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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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