstanding value for money.

The cooling issues are the only reason that the 290 has not earned our ‘MUST HAVE’ award today. We love the performance of the solution at ultra high resolutions, but until we get our hands on custom versions of the hardware from the likes of Sapphire then it is difficult to give either 290 or 290x our highest award. A different version of the triple fan cooler fitted to the dual GPU HD7990 would have undoubtedly worked and I still can’t understand why AMD didn’t work harder on this reference cooling solution.

Pros:

  • Fantastic price point.
  • superb performance.
  • designed for Ultra HD 4K gaming.

Cons:

  • can get loud.
  • will run hot.
  • core clock can downclock depending on ambient temperature and fan speed.

Kitguru says: A fantastic, high value for money proposition, but we advise our audience to wait on custom cooled versions of the hardware before parting with the cash.
WORTH BUYING

Rating: 8.5.

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  • Slashwat

    The price is great, but the cooler is certainly not……. waiting to see modified versions soon

  • Ben

    The prices are hard to ignore, and its good to see Nvidia dropping prices lately too, they had been overcharging for quite some time now

  • Topperfalkon

    I always wondered why they didn’t use a version of the HD7990 cooler. would have made more sense instead of something they probably used on a HD7850

  • Bob (Official)

    Please, get rid of Furmark. It’s meant to stress GPUs at the max temperature before they are permanentely damaged. Nvidia drivers detect when Furmark is running and throttle their cards, so these results are biased. Measure real world power comsumption and temperature from games that are driven by different types of workloads – Rome: Total War 2, L4D 2, Battlefield 4 and GTA.

  • Hi Bob, it has never damaged any GPU in the years we have used it. and we only use it to supplement the temperatures from testing games.

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  • Tonzskie

    I got AMD Radeon R9 290.. and it works great.. All games max graphics.. 😀 Thanks much