Radeon R9 290: Priced Right Where We’d Peg It
The technology press is in the privileged position of receiving high-end components before anyone else sees them. Although this sometimes translates to all-night marathons of benchmarking and cramped hands, the trade-off is that most of us can build bleeding-edge gaming PCs without spending a dime.
But it’s dropping $550 dollars on an already-released Radeon R9 290X that turns this review on its head. Had we simply tested our R9 290 sample against the previously-reviewed 290X, we would have concluded that the slightly cut-back Hawaii GPU comes pretty darned close to AMD’s flagship, spanking GeForce GTX 780 and going up against Titan. Priced at $400, that would have been something special indeed.
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.
Back To The 290…
Try to set that aside for a moment and assume the R9 290 we’ve been working with is representative of what you’ll find boxed up on retail shelves. Originally, AMD had the card set up with a 40% default maximum fan duty cycle. The experience was similar to R9 290X and its Quiet mode. Though louder than Nvidia’s reference GeForce GTX 770, 780, and Titan, I could have lived with the acoustics, and I appreciated that the fan shroud vented out.
After catching wind of Nvidia’s price cuts, however, AMD went back and re-spun its driver to override the 290’s firmware. It extracted more performance from 290 by increasing maximum fan speed from 40 to 47%, which falls between the 290X’s Quiet and Uber settings. This successfully allows our press card to surge ahead of its pricier competition by maintaining clock rates closer to the top of its range.
I have two issues with this. First, at 47% duty cycle, the fan is too loud. It’s obviously not as bad as the 290X’s Uber mode, but I don’t see any compelling reason to compromise acoustics when quieter solutions exist. AMD points out that you can turn the fan down if you want, and that's true, but you'd watch 290's performance erode at the same time. Second, I simply don’t trust the numbers I’m getting from the 290 we have on-hand to review. Even if it’s a total fluke that the R9 290X cards we have are so diametrically opposed, the mere existence of this much variance means Radeon R9 290 is either as fast as a GeForce GTX Titan and priced phenomenally or somewhere behind a retail R9 290X, just ahead of GeForce GTX 770, and priced to slot into the market (unspectacularly). I’m not comfortable making a recommendation one way or the other on 290 until we see some retail hardware.
If that sounds like an about-face after my Radeon R9 290X review, well, in some ways it is. There was simply no way to anticipate so much variation from one card to another at launch. AMD insists what we're seeing isn't right, but we can only determine that with greater retail availability. Moreover, AMD came to market with a fantastic price on 290X compared to its competition. That situation has since changed. And now, the decision to let the 290's fan hit 47% duty cycle feels like a knee-jerk reaction, sacrificing experience for higher sustained clock rates. Less consistency, tighter pricing, more noise...let's just say I'm more wary this time around.
Where Are Those Partner Boards?
So much of what’s being discussed relates to keeping Hawaii as cool as quietly as possible, and it’s hardly a secret that AMD’s reference solution is the center of attention. Our own lab experiments demonstrate Hawaii’s potential (read the previous page if you haven't already). We know it’ll run fast, and we know this can be down without a ton of noise. So when can we expect the custom-built cards to address our concerns? We hear they’re being held back until more is known about GeForce GTX 780 Ti—and this is entirely plausible. After all, if AMD could just keep Hawaii running at 1 GHz without creating a racket, it’d have another shot at the high-end crown.