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Sidebar: Variability Turns Into A Graphics Card Crapshoot

AMD Radeon R9 290 Review: Fast And $400, But Is It Consistent?
By , Igor Wallossek

Actually, before I dive into the Radeon R9 290 that AMD sent to our lab, I need to broach the subject of variability from one GPU to the next.

Hawaii has the potential to be a very, very fast GPU. If you cool it right and keep it at its frequency ceiling, it can beat Titan. We saw that in our review of the card, and that’s why it earned our Elite award. When you don’t pamper it, though, the chip is quick to let you know that it’s running at redline. Unfortunately, AMD’s reference cooler, spinning at acoustically-friendly speeds, cannot cool Hawaii well enough to promise consistent clock rates in different apps. You start at 1000 MHz and, within minutes, are at some frequency lower than that. It might be 900-something, 800-something, or 700-something megahertz, depending on your specific GPU. That can turn into benchmark results that look nothing like each other from one card to the next.

The card that AMD sent to me is a stallion. Even if you get it nice and hot before running a test, bringing it down off of that 1000 MHz “wishful thinking” spec, it’s still faster than GeForce GTX 780, and oftentimes GeForce GTX Titan. But the Radeon R9 290X I bought from Newegg is a dud. It’ll drop to 727 MHz and stay there…and the reference cooler still can’t cool it fast enough. The result is that it violates its 40% fan speed ceiling as well. The craziness, then, is that my R9 290 press board is typically faster than my R9 290X retail card. In the benchmarks, you’re going to see numbers for all three.

Update: As is Tom's Hardware policy, we shared these potentially problematic findings with AMD prior to publication, and the company insists something is wrong with the retail-purchased cards I tested. We will continue investigating and, if any additional news becomes available, update this story.

Does that mean R9 290X’s recognition is unwarranted? I will say that Nvidia’s price cuts add pressure AMD’s flagship didn’t feel a couple of weeks ago. And in light of the almost-30% difference in frequency between ceiling and floor, it’s a lot harder to put confidence in the representativeness of press-sampled cards.

Of course, that puts us between a rock and a hard place. For R9 290X, we can go out and buy boards to compare. But there’s no way to know if the R9 290s you buy will operate at the top of their range (947 MHz) or the bottom (662 MHz).

The good news to come from all of this, perhaps, is that existing R9 290X and 290 cards employ AMD’s reference cooler design. This is the weak link in the chain affecting all of the Hawaii-based products we’ve tested thus far (and we’ve been testing pretty much non-stop for three weeks now). Again, third-party designs with more effective coolers will be what change the story.

Rumor has it, though, that AMD is holding its partners at bay until GeForce GTX 780 Ti launches, allowing the company to reevaluate the ultra-high-end space and put a target on where it needs to be for another victory. We have Hawaii running at a constant, stable 1.158 GHz in our lab, and we know a card with two eight-pin power inputs could be a real beast. However, we also don’t anticipate AMD or its partners offering 780 Ti-killing performance at the same $550 price point.

So, here we are, facing a trimmed-down GPU and the same thermal solution. Let’s have a look…

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Top Comments
  • 24 Hide
    Shankovich , November 4, 2013 10:06 PM
    Wow a 12% boost with non-reference coolers. Can you imagine what'll happen with the 290X when we see that? Thanks AMD! Some much needed competition!
  • 12 Hide
    gity69 , November 4, 2013 10:44 PM
    Well as a long time AMD fan this is both great news and cause for concern. That disparity between retail and press cards is disturbing to say the least. I am also curious if a proper cooling solution would rectify that problem. As to why I like AMD well much like their CPU's the Hawaii line looks to be power hungry and hot but will shine if power is not a concern and pampered by someone who knows what their doing. I'm looking forward to what I can do with one of these with a proper water cooling setup.
  • 12 Hide
    slomo4sho , November 4, 2013 9:12 PM
    This is a win at $400! Good job AMD!



    http://techreport.com/review/25602/amd-radeon-r9-290-graphics-card-reviewed/9

    Quote:
    However, the two retail Radeon R9 290X boards in our lab are both slower than the 290 tested today. They average lower clock rates over time, pushing frame rates down. Clearly there’s something wrong when the derivative card straight from AMD ends up on top of the just-purchased flagships. So who’s to say that retail 290s won’t follow suit, and when we start buying those cards, they prove to underperform GeForce GTX 780? We can only speculate at this point, though anecdotal evidence gleaned from our experience with R9 290X is suggestive.


    Chris, these results differ drastically from real world results from 290X owners at OCN... I understand that your observations are anecdotal and based on a very small sample size but do you mind looking into this matter further because putting such a statement in bold in the conclusion even though it contradicts real world experiences of owners just provides a false assumption to the uninformed reader...

    The above claim has already escalated further than it should... A Swiss site actually has already rebutted by testing their own press sample with a retail model and concluded the following:

    Quote:
    With the results in hand, the picture is clear. The performance is basically identical between the press copy and graphics card from the shelf, at least in Uber mode. Any single frame per second is different, which is what may be considered normal as bonds or uncertainty in the measurements.

    In the quiet mode, where the dynamic frequencies to work overtime, the situation becomes slightly turbid. A minor performance difference can be seen in some titles, and even if it is not about considerable variations, the trend is clear. In the end, it does an average variance tion of only a few percent, ie no extreme levels. The reason may include slightly less contact with the cooler, or simply easy changing ambient temperature.
Other Comments
  • 12 Hide
    slomo4sho , November 4, 2013 9:12 PM
    This is a win at $400! Good job AMD!



    http://techreport.com/review/25602/amd-radeon-r9-290-graphics-card-reviewed/9

    Quote:
    However, the two retail Radeon R9 290X boards in our lab are both slower than the 290 tested today. They average lower clock rates over time, pushing frame rates down. Clearly there’s something wrong when the derivative card straight from AMD ends up on top of the just-purchased flagships. So who’s to say that retail 290s won’t follow suit, and when we start buying those cards, they prove to underperform GeForce GTX 780? We can only speculate at this point, though anecdotal evidence gleaned from our experience with R9 290X is suggestive.


    Chris, these results differ drastically from real world results from 290X owners at OCN... I understand that your observations are anecdotal and based on a very small sample size but do you mind looking into this matter further because putting such a statement in bold in the conclusion even though it contradicts real world experiences of owners just provides a false assumption to the uninformed reader...

    The above claim has already escalated further than it should... A Swiss site actually has already rebutted by testing their own press sample with a retail model and concluded the following:

    Quote:
    With the results in hand, the picture is clear. The performance is basically identical between the press copy and graphics card from the shelf, at least in Uber mode. Any single frame per second is different, which is what may be considered normal as bonds or uncertainty in the measurements.

    In the quiet mode, where the dynamic frequencies to work overtime, the situation becomes slightly turbid. A minor performance difference can be seen in some titles, and even if it is not about considerable variations, the trend is clear. In the end, it does an average variance tion of only a few percent, ie no extreme levels. The reason may include slightly less contact with the cooler, or simply easy changing ambient temperature.
  • -7 Hide
    Heironious , November 4, 2013 9:19 PM
    This is weird, something must be wrong with your system. I have an i5-2500, GTX 780, 16 GB G Skill 1333, 500 GB samsung SSD, Windows 8.1 64 bit, and on Ultra with 4x MSAA I get 80 - 100 FPS....
  • -9 Hide
    Heironious , November 4, 2013 9:21 PM
    And thats on Multiplayer 64 man servers....
  • 7 Hide
    cangelini , November 4, 2013 9:25 PM
    This is the single-player campaign.
  • 9 Hide
    aznjoka , November 4, 2013 9:31 PM
    According to Tom's Benchmarks Nvidia's price drop just became meaningless
  • -5 Hide
    Heironious , November 4, 2013 9:35 PM
    Multiplayer would add more stress to the CPUs / GPU's. Like I said, something is wrong with their machine. I would prob get higher on single player. Im going to check and find out.
  • 3 Hide
    DBGT_87 , November 4, 2013 9:36 PM
    hope we will not wait so long for the custom cards
  • 9 Hide
    slomo4sho , November 4, 2013 9:46 PM
    Quote:
    According to Tom's Benchmarks Nvidia's price drop just became meaningless


    Now to wait for the non-reference cards at the end of the month!
  • 2 Hide
    jimmysmitty , November 4, 2013 10:00 PM
    I agree that the stock cooling is pretty bad but in honesty, no matter how nice they make it after market is always better. The Titan may not have had after market but if it did it would have cooled better.

    It looks like a good card for the price as it even keeps up with the $100 more GTX780. This is good as NVidia may drop prices even more which means we could also see a price drop on the 290X and I wouldn't mind a new 290X Toxic for sub $500.
  • 3 Hide
    guvnaguy , November 4, 2013 10:03 PM
    In terms of potential performance it seems like a great card, but you get what you pay for with regards to chip quality and cooling.

    Best to wait a month or two before buying to see how this all goes down
  • 24 Hide
    Shankovich , November 4, 2013 10:06 PM
    Wow a 12% boost with non-reference coolers. Can you imagine what'll happen with the 290X when we see that? Thanks AMD! Some much needed competition!
  • 4 Hide
    Raheel Hasan , November 4, 2013 10:14 PM
    Great price but its performance is so close to 290x (~5%) that 290x is not making any sense at $550
  • 9 Hide
    rmpumper , November 4, 2013 10:22 PM
    Quote:
    According to Tom's Benchmarks Nvidia's price drop just became meaningless


    Some people who need CUDA for work and GPU for gaming will still get 780s, but no one will get 290x for $150 premium just to get a couple more FPS over 290. AMD just shot themselves in the foot before hurting nvidia.
  • 4 Hide
    MANOFKRYPTONAK , November 4, 2013 10:22 PM
    It would be awesome if the 780 would drop to 400, or sub 400. 780ti for 550 to beat the 290x price. And then 299x vs 790x, I'm in heaven now :) 
  • -1 Hide
    radiovan , November 4, 2013 10:23 PM
    If the AIBs can address the noise and heat (assuming sufficient channel quantities), AMD has a nice cash-cow.
  • 2 Hide
    crisan_tiberiu , November 4, 2013 10:33 PM
    The cooler is one of the reasons that the card is cheaper than the competition. Why invest so much on a reference cooler when every guy who goes "ultimate hardware" wont use it anyway? The high end cards have a nieche consumer target who will go 3rd part coolers and watter...
    Nvidia made a very good job with the reference cooler(but you really pay for it)... do you think AMD could not have pulled of a "monster" cooler?? is it really hard to make a good cooler? no, it is expensive.
  • 9 Hide
    crisan_tiberiu , November 4, 2013 10:39 PM
    BTW, you guys @ Tom's, make a call to Nvidia and ask them: "guys, how much does the cooler on the GTX 780 cost?" after that, make the call to AMD and ask the same question about the cooler on the R9 290/290x.
    You could do this, you have youre sources :) 
  • -1 Hide
    m32 , November 4, 2013 10:42 PM
    Most of us were expecting $450! With $400 AMD is leaving a little meat on the bone for when we custom coolers. Personally, and I only speak for me, I'll take this card with it's heat, noise, performance and etc for $400.

    Strange thing and I know some of us were going through this. I was thinking getting a 280x on Black Friday/Cyber Monday but the price tag is leaving me with something to think about. I think I'm just going to save up the few pennies to get something I thought was out of my price range ($300-450) a month ago ($650+).
  • 12 Hide
    gity69 , November 4, 2013 10:44 PM
    Well as a long time AMD fan this is both great news and cause for concern. That disparity between retail and press cards is disturbing to say the least. I am also curious if a proper cooling solution would rectify that problem. As to why I like AMD well much like their CPU's the Hawaii line looks to be power hungry and hot but will shine if power is not a concern and pampered by someone who knows what their doing. I'm looking forward to what I can do with one of these with a proper water cooling setup.
  • -3 Hide
    Relayer , November 4, 2013 11:00 PM
    Where did you get that retail sample? From nVidia? LOL
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