Making A Value Case For Water-Cooling A GPU
Where do you find value in VisionTek’s air-cooled CryoVenom R9 290? Well, personally, I have three reasons to ditch air cooling when it comes to AMD's Hawaii-based Radeon cards. First, the reference design runs too hot, even at stock frequencies, and even after AMD increased its maximum fan speed setting, resulting in thermal throttling. If you go with a centrifugal cooler, you're going to have to accept lots of noise. Opt instead for a cooler armed with axial fans and you're dumping all of the card's heat back into your chassis, potentially affecting other components adversely. The CryoVenom R9 290 avoids those issues.
Ideally, you want to mount the radiator for your water-cooling setup with its fans facing outward, pushing waste heat right out of your case. Experienced builders can do this with low-speed fans that make high-end gaming machines extremely quiet. But even if we set aside the hit to portability and risk of a leak associated with liquid cooling, the CryoVenom could have a big hill to climb when it comes to calculating performance per dollar.
Because of market volatility and the fact that VisionTek's CryoVenom R9 290 is currently unavailable, we have to base the above chart on suggested retail pricing. We can’t know the actual street price of both boards until they're available simultaneously. We can only observe that a lack of supply is pushing most Hawaii-based cards between $150 and $200 higher than AMD's launch pricing.
The above chart also adds our $180 cooling system to what you'll pay for the liquid-cooled card. If you already have some old liquid-cooling gear laying around, rendering it "free", in a sense, you can push the CryoVenom’s overclocked and stock value ratings to 107% and 94%, respectively. And if you’re really tired of choosing between throttled performance, an overheated case, and excessive noise, that sounds like a bargain able to transcend basic frame rate calculations.
Value always looks worse when you're comparing individual components to each other. The rest of your platform isn't free though; we have to add in everything else supporting these parts. Let's say you're an enthusiast building a $2000 PC specifically for gaming, and a $100 upgrade boosts performance by 10%, you actually achieve a 5% value gain, regardless of how low the baseline part was priced.
If VisionTek can deliver on its promise to re-launch the CryoVenom R9 290 at $600, it will sell for close to the same price as a lot of air-cooled cards. That would make its value comparatively equal to comparative performance, with VisionTek's offering serving 2% more value at stock clock rates and 16% more value than stock when we overclock it, and 6% more value than our retail air-cooled sample when it's overclocked as well. But that $600 price tag is purely theoretical until VisionTek makes the CryoVenom R9 290 available for purchase.
So enough of the theory. In practice, a liquid-cooled product costs more than air cooling. Working out the value equation to favor water cooling is very difficult unless hammering away at heat and noise are your priorities. If you've used a Radeon R9 290 or 290X with AMD's reference heat sink and fan, those two attributes are no doubt important. Once you make the decision to water-cool, VisionTek would like to be the company selling you a turnkey solution. You get an extra $150 in cooling hardware for $150 at most (cool), without the work that goes into installing your own block (cool), and the hardware is still covered by a warranty (also cool). I think that's a good deal, even if the CryoVenom R9 290's one-year warranty is 50% shorter than what VisionTek gives you with its other cards.
You did catch that last bit, right? I mention it because the card we reviewed in PowerColor LCS AXR9 290X: Water Makes Hawaii Comfortable gives you two years of coverage.