So far the two latest Radeon models have been good, if unexciting. The HD7970 and HD7870 are both excellent cards and time hasn't detracted from their viability as a gaming GPU. In part the reason we felt so average about them was the knowledge that they were the scouting party before the arrival of the main force, the R9 290X. Thankfully the time to dispense with the past has come, and the Radeon R9 290X is upon us. The latest iteration of the Graphics Card Next philosophy from AMD is here, and has been met by the release of the GTX780Ti, so the battle lines have definitely been drawn. Are nVidia right to be worried? Is the R9 290X a GTX780 killer and ready to take the crown as the fastest single GPU on earth?
The first thing that catches our attention is unquestionably the introduction of the Hawaii GPU Core. The Tahiti was outstanding, giving us some of the highest results we'd seen at the time of launch. As with anything there is only a finite amount of tweaking and tuning that you can do before you need to seek new architecture entirely, and with the GTX780 handily beating the HD7970, AMD really needed to hit back with a vengeance and the Hawaii core is just the tool for the job.
There isn't only a new graphics card to talk about either, as the release of the R9 290X coincides with AMD's Mantle API. We know that PC gaming is often held back because of the relative lack of performance from the consoles when compared to a gaming PC, and with the Playstation 4 and XBox One homing into view with their AMD APU's there has never been a better time to provide developers with a harmonised set of low-level instructions to ensure that console gamers and PC gamers both get a product that pushes their systems as hard as possible.
As always we've a lot to get through, especially with an entirely new GPU, and we know you're all itching to click through to the 3D Mark scores and the conclusion. So let us crack on.
With a 50% increase in transistors, nearly 800 extra shaders and double the fill rate of the Tahiti, it's clear that AMD have introduced a big step up with the R9 290X from their current top model, the 280X/HD7970. On paper at least the performance potential is excellent, and we can't wait to see how this bears fruit in our benchmarks.
When any new hardware is released we always get a package of slides and information to help us understand what is going on beneath the hood. More often than not these are filled with meaningless marketing speak and pointless comparisons, but there are always a few interesting gems amongst the flotsam. Whilst our mantra at OC3D has always been to look at the actual results as if we were a regular consumer rather than follow the 'on paper' promises of marketing departments, the R9 290X brings some cool real world stuff to the table.
4K displays are definitely the future. For all the talk of 3D, ever higher resolutions are really what makes things come to life in realistic fashion, and the R9 290X supports 4K displays natively, and provides an extremely easy way to stitch the two 2K displays together to give you a single high resolution output. Of course a 4K display is very much limited to the extremely well-heeled at the moment, but technology pricing always tumbles quickly and the displays should be more common within the lifespan of the R9 290X. Those of us with regular monitors haven't been forgotten though, and the R9 290X continues AMD's Eyefinity technology with support for 6 monitors in a variety of configurations.
One of the changes that was hard to predict when GPUs and monitors converged with the HDMI and DisplayPort outputs was the role of the graphics card as an audio device. After all, if your display supports HDMI/DisplayPort inputs then audio can be transferred across those cables, and it makes sense to push the sound through the GPU as well, especially as . As AMD themselves say;
"AMD TrueAudio technology provides is guaranteed real-time performance for tasks on ANY system configured with an enabled GPU, regardless of the installed processor. This is enabled through the integration of multiple Tensilica HiFi EP Audio DSP cores which now provide a dedicated Audio DSP solution for game sound effects";
The GCN architecture is not just a fancy name for AMD's processor either. Efficiency is outstanding when you compare the Hawaii GPU of the R9 290X and the Tahiti core of the HD7970. For a slight die size increase the amount of geometry and pixel fills that the processor can do has almost doubled. It's also GCN because AMD have got their processing units in both of the next generation of consoles, so their will be a universal architecture between the PS4/XB1 and the PC. This should aid development and stop us PC gamers having to suffer through extremely shoddy ports or uninspiring graphics just for the sake of development costs.
As we'll see on the next page, the R9 290X comes with a switch that adjusts whether the card runs in either 'Uber Mode' or 'Quiet Mode'. We're not entirely sure how much benefit this will have to us as end users, as even the AMD slide doesn't exactly trumpet a vast increase in performance.
Finally AMD have an API called Mantle, which should streamline the development process between consoles and PCs and thus free up lots of resources that would otherwise be spent on optimisation for one platform or the other. Potentially it could finally bridge the gap between consoles and PCs, although at the moment the only developer that AMD are talking about is DICE, the developer of Battlefield 4. We know from past experience with the Glide/DirectX3 battles, and even the lack of integration of PhysX, that technologies based around a single hardware manufacturer rarely get adopted because a publisher wants to be able to sell their product to the largest possible audience.
It could be that Mantle is able to be utilised on both AMD and nVidia hardware, or it could be exclusionary. There is an excellent article available here that covers the main points, but with a keynote presentation due in early November we'll save our thoughts until we've heard more about it. Potentially it could be a stunning innovation.
For such a high-end, range topping card the cooler is distinctly unimpressive. Normally we don't mind because we know that no-one buys the reference models. However, the rumour is that AMD aren't allowing companies to apply their own cooler at the moment (DirectCU II, Twin Frozr III etc). This means that you're stuck with the AMD offering. It's never been either the quietest nor the best looking cooler and things haven't changed with the 290X.
No, your eyes aren't deceiving you. There are no Crossfire fingers on the 290X. All the Crossfire work is done via the PCI Express slots now, so there is no need for a bridge. We have yet to receive confirmation that this arrangement will work on older chipsets such as the X58 or earlier, but if we do we'll let you know either on our forums or as an edit in our conclusion.
The business end of the 290X is the same as the other Radeon cards, with an HDMI, a DisplayPort and two DVIs.
Here is the switch that changes the card from Silent Mode to Uber Mode. Silent mode has its drawbacks, as we will see on the next page.
All in all we're rather disappointed with the looks of the R9 290X. With the GTX Titan/780/770 cooler it was clearly something different and anyone casually glancing at your rig would know you had something special in it. With the R9 290X it could anything from a HD5870 to what it is. A bit of flair, especially at this price, wouldn't go amiss.
Naturally the primary challenger for the R9 290X at the top of the market is the GTX780. We discovered that the R9 290X didn't have any real benefits from overclocking as it's already thermally limited, and so we'll be generally comparing the 290X to the GTX780 at stock, although of course the GTX780 can overclock so there is some 'free' performance to be had.
AMD Radeon R9 290X
Intel Core i7-3960X @ 4.6GHz
ASUS Rampage IV Extreme
Corsair Dominator Platinum
Corsair Neutron GTX
Windows 7 x64
We were as surprised as you to see that the R9 290X hit a whopping 95°C so we checked with AMD and we can report that the Hawaii GPU is designed to run at these temperatures without causing any problems with the lifespan of the item or anything along those lines. Similarly to the GPU Boost 2.0 from nVidia, the AMD Powertune software has a thermal target of 95°C and adjusts the clock speed and fan speed of the card to keep it running at the maximum performance and minimal noise. The cooler is, as we'd expect from the age old design, louder than we'd like it to be. It isn't loud per se, just not as quiet as some of the alternatives that we've seen.
3D Mark Vantage
Starting with the age old 3D Mark Vantage and you can see that the R9 290X is certainly a match for the Kepler GPU and a country mile ahead of the old HD7970. There is a lot of extra performance to be gained from overclocking the GTX780 when compared to the R9 290X, but out of the box it's very good with the 27008 X Marks standing ahead of a stock 780.
3D Mark 11
3D Mark 11 has always preferred the shader rich Radeon cards and, in the Performance test at least, continues to do so with the R9 290X. In the Extreme preset the GTX780s have the match of it, with anywhere between 60 and 350 points difference in the nVidia cards favour.
If 3D Mark 11 prefers the Radeon cards, then the Ice Storm test of 3D Mark enjoys the nVidia cards better. As we click through the four tests that make up our 3D Mark benchmarks, the R9 290X just gets stronger and stronger. It's behind in Ice Storm, neck and neck in Cloud Gate and then takes the lead in Fire Strike (9900 to 9000) which continues into Fire Strike Extreme, the most intense test on offer. In fact you have to overclock the GTX780's to finally pass the R9 290X in Fire Strike Extreme, and even then it's not by much. Impressive.
Batman Arkham City
Batman Arkham City demonstrates our slight concerns about the Mantle API, namely that the PhysX element of Batman AC is clearly favouring the nVidia cards, despite the excellent performance of the 290X.
Booker! Over here! Look how close these cards are. If we take the regular 1080P resolution, the GTX780 is averaging 90 FPS and the 290X is 90 too. Moving up to 1440P and we have an average of 57FPS plays an average of 57FPS. There is a lot of extra performance from the overclocked GTX780 though, with 141 and 91 respectively. But out the box the two cards are very close.
Things remain tightly matched in Crysis 3, with the reference nVidia GTX780 giving us 50 and 28 FPS compared to the R9 290X and its 46 and 30FPS. It's like the two cards were designed to be exactly as good as each other, and no more.
Far Cry 3
Performance in Far Cry 3 is a tale of two halves. At the regular resolution it's clear that the 290X hasn't quite got the same level of performance as the nVidia GTX780, but moving up to the 2560x1440 the R9 290X gains a 5 frame advantage. Unfortunately it doesn't benefit from an overclock, and once you overclock the GTX780 it gets 7 FPS better than the regular R9 290X. Complicated, but in short the best performance is had with the nVidia card.
The opposite of the results from Far Cry 3 greet us in Hitman Absolution. Assassination has never looked so good. The R9 290X makes the most of the Glacier 2 engine to give performance equivalent to an overclocked MSI GTX780 Gaming, probably the best overall card around at the moment.
It seems to have taken endless generations of graphics cards to get a smooth gaming experience from Metro 2033, but finally we're here and the R9 290X performs admirably with a good 67FPS at 1080P and 37.7FPS in our 2560x1440 test. Clearly there are no optimisation coders on the Metro team though, as Last Light remains woeful regardless of how much hardware you throw at it.
Once again the balance shifts depending upon which game is your weapon of choice. In Sleeping Dogs, the free-roaming adventures of Wei Shen, the Radeon R9 290X matches a heavily overclocked GTX780 with 65 and 39 frames per second average in our 1080 and 1440 resolution tests respectively.
As part of the Never Settle bundle it's to be expected that the Radeon card is capable of higher performance than the nVidia one, yet since the early problems have been fixed with patches and driver updates the experience ends up being similar on both top-of-the-line offerings. 77/51FPS on the GTX780 versus 78/52FPS on the R9 290X.
As befits the rest of our tests so far, the R9 290X is extremely close in performance to the GTX780. It's not quite as good in the raw power 576P test, but as the test difficulty increases it actually falls further away, until by the end a GTX780 is scoring 7500 versus the 6500 of the Hawaii Radeon.
Things don't improve for the 290X in the Unigine Valley test either. In increasing order of difficulty our reference GTX780 scored 94/61/59/37 and that compares to the 88/58/52/36 of the R9 290X. We're just using reference ones for this comparison, otherwise looking at the potential performance of a beefy GTX780 like the MSI Lightning and it becomes 103/65/66/40 which is even worse for the Radeon.
With no anti-aliasing in place the R9 290X is once again a couple of frames behind the GTX780. Once the image quality is ramped up with 8xMSAA then it regains that lost ground and is neck and neck. It's been relentlessly tight throughout our testing so it's fitting that we end with another nip and tuck benchmark.
Blimey Charlie it's been tight hasn't it. When the R9 290X first appeared we were hopeful that it would be a similarly large leap forward that the Kepler GPU provided for nVidia. Relative to the HD7970 it certainly is, with vastly increased performance on all titles and in all situations. When compared to its big rival though, the GTX780, it is far more difficult to come to a resounding conclusion.
Performance is excellent throughout. Whether you're benchmarking or playing games, there isn't a single title that the R9 290X comes unstuck when faced. If there is one thing that became clear as we moved through our benchmarks it's that the performance pendulum swings depending upon the game you choose. 3D Mark is a good place to start, with both the GTX780 and R9 290X proving tightly matched in Vantage, splitting the result in 3D Mark 11, and far apart but in both directions in the latest 3D Mark. So straight away you can't really claim that one is better than the other with any certainty. The choice of application greatly changes which card comes out on top.
Probably the best way to explain the situation is that if you're going for a stock card; buy it, plug it in, forget about it; then the R9 290X is a good choice. It is, by and large, the same performance that you'll get from a GTX780 and that makes it equal first in the 'fastest single GPU on earth' league table. If you've been waiting to upgrade to another Radeon card, this is a great choice with enough power to make it a worthwhile upgrade over a HD7970.
There are a couple of flies in the ointment. Firstly it looks awful. The acres of black plastic we can accept if we're looking at a lower end card such as the R7, but for a card costing the very thick end of £400 we want people to stop, slack jawed, at the magnificence residing in our case. We certainly don't want them wondering if it's any one of the last three years worth of Radeon offerings, and then having to explain that actually it's the latest and greatest. With the GTX Titan cooler that found its way on to the GTX780 and GTX770, there is no doubt that you have a high-end item. Performance is average too. It's not the loudest cooler we've heard, AMD have really got their act together of late, but equally it's not silent. The fan profile also spins down the instant you quit your 3D game, rather than being temperature related. The card runs hot at 95°C which heats up the whole of the inside of your case, and that's a problem. More of a problem is that the moment you quit a game the fan drops to 20% despite the card being able to boil water. So it takes ages for it to cool down.
The other notes of caution are more about potential future events. The potential for the Mantle API is huge, but only if developers get on board with it. It's telling that, currently, only DICE have been announced and/or mentioned. Sure Battlefield is nice, but it's hardly a game-changer. There is an upcoming speech on the 11th of November that hopefully will expound upon the potential benefits. For the moment it's a great idea, but PhysX was a great idea too and that hardly set the world ablaze. The other note is that the R9 290X is on a par with the GTX780. However the release of the 290X has caused nVidia to announce the GTX780Ti. So the latest Radeon could have a very short stay at the top of the pile. With all that said these aren't negatives. Potentially this could be amazing as Mantle harmonises development between the newest consoles and the premium gaming PCs. We certainly hope so.
So all in all the R9 290X has brought AMD back into the game. The Hawaii core is deserving of a MUCH better cooler than the one it has, and we remain unconvinced that 95°C, whilst fine for the card, is of benefit to the rest of our components. Hopefully the rumours that AMD are stalling on allowing 3rd parties to bolt their own coolers on proves false. Especially as, with the current cooler, there is no extra performance to be had from overclocking, unlike the monster gains we see on the GTX780 when overclocked. If anything this feels like the first version of something brilliant, a great GPU with enormous potential being held back by the surrounding elements. The performance is enough to gain it our OC3D Performance award, only time will tell if there will be a Gold worthy variant.
Thanks to AMD for supplying the R9 290X for review. Discuss your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.