Radeon R9 290X Review: AMD's Back In Ultra-High-End Gaming

R9 290X: A Taste Of Paradise That Won’t Break The Bank

A trip to Bora Bora is going to set you back big time. Monte Carlo and Capri are also great places to go if you want to be seen spending lots of cash. But Hawaii—now that can be done relatively affordably. And it can still be pretty damn close to paradise.

Similarly, AMD’s Radeon R9 290X isn’t the most expensive or luxurious graphics card out there. It leans on an old cooling solution that we’d like to see improved, and it’s wrapped in a plastic shroud. There are a few things we think AMD could be doing better, and we’ll get into those. But when it comes to gaming performance, this card has little trouble trouncing its primary competition, GeForce GTX 780, and even Nvidia’s GeForce GTX Titan in a number of cases—both of which are substantially more expensive boards.

Let’s get the bad out of the way first. AMD is pushing its Hawaii GPU pretty hard in order to achieve the performance it’s getting. Although the R9 290X is rated for 1000 MHz, the right load will get Hawaii up to its 95 °C limit pretty fast. From there, you have to rely on the right fan speed to keep that clock rate up.

AMD says it gives you total control over this and, thanks to an updated PowerTune technology that defines maximum fan speed (rather than dialing in an absolute value), indeed it does. But you also get stuck with the same noisy thermal solution that makes reference Radeon HD 7970s so acoustically grating. Company engineers insulate you from having the same loud experience by implementing two firmware modes: Quiet and Uber. Quiet keeps the fan under 40% duty cycle. Uber lets it get up to 55%, and that’s too loud for me. So, I stick with Quiet mode. Once Hawaii is at 95 °C and the fan hits 40%, frequencies start retreating quickly. It’s not uncommon to see them bouncing between mid-700 to mid-800 MHz in single-card configs. In CrossFire, they’ll drop to 727 MHz and stay there. The bummer is that a more effective thermal solution could keep acoustics down and allow Hawaii to operate toward the top of its range more consistently.

How much does any of that matter if R9 290X is still a stellar performer? I guess that depends on how much it costs, right? As it happens, AMD says you’ll find it flagship Hawaii-based board for $550. That’s $100 less than GeForce GTX 780 and $450 less than a Titan. And better performance, in many of the cases we tested, than both. Wowsa.

Practically speaking, if you own a single QHD display, AMD’s Radeon R9 280X remains a good entry point for playable performance in most games at $300. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 770 is the next step up, but it’s not so much faster that’d we’d recommend spending an extra $100. If you really want to play taxing new titles like Arma III at their highest quality levels, Radeon R9 290X becomes the most affordable way to go with the speed-up to match its price.

It’s certainly possible to play games at 3840x2160 using R9 290X, but nobody is going to spend $3500 on a new monitor and settle for barely-playable performance at dialed-back settings. You’re going to want two Radeon R9 290X or GeForce GTX 780 cards to make that happen. We couldn’t benchmark CrossFire against SLI at Ultra HD resolutions, since AMD doesn’t support the display output configuration we’d need to use for our FCAT-enabled equipment. However, based on our 7680x1440 results, expect the Hawaii-based boards to be faster. And $200 less when you buy a pair.

The coup de grâce is our set of benchmarks across three QHD screens—more than 11 million pixels. With all of our games cranked up to their highest possible settings, two R9 290Xes come close to a pair of $1000 Titans. AMD isn’t helped by the fact that its cards are pretty much pegged at 73% of their stock clock rate due to heat and my insistence on using the Quiet firmware. But maybe the company’s board partners will work some thermal magic and “uncork” some of Hawaii’s performance without compromising acoustics.

In the spirit of getting massive performance at a substantial discount, then, I’m giving AMD’s Radeon R9 290X Tom’s Hardware’s Elite award—the first time a graphics card has received this honor, I believe, during my tenure. The decision was controversial. Nvidia still does thermals, acoustics, and aesthetics better. But now it’s also charging a hefty premium for those luxuries. AMD’s card is faster, cheaper, and it makes an effort to keep acoustics under control, so long as you stick with its Quiet mode. AMD reworked its approach to CrossFire and now has a more elegant solution that, while not perfect (we still measured dropped and runt frames in Skyrim, along with notable variance in other titles), does facilitate frame pacing right out of the gate at resolutions all the way up to 7680x1440. I’ll get more enthusiastic about the R9 290X if third-party designs start showing up with better cooling. Until then, it’d be downright negligent to not recognize this card’s class-leading performance at a price we paid for Radeon HD 7970 two years ago.

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  • beta212
    That's incredible. Especially at high res, I wonder how they do it. But the low price alone is enough to blow the competition away. Seriously think about it, it's around half the price for higher performance!
    - AMD: We're not aiming for the ultra high end.
    I think Nvidia just got trolled.
  • slomo4sho
    Great price point. This card has already broken world records just a few hours after release!

  • esrever
    2 of these for 4k looks amazing but Im a little disappointed by the power consumption when you crank up performance.
  • aznguy0028
    I was thinking about hopping on the 7970ghz when it's on sale, but after seeing this, it's time to break apart the piggy bank for the 290x, what value!
  • Benthon
    Like the conclusion said, you just can't argue about aesthetics and thermals at this price point/performance. Well done AMD, lets see team green's response! Go consumer!
  • tuklap
    This is awesome for us ^_^
  • Shankovich
    Wow, and it's pegged at 73% too. Even if nVidia's "780ti" beats the 290X, it probably won't beat a 290X running at full power. And if mantle does make some big performance boosts, nVidia is going to be in a really tight spot. Looking forward to what they'll do. In the mean time, loving this competition! We all win in the end.
  • julianbautista87
  • anxiousinfusion
    Wait the 290 X... X? is going to be $550?! Forgive me, padre for I have sinned.
  • Darkerson
    Good job, AMD!
  • jkhoward
    I just purchased this card from Newegg.
  • CaptainTom
    Wow AMD. GG! You exceeded every possible expectation! Have fun with your GTX 780 Ti Fanboys!!!!!
  • ilysaml
    Time to Upgrade my HD 6950 to 290X, and my 1080P to 2500x Monitor.
  • lt_dan_zsu
    I've never been more blown away by a hardware review. Never have I seen a gpu beat another gpu at just over half the cost.
  • DarkForce_256
    So what's the deal with the 290?
  • shin0bi272
    it always tickles the hell out of me when an amd card ties or about ties an nvidia card in one game then in an nvidia physx game the amd kicks the crap out of the nvidia card... Of course if you know why that happens in metro you know its more of a fault of the coders not physx but its still funny.
  • jimmysmitty
    $550 is not bad for the fact that it beats the 780 easily and even pressures the Titan.

    Most of the higher resolution gaming wins come from the larger memory bandwidth and of course more vs the 780.

    That's a good sign. Maybe NVidia will drop prices and push this to $400-$450 and I will pick one up when there is a Vapor-X version of course,
  • markbro89
    Where to buy?! Newegg still says coming soon D:
  • DarkForce_256
    So what's the deal with the 290?
  • BigMack70
    Thank goodness AMD had some sense with the pricing. Finally, at long last, Nvidia can stop raping consumers' wallets due to lack of competition.

    This is win-win-win for everyone (except maybe Nvidia).

    Hope we never have to deal with a $1000 single GPU fiasco again. Good riddance.
  • harmaatukka
    I'm not sure if this is meaningful or not when it comes to benchmarking, but in real world running Skyrim over 60 fps breaks the physics of the game. The game becomes unstable with objects flying randomly around and things falling from the sky. The game may CTD as soon as in the starting sequence because you may fly out of the cart.
  • haro87
    Ill wait for the better cooling solutions to come out... seems like to get the most out of the cards cooling is the key
  • richmondHeights
    $550 for the R9 290X... You go red team! "Om nom nom"... that's the sound of Jen Hsun Huang eating his shoes. He's had 7 months to reap in profits for the high end gamer market. Now it's time to lower prices across the board. I'm hoping the GTX 780 gets lowered to $500 and Titan lowered to $650.

    Where will the GTX 780Ti fit? We'll be watching you for the the response nVidia. It better be good or you'll get creamed.

    It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!
  • designasaurus
    As usual, AMD has a poor reference cooler. Also as usual, I expect the non-reference boards the manufacturers come up with to solve this issue handily. Sapphire, Asus, etc. will solve this card's weaknesses and charge $0-20 extra for the privilege - still a good deal if you have the patience to wait a bit.