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.