Tuning Radeon R9 290X: Replace The Thermal Paste For More Efficiency

After receiving an enormous amount of feedback on our Radeon R9 290X review, we grabbed yet another retail board, which demonstrated the same performance issues under load as we saw in our earlier investigation. Looks like it's time to disassemble a card!

In Radeon R9 290X Review: AMD's Back In Ultra-High-End Gaming, we pointed out that the company's reference cooling solution, coupled with the launch drivers, had consistency issues when we looked at GPU clock rates. An enormous amount of feedback poured in, and we followed up with The Cause Of And Fix For Radeon R9 290X And 290 Inconsistency, which identified inaccurate PWM fan control as one source of trouble.

Two questions rose to the top during the subsequent discussion in our forum:

  1. Is there anything to gain from reattaching the heat sink and maybe replacing its thermal compound?
  2. Does improving cooling performance help the card run at a higher efficiency level? Is so, pinning our hopes on the partner boards would be entirely warranted.

We ordered yet another retail Radeon R9 290X branded by Gigabyte after already going through Asus and Sapphire cards. None of these three vendors have any control over build quality; they're all purchased from AMD and slapped with a sticker to identify a board partner. That's why none of those three companies can be held responsible for the issues with the cards we're testing. When we asked Gigabyte about modifications made to AMD's reference, the company said that it doesn't change a single thing or replace any of the parts. And that includes messing with the heat sink or fan. Why is this such a big deal? You're going to see in just a second.

In a continuing effort to answer questions, we carefully started to strip down our third retail Radeon HD 290X to expose the bottom of AMD's thermal solution, as well as the graphics card's PCB.

The Hawaii GPU and the heat sink covering by a too-thick layer of thermal grease, resulting in less-than-efficient heat transfer. You might remember our word of caution against this from our thermal paste comparison.

We collected and saved the thermal compound used by AMD from two Radeon R9 290X cards for additional testing. This was enough to cover the surface of a CPU's heat spreader, which makes us doubt that the quantity of paste used on this first round of boards corresponds to what you'd typically expect from mass production. It bolsters our theory that the R9 290X comes from a small batch of hand-assembled boards, and that the application of grease is part of the process.

Removing the paste revealed the heat sink’s scratched and uneven contact surface, which did not exactly match the quality you would expect from a brand new and professionally mounted cooler.

Take a close look at the nicks on the copper base: It does not seem like these are only pressure marks resulting from the regular mounting process.

Meanwhile, we left a sparkling clean GPU waiting for a new coating of thermal compound. Then we went back to our thermal paste comparison and tapped a couple of our favorite finishers. Innovation Cooling's Diamond "24 Carat" compound was beyond reproach. So, in order to verify our temperature measurements, we decided to take second and third test runs with that one.

Gelid’s GC-Extreme performed just as well as IC's Diamond. It also cost us less and spread more easily over the GPU. This also applies to Cooler Master's X1 Extreme Fusion. Due to the fact that both Hawaii-based graphics card shoot for high target temperatures, there's no way to distinguish whether one is superior to the others thermally. But we did observe that power consumption and average performance were roughly the same across all of those aforementioned aftermarket compounds. So the following results were collected using Gelid’s GC-Extreme.

Watching Temperatures Rise

There is a significant difference between using AMD's stock thermal grease and the Gelid GX-Extreme. It took us three minutes, instead of just 60 seconds, to push the Radeon R9 290X to its 94 °C limit. Also, Power Tune operated less restrictively. 

We're going to show the incredible impact this has on the card's power consumption and efficiency by setting the Radeon R9 290X to its Quiet mode firmware setting, rather than the ear-battering Uber BIOS.

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  • Benthon
    Pretty disappointed to see the surface was so beat up, but still great to see what a little thermal paste upgrade can do.
  • Mottamort
    Great article again, Tom's has released some really informative articles the past few months, keep it up!
  • ginjaninja7
    Well we wil have to see how the GPU performs with Gigabyte's own Cooling system. :-)
  • Crashman
    1433547 said:
    Well we wil have to see how the GPU performs with Gigabyte's own Cooling system. :-)
    I like blower coolers when they work right, but I can guarantee that no company will produce a 290 with a top-end blower. These companies are just too lame to come up with anything like that. They'll go with triple-fan solutions to appease users who don't care about all the heat that rises up to their CPUs, or simply don't know any better. And Nvidia will remain the only supplier of cards with top-end blower coolers.
  • s3anister
    "The biggest problem with this is that you void the manufacturer's warranty in the process. "

    Yeah, no thanks. The stock TIM should be the best solution already and the fact that it's not is crap either way. If you add in the fact that you need to replace the TIM to get decent results it's total bs.
  • Zeh
    It's clear that AMD, maybe nVidia and their partners aswell, have a lot to learn from TomsH when it comes to details.
    The cost savings they would get by deliberately choosing not to do a finishing pass during their machining process, aswell as the badly applied and poor quality thermal grease would SURELY NOT make sense on a flagship aiming to be the best single gpu on the market.

    @AMD: Details matter. Especially the low cost, effective ones.
    @Crashman: Do you prefer blower type coolers? Correct me if I'm wrong, but dont they trade acoustic performance for getting rid of hot air?
  • faster23rd
    Wow, beating even the 780 ti with that kind of margins and with just (well, it does void the warranty) a change of thermal paste! Goes to show what kind of beast Hawaii is, and it really is up to the board manufacturers now.
  • XyzyxRd
    The condition of the contact point for the GPU is completely unacceptable on a $500 plus card. Under normal handling this sort of damage should never occur. I've run both AMD and Nvidia cards and this sort of disclosure will make me think twice before seriously considering an AMD card for future builds.
  • valuial
    To fix the problem, break your warranty ... yeah, good idea.
  • rwinches
    Ok but how did the board perform with the new paste and not in quiet mode?
    Because even if it offended your sensitive ears would it have an effect on reaching the 94C limit?
  • SyncViews
    Does it void all the common warranties now? Back some years with an MSI part I had an issue where they didn't secure the heatsink well enough and after a few months it moved during transit just enough to break the contact (so 60C stable to overheat within minutes). When I contacted support they were happy for me to replace the paste myself rather than have to send it to them to get back weeks later and keep the warranty as long as there was no direct damage to the board as a result.
  • Stickem
    Once again, AMD fails. But, I gotta hand it to Tomshardware considering they see so much potential in the 290 and 290X series. I'd like to see it do well also, but I just have to shake my head at AMD after seeing all the issues Tomshardware has reveiled in the past few articles they have written. I think AMD needs to hire Tomshardware as a 3rd party reviewer before even releasing a product to the factories to be built lol.
  • Yuka
    Great article guys!

    I always take the risk and change the paste from the GPUs. Even with my Sapphire Vapor X 7970, which as you know is a really great stock card, improves with a paste swap.

    I wonder if applying a polish to the surface things would improve even more. And in that same question, is it dangerous to do that? I mean, we'll be removing some metal surface in the process, which might put the heatspreader way too separated from the GPU. Uhm...

  • ZEPd3Z
    If you're careful enough with the screws and stickers you don't have to void the warranty, you don't have to tell them unless they asked.
  • nforce4max
    They should have done the whole cooler with only copper and looped a heat pipe over the top of the fins that is a single volume with the vapor chamber which would have shaved at least 10c without radically redesigning the cooler. There is no excuse to have such a rough and beat up surface on this cooler. Changing the fan location to where it pulls rather than blow like the x19x0 series.
  • ojas
    @Crashman: Though i think triple-fan coolers are a good alternative if the rest of the case has adequate airflow.
    1337 Engineers come up with one of the most powerful cards...

    Exec decision makers ruin it by slapping on an inadequate cooling solution to increase profit margins.


    I'd say go with Nvidia... but now there is suspicion that they are intentionally murdering older factory overclocked partner cards with drivers past 314.22, they are proving to be just as bad. (you can prove me wrong by finding any factory overclocked GTX460 that works properly with a driver past 314.22, coupled with the fact that their updater now tries to force you to upgrade to bad drivers)
  • warezme
    Honestly, these cards SHOULD be water-cooled.
  • lhughey
    I don't have the gumption to void the warranty on a $500 new video card that runs hot and might require an RMA some time during ownership.
  • Conrad925
    Sorry, voiding the warranty is definately a deal breaker. A brand-new premium top of the line product should not need a modification. And the gains weren't that impressive anyway.
  • hannibal
    So if you are really going to push, you need new cooler and new grease... Indeed a graphic card without cooler is starting to sound much, much better all the time... Like we know put good aftermarket cooler to CPU instead using those junk reference coolers.

    "Can I get 290x and Nochtua XXX cooler to it, thank you..."
  • xiinc37
    8708 said:
    I like blower coolers when they work right, but I can guarantee that no company will produce a 290 with a top-end blower. These companies are just too lame to come up with anything like that. They'll go with triple-fan solutions to appease users who don't care about all the heat that rises up to their CPUs, or simply don't know any better. And Nvidia will remain the only supplier of cards with top-end blower coolers.

    I find this to be true, and it makes me sad. The only good AMD blower I can think of is the one HIS has used on some of their recent cards, and even then its good but not great.
  • littleleo
    This is very disappointing it seems AMD is in such a hurry to rush their products out they don't take care of the fine details that would really make their product shine.

    In fairness I think some of the Nvidia cards may have the same issue. A number of years ago my son was running the 8800 GTS which was a good gaming card at the time. He started having heating issues with is and thought the fins inside where clogged and he couldn't blow out the clog. I took off the cooler and cleaned out the clog and noticed the thermal paste was way over done it was just a big blob on the GPU and heat sink. I cleaned it off and applied a thin layer of some Arctic Silver I had, and the card ran much cooler. I still have that card on the shelf for a emergency back-up.
  • MasterMace
    Pretty bad on AMD's part to ship coolers like this.