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

Digging Deeper Into Hawaii’s Behavior

The reactions to last month’s Radeon R9 290X launch were polarizing, to say the least. On one hand, you had this new GPU largely based on a familiar architecture, but still equipped with new technology and, overall, typically faster than GeForce GTX 780 and Titan. On the other, it proved to be power-hungry, purportedly designed to run at a cringe-inducing 95 °C, and cooled by a fan that gets very loud, if you let it.

So two factions faced off—those who saw the value in a very fast gaming card priced hundreds of dollars less than the competition, versus others who weren’t impressed by a new GPU edging out Nvidia’s eight-month-old flagship.

Regardless of which side you chose, we can all agree that more performance at a lower price point is good for PC gaming, though. Just look at the aftermath: Nvidia dropped the GeForce GTX 770 to an attractive $330 and its GeForce GTX 780 to $500. We even know now that the GeForce GTX 780 Ti will go for $700 when it emerges.

Adding value is exactly what today is about, too. Using the same Hawaii GPU it just unveiled, AMD is introducing a Radeon R9 290.

Hawaii Gets A Haircut

The R9 290 is a derivative product, which means its specifications don’t fall far from the 290X. As you know, Hawaii is a 6.2-billion transistor processor manufactured at 28 nm. But instead of enabling all 44 of its Compute Units, AMD fuses off four of them, dropping the chip’s shader count to 2560 (from 2816). This has the dual effect of trimming texture units from 176 to 160. Although AMD isn’t specific about the four CUs that get disabled, company representatives do say they’re turned off in a manner to yield consistent performance from one board to the next.

And to clarify a point from my R9 290X review: Hawaii doesn’t offer 1/4-rate double-precision compute like Tahiti did. Instead, AMD drops DP performance to one-eighth of the chip’s FP32 throughput, and instead saves the more potent compute potential for its FirePro cards, taking a page out of Nvidia’s playbook. That makes the 290’s peak floating-point performance about 4.84 TFLOPS, while its DP rate is 606 GFLOPS.

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Header Cell - Column 0 Radeon R9 290XRadeon R9 290Radeon R9 280XGeForce GTX TitanGeForce GTX 780
Process28 nm28 nm28 nm28 nm28 nm
Transistors6.2 Billion6.2 Billion4.3 Billion7.1 Billion7.1 Billion
GPU ClockUp to 1 GHzUp to 947 MHz1 GHz836 MHz863 MHz
FP32 Performance5.6 TFLOPS4.8 TFLOPS4.1 TFLOPS4.5 TFLOPS4.0 TFLOPS
Texture Units176160128224192
Texture Fillrate176 GT/s152 GT/s128 GT/s188 GT/s166 GT/s
Pixel Fillrate64 GP/s61 GP/s32 GP/s40 GP/s41 GP/s
Memory Bus512-bit512-bit384-bit384-bit384-bit
Memory Data Rate5 Gb/s5 Gb/s6 Gb/s6 Gb/s6 Gb/s
Memory Bandwidth320 GB/s320 GB/s288 GB/s288 GB/s288 GB/s
Board Power250 W (Claimed)250 W (Claimed)250 W250 W250 W

Hawaii’s other vital specs remain remarkably intact, though. A geometry engine in each of four Shader Engines maintains as many primitives per cycle. Every Shader Engine is also equipped with four render back-ends, enabling up to 64 pixels per clock across the GPU. The aggregate 512-bit memory bus carries over as well, and Radeon R9 290 sports the same 4 GB of 1250 MHz GDDR5 RAM.

With so many similarities between R9 290X and 290, aside from shader count, AMD also dials back maximum frequency to keep the two cards from landing on top of each other in performance. The 290X runs at up to 1 GHz, while Radeon R9 290 peaks at 947 MHz.

Clock Rate Inflation: Marketing Gone (Too) Wild

Let’s talk a little bit about core clock rates though, since that was a point of contention from Radeon R9 290X Review: AMD's Back In Ultra-High-End Gaming. In essence, it appears that AMD has a base clock rate around 727 MHz with its R9 290X, though the Hawaii GPU wants to run as close to 1000 MHz as possible. By the time the chip approaches its 95-degree ceiling, you’ll probably find the fan already spinning at 40% duty cycle using AMD’s “Quiet” firmware. From there, the GPU clocks down. Depending on the chip’s quality and the workload you run, Hawaii might slide all the way to 727 MHz and stay there if its fan can’t keep it cool enough.   

On the R9 290X we received from AMD, and in the seven games we tested, a 40% fan speed is good enough to average about 874 MHz. But when you’re actually gaming on a hot card (and not just benchmarking a cold one), our two-minute Metro: Last Light test suggests you’ll be spending more of your time in the upper-700 MHz range. In fact, in some titles, you’ll dip under 1000 MHz before even getting out of the menu system and into the action (Arma and BioShock).

You could call that questionable marketing. After all, the only way you’ll actually see a sustained 1000 MHz is if you either let the R9 290X’s fan howl like a tomcat looking for action or play platform-bound games. Then again, if you’re still seeing better performance from 290X than competing cards, what does it matter how Hawaii gets there, right?

With that in mind, how does the R9 290 fare in comparison?

I maintained the same scale and enforced the same 40% fan speed limit to give you an idea of how much more variance there is between the troughs and crests. AMD gives the 290 an “up to” rating of 947 MHz, but our seven games average 832 MHz. In the most taxing situations, the clock rate floor, or base clock, appears to be 662 MHz. If the GPU can’t be kept cool, even down at that base frequency, you’ll see the 40% fan limit forcibly exceeded (it crept up to 44% in a three-run stress test of Metro: Last Light).

When you think about it, this is basically the reverse of Nvidia’s GPU Boost technology. AMD is selling its cards using the highest-possible frequency you’ll see, and then slowing them down. Nvidia is citing a base clock and then allowing the GPU’s headroom to push higher. The company makes it a point to specify the base and typical boost numbers, though. AMD’s scheme undoubtedly suffers a lack of clarity, and after piling praise onto the R9 290X’s value story, I now have to hope that Nvidia doesn’t follow AMD down this muddy little rabbit hole.

Ultimately, the performance figures are what matter most. Just be careful before drawing definitive conclusions. The longer you run any of these tests at stock settings on AMD’s reference design, the more averages will come away from the rated 947 MHz figure. Our sample doesn’t have a Quiet and Uber mode. Both of its firmware switch positions share the same 40% fan speed maximum. And to complicate the situation, prior to launch, AMD rolled out an updated driver that overrides the BIOS setting in software to allow fan speeds up to 47% by default. What is the impact of that modification?

As we know, overcoming AMD’s throttling mechanism requires manually increasing the OverDrive applet’s maximum duty cycle. By upping its shipping fan speed from 40% to 47%, AMD allows its reference cooler to blow harder, maintaining higher frequencies for longer durations, at the expense of greatly increased noise. Once again, we find ourselves pinning hopes for a quieter, more consistent R9 290 on the company’s partners.

But all we have for now is the reference design. With that in mind, let’s have a look at the Radeon R9 290 itself.

  • slomo4sho
    This is a win at $400! Good job AMD!

    11865199 said:
    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:

    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.
  • Heironious
    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....
  • Heironious
    And thats on Multiplayer 64 man servers....
  • cangelini
    This is the single-player campaign.
  • aznjoka
    According to Tom's Benchmarks Nvidia's price drop just became meaningless
  • Heironious
    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.
  • DBGT_87
    hope we will not wait so long for the custom cards
  • slomo4sho
    11865222 said:
    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!
  • jimmysmitty
    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.
  • guvnaguy
    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