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

Do-It-Yourself Upgrade With Arctic's Accelero Xtreme III

Replacing the Reference Cooler with Arctic's Accelero Xtreme III

The Arctic Accelero Xtreme III, now in its third iteration, can keep pretty much anything cool. This is the type of heat sink and fan combination that kept the overclocked Fermi-based Sparkle GeForce GTX 480 from melting not just itself, but half the computer. It does fit the Radeon R9 290 with minor modifications and can thus serve us as an example of what AMD could have done with this card. We’ll publish the entire upgrade as a guide soon, since it was really, really worth it.

Overclocking Results

We’re using the same gaming loop as before, trying to pinpoint the card's maximum clock rate through a series of small increases. The Arctic Accelero Xtreme III can be controlled via PWM or run with a constant voltage and RPM. The OverDrive applet's new fan control changes the game, though. Maximum fan speed is now bound to the target temperature. It doesn’t make sense to set this target to the 50 or 60 °C that are possible with this cooler just to have it spin slightly faster. That kind of setup is essentially self-limiting due to its (too) good cooling performance. Even under a full load, it’s almost impossible to get the Arctic Accelero Xtreme III to spin at more than 20 to 25 percent by changing the driver settings. This isn’t enough to provide cooling to the voltage converters.

Consequently, we went with the direct connection and a fixed voltage. Even at 7 V, the upgraded Radeon R9 290 is barely louder at prolonged full load than the stock versions are at idle, and the GPU and VRMs stay cool to boot.

Let’s take a look at the benchmark results of the overclocked Radeon R9 290, which turn out to be a big surprise. There’s a 20 percent difference between the original card and the overclocked one. The updated last-minute driver reduces this difference to a still-massive almost-13 percent. Keep in mind that we’re not just talking about a frequency increase, but also more usable performance and less noise. The Arctic Accelero Xtreme III demonstrates nicely what can be achieved with AMD's Radeon R9 290.

Video Comparison between the Reference and Third-Party Cooler

The first two videos show the AMD Radeon R9 290 with the Arctic Accelero Xtreme III at 12 and 7 V, respectively. The third one shows the original stock version of the card.

Bottom Line

If anything deserves an award, it’s the Arctic Accelero Xtreme III third-party cooler that lets AMD's Hawaii-based boards realize their potential. This is how the card could, and should, perform. Why AMD persists with its sub-par cooling solution is really anyone’s guess, especially since these problems have been going on for years. Dumping the issue on its partners can’t really be the solution either, since a graphics card’s reputation is made, or lost, on launch day.

As long as the only reaction to this is a driver update with questionable benefits, the reference graphics cards will always be the cheap solution. This GPU deserves better. As we said before, we’ll post the upgrade guide as its own story, since none of AMD’s partners currently offer their own PCBs and cooling solutions.