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AMD R9 290X Review (Part 1)

The AMD R9 290X is without question an extremely powerful video card. Testing today highlighted that it was able to outperform the GTX 780 and GTX Titan in many of the latest Direct X 11 games as well as the last two iterations of 3DMark from Futuremark.

For many people the release of the R9 270X and R9 280X earlier this month was less than memorable …. especially the R9 280X which was basically a rehash of the older HD7970 GHZ Edition. To be fair, AMD did drop prices significantly and many partners have custom cooled R9 280X solutions available at less than £230. At those prices it is hard not to stand up and take notice, even if they aren’t really anything groundbreaking or new.

AMD’s R9 290X has certainly impressed us in regards to the pure frame rate performance. The 2,816 stream processors, 64 ROPS and 176 TMU’s with 512 bit memory interface ensure it can outclass any of the cards on test today when tasked at the native resolution of our 30 inch screen. As we mentioned earlier, Part 2 of this review will be published in the very near future, focusing on test results from our new 4K Asus PQ321QE 4K screen at 3840 x 2160 resolution.

While we could wax lyrical on the 290X’s ability to generate crazy frame rates at high resolutions, the reference sample cooler is really not up to the task of keeping this beast cool. AMD are keen to point out that the default thermal limit of 95c is perfectly fine, but I find it hard to hold my hands up in agreement.

Sure, the card isn’t likely to fail anytime soon while running at 95c, but it certainly isn’t an ideal situation for any hardware to run at, long term. AMD told us ‘Be assured, that 95C is a perfectly safe temperature at which the GPU can operate for its entire life. There is no technical reason to reduce the target temperature below 95C.’

We appreciate that the end user can adjust these settings within Catalyst Control Center, but the reference cooler can get very loud if you increase the fan speed significantly, so you are either going to be dealing with lower fan speeds and core clock reductions, or substantial fan noise with higher frame rate performance. In the default ‘Quiet mode’ with the fan limited to a maximum of 40%, we can see the AMD software downclocking the core in some games we tested, as well as benchmarks such as 3DMark. Furmark may be a synthetic stress test, but it was a good indication of how this algorithm is working – dropping the core clock speed by up to 300mhz.

Cutting through all the spin its easy to work out that if the reference cooler can’t maintain a 95c load limit at a specific fan speed, the core clock will drop and performance penalties will occur. Switching to UBER mode does negate many of the issues, as the fan speed increases to a 55% max threshold and therefore gives the software a wider scope to maintain the full 1GHZ core clock speed.

AMD could have approached this from a completely different angle and spent less time on tweaking software settings and more time developing a better reference cooler, allowing the R9 290X to hold the core clock speed at a constant 1GHZ. Sapphire were able to release their new Tri cooled R9 280X Toxic Edition with beefy 10mm heatpipes, holding a load temperature of 64C while maintaining the full overclocked core clock speed. I am actually fairly positive now this is why the R9 290X launch has been so long in coming as AMD have been ‘balancing’ the 290X thermal curve in software for the last month.

While we can fantasize about the custom solutions that AMD partners may be delivering in coming weeks we really can only review what we have in our hands today. The AMD R9 290X is an undisputed king able to take on the GTX Titan and overclocked GTX780 solutions. Sadly the reference sample is ill equipped with an inadequate single fan cooler which copes with cooling deficiencies by often downclocking the core speed to maintain a 95c temperature. The UBER mode is better, and less core downclocking is apparent, but this card is screaming out for a cooler able to drop temperatures below 80C while maintaining a constant, full speed core clock at all times.

When reviewing a card such as the R9 290X, we need to focus on the complete package, not just performance. The cooler is the only reason why this card didn’t walk away with our highest award today but we are quite sure that when we get modified versions of the 290X in coming weeks that they will get the ‘MUST HAVE’ award. AMD have released a monster card able to take on Nvidia in the high end, but they really do seem to have a hard time developing a quiet, capable reference cooler for their hardware.

AMD have told us that the R9 290X will launch around £450 inc vat. We would expect overclocked, modified pre-overclocked cards to sell for less than £500. The prices are great, but we would recommend you wait for custom partner cards before parting with the cash.

Pros:

  • incredible performance.
  • some overclocking headroom.
  • able to outperform the GTX Titan and GTX780 OC cards.
  • competitive pricing, undercutting the GTX780.

Cons:

  • reference cooler is not up to the task.
  • AMD may say it is fine, but 95c is too hot long term for my tastes.
  • overclocking requires the fan to be set much higher, and it can get very noisy.
  • quiet mode will suffer from core downclocking depending on the situation.

Kitguru says: The R9 290X is a monster solution, but we want to see the custom cooled solutions from AMD partners, and soon.
WORTH BUYING

Rating: 8.5.

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8 comments

  1. Wow for AMD to able defeat Titan thats really something, maybe i will buy this card if its available in my country. But not AMD reference card, maybe from MSI or Gigabyte.

  2. good honest review! amazing hardware but that cooler should not be on this card – will they ever listen!

  3. Quite a few AMD favoured games in this, but good to see a few others added recently. Interesting to see the fan and cooler seem to struggle to handle the heat. Ill wait on the Vapor X model end of year and upgrade then.

  4. I am impressed with the performance., no question – its an uplift after the 280x and 270x – but the only thing is that today it seems to be only reference cards.

    Any ideas when MSI, Sapphire XFX etc will have modified versions out to buy? hope they keep them well below £500. Nvidia will drop 780 prices soon

  5. AMD reference coolers have always sucked. I remember the 4870 days when they said 105c was ok long term too and my card basically melted within 3 months. ill pass on this one until they sort out a good cooler

  6. I didnt think the TITAN cooler was that good – I wanted a modified cooler for that card from day 1. this is a fantastic solution, but it needs watercooled by the looks of it. that driver change in CCC is bonkers – no need for it, and no need to try and fool us into thinking this change is anything but a requirement to try and get the card stable at the rated speed. its not a driver ‘addition’ for any other reason.

  7. In my honest opinion the reference coolers on the 7XX cards are some the best they have done. The 290x temps warrant an aftermarket cooler for sure. Impressive performance non the less, i hope to see some great results from alternative cooling solutions.

    The 780s are out-performing the Titan with all the new drivers so i personally expected to see 290x surpass it from the get go. Lets see what AMD next! 🙂